A Four Day Foray into Bolivia

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Salt Hotel

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, December 6, 2004

We enjoyed quietly watching life go by on the shady plaza of San Pedro de Atacama, but we were also intrigued by signs for 4WD jeep adventure tours to the Salt Flats of Southwest Bolivia. After some investigation we found that a four-day organized tour, including accommodation and meals, was only US$90. How could we resist?

Our original plan was to drive our own van into Bolivia, but we decided to spare it the extremely rough roads and possible breakdowns. We also thought it might be good for us to spend some time with other travellers. So, together with Maria, Lorena and Charlye - young university students from Spain - we jumped into our assigned Land Cruiser (which had definitely seen slightly better days) early the next morning. Javier, our driver, headed off across the desert at top speed, leaving all else in our dust.

Our first stop at Laguna Verde was at 14,500 ft altitude - a striking blue-green lake, coloured by high concentrations of arsenic, sulphur, lead and calcium carbonates. We stood in awe as the icy winds whipped the lake into a greenish-white froth, while the perfect cone-shaped Volcán Licancábur rose majestically behind the lake - another perfect photo op! Not wanting us to get too chilled, Javier took us next to a small hot spring pool. Donning bathing suits, we were quickly warmed and relaxed by the 30 degree C water.

A strong sulphur smell greeted us at the Sol de Mañana Geyser Basin - at 16,000 ft, we were all getting a bit light-headed. Had it been time for lunch, we might have had hard-boiled our eggs on the spot! There were signs warning us of the dangers of cave-ins and severe burns, but unfortunately we didn't see them until after having spent a half hour wandering through the geyser basin with its multitudinous bubbling mud pots. Luckily no problems, so we all clambered back into the jeep and headed on for the highlight of the day.

The fiery red Laguna Colorada is home to breeding grounds for over 50,000 of Bolivia's three species of high altitude flamingoes. Although the magnificent lake covers 60 sq km, it is less than a metre deep, permitting the long-legged birds to feed amongst the rich algae, plankton and diatoms that give the water its intense red colour. An hour to sit on the lake's edge was hardly enough time to take in the spectacular beauty, but several of us were experiencing the effects of the high altitude so we decided to head for our Hostal where we could enjoy a reviving tea made from coca leaves.

The dinner provided by our driver/guide/cook was quite tasty, but we were somewhat appalled by the overnight accommodation. Our room did have six beds, but each sagged in the middle, reaching almost to the floor. There were two toilets for about 25 people, but of course the flush didn't work on either. Since the bathroom had neither sink nor shower, we decided to climb into our sleeping bags with our bodies still encrusted in dust. But first, we brushed our teeth outside under the magnificent star-studded sky, with Orion front and centre watching over us.

After a six am breakfast of three-day-old buns and tea, we were eager to hit the road to see what else lay in store for us. We were definitely not disappointed with stops at the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), and the four "high altitude" lakes where strutting flamingoes continued to provide us with regal shows. Ominously smoking Volcán Ollague - yes, definitely an active peak - provided us with an impressive backdrop while eating our tasty lunch, and then on to the small dusty village of San Juan where farmers were waiting for the rains to plant quinua - their staple Andean grain. The roads by this time were getting extremely rough and rugged (our van definitely wouldn't have the necessary clearance), so we were quite pleased to arrive at our nights lodging. This time we stayed at the Salt Hotel - totally built with salt blocks cut out of the nearby Salar de Uyuni. It was an intriguing form of construction - and very comfortably appointed with all the furniture fashioned out of solid salt - so after a hot shower (what luxury!) and a short rest, we all enjoyed a very fine dinner.

Day three was definitely the highlight of the trip. Imagine driving across an immense sea of solid sparkling white salt - 12,000 sq km, extending as far as the eye could see in all directions, and about 8 m deep - neatly patterned into large hexagonal shapes by the natural crystallization process. It was truly awesome! Forty five km later we stopped at the Isla de los Pescadores (Fisherman's Island), originally named Incahuasi as it used to be the island home of one of the Incas. Completely covered with giant flowering cacti - some as high as 12 metres, and over 1,200 years old - the island is surrounded by the pure white endless salt flats, and covered by the canopy of deep blue, clear sky. We explored the island for two hours, but could easily have enjoyed the lonely and "out of this world" beauty for much longer.

Another 80 km race across the salt flats - definitely the smoothest road of the trip - and then we stopped to check out the local salt harvesting enterprises, and to chat to a brave cyclist heading out alone to cross the vast salt expanse. We soon reached the uninspiring desert town of Uyuni and paid a quick visit to check out the "train cemetery" - a graveyard of dilapidated steam locomotives and rail cars, left-over relics from the nearby mining operations. This rounded off the day before we headed out with a new driver and an even more ramshackle Land Cruiser into the blinding setting sun on the first leg of the return trip home to San Pedro. This turned out to be a five-hour nightmare drive, over horrendous - and sometimes non-existent - roads, to our "rock bottom" lodgings for the night. The next morning at 5 am, we left for the second leg of the journey (after changing the flat tyre that awaited us) and managed to survive another five hours of bone-rattling washboard roads to the border. Never were we so glad to arrive back at our humble abode, enjoy a hot shower, and have a much needed siesta!

Besides being a unique experience, the trip provided us with the opportunity to enjoy the vivacious company of our three 24 year old Spanish friends. We thank them for their very gracious acceptance of us as their "somewhat older" travelling companions, and for allowing us to "live outside ourselves" for a few days. Especial thanks to Maria for chatting to the driver, and keeping him awake on the long and rough drive home! At Uyuni, we logged on to Hotmail at a small Internet Café and found another 28 e-mails awaiting us from loyal friends and family - including several from Mike's friends and colleagues. These continue to sustain us, and your enduring support is very much appreciated.

Another poem. This time from Mary Holmes, a friend we met at Nkwali Lodge, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia:

"I'll lend you for a little time a child of mine," He said.
"For you to love the while he lives, and mourn for when he's dead.
It may be one or seven years, or twenty-two or three,
But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me?
He'll bring you his charms to gladden you, and should his stay be brief
You'll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief."

"I cannot promise he will stay, all from earth return:
But there are lessons taught down there I want this child to learn,
I've looked the whole world wide for teachers kind and true:
And from the throng that crowds life's lanes, I have selected you.
Now, will you give him all your love and not think the labour vain
Nor hate me when I come to call, to take him back again?"

I fancied that I heard them say, "Dear Lord, Thy will be done.
For all the joy the child will bring, the risk of grief we'll run.
We'll shelter him with tenderness, we'll love him while we may;
And for happiness we've known, forever grateful stay.
But shall the angels call for him much sooner than we planned,
We'll brave the bitter grief that comes and try to understand."

(Author unknown)
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