Inspiration in Uyuni

Trip Start May 23, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

I am sure I am not alone in having whiled away many hours wondering who would be the first to combine the accordian, the glockenspiel and the panpipes into one awesome musical pinnacle of easy listening, but I am now able to report the wondering days are over! The Bolivians have done it, and it was this that I was to endure for four days of driving through the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva National Eduardo Avaroa. Luckily the poor taste in music was more than made up for by the sort of scenery that inspires even the most travel worn backpacker to full enthusiasm.
This story begins on a typical cold evening in La Paz as the night bus to Uyuni crunched its ancient gear box dubiously up out of the valley. The sun setting in the east casting long shadows from the smaller peaks and buildings in the valley and bathing the city in a cool soft light that made it look even more organic than usual, as though the unplanned chaos of the buildings was literally crawling out of the valley away from the snow capped mountain backdrop and spewing into the suburbs and slums of the altiplano. With that view in mind, I settled back to another restless night until the bus arrived at 6am on a cold Uyuni morning.
I had prebooked the tour with America tours in La Paz to tour with Toņito tours in Uyuni. Unlike the jungle at Rurrenabaque the week before, where I was competely ripped off by booking in La Paz, the difference in cost is quite small for the Uyuni tours. I arrived at the Toņito office on foot soon after the bus arrived in town and my voucher was accepted. I was then put back out onto the streets for three hours with nothing to do but get some breakfast, burn in the harsh apline sun and battle off the packs of stray dogs until the tour began.
At 10:30 I arrived back at the office and we loaded the roof racks on the jeep and met Orlando the driver/guide, Marlena the cook and the other three members of team gringo, three English, before bouncing off along the dirt roads to the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and an awesome spectacle to boot, with the endless flat white plain seamlessly joining the sky in all directions in a permanent mirrage, broken only by the mountain peaks that appear as symmetrical islands reflected in the mirrage. We went past some natural springs where salt is mined as cold salty water is forced to the surface by volcanic activity and past a hotel built entirely of salt to the Isle Piscado (fish island). This coral rock outcrop remains in the middle of the salt plain from the days when it was a shallow sea and is covered by some immense cactuses, the oldest is 1230 yrs old and 12.3m tall! There wasn't any fish though.
After the salt flats we spent a comfortable night at Toņito´s private backpackets before awaking to journey on to the National Reserve of Eduardo Avaroa. This reserve is a large area on the border with Chile that emcompases awesome multicolour volcanic peaks, large colourful lagoons and huge plateau areas of broken rock and sand. It is the home to thousands of flamingoes, vicuņa (an agile wild cousin of the domesticated camelids alpaca and llama), visacha (see the photo) and andean foxes, all of which we saw. The landscape on the first day was inspiring, and improved from there. The first lagoon was a beautiful aqua colour surrounded by white salt and dotted with pink flamingoes whilst reflecting the snowy black peaks behind the lake. The affect was awesome. From there we passed a variety of broken stone landscapes with multicolour volcanic peaks in the background, ranging in colour from green, to yellow, to ochre to deep black. This landscape led us to more lagoons, the highlights being the lagoona colorada (deep red) and the lagoona verde (a beautiful light green). The colour of these lagoons comes from algae living in the lagoon, and hence the colour varies with the sun and wind and completely dissapears in the night. The flamingoes come in their thousands to feed on the algae.
Its an intense four days of driving, covering around 1000km on bumpy 4WD tracks, but I never got bored, it is hard to believe a harsh dry wind blown plateau could keep looking so different, but here in this isolated volcanic border land it manages to never once look the same. It was an awesome thing to see. The last day was a drive back to Uyuni via the valley of the rocks where some strange tall ochre rocks stick out of the sand, and the train graveyard at Uyuni which is also an interesting sight. Some people get delivered to Chile from Lagoona Verde on the third day which is a great option if you are planning to visit that country.
Finally, in the interests of accurately recording my observations and feelings, its time for that last negative paragraph that seems to plague my travelogues in this part of the world. The world would certainly seem a rosier place to anyone reading my travelogues if you left off the last paragraphs! Sadly on the way through the altiplano I cannot help observing the huge difference between the harsh subsistence life of the Andean people and the relatively luxurious life of the travellers. The critical and unwelcoming look on the face of many people as they watch the tourists is not hard to understand. How can they fathom having enough excess money to trot around the globe as we do when they toil everyday to stay alive off their infertile land? It manifests itself in annoyance for travellers too, as I found at the hostel on the last night. In the areas of Peru I visited I was constantly annoyed by the persistence of the locals trying to get at my money, like I was no human but just a walking ATM, and I have been plesantly suprised to have avoided this in mostly friendly Bolivia. However, I found it again in the remote villages we stayed at on this tour. From the local school band coming into the hostel and playing music for us then demanding tips, to the hostel owner sneakily demanding 5Bs for a dribble of scalding hot water presented as a free shower. It made me think though, because though it is not a lot of money for me, it is more the principle of not wanting to be treated that way. But time here has helped me to understand. I have discovered in Bolivia that many tradesmen are payed only 30Bs a day, and that is only 6 showers for tourists! If a beggar could get only $4 a day from tourists, they'd be ahead of the tradesmen. I also discovered that our tour company payed the driver only $25 for the 4 days (ok pay locally) but considering that we were charged $25-30 per day someone is making a handy profit out of the situation. The worst moment for me though was when I was asked how much the airfare from Australia to South America was, I had to answer the truth, and it is well over a years salary for the driver. When I look at those facts, I begin to understand, the attraction of obtaining easy money from the many tourists in these heavily visited areas is too strong for the locals who have little means of obtaining disposable income otherwise. It is sad to see people reduced to that situation. Guess there are economic negatives to balance the advantages of tourism in these poorer countries too.
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