Salt, salt everywhere

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

We arrived in Uyuni at 1:30 a.m. after what was possibly the bumpiest bus ride of all time.  I slept and Travis ate a chocolate bar.  Pretty much the moment we got off the bus Andrea, our friendly, predatory tour operator pounced on us with an offer for the three day, two night trip out onto the Uyuni Salar (salt flat).  All we wanted to do was sleep.  She said she would take us to a nice hotel with hot water, but first we had to go to her office.  Another guy accompanied us and we all three listened to the sales pitch.  When we bought the bus ticket we figured we would spend the day in Uyuni relaxing and shopping around for the best tour option.  This was in part because we didn't think we could get a tour for the morning.  Here was our opportunity.  We debated whether or not to go for it (the price wasn't bad, but it wasn't spectacular, and Travis really doesn't like off-the-cuff decisions) - apparently I was really not helpful in the debate.  I said it probably wasn't the wisest decision, but I didn't think it was a bad one.  There were absolutely ridiculous testimonials by other tourists plastered all over the walls.  Poetry, really?  All the while the other guy laughed at us.  We finally decided to go for it but told her we'd pay in the morning and we wanted to go to bed.  So she took us across the street to the Hotel El Salvador and a seriously antsy guy showed us to our room.  Yay for bed!

For your information, it is probably best to pay for stuff before the morning of the trip.  I will tell you why: the crazy Andrea knocked on our door three times in the morning while we were getting ready to leave.  THREE TIMES!  We finally gave her money and she chilled out.  In fairness to her, at least one of the times was for some last minute details that we hadn't gotten while half asleep. 

We were supposed to leave at 10:30, but we spent about 40 minutes waiting for our jeep in the office.  Turns out we were sent with another company because ours didn't have enough to send out its own jeep, but that's okay because our group was all kinds of fun.  The guy in the office with us the night before also got suckered into the trip.  His name was Javier and he was from Ecuador.  Also in our jeep were Canadians Peter and Carol, and Irish Peter.  We zoomed out of the one-horse town that was Uyuni.  There were no roads, just dirt, and before long we were parked next to a bunch of other jeeps in front of a bunch of rusty, ancient trains. 

This was the train cemetery, where all the steam engines went when locomotion turned to whatever source of power they use currently.  Neither Travis and I can particularly remember, and for my part I will not break my heart over this lack of knowledge.  You may think that a bunch of rusty, ancient trains would not be an interesting place, but then you would not have seen all the 20-year-old men climbing all over them like little kids.  They were pretty fun to clamber about on, and the lack of finish gave an interesting view of how the old trains were structured.  Really it was quite a neat place, like a playground for curious big kids.  I even lay down on the dusty ground to get a particular photo.  Trains are fun. 

Then we hopped back in the jeep and sped off...back to Uyuni.  Our driver, Milton, had some last minute errands to deal with before we could head out to the middle of nowhere for three days.  Errands complete, we really did speed off into the glaring sunlight.  Sunlight on the altiplano is not a friendly thing.  Remember sunscreen. 

Our first stop was to see how the salt from the salar was processed.  The salt, wet when it arrives, is laid out over a sort of table in the processing building while small brush fires are lit in little holes in the side of the building under said table.  The salt is dried for 30ish minutes, then it is put through a grinder processor, which makes the salt into a fine powder.  The powder is put into a pile where it is bagged by hand.  Our guide demonstrated for us and we all gasped with awe and glee.  A propane tank (they just carry these around's a little odd) with a large pipe attached to it was turned on and lit.  Then the woman filled a little baggie with the salt, folded over the top of the bag, and held it up to the flame.  And the bag didn't melt away or anything.  Nope, when she held it up there was a perfect seal along the top of the bag.  Crazy stuff.  Also at this point was our opportunity to buy ashtrays, candlesticks, small jars, shot glasses, dice, and other random things MADE OF SALT.  It looked like chalk with a perfectly smooth finish.  I wanted (still do) some of those carved candlesticks.  They were sweet.  Irish Peter bought the dice.  They were sweet, too.  I hope they don't break!

We had barely entered the salar before we stopped again.  At this point we were shown where the men in jumpsuits who ride bicycles harvest the salt.  They make perfect rows of pointy little mounds of salt, which dries, so then they let the rain come and make it wet again.  I think.  I didn't quite understand this point and Travis is not always fully forthcoming with translation when he doesn't deem it necessary.  Then they scoop up the mounds and cart them off for processing.  The little mounds were pretty impressively uniform, and we goggled at the men shovelling, because it seemed like rather intense work to be doing all day.  At this point we also learned that sunglasses are necessary on the salar because it, like snow, reflects the sun to blinding proportions.  Actually, the salar pretty much looks exactly like snow, but you don't sink into it and it's not quite so cold. 

The salt hotels are rather famous among those people who know about the salar.  Now there's only one left and it's a museum because 1) the hotels were unhygenic, being made entirely of salt (including the beds) and not having a good way to clean up after themselves or 2) they are not environmentally friendly.  These two statements could be tied together - the first was made by our guide and the second was made by Lonely Planet.  Salt tables and chairs, salt walls, salt everywhere.  It was actually a little gross.  Travis was very sad that we didn't get to stay in them for the night.  I guess he didn't think it was gross. 

Next we drove out into the middle of nowhere salt.  Here we met up with our other jeep.  No idea we had another jeep, although it made sense considering that we had been told that we would have a driver and a cook and it was rather hard to imagine Milton in both roles.  The other jeep was younger and exhuberant and jumped right into taking crazy photos.  They were really creative, too, so we took a couple of their ideas.  Jeep one (we were the followers, as it happened) contained three Irish women we had encountered in the internet cafe in Potosí: Maeve, Nic, and Gráinne, one American from Miami: Aaron, and two Norwegians: Birthe and Therese.  Our jeep wandered around for a few minutes marvelling at the way the salt behaved before trying our hand at crazy photos.  The water pushes the salt up at certain points, making hexagons and octagons all over the place.  See photos for weird ground. 

Finally we were on our way to lunch.  Lunch was at Isla Pescado.  You see, there are islands on the salar because it used to be a giant salt lake.  Now it's all dried up, but the islands are still there.  They create a bizarre outpost of growth in a sea of white nothingness.  The island had giant cactus all over the place, and they were extrememly old, considering that they were often three or more meters tall and only grew one cm a year.  We walked up on the spine of the island (and paid 10 Bs. each for the priviledge) and admired the view, which was, I assure you, astounding.  Again think of a little mound of desert in a sea of what looks like snow and you will understand the bizarre sight that we saw.  If you've got the time and inclination there's plenty of climbing and exploring to do on this little island.  Our jeep finished the climb and decided to take more silly photos rather than explore further or sit and wait for lunch.  By the time lunch came around (llama steaks, in case you were wondering), we were laughing and very proud of ourselves for the silly photos we had managed to take.  I daresay you could spend and entire day on the salar with a group of friends, a camera, and a few props and be wholly content

Alas, more salt was not in our future.  We soon left the salt flats and were driving through the decidedly less exciting dirt desert.  Our last stop before the hotel was at the Cueva del Diablo-Gruta Galaxias.  Welcome to the bat cave.  Discovered in 2003, this cave is a strange creation of fossilized algae.  It looks like spiderwebs everywhere.  Very weird.  Attached to this is a pre-Inca cemetery cave with little rectangular holes in the ground.  We'd seen our share of cemeteries and bones, and so were not inclined to linger, but we did decide that it was a very nicely situated cemetery and that the culture using it had done a fine job.  The story associated with this cave set - the reason it's named the Devil's Cave - is that once a little shepherdess got lost in the altiplano and took shelter in the cave at night.  Her concerned parents when out to search for her, but couldn't find her, so the next morning a larger search party was formed.  She was found not huddled into a frozen ball, but stretched in unnatural directions, leading the townspeople to believe that the foul play of the devil had been the cause of her death.  We heard this story second-hand because Milton was not super talkative.  The other driver, on the other hand, was extremely talkative, so the other jeep ended up telling us stories at dinner. 

Dinner was a lovely affair, but it involved hot dogs, so our Jewish friend got no food at all.  Also, we were promised a nice hotel with hot showers and a matrimonial bed.  What we got was cold showers, an outdoor toilet, and a room shared with two strange men.  Travis was seriously angry, not so much because of the situation as because we were lied to.  So beware the sales pitch.  It may lie to you.  In the end we four roomies laughed about the ridiculosity of the situation and wondered what was in store for us tomorrow night if this was meant to be the nice evening.  But all in all it was a good day, and the company we kept was excellent, which makes unpleasant things decidedly more pleasant. 

What will tomorrow hold?

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