Journal Entries from the Salar de Uyuni

Uyuni Travel Blog

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Day 1 - (October 3)  Tupiza to San Antonio de Lipez
 
The first day of the tour to the Salar de Uyuni is completed. It is 7:15 and the 5 of us (Sibylle and Jan from Germany and Zohar and Doran from Israel) are sitting on our beds waiting for dinner. The generator is humming loudly to provide electricity for the solitary light bulb that hangs from the tarped ceiling. The town, San Antonio de Lipez,  has 200 residents and is constructed from straw and mud bricks. There is a bathroom with running water but most of the water is retrieved from a tap in the dirt courtyard. The children of the town view foreigners as playmates and initiate various games.   
 
The 4 day tour of the southwestern altiplano of Bolivia began this morning at 9 30 am in Tupiza, a bastion of relative civilization in this rural landscape. As we left the hostel, we were handed cups of steaming coca tea to fortify us against the altitude. Our car, an elderly silver Toyota 4x4, holds we 5 tourists plus our driver Adellio and our cook Eliana. Neither Adellio or Eliana speak any English but they speak slowly in Spanish so that we can understand them. The 4x4 is a bit worn but appears to run well, apart from the unnerving tendency of my door to come partially unlatched no matter how hard I slam or lock it. I have dubbed it the death door though I doubt it is really dangerous.
 
We drove from town on a gravel road that followed a dry river bed then climbed precariously up into the altiplano. The terrain beside the road dropped precipitously into deep valleys and the Israelis were especially nervous about the speed at which our driver took the sharp curves. We asked him to slow down a bit. The vistas were beautiful. Especially, a rock formation called the sillars which are columns which have been eroded by the heavy summer rains. We stopped for a lunch of sandwiches and tamales in a small cluster of buildings that could not even be classified as a village.  Once we reached the altiplano the road became flatter and less hair-raising. There are very few people here. In the whole day we encountered maybe 4 hamlets and about the same number of other vehicles. We did see many animals: thousands of llamas, sheep, and even some ñandus. The whole while our driver played bad pop cassettes in his tape deck and jabbered away good naturedly to the cook who would occasionally get a second to mumble a brief reply.
 
I have only been in Bolivia for 2 days and already it has captured a piece of my heart.
 
Day 2   (October 4) San Antonio de Lipez to Huallajara  
 
Today started early. 5 am to be precise. We all groaned in protest when the knock came on our door but proceeded to roll out of our beds and pack out sleeping bags in the dark (the sun had not yet risen and the generator had not been turned on). The air was fresh and crisp and there were still a few stars in the sky when we scampered across the yard to breakfast. Breakfast was a bleary eyed, silent affair over dry buns and tea. By 6 am we were all packed back into the car and on the road.
The first stop of the day was Pueblo Fantasma, a Spanish mining town that was abandoned due to sickness and reports of the devil. The ruined town was still in the shadow of the mountain when we arrived and we did not stay long. The morning rolled by rather uneventfully apart from a quick stop for a tire change. Our driver could work on a pit crew on the indy 500 circuit. Between the time that he turned around and said ¨bueno amigos. Cinco minutos¨and rushed outside pulling on his mechanic´s outfit to the time we were moving again we barely had time to use the natural bathroom.
The death door seemed to have been repaired overnight and people dozed or watched the landscape morph from sedimentary outcroppings filled with llamas to a barren volcanic environment of lava flows and heavily eroded cones.
 
We entered the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve in the southwest corner of Bolivia. Here we encounter several more vehicles like ours, especially at the termos, a warm spring in which we bathed while lunch was being prepared. The highlight of the day was the beautiful Laguna Verde, a stunning aquamarine lake overshadowed by the Volcano Licanbur marking the border between Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.
Later in the day we ascended (almost imperceptably) to 5000m above sea level and saw some geysers (which were really mudpots and steam vents). I felt very good at that elevation. I walked around without difficulty and did not suffer any of the symptoms of altitude sickness. I have been gaining altitude so gradually over the last weeks that I actually had more problems at lower elevation.
 
Our hostel tonight, in Huallajara, unlike last night, is a settlement produced solely to cater to tourists. The one giant building is full of dorms and kitchens and even has a little kiosk where tourists can buy oreos, toilet paper and batteries. There are a few local children clutching the lollipops recieved from the tourists but the tourists far outnumber the locals. Last night there were only 3 tours in our town and all originated in Tupiza. Tonight there are about 10 and they come from Uyuni, Tupiza, and even San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Still, there are only about 50 tourists in the park tonight. The dorms here are quite nice but this is still a place without telephone and a generator that only comes on in the evening.
 
Day 3  (October 5) Huallajara to Puerto Chubica
 
Last night, I went for a walk at sunset. My breath caught a bit on the slight uphills but it felt good to be moving on my own two feet. I realised that one of the wonderful things about travelling is that you can take the time to watch the colour fade from the sky and the world slip into darkness. The days are quite warm here but the thin air does not hold much heat and the nights are cold. Dinner was chilly and we were grateful for the hot soup and the wood stove. After dinner, the girls of our group went out to sit under the stars. The sky was spectacular. With no light pollution and no clouds it was one of the clearest looks I have ever had of the night sky. A little orange came and joined us in our blankets. In the morning, that same cat was mysteriously sleeping on Sibylle´s bed even though it had not been in the room when we went to sleep.
 
Once we had piled back into the car and I managed to relinquish the death seat (yes the door was still opening) to Sybille in exchange for the middle seat, our first stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada. This lake is a stunning shade of red due to sediment deposits and algae growth and in the morning light it was truely beautiful. We continued on to an area where a lava flow had been eroded by wind and sand into distorted shapes and then into a region of lagunas filled with flamingos.
The road after the lagunas was extremely rocky and the car progressed at a snail´s pace jolting us the whole way. We decided that it would be much more pleasant, and faster, to walk.  All of us, including Eliana, got out and walked cross country. We beat the 4x4 down to where the road improved by a good 5 minutes.
We stopped for lunch at the volcano Ollague, a smoking volcano across the border into Chile. The lava flows infront of the volcano were eroded into fantastic shapes which we climbed all over while we waited for lunch to appear on the tailgate. Then we ate basking on the rocks like lizards.
 
The afternoon was mostly driving and rather uneventful apart from a quick stop to help another tour change a tire. Sitting in the middle seat I began to notice that several of the instruments on the dashboard were not working. Important instruments like the odometer and the fuel gauge. Much to our driver´s dismay the tape deck had also stopped functioning. Our driver delights in playing his collection of bad 80´s mix tapes which include such classics as Big in Japan and a mix of cheesy German techno pop. He kept trying to fix the tape deck while we in the back no longer had to suppress our hilarity at the music selection.
 
In the late afternoon we arrived at the community of Puerto Chubica huddled at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The beds and floors of the hostel we constructed of halite (rock salt) which apart from being a nice gimmick for the tourists is a much more available resource than wood. I have not seen a single tree since we left Tupiza 3 days ago. We are significantly lower here and and attempts at agriculture replace desolate landscapes. After tea, I went for a walk in the cliffs behind the settlement and shared the sunset with strange rabbit-like creatures with tails. The rocks were biting on the hands because they were covered in a coral like deposit from when the area was submerged in a great continental lake that stretched from lake Titicaca to southern Argentina. After dinner I played dice with Sibylle and Jan and we had a very enjoyable conversation about the politics, history, and social situations of our two countries late into the night. And by late into the night I mean 10 pm.  Everybody had gone to bed and we were brushing our teeth when the generator cut out leaving us in total darkness. I missed my headlamp (lost somewhere along the way) terribly.
 
Day 4 (October 6) Puerto Chubica to Uyuni
 
This morning the generator kicked in at 5 am turning on the lights that had cut out on us the night before. The hostel was bustling but the knock didn´t come on our door until 5:30. ¨Buenos Amigos. Vamos vamos. Diez minutos¨said our driver. I rolled out of bed, pulled on the same clothes I had been wearing for the past 4 days tried to put my unwashed hair into some semblance of order and was out at the car in record time. The sky was already beginning to lighten at the fringes and we raced the sun out into the Salar. When the sun peeked above the horizon we were standing on a flat plane of salt as white as snow. We watched the sun rise over the salt desert and the world was gold and blue and white. It was a very special moment.
 
The Salar de Uyuni is a huge salt desert that was formed by the evaporation of a great lake. The salt reaches over 9 m into the ground and stretches far into the distance where it is halted by tall mountains. We made our way to the isla de Pescada, a rocky island in a sea of salt, and had breakfast on tables made of salt and sat on rocks still holding the coolness of the night.
 
Later, we drove to the centre of the salt desert and took perspective pictures which were very entertaining.
The trip concluded with a visit to the salt hotel and then to Colchani, a place where the salt is processed. Colchani was filled with tourists taking pictures of a llama tied to a fence. We felt like veterans and scoffed at the behaviour of the Salar neophytes. After lunch we were dropped off in Uyuni. After a cup of coffee with me Sibylle and Jan returned to Tupiza and Zohar and Doran took a bus to La Paz. I found a hostel and spent the evening quietly.
 
The 4 day trip to the Salar de Uyuni was a wonderful adventure. We spent a lot of time in the car but we saw so many interesting things. I would recomend it to anybody travelling through Bolivia.    
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photo by: razorriome