Uyuni and its not-so-immediate vicinity

Trip Start Jul 12, 2006
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Trip End Aug 23, 2006


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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, August 19, 2006

So I'm actually writing this from Sucre, but it's been awhile and I've been in a few cities since La Paz, so I thought I'd make the travelogue reflect the geography.

I left La Paz on a night bus for Uyuni, which I almost missed. I took my sweet time running a few errands (like going to the ATM) and getting dinner, then for the first time in South America, I found it impossible to hail a cab--and I was walking along La Paz's main road with my big backpack on. I reached the bus terminal angry and sweaty, and worried that the bus had left without me. But as Elena, the old woman I sat next to on the bus put it, nothing in Bolivia runs on time. (I found out later that this is not true of buses in Uyuni, but that's a story for later.) Elena and I talked for a bit about how she houses volunteers who work with orphans in La Paz, and about how she has had two tall pretty Dutch girls living with her the past few weeks (maybe I should stay down here and do some volunteering). Anyhow, the bus ride took around 12.5 hours and the leg room was once again designed for South Americans so I found it convenient to stand up every half hour or so and do some stretching in the aisle. In addition to the nasty cramps in the muscles around my knees, the temperature dropped considerably as we ventured into southern Bolivia, away from the Equator. But the bus company was considerate enough to provide each of us with what seems to be the official blanket of Bolivia, Polar Frazadas. They've been in every hostel I've stayed at here. (I was determined to buy a couple after they all but saved my life on the freezing flatlands around Uyuni, and did so successfully in Potosí. So I've been lugging those around for a couple of days--good thing I only have two more days in South America.)

We arrived in Uyuni around 7:30am the following day. I walked around sleepily looking for a place to crash for the day, where I could sleep for a bit and find a tour for the next three days in the afternoon. Uyuni is not what I´d call a sprawling metropolis. I'd call it more of a dusty cold town that supports itself mostly on tourism and has few buildings over one storey. After finding no vacancy and three of the places recommended in my Lonely Planet guide, I finally found a place that was a bit sketchy, if not altogether unsafe. This was enough to make me more hungry than tired, so I ventured back out and was accosted by representatives from various tour agencies as soon as I set foot in the main plaza. Upon hearing that the tours all left around 11 that morning, I decided not to stick around Uyuni for the day and to just go ahead and book a tour right away. Which I did. It was much cheaper than I expected, so I went to get breakfast feeling quite please with myself. (I found out later that, as with most things, you get what you pay for, i.e. a jeep that barely makes it back to Uyuni on the last day of the tour.)

The tour left almost on time, and our group of six got along really well. We were all under 25, and represented France (Judith and Pauline), Australia (Michael), Switzerland (Rafael), Bolivia (Roberto), and the US (me). We got along well enough that the people alone made the three days worth the money. The amazing scenery and the feeling that I was on a different planet each day made the trip worth more than what I paid.

The first day we drove to Bolivia´s Cemeterio de Trenes, where there were all sorts of neat things like rusting box cars, rusting springs, and a rusting locomotive engine with Einstein's Field Equation from General Relativity spray-painted on it (see picture--I'm not sure if any physics people read this but I think everyone can appreciate it just as well). After the cemetary, we drove to the edge of Salar de Uyuni, a huge salt flat that was left when a prehistoric salt lake dried up. It's one of the most bizarrely beautiful places on Earth. We spent some time there before driving to la Isla del Pescado, an island of coral out in the middle of Salar. We ate lunch there and started talking to the driver and cook, who informed us that we weren´t going to be staying on the Salar for sunset. After getting back in the jeep (I should note here that the majority of the tour is sitting in the jeep looking out the window, talking to the other tourists, and listening to Reggaeton. Good times.) I was designated as the official Tourists´ Right to See Sunset from Salar represpentative, and engaged in a (heated) conversation with the cook. She told me first that it was cloudy so the sunset wouldn´t be very good. When I objected, she then told me that we had to get to San Juan before all the other tour groups so that we had a place to stay for the night. I told her I was not happy at all, and when we neared the edge of the Salar, the driver stopped and they told us that we could stay for sunset (1.5 hours away still), but that if we had to spend the night in the jeep, it wasn´t their problem.

We cheered and piled out of the jeep and into the stinging wind and biting cold. We spent the hour and a half running around playing tag, laying on the ground to escape the wind, singing, dancing, and all around acting like children. Good times. When the sun neared its destination, Roberto and Rafael retrieved a bottle of Bolivian wine (surprisingly good), which we drank as colors spread out over the horizon. Check out the pictures I took.

The rest of the tour went a lot like this: sit in the jeep for a couple of hours, get out and see some amazing other-worldly scenery, get back in the jeep, repeat--except for the last day, when we stopped every 30 minutes or so and waited for the driver to perform some repairs to the jeep. We got back 3 hours late. But it was a great three days.

Our late return to Uyuni caused me to miss the night bus to Potosi, so I got a ticket for the bus that left at 10am the next day. The five of us remaining from the tour (Michael went to Chile) got dinner and stayed at the same hostel.

Roberto and Rafael were planning to ride the same bus to Potosi and continue on to Tarija, Bolivia's wine-making capital. We got up in the morning and ate breakfast, then burned some time talking to Judith and Pauline, who had slept in and only wanted Oreos for breakfast. Apparently we spent too much time talking because when I went ahead to the bus station, where I was to wait for Roberto and Rafael, the bus was driving away down the street--it had left on time. I ran after it, caught it at a stop, was yelled at by the driver's assistant while he threw my backpack in the back storage compartment, and climbed aboard only to find my seat occupied by someone who also had a ticket for that seat. So I spent the six hours standing in the aisle, which fluctuated between packed and guy-laying-on-the-floor-with-his-head-at-my-feet. But I had a fully-charged iPod and was able to do some reading while I held on for dear life (the road was bumpy and windy and unpaved) so it passed quickly enough.

Potosi is a mining town that used to be the largest in South America because of the once-huge silver deposit in a hill next to it. The natives have been exploited for a long time, first by Spaniards seeking silver, now by companies of other nationalities seeking coal, nickel and other metals. Most workers die within 10 years of beginning work there. There is a popular mine tour that goes through one of the coal mines, which I boycotted thanks to the advice of Natalie (from Cuzco). I spent about 24 hours in Potosi, which was enough time to acquire a couple of Polar Frazadas (those great blankets), then got a bus for Sucre, where I am now, and about which I will now write a separate post.
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Comments

Save the Salar de Uyuni on

Thanks for these nice pictures and travel experiences in the Salar.

Have you heard about the project of extracting lithium from the Salar ? This would destroy this beautiful landscape.

Please share photos and tell how much you care for the Salar on http://salar-de-uyuni.jimdo.com.

Johann

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