Salt desert (Salar de Uyuni, Bolivian Salt Flats)

Trip Start May 02, 2011
1
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Trip End May 17, 2011


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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

     So, the Bolivian Salt Flats - Salar de Uyuni...this place was probably the main reason (or at least one of the most important ones) why we went to Bolivia...

    The size of Salar de Uyuni (over 10 000 square kilometers, or around 4 000 square miles) makes it the largest salt flat in the world...it is also the flattest place on Earth; in fact, its perfectly flat surface is used for satellite calibration of the altitude and distance measuring equipment...Salar de Uyuni has up to 70% of the world's lithium supply buried under the salt, and (obviously!!!) the largest deposit of salt on the planet (almost 65 million tons of salt)...


 


    These facts are interesting of course, but what really made me want to go there was that every person I encountered who had been to these flats described them as surreal, spectacular, fantastical place...and how could I resist "surreal + spectacular + fantastical" ? :)


    Originally I hoped that we would cross the flats, but the area is huge, and you definitely cannot do it in a day...if you decide to do so - you'll have to endure hours and hours of driving with nothing but blinding whiteness around you...you will have to spend a few nights in the middle of the salt desert...but keep in mind - it's really a desert, even though it is made of salt rather than sand...so - it's freezing there at night, and there are no modern amenities to make your stay comfortable...



Sure, they have so-called "salt hotels" - buildings almost entirely made of salt - walls, roof, beds and all...but the hotels in the middle of the desert do not have heat, the water supply is limited, and the toilets are not what you are used to...and there are no private rooms - people all sleep together...although that could be a plus, considering how freezing it is at night...there is also not much food or drinks beyond what you can pack in your car...and if your car breaks down or runs out of gas - well, hope for the best, wait for help or pray (whatever works!)...


 



        If this doesn't deter you from crossing the flats (it wouldn't deter me at all!), then you could be rewarded by coming across an "island" oasis here and there, colorful lagoons, hot springs and pink flamingos...alas, all these wonders were not enough to entice my dear angel to spend a few days crossing the flats (and - to be fair - we simply didn't have enough time), so we compromised on making "day trips" into the desert and returning to the "mainland" to sleep...

 

    We would have probably spent more time in the flats had it not been so difficult to get there...there is no direct flight or train from La Paz...normally you have to take a bus across rural Bolivia to Oruro and from there catch a train to a little town called Uyuni...this journey takes  practically a whole day (and another whole day to get back), but we were going to do it anyway...unfortunately (or - looking back now, I should say "fortunately') the agency that was arranging the connections for us messed up our itinerary by not taking into account some changes in the train schedule...it took us some time on the phone with them, but they realized their mistake and tried to do what they could to fix it, which was giving us a private car and a driver to deliver us directly from La Paz to Uyuni...


 


    Despite travelling in the comfort of a private car (as opposed to public bus and train), the journey was tiring...we only stopped for lunch in Oruro and drove practically non-stop all the way, yet it took us somewhere between 8 and 10 hours to finally get to our destination...I didn't terribly mind it because I like looking out the window and watching things passing by...


 


    The countryside was bleak though...and what made it seem even gloomier was that every few minutes or so we would pass some crosses or little memorials erected at the edge of the road...you know - the ones that are placed at the site of a car accident in memory of people who died there...but it was disturbing to see so many of them along the road, and every time our driver had to pass a slow moving truck (the road was one lane all the way) I had to hope for the best...especially when it started to rain...my dear angel - entertained by his ipod - was largely oblivious to the crosses along the road, slow moving cars ahead of us and the suicidal maneuvers of our driver...



 

    Closer to Uyuni the one-lane paved road ended, and we drove through unmarked - what should I call it? - field? plain? valley? territory?...it seemed like a desert (but not the salt desert yet) mostly made of dirt and brown grass...it stretched as far as the eye could see, but there was nothing there - not a sign, not a landmark...so I still have no idea how in the world the driver knew where to go...yet we made it...it was just getting dark when we entered the city of Uyuni - a gateway to the world's largest salt flats...



 

    We spent the night at a little hotel called Jardines de Uyuni...it was modest (but then - everything seemed modest in this modest little town), but it had all we needed...it also had a certain charm that could make even a modest hotel quite memorable...we happened to be the only guests that night (there are just a few rooms there anyway), and the owner herself (a young lady whose name I unfortunately forgot) came to talk to us and walk us through her fun collection of little knick-knacks and local art that decorated the hotel...in the morning the hotel staff prepared a full breakfast for us - a nice gesture, considering that we were the only guests...but their efforts were lost on me since it seemed like I was perpetually suffering from the altitude sickness while anywhere in Bolivia...and even though I kept drinking coca tea - it didn't make much difference one way or another...




 
    At one point our guide gave me some fresh coca leaves to chew (he and the driver chewed a whole bag of these leaves in almost no time)...supposedly chewing coca leaves restores your energy, helps with altitude sickness and what not, but I found these thick, rubbery, bitter leaves awful to taste...after chewing for a while my mouth felt numb, but not numb enough to block the unpleasant taste...my altitude headache was still there - as flourishing and splitting as ever...my dear health-conscious angel kept telling me "you don't know what kind of water they used to wash these leaves! you don't even know if they washed them at all!", and the prospect of adding dysentery to my altitude sickness did not seem appealing at the moment...besides, my curiosity about the leaves had been satisfied...so - I gave up on my third or fourth leaf...


 


    On the way from the hotel to the salt flats we stopped at a curious site - an antique train cemetery...it is just a few kilometers outside the city of Uyuni, so almost every vehicle heading to the salt flats makes a stop at this train cemetery...they should turn it into a museum, and I hear that some time in the future it might be a possibility, but for now it's an open for everyone somewhat bizarre collection of antique trains haphazardly scattered on the rusting rail tracks in the middle of nowhere...nothing protects it from the weather - so it keeps rusting...and nothing really prevents a tourist from taking a piece of train as a souvenir (well, except maybe practical considerations) or writing his name on a train (well, except maybe the sound of writing on a metal surface is not the most pleasant one)...



 



    How this train "cemetery" came to exist?...unfortunately there is not too much information, and whatever is known you mostly learn from your guide or from the people who heard it from their own guides...my understanding is that at the end of the 19th century Bolivia aspired to become a country with great transportation system - namely railroads...the key word is "aspired"...it was hoped that the railroads would help mining industry prosper, and (nothing but the best!) a lot of British engineers were invited to come build train lines...



 




    Alas, aspirations and hopes didn't materialize...minerals were getting depleted, the mining industry collapsed, local people preferred buses and llamas as their transportation of choice...many trains got simply abandoned...so - we have this train "cemetery" now...but still - where are the rest of the trains?...or these ones are all there were?...and why they are all here, in this particular place?...well, some questions are not meant to be answered, I guess...


 


    Our next stop was at the very edge of the salt flats - to see the salt production and packaging, check out the souvenirs made out of salt, look at the salt sculptures in a tiny half-shop-half-museum, and! last but not least - to use the restroom facilities (not an overabundance of those in the desert, you know)...the crowd here was multilingual, mostly young, mostly backpacker type...they would squeeze tightly into their jeeps with barely any room to breathe, and I almost felt guilty that we had our jeep all to ourselves (not counting the driver and the guide)...nah! I didn't feel guilty at all! :)


 


    Anyway, in less than five minutes we were in a completely different world - surrounded by immense sparkling whiteness of the salt...reflecting in this salt and in every little puddle of water was the cerulean blue sky ...now, keep in mind that we were at the salt flats in May which was the very beginning of the dry season (May through November), and not all the water that normally covers most of the area during the rainy season had evaporated yet...so it looked as if you were standing on a mirror, and the sky was everywhere - up above you and at your feet as a reflection...and the whole universe seemed to have only two colors -  white and blue...brilliant white and piercing blue, I should say...truly spectacular and surreal...



 

    You are probably wondering - if it was so beautiful at the beginning of the dry season - what it would look like during the rainy season when almost the whole salt flats are covered with a shallow layer of water...yes, it's probably even more spectacular then, but! it's not the best time to go,  because - as always -  there are trade-offs: it would be very hard (if not impossible) to find a crew that would take you much further than the edge of the desert...apparently driving in the salty water can easily stall or ruin a car...even our driver was very reluctant to take us far, since further out there were even more water still present...



 



        But I - on the other hand - was counting on going to the Fish Island - an oasis in the middle of the salt flats, so the driver's reluctance did not please me at all...to make things worse, the further we went, the more water was there, and soon the guide joined the driver it saying that it would be safer to turn back...eventually even my dear angel joined forces with them saying that maybe I was not quite reasonable...I didn't see how it could be dangerous - yes, we were driving in several inches of salty water at this point, but we were driving super slow...I was sure that the driver and the guide were worrying mostly about their car and not about my wishes...and my wishes are important!...so I was about to throw a real tantrum (I want it and so I must have it!), but then I saw a tiny black speck ahead of us...the speck turned out to be another jeep returning from the oasis, so now for all their reasoning I had this iron-clad argument: "if they made it - I am sure we can!", and the men just gave up...and so off we went - slowly, slowly to the Fish Island... 


    
 

    Fish Island - (also - Isla Incahuasi) - is a little island made of volcanic rocks in the middle of the salt flats...the island is almost completely covered with giant cactuses (note to the grammar police: I know I should probably use "cacti" as a plural, but it just sounds too funny. And I am writing a serious blog here!)...anyway, we made it there...and to my delight I saw half a dozen other jeeps parked at the edge of the island...I wanted to say: " Ah! I told you so!" to the men, but I decided to be magnanimous :)


   


    While the driver and the guide were unpacking and setting our picnic lunch, we went for a walk around the island...the island is not big, so in 15 minutes or so you can see it all...the only path takes you uphill to the very top from where you can enjoy a nice view - the cactuses, the surrounding salt desert and all...


 


    The following night we stayed at a different hotel - Tayka Salt Hotel...it was also made out of salt - everything but the hardware, fireplace and roof...to me it seemed quite exotic and surreal -  I even (to the horror of my dear angel) licked the wall to make sure that it was indeed made of salt...and yes, it was! :)



 



    We spent the next day at the flats and surrounding area - drove up the Tunupa Volcano, stopped at the edge of a huge meteorite crater nicknamed "Maracana" by the name of the biggest football (soccer for Americans) stadium in Brazil...haven't been to Maracana stadium, but the crater was not awfully impressive - just a huge concave field in the middle of nowhere, that's all...we also saw some unusual animals - viscachas that looked like rabbits with curved tails and vicuņas - slender llama-like creatures...




   



    Vicuņas have very fine wool - much nicer than alpacas, very soft and warm...and according to our guide just a simple scarf made of it would cost more than a $1000 US...even with the US dollars worth less and less now, it's still kind of pricey for a scarf...local people (again - according to our guide) also believe that if you drink blood from a vicuņa, it will cure all your health problems and will give you strength (I think Count Dracula had similar views, though mostly pertaining to humans)...but vicuņas cannot be domesticated - more often than not they just die in captivity...they are protected animals nowadays, so hopefully they will be prancing gracefully and happily on the grassy plains of the central Andes... 



 

    The journey back to La Paz was uneventful...we spent a few more days there, but that I described in my previous entry...so this pretty much concludes our trip to Peru and Bolivia...and in just a month or so we'll be off to a different adventure on a different continent...in fact, it will be a continent we have never been to, so I hope it will be exciting and fun...we shall see...stay tuned! :)





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