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October 25, 2004

Salar de Uyuni

I had been rather skeptical about the Salar de Uyuni--I've seen the Great Salt Lake, and I just didn't see how anything big, white, and flat could be very interesting. But every single person I met in Peru raved about it--enough that I rearranged my trip to fit it in, reserving judgment but somehow trusting that these people knew what they were talking about. And boy did they. It was an incredible, incredible place.

I traveled from La Paz to Uyuni, the nearest town, with the tour guide, Theresa. I read part of the local paper on the train, taking the time to look up all the words I didn't know--very good practice, and a very good way to kill time, since it takes forever to get through one page! We took a 3-hour bus ride to Oruro, where we crossed our fingers and waited in line to get tickets on the bus to Uyuni. Thankfully we did get seats, and left about 7 pm for the trip to Uyuni. My first train trip so far, which was very exciting! It was not really a very exciting trip, but I've been assured the bus ride would have been a million times worse. We arrived in Uyuni at 2:30 am, and it was really really cold. Our driver for the tour picked us up and drove us to the hostel, where I hardly considered my surroundings and somehow crashed hard despite the bitter cold. I figured out in the morning why it was so cold in my room--and why the sounds of the kids in the schoolyard next door were so particularly loud--there was a hole in the window!

I spent the day wandering Uyuni, and we also went to the train cemetery, a place outside town where lots of train cars were ditched when they canceled most of the train services in Bolivia. It was pretty neat, and I took some interesting pictures. We met up with our other group members that night, Jan and Pete from England, and we were all excited that we had such a small group.

The next morning, I changed some money, ate breakfast, and got ready for the trip. We were supposed to leave around 10:30, but I was still waiting at 11:15, and Theresa told me there were two new people in our group, although I didn't understand why that would delay us. Around 11:30, she told me she was going to meet Jan and Pete and the driver, Jaime, would pick me up in a few minutes. At noon, she came back in a taxi (and Uyuni is NOT a big town), and told me there was an accident in the Salar, and Jaime went to help, and she didn't know when he'd be back. She suggested we eat lunch in town instead of out on the Salar to save some time while we were waiting. We picked up Jan and Pete and went to eat, a just a little while later Jaime showed up, we picked up all our bags and the two new guys (Alfredo and Luca from Italy) and finally headed out of town around 2:30.

We'd driven just a half hour when we got caught in a sand-trap and the battery died at the same time! I don't know if the two were related, but it was ridiculous after all the other delays we'd suffered through pretty silently. After we all helped push the car onto some harder sand (which I didn't understand, since the car wouldn't start anyway!), Jaime walked off to the main highway. Miraculously, he came back with a battery about 30 minutes later, and jumped ours or something and we were off. About five minutes later, a taxi pulls up--in the desert--and Jaime's wife jumps out with a battery! (I think Theresa called her on Luca's cell phone.) I think Jaime basically said "What the hell are you doing here with a battery? I already have one," and she got all upset, and the cab driver obviously wanted to get paid immediately...everyone was all huffy, and Jaime through some money at the cab driver, he took off, and then Jaime left as well, leaving his wife crying in the desert! We were obviously a little distraught about this, but Theresa just said "He doesn't like it..." and then "She's from here, she'll be okay." It was a crazy way to start the trip. By now, it was 4 pm, and we'd lost almost 6 hours of our first day. We suggested going back to Uyuni and starting again the next day, but were told that was not an option, and Jaime continued on, driving in a frenzy, either to make up for lost time or because he was all riled up about the interaction with his wife.

Over time everyone calmed down, and we continued on the planned trip, seeing where they collect and process salt for sale in Bolivia (it takes a lot of work, and then they sell 50 kilos for less than $1!), a hotel made entirely of salt blocks--even the furniture, and we finally arrived at Isla del Pescado, which is a notable landmark. It's an island chock-full of cacti in the middle of the salt lake, and we hiked to the top for amazing views of the lake in every direction. Usually tours stop there for lunch, and there are lots of people there, but we got there right before sunset and had the place to ourselves--which is when we realized this would all work out okay. We then drove a little ways out over the salt, and stopped to watch the sun set over the salar--an amazing sight. White, white salt covering the ground as far as the eye can see, with little crusts forming pentagonal and other shapes, and the sky lighting up pink, and orange, and red. We were all speechless for a bit, from the beauty and the cold, and then all agreed it was worth all the hassle to be there for the sunset.

We stayed in an unremarkable hostel that night in the town of San Juan, where I had a room with six beds all to myself! The next day we saw other types of landscapes, some very desert-like and others fairly lush lagoon areas with flamingos! It was cool to see flamingos in the wild. The crazy mineral content of the sand creates lakes in some funky colors, which just adds to the surreal nature of the atmosphere. The environment seems to change every few minutes--the plants change, the rocks, the colors of the sand/dirt... There are several active volcanoes in the area as well, and some parts are full of volcanic rocks. We saw a burial ground that still contains mummies from 800 years ago--it was hard to believe they were real, and hadn't all been carted away by locals or archaeologists.

The car was still causing some problems, and Jaime usually had to start it by going under the hood with a wrench--but at least it was starting! But as we got back in the car after a little break at an overlook near a volcano, I discovered we had a flat tire! That took 30 minutes to fix, and after that it was clear Jaime was nervous driving over the super-rocky road. At one point, we all got out and walked--I'm not sure if that was more for us or for the car, but as we saw it go jerking over the rocks and up the hill, I was perfectly content walkng behind!

We spent that night near Laguna Colorada, a red lake whose edges are completely coated in borax, which looks like icebergs! It was a fascinating place, and very cold at 4200 meters. We heard that there was a lunar eclipse that night, so a bunch of us stood outside to wait. But it was so damn cold...I saw it eclipse about halfway and called it a night.

The next day we went to the geysers, which were really cool and reminded me of Yellowstone; to some thermal pools where we stuck our legs in the water; and finally to Laguna Verde, a beautiful greenish-blue lake with a volcano in the background--a stunning finish to the trip. We then crossed the border into Chile, and finished the trip in San Pedro de Atacama, an overpriced hippie town. The Italians heard about a party that night, so I went with them, and discovered that parties are the same the world over--music, drinks, and a bonfire to keep warm! I crashed in my dorm room around 3 am (for once I was the one out late!) and slept in the next day before getting an afternoon bus to Antofagasta, a fairly unremarkable town on the coast. I stayed there one night, and the next morning (Saturday) caught the bus to La Serena, where I am now.

Posted by Amy on October 25, 2004 06:51 PM
Category: Bolivia
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