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December 18, 2004

Pass the Salt Please

The Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia covers 12,000 square km, and is the worlds largest salt flats. About 30,000 years ago, the salt flats were covered by a lake called Lago Munchin. When the sea dried up, it left the Salar de Uyuni, which contains about 10 billion tons of salt. At its deepest point, the salt is about 8 meters deep. I wanted to visit the salt flats when I was in Bolivia in October, but didn't have time. So when my flight from Buenos Aires to Lima was cancelled, I decided it was a sign that I should make my own way to Bolivia and see them. I arrived in Uyuni after a 2 hour flight and about 14 hours of bus rides and organized a three day, two night tour of the Salt flats and some nearby lakes.

Tao (who I met on the jeep ride from Tupiza) and I, along with five others, left Uyuni in a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser for the tour. Our first stop was the town of Colchani, where there are about 30 families who extract salt for normal food purposes as well as making souvenirs for tourists. Just outside Colchani, we crossed into the salt flat area where the salt is piled into mounds to dry in the sun before being processed. There was a very shallow layer of water at the base of the mounds, which provided a great reflection. Then, Juan, who was our driver, guide, and cook, drove us through the salt to our next stop, the Salt Hotel. Aside from a little bit of wood trimming around the doorways and the ceiling, everything in the salt hotel is made from blocks of salt.

We continued driving through the hexagonal tiles of salt for the next few hours, stopping occasionally to take photos. The salt was in every direction, all the way to the horizon, sometimes with mountains in the very far distance. I have found that I am very captivated by these types of vast and seemingly endless landscapes, as was the case in the sand dunes in Namibia. I stared out the window the way a kid stares at the TV while playing a video game. We stopped at the Isla del Pescadores (Island of Fisherman), an island that seems completely misplaced in the sea of white salt. It is full of volcanic rocks and huge cactuses. I walked aroud the island for about an hour taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. The only thing that interrupted the vastness of the salt was the occasional tourist jeep that drove past.

After a few more hours of driving, we reached the edge of the salt flats, and arrived at our accomodation for the night. In the windy little town of San Juan, there were more llamas than people. After taking pictures of the sunset, a couple curious llamas, and having dinner, we retired to our dusty dorm-like accomodation.

The next morning we set off to visit some different lakes where there were lots of flamingos. All the lakes and the surrounding scenery were very impressive, but my favorite stop of the day was the Laguna Colorado, with its deep red color due to the algae, white outline of salt deposits at its edges, and volcano in the background. We stayed the night in another dusty dorm-like place. I found out I don't sleep in the dust. I spent both nights pretty much coughing and focusing on breathing, rather than sleeping.

Something very refreshing happened at 3:27 am as I laid there awake (I did actually look at my watch to note the time.) Since the beginning of June, I have been traveling and always looking forward to the next adventure. After leaving Antarctica, I have pretty much been heading in the direction of home. Of course, from way down in Antarctica, every direction is toward home, isn't it? Ha ha. I was secretly happy that my flight was cancelled from Buenos Aires because it meant that I could continue my adventure overland here to the salt flats. But as I laid there awake, in almost the same abrupt fashion that Forrest decided he was done running in the movie Forrest Gump, I decided I was ready to go home. It's good because ready or not, I am already headed that way, but it's much nicer to be content with the fact that this adventure is coming to a close, rather than dragging my heels all the way home wishing I had more time. I laid there for the rest of the night, trying to breathe, and reflecting on everything that has happened since I left the U.S. in June. It's been pretty unbelievable.

On the final day of the tour, we stopped at a geyser basin with active geysers, bubbling mud, and of course the accompanying smell of rotten eggs. At an altitude of almost 5000m the air was very thin and cold. We found temporary relief from the cold by warming our hands over some of the escaping steam. After a group picture at Laguna Verde, we headed back to Uyuni. The drive was on probably the roughest roads I have ever experienced. For the whole 8 hours we were bounced around like there was an earthquake inside the car.

I'm now back in Uyuni. Befor the tour, I was planning to visit a few more places in Bolivia on the way to La Paz. But, after my 3:27 am revelation, I have decided to take the night train directly to La Paz, where after a few days I will catch a flight to Lima, where I will catch a flight to Miami, where I will catch a flight to Detroit!

I may do a few of the activities that I missed when I was there in October because of the altitude sickness, and hopefully getting mugged won't be one of them. (If confused, see entry entitled "Could it be worse?") I seem to have acclimated to the altitude here in Uyuni, so hopefully being back in La Paz won't make my head almost explode like it did before.

Posted by msshell on December 18, 2004 05:35 PM
Category: South America

ah, the memories...

Posted by: Erik in Saigon on December 19, 2004 06:23 AM

Quite an adventure and experience, Michelle! I know I couldn't do it. Sounds like you might be home for Christmas too! Miss home? Miss work? Miss Taco Bell (I know dumb question)? I am sure everyone will be glad to have you back home again too. they have a Taco Bell at Metro?

Posted by: ron on December 19, 2004 07:44 AM

Hi Michelle,
Your parents thought I might enjoy your blog since I'm leaving on the 29th. for a cruise from Buenos Aires to Santiago. They were right, I have really enjoyed the parts that I have had time to read. Do you plan to turn it into a book?
Linda T.

Posted by: Linda Tedder on December 19, 2004 06:45 PM

I've really enjoyed following the details of your trip. You've been so thorough and regular you should have contacted a local paper to publish the entries as a column, kind of like Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad." Maybe they would have even covered some of the cost!

Posted by: John on December 20, 2004 01:57 PM

Hello from La Paz! More entries to come, please stay tuned. Responses below...

ERIK: Doesn't it seem like decades ago since you were in the salt flats!? Enjoy xmas in the Phillipines w- Gma!

RON: There is a Taco Bell at metro, but only in the departures terminal. I will be bee-lining it to the Taco Bell immediately after disembarking the plane. See you in the New Year!

LINDA: HI! Welcome. A cruise from Buenos Aires to Santiago! Wow! That will be fantastic! Have a great time!

JOHN: Glad you've enjoyed it, sounds like you've been a lot of places yourself! Make sure you do a blog next time you go away so we can follow you! Ill be bugging you about door trims soon enough!

Posted by: Michelle on December 20, 2004 05:13 PM

Hey Michelle! Speaking of memories.. I'm sure the night you spent struggling to breathe brought you back to Easter of 04... haha

Can't wait to see you. Only 2 more days.

Posted by: Sherry on December 20, 2004 06:00 PM

SHERRY: It was a whole 'nuther way of not being able to breathe. Id much rather have you shoving cats down my throat.

3 more days

Posted by: Michelle on December 20, 2004 06:10 PM

great photos!

Posted by: el en on December 21, 2004 04:39 AM

Gald to hear all is well for you!! Doesn't sound like we'll have a chance to visit before XMAS so it might have to wait until after the first of the year, as we're leaving for Crested Butte on the evening of the 25th. If you need anything to get back to the homestead and get into the swing of things don't hesitate to phone... and if you have a chance before XMAS, give me a ring. Miss you. Lori

Posted by: Lori Edwards on December 21, 2004 11:32 AM
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