Salar de Uyuni

We arrived in Uyuni via a train mistakenly called “Expreso del Sur,” which crawled over, around, and up the beginnings of the Andes from the Argentine-Bolivan border to the former railroad nexus of Uyuni, now a dried out tourist town that functions primarily as a jumping off point for tours to the Salar of Uyuni and points beyond.

Our transition from Argentina to Boliva was quite horrible, yet uneventful. The bus dropped us off in the border town of La Quiaca at 5:30 am, where a helpful sign under a buzzing streetlight told us that we were 5000 kilometers from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina. We thought the border opened at 7:00, but it was unclear whether this was Bolivian time or Argentine time, as they are an hour apart in the summer. Luckily, it’s nice and toasty in summer, right? This is true most of the time, but unfortunately when you’re at 3460 meters above sea level, it’s freaking cold at night. So there we were, shivering on the border in the dark with a handful of backpackers and several families carrying even more stuff than we had in our backpacks. I had hope at sunrise, when the cold abated slightly, but we still had another hour of waiting before we figured out that the officials were operating on Bolivian time. Finally we got our exit and entry stamps, filled out the requisite paperwork and entered Villazón, the gateway to Boliva!

I can say with some margin of error that I never in my life wish to return to Villazón. The ten hours that we spent in that god-forsaken town were the longest I’ve experienced in quite some time. They are perhaps rivalled by the 12 hours of FCAT and pre-FCAT testing, proctoring angry adolescents in my first year of teaching. The frigid sky of the previous sleepless night filled with cancer rays of death by 9:00 am, threatening to turn my nordic skin into a lobster carapace. There were no restaurants. There were no grocery stores. The only sustenance we had was granola and water. I cannot even begin to describe my ecstasy when we walked into the train station at 7:45 am to find that the only train that day left at 3:30 pm. After we drank the water that we had, there were no public bathrooms. The restrooms in the train station closed down at 10:00 am, and there were no ATMs to get bolivian money so that we could pay for other bathrooms in undisclosed or sketchy locations. The one saving grace was that we arrived on a Saturday, when there was a train leaving, instead of Sunday. I shudder to think what would have happened if our schedule had been just one day off.

Luckily, the trip to Uyuni was well worth the agony at the border. The train itself was quite pleasant; we opened up our panoramic window in first class and watched the red mountains of northern Argentina bake into the bronze peaks of the Bolivian Andes. Every once in a while a fertile valley complete with weeping willows and flocks of grazing sheep would peek out from behind the hillsides, and the train would clickety clack on. We saw arid plains with desert grasses, farm towns, dried riverbeds, steeply carved sandstone valleys, and the beginning of the altiplano: Bolivia’s high altitude plains. They even served us a meal in the dining car as part of our swank ticket, making up for the lack of food in Villazón. Potatoes, specifically fried, featured significantly in the meal. I have become quite used to seeing french fries at every meal here in Bolivia, with the exception of a few culinary treasures in Potosí, Sucre, and Copacabana. At the time, I cared not that the American tuber was my primary source of calories.

After a leisurely trip, we stepped off into the cold night air of Uyuni at midnight. Immediately, as in Cafayate, a tour agent accosted us. This time, she was advertising not only a tour company, but a hostel as well. I laughed when I told her we already had reservations at her hotel, but was glad for the company on the deserted streets. We slept well that night, after nearly 28 hours of sleepless traveling. When we awoke, we discovered that Uyuni in the morning isn’t a whole lot different than Uyuni at midnight. I think that the only time that the town is really busy is during the weekend street market. In this sense the town is much same as Villazón…unfortunately, we didn’t need a haunch of raw llama meat that Saturday morning.

We did need a tour company, money, and breakfast. As there were no ATM’s in Uyuni either, #2 nearly became an issue, but of course #1 had all their prices in US dollars, and we didn’t really have time for #3 because we found out the night before that all tours leave at 10:30 am, regardless of the company.

At this moment, I would like to elaborate on the process of choosing #1. In the past five years or so Uyuni has become a tourist mecca, drawing adventurers from all over the world in search of impressive scenery. To meet this demand, dozens of private tour companies have sprung up. Essentially anyone with a Toyota 4×4 (cuatro por cuatro…as we heard many a time in the next few days) put a sign up and called themselves a tour agency. The guidebooks essentially say that it’s blind luck if you get a great company or a lemon of a truck that breaks down in the middle of a desert or on the mountainside, if your food makes you sick or gets you going in the morning, or if the people in your group are psychopaths or your next best friends. We were also warned that sometimes in order to complete the magic group of 6 that fits in the two back seats of the SUV, you may sign up with one tour company, pay them, and then end up in some other company’s car. This very same thing happened to us, although we were completely ignorant of the fact until we arrived back at the tour company’s “office” 4 days later, but the office had a different name and was on a different street.

The fact that we didn’t actually go with the tour company in the book with the cute name and professional brochure was irrelevant, for we were utterly and miraculously lucky on all parts of our trip. The other four passengers were pleasant, sociable, and not at all obnoxious: a Dutch student and three French Canadians from Montreal volunteering for OxFam in Boliva. The car didn’t break down at all, save one flat tire on the very last day only a few kilometers from the city. The food was nourishing if uninspired; there were vegetables at every meal, and we had llama steaks the first afternoon for lunch, quite the novelty. Our guide Eddie was cheerful without being grating, and knew the spiderwebs of dirt roads like a National Geographic map. He found us wildlife, made sure we got to the sights ahead of other tour groups, and drove like a sane person around mountain curves. He and the cook, Elba, warmed up to us gringos as the trip went on, making for quite a pleasant social dynamic among the 8 of us. Luckily, all of us spoke Spanish, so most of the trip was spent conversing in that language, with smatterings of English, French, even Dutch and German thrown in.

Once we loaded up the 4×4, threw our backpacks on top to be wrapped in a tarp and squeezed ourselves into the two back seats of the truck. I had an open mind, expecting to learn a great deal about a part of the world very foreign to my home. All my life I have lived by the ocean. I’m quite attached to it, and get lonely if I can’t see waves for a few weeks. In Bolivia, I didn’t expect to find anything that resembled the ocean, and knew in some part of my mind that being nearly 4000 meters above my beloved Atlantic would be quite different.

But before we could see the sights, as with all good tours, we had to stop and be accosted by merchants trying to sell you things that you don’t really need. Honestly, does anyone require a figurine of a llama carved out of a salt block? Uyuni is not known for its textiles, the blankets, camera bags, and hats for sale were probably produced on a machine. Instead of participating in the market, I chose instead to make friends with a domesticated vicuña, one of the local camelids, who was happily munching on carrot pieces outside. This was my first ever vicuña sighting, so I was fairly excited to see the rare mammal and be able to pet its valuable fur. Vicuñas are shy animals who the Quechua and Aymara people indigenous to Peru and Bolivia domesticated into the docile alpaca. This one, our guide told us, had most likely been raised in captivity and hand-fed. My new friend was clearly more interested in her carrots than she was in me, so she wandered off in search of more tasty nibbles after a few minutes of me following her around with my camera.

Por fin, as they say here, we entered the Salar. The dusty roads turned whiter and more compact as we left town, crystallizing into one of the largest salt flats in the world. According to geological history, most of Bolivia and northern Argentina were once covered by an inland sea called Lake Minchin. When the Andes popped up some time after the dinosaurs died out during the Cenozoic Era, parts of the sea rushed out to join the Atlantic forming valleys like the Quebrada de Cafayate ], and the rest of it just dried up. Thus was formed the more than 10,000 square km Salar of Uyuni, the world’s largest. Try and put that in your salt shaker.

The air was dry and clear, with clouds billowing far away on the horizon near the mountains that circle the Salar. Perspective becomes quickly distorted out in the salar, because the horizon is uniformly flat for miles; the Andes in the distance never seemed to move during the first few hours that we spent in the car, but somehow we were moving forward. Then in front of us dark blobs materialized out of the shimmering sky which floated on top of the salt flats. As we moved closer, I realized that they were “islands” in the ancient sea, rock formations isolated in the middle of the Salar. One of the largest ones was our next destination, Isla del Pescado (Fish Island), so named because from afar it resembles a fish swimming on top of the salt.

But before we reached the island we had another stop: the Hoted de Sal (Salt Hotel). The novelty of these accomodations, miles away from running water, roads, or civilization, is that the entire building and its furnishings are built of salt. The walls are salt blocks, the floors are crushed salt granules, and the tables are massive slabs of salt. Even the chairs are carved salt. The only non-salt parts of the building were the straw roof and the wooden doors for each room. We spent the first night in another, less-famous, hotel made of salt on the outskirts of the Salar, for a much reduced fee. The bathrooms cost twice as much as in Uyuni, and bottle of cold Coke carried a 200% markup in the Salar’s Salt Hotel. After a brief tour of the building, it was back to the car.

As the sun reached its zenith, we took our midday break. Isla del Pescado turned from a fish into a large rock formation, a small mountain covered in over 6,000 cardón cacti. I wouldn’t have thought that anything could live in the middle of so much salt, but the island itself was teeming with life. The cacti were in bloom, their creamy yellow blossoms feeding insects and small birds, rodents scrambled about under rocks, and lizards skittered under rocks as we walked up the main path to pay our park entrance fee. A short hike up to the summit provided incredible views of salt as far as the eye could see. Everyone was panting on the relatively easy walk, and at the time I didn’t realize why I felt so tired. That evening as I lay curled in my bed with a nasty bout of altitude sickness, I came to fully appreciate the workout your body recieves just fulfilling ordinary tasks at 3.6000 meters above sea level. When we descended to the parking area, lunch was already set up and waiting: pan-seared llama steaks with rice and vegetables, with the ubiquitous Coca Cola as refreshment. The llama was surprisingly delicious, tasting slightly like a porkchop, but different.

After lunch, we followed a pair of grey week tracks across the Salar to its western border. There, to my surprise, was a small village sustained by agriculture and the occasional tour group. Whoever decided to farm right next to a salt flat must have loved a challenge; the tiny quinua plants were struggling to find water and nutrients in the harsh earth. Not twenty yards away from the fields the whiteness of the Salar stretched menacingly over the horizon, defying anyting to survive in its bounds. I watched in amazement as the road passed by field after field, finally ending at our own small Salt Hotel.

Amazed by the strange landscape, several of our group decided to make an expedition up the nearest hill before the sun set, to see if we could find any interesting views. I grabbed my camera while other more seasoned hikers packed water and flashlights, and then we were off. When we left the rustic hotel, I noticed that there were large rounded rock formations all along the path, much the same as on Isla del Pescado. I stopped to investigate one more closely, and realized from its texture and pattern that it was fossilized coral. The “islands” in the salar are the petrified remains of a coral reef, physical evidence of the sea that left Bolivia millions of years ago. When my eyes returned to the landscape, I started to imagine things from a completely different perspective. The towering cylindrical cacti were now kelp, the dried tumbleweed turned to sea-fans, and the tan dirt became the undulating sand of the sea-floor. The desert on the hillside was analagous to the ocean that it had once been, just drier. The land has retained most of the physical features of a reef and ocean bottom, but you don’t need scuba gear to wander through this mysterious terrain, only a pair of hiking boots. We made it halfway up the nearest peak before we realized that it was more than an afternoon hike. As the sun sank behind the other side of the mountain, we began our way back down, hoping we would make it back to the hotel before dark. It was a good deal easier going down than up, so we had plenty of tiime to spare. We also spotted a vizcacha, an Andean chinchilla, and her baby, a treat at the end of our hike. The odd appearance of the animal added to the surreal nature of the scenery: vizcachas are a strange mix of squirrel and rabbit with long ears, strong legs, and a long fluffy tail. Their grey coloring blends perfectly with the rocks, where they hop along looking for food in the evening. Unfortunately, I overexerted myself, not being accustomed to the effects of altitude on my body, so I headed immediately to bed with a splitting headache.

The next day we headed out early to see our first volcano. Ollague is one of three volcanoes in the Salar area which is sharded with Chile. One face of the volcano is considered Bolivian property, the other Chilean. Both countries work the surrounding land, mining various chemicals which provide considerable income. After a brief look at Ollague’s smoking peak, we headed south to our destination of the day: Reserva Natural de Flora y Fauna Eduardo Avaroa. Even for native Spanish speakers, it’s a mouthful. Little did I know when we set out, but the “Salar” tour isn’t really a tour of the Salar. Only the first day of a four day trip is spent in the Salar de Uyuni; the rest is a circuit of southwestern Bolivia, touching the Chilean border before heading back north to Uyuni.

The Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve is a large semi-desert area filled with rock formations, and more famously, dozens of lagoons. These lagoons vary in color from deep blue to briliant red, depending on their mineral deposits. At the entrance of the park is Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), so named for its coppery depths, due to a hgh concentration of iron. Seventy thousand mating pairs of flamingos make their home there during the rainy season, so when we arrived in the morning the shores of the lake were peppered with birds filtering out their breakfast. From the view point on a cliff above the lake, the red color was even more pronounced, highlighting the light pink flamingos. I would have expected that many birds to make more noise, but they didn’t seem to mind a few humans wandering around. We watched from afar, and then piled back into the car for an entire day of flamingos and lagoon-hopping. At the next lagoon, colored by sulfur and boric acid instead of Laguna Colorada’s red iron, were able to see the birds from closer up; I stalked through the tall paja reeds along the spongy shore in search of the closest photo I could take without scaring the flock. We lunched near another strong smelling sulfuric lagoon, amidst grazing vicuñas and more flamingoes.

The vicuña, which seemed almost abundant in the Reserve, was hunted to near extinction by the early 20th century, and is just beginning to come back. About the size of a pony, with pointy ears and huge goofy eyes, the vicuña has a coat as soft and as valuable as cashmere. One animal produces about 8 grams of wool every two years. Because it is a wild animal, it can’t be shorn in the same way that alpacas or llamas can; it needs to keep a layer of hair to protect itself from the extremes of temperatures on the altiplano. Opportunistic fur traders used to kill vicuñas to take their hides, but this is now prohibited. Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, which share the Atacama Desert that this diminuative camelid calls home, have made great conservation efforts to protect and breed vicuñas. the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve now has several hundred vicuñas that wander the grounds, eating desert shrubs and surviving on what little fresh water they can find.

When the sun set on our second day in the park, I wished I had a vicuña coat of my own: the temperature fell dramatically after a vibrant desert sunset. During the day, the weather was pleasant: in the 80’s under the blazing sun, considerably cooler in the shade. At night, however, it fell to the 40’s and the wind whipped away whatever warmth I might have saved from the midday sun. I was shocked at how cold it was on the altiplano, considering that it was nearly midsummer. My fragile little body, accustomed to balmier climes, would be destroyed in a Bolivian winter.

It was still quite cold when we left our tiny cabin in the Reserve on the third day of the tour. We had to start driving at 5:00 am in order to reach the natural geysers at sunup; the cold morning air makes the steamy jets more dramatic. Our group arrived right on schedule, the second of dozens of trucks passing by the second to last stop on the regular Uyuni route. The air around the geyser field was warm and toasty, quite the relief to the earlier chill. Unfortunately, it reeked of sulfur and the other chemicals found in abundance near the Salar. The geysers sprang up out of pits of boiling mud several feet deep; there must have been at least twenty of them spread out over an acre of sand, giving the landscape a lunar feel in the grey and red light of dawn. People wandered in and out of the steam, disappearing for a moment and then materializing several feet from where they had been. All of this, on just a few hours’ sleep, was quite the sight. But we didn’t stay long at the geysers—breakfast waited for us at the hotsprings!

A ten minute drive from the geysers was another lagoon, still full of flamingoes and chemicals, but naturally heated to 95 degrees by a thermal vent. Getting in and out of the pool was a shock to the system, but it felt so good to lie in the sand and ease away the previous night’s chill. When we arrived, there were only a few people in the springs, but by the time we ate breakfast and made ready to head out on the road, there were over ten tour groups there. Jeeps and Toyotas with backpacks, gas tanks, and the end of four days’ provisions on top made a neat little line in front of the visitor’s center, all with their tailgates open serving breakfast. In such a alien landscape, the presence of these man-made machines felt odd. I could have been at a football game, in the parking lot of a suburban supermarket, or on a used car lot, but I wasn’t. I was in the middle of a desert, over a mile above sea level, in Bolivia.

Much of the Reserve is desert: rocks carved into fantastical shapes by the sometimes harsh windstorms. One of the stops on our tour was the Arbol de Piedra, a tree-like stone that balances on a thin “trunk” eroded by centuries of flying sand. But my favorite part of the desert, without fail, was the Desierto de Dalí. On our third day, somewhat disoriented by our 4:45 wakeup call, I managed to remember to put on my Dalí t-shirt, prepared to honor one of my favorite artists in the desert named after him. When we arrived that afternoon in the aforementioned location, I immediately understoon the etymology. The rolling sand and mountains melted into a flat expanse of smooth sand, occasionally dotted with huge wind-carved boulders. All it needed was a few elephants on stilts and dripping clocks to make it a real Dalí painting. I asked Eddie, the guide, to stop for a few moments so that I could run out to the rocks and take a few ridiculous pictures of me in my yellow and purple t-shirt pointing excitedly at the rocks. He probably thought I was a bit nuts. Well, I guess he was right. However silly that was, I am quite glad that I have the pictures, because a budget laundromat in Cusco relieved me of my t-shirt, to my great woe.

As our blue 4×4 sped through Dalí’s canvas, our trip to Uyuni came to an end. We bumped our way back over the rocky hills, eventually arriving at the “International Highway” that the Bolivian and Chilean governments built to truck chemicals from the Salar to processing plants in Chile. It is a large gravel road. Our small group exchanged emails to keep in touch, and then in a flurry of dust and backpacks, separated in Uyuni as the three Canadians rushed to catch a bus to Potosí. D and I went back to our hotel, brushed the salt and sand off our bags, and took a long-anticipated hot shower.

I hadn’t even been the one that was excited about the Uyuni tour, and I was sceptical about the amount of effort it would take just to see some salt. But it wasn’t just the Salar that was beautiful. Being in a wild place with a local guide to share his knowledge was well worth the hassle of finding and getting to Uyuni. I am so glad that I stumbled upon this natural marvel while it is still under the radar of international tourism. It should remain relatively isolated for a while longer, until Uyui’s infrastructure steps up to accommodate more luxurious tours and hotels. It is truly a place that is out of this world.

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