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Bolivia’s real marching powder


Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni may not be a household name in the lexicon of family vacation spots, but for adventure travelers willing to stray from their comfort zones just a tad, the experience is one that won’t be soon forgotten.  My five traveling partners — Lisa and Gillian, two sisters from Ireland; Pamela from England; and my friends Harald from Norway, and his wife, Lynn, from the US — and I began our four day Bolivian tour in the small Chilean desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama, the gateway to exploring the forbidding Bolivian outback.  We spent an hour or so in a bus that took us to the Bolivian border, where our passports were stamped and we changed vehicles. 

 

Salar de Uyuni

We piled into an old, cramped four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser, and for the next 10 hours endured a network of dirt roads littered with rocks of all sizes that put our nerves (and our derrières) to the test.  Unlike Chile, asphalt is a sparse commodity in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country.  “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more,” I thought to myself.  The sparse, desolate desert we traveled through was a haunting reminder of how far removed we were from civilization, but not quite as haunting as our Land Cruiser’s penchant for breaking down.  Our guide, Jose — a man of few words — proved adept at jerry-rigging our vehicle along the way, but it was difficult to feel a sense of confidence that we would make it much farther – much less to Salar de Uyuni.  “It’s all part of the experience,” I said to comfort my travel mates.  Having traveled through many developing-world countries over the years, this mantra is one I’ve used many times to humor those around me. 

 

The scenery along the way, however, provided a soothing distraction.  Mountains and occasional volcanoes, replete with hues of red, dotted the landscape, and the occasional llama and flamingo (which are attracted to the nutrient-rich lakes in the region) were a testament to wildlife’s ability to adapt to inhospitable environments.  Additionally, Jose kept us well fed.  Ham and cheese sandwiches, a staple of the South American traveler’s diet, along with assorted fruits and vegetables kept our hunger at bay.  From time to time, we stopped in small towns to pick up snacks, so empty stomachs were never an issue.  A cold can of Coke doesn’t exist in the Bolivian outback, so we “roughed it” and drank our sodas warm.   <!–page–>   

Ahhh, civilization

More than 12 hours after our journey began in Chile, the site of civilization on the horizon was a feast for the eyes.  The small town of Uyuni, Bolivia served as our resting spot until the next morning, and was a welcomed respite from a long, exhausting day.  Our tired, downtrodden group was grateful to be on stable ground with access to food, drinks, a bed, and even high-speed Internet access (talk about a global village!).  Uyuni’s small population belies the amount of bustle and activity in town.  Street vendors along the town’s main street hawk everything from jewelry, to clothes made from llama wool, to laundry detergent; restaurants and bars abound; and the local discothèque could easily be found in any large city.

 

Cacti on Isla de los Pescadores

We checked into our hotel, which, although spartan by American standards, provided all the creature comforts one requires in the developing world, namely a decent bed and hot shower.  Dinner was served shortly after check-in, which consisted of vegetable soup, pork chops, and rice — not all that different from American cuisine.  We sat around a large table with 15 or 20 people on the same tour, and recounted war stories of the day’s journey while we ate.  Meeting and chatting with people from around the world has always been one of my favorite aspects of traveling abroad, so I enjoyed our feast immensely.  

 

The next morning we continued our journey in a newer, larger Land Cruiser with a friendlier guide named Alejandro.  Apparently the previous day’s taxing sojourn proved to be the death-knell of our smaller vehicle.  Alejandro informed us that Salar de Uyuni lay just a couple hours ahead on smoother roads.  A good omen, which suggested a good day ahead. 

 

As a preface to Salar de Uyuni, we stopped by a so-called graveyard of Bolivian locomotive trains just outside Uyuni.  This fly-infested rail cemetery is a collection of rusted trains that helped shape Bolivia’s industrial sector in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Some of the locomotives and rail cars were abandoned more than 100 years ago.  After a fifteen minute self-guided tour of the premises, we were greeted by hundreds of flies who had set up shop in our Land Cruiser.  We closed our eyes and held our breath as Alejandro drove quickly with all the windows down and eventually rid the vehicle of all its two-winged temporary inhabitants. <!–page–>

 

A while later, we arrived at a primitive salt-processing plant on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.  Here, country workers — or “campesinos,” as they’re known in Bolivia — still do everything by hand, without the aid of any modern-day machinery.  After harvesting salt from the nearby pan, it is placed on a platform so that water can be removed by heat from burning logs underneath.  The salt is then shoveled into large piles in an adjacent warehouse and packaged by hand into small plastic bags.  One woman did all the packaging herself, one by one, to the tune of 5,000 bags a day.  Each bag of salt yields only two cents for these campesinos, so it takes 5,000 of them to bring in $100.  A sobering reality for those of us whose lives are free of such hardship.

 

Cacti watch over Isla de los Pescadores saltpan

As we left the salt-processing plant, we took in our first good glimpse of Salar de Uyuni.  Like a never-ending sea of crushed ivory, the 12,000 square kilometer salt pan made yesterday’s bumpy roads seem like a distant memory.  Salar de Uyuni consists of more than 10 billion tons of salt, and is between four and five meters deep.  It resides in a dried-up lake bed, and was formed after the former lake’s water evaporated.  Salt deposits emerged after minerals from the surrounding Antiplano Mountains trickled down to the lowest possible point.  Small ponds of water can be seen at various points, indicative of the amount of water the salt contains.  At certain spots, water bubbles to the surface, resembling a lava-like cocktail of oxygen and hydrogen.  Locals refer to this phenomenon as “ojos de salar,” or “eyes of the desert.”  Interestingly, the bubbling water is cold, not hot as one would expect.                

 

Driving on salt is not much different than driving on finely-crushed gravel.  Sunglasses are mandatory, as the bright glare bouncing off the pan is blinding at times.  There was no escaping it either, as salt dominated the landscape as far as the eye could see in any direction.  As we drove farther, we came across something that can probably only be found in the middle of a salt pan — a salt hotel, which, as the name suggests, is made entirely of salt.  Even the furniture inside consists of nothing but salt.  It’s possible to stay overnight, but I imagine the risk of dehydration runs higher than at your typical brick-and-mortar hotel.  This saline creation made my mouth water, and for some strange reason I had an insatiable craving for popcorn.  That would have to wait. 

 

Trick of the light, or trick of the white?

A short drive later, we came upon “Isla de los Pescadores,” or “Fishermen’s Island,” a cactus-filled oasis of sorts which rises above the salt pan several hundred feet and serves as a crossroads for travelers exploring the area.  The island’s name is a bit of a paradox, as it’s probably been thousands of years since the last fish called Salar de Uyuni home.  Some of this coral island’s eye-catching cacti are more than 1,000 years old, and look similar to those in the American Southwest.  Due to its elevation, Isla de los Pescadores proved to be the best place to view Salar de Uyuni.  The panoramic views from the top are, to say the least, both stunning and surreal.  I looked out in awe, certain that this was one of the most wondrous and amazing sites I had ever seen.  Imagine being at the top of an island surrounded by an immense body of water, but instead of water you’re looking at a sea of glowing white crystals with towering mountains serving as a backdrop.

 

Cacti and saltpan

Because of the salt’s water content, a series of mirages emerge wherever the salt pan abuts a mountain.  It was as if a perfectly-shaped mirror image of the mountain appeared in the salt, and it was difficult to tell what was real and what was an illusion.  Was there a smaller mountain in front of each larger one, or was it just our eyes playing tricks on us?  It’s impossible to say, and it didn’t really matter.  This sort of visual mischief added to the mystery and fascination of Salar de Uyuni, where despite the contrast between white and every other color certain things are shrouded in shades of gray.<!–page–>

 

After a couple hours we left Isla de los Pescadores and continued our journey.  We traveled a while longer and eventually reached the far edge of the salt pan.  Soon thereafter we arrived at our resting point for the night — a relatively new motel-like complex built by our tour company.  The six of us shared one large room, which despite the sound of it was much more spacious than the night before.  A mysterious, pungent odor emanated from the bathroom, however, which we were never able to neutralize.  “Part of the experience,” I once again assured everyone.  Dinner was even better than the night before — roasted chicken with rice and vegetables.  We decided to splurge on a bottle of red wine as well, which at $4 was quite an inexpensive meal enhancer. 

 

The rest of our tour was a continuation of the remote Bolivian splendor we had come to enjoy.  A petrified lava field featured immense reddish/brown boulders that housed a collection of small craters, making the area feel more like Mars than Earth.  The lava field is situated next to an active volcano, which spewed a thin stream of smoke while we climbed around the Martian-like landscape.  The ominous flow of smoke made me wonder how long it had been since the volcano last erupted, and whether this could be a precursor to an explosive fury I’d just as soon not experience.  We never found out.

 

We hung our hats at a very rustic lodge called “Lago Colorado” on our third and final night of the tour, which lacked electricity and running water.  We had heard horror stories about it from other travelers, and thought this would be the night we’d truly earn our adventure-traveler stripes.  Aside from worn, lumpy mattresses, it wasn’t all that bad.  We arrived in the late afternoon, were in bed by 9, and left the next morning at 5:30, so we didn’t have much time to think about what a far cry it was from the previous two nights’ accommodations. 

 

Salar de Uyuni

The tour’s grand finale was a visit to a geyser field, where, like Old Faithful, steam rocketed hundreds of feet into the sky from holes deep in the Earth.  But this wasn’t just one stand-alone geyser — there were dozens of them.  From a distance, it looked like smoke billowing from an immense forest fire.  At the geysers’ base, boiling, bubbling mud made it seem like we were standing next to a witch’s cauldron.  The sonic noise created by these geysers is similar to the sound of a hot-air balloon as it’s pumped with air.     

 

As stunning as these subsequent sites were, however, they were an anticlimax to Salar de Uyuni.  My traveling companions and I had traveled thousands of miles to witness what is billed as a site like no other in the world.  Many times when expectations are built up to this level, the end result is disappointment.  But not this time, because Salar de Uyuni is proof-positive that for adventure travelers like us salt can be worth its weight in gold.

 

David Friel (davidfriel@earthlink.net) is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.  More information about guided tours to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni can be found at http://www.colquetours.com/, or by emailing colquetours@terra.cl

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