Salar de Uyuni 18-20 February 2015
18 February 2015
It’s 7:30 and Boris and I take bets on when our tour operator’s bus will actually arrive to pick us up. Neither one of us actually believed them when they told us 7:20 – the only question now is, how much later will it actually be? I say 7:45, Boris guesses 8:00. I’ve just stepped outside the hostel to look at the incredible sunrise when a van pulls up. “Boris y Meri?” It’s 7:45 – I win the bet.
We haul our backpacks into a large van full of other sleepy-looking backpackers. The van navigates the dusty, potholed streets of San Pedro to the edge of town, where there’s a Chilean border control at the side of the road leading into the mountains. We take some time at the Chilean migration office – fortunately leaving Chile is easier than getting in, though we’re all a little confused by the information in the forms we have to fill out. After 45 minutes or so we’re back in the van, everyone dozing as we gently climb toward the mountains.
I think it’s around 9:00 that we reach the Bolivian border crossing. It’s just a hut flying a Bolivian flag (yellow, red, and green). I can already feel the change in elevation – San Pedro is at 2400 meters above sea level and here we’re already probably 500 or 600 meters higher. I desperately want some coca leaf tea, which contrary to popular belief does not get you high the way cocaine does, and is practically a miracle remedy for altitude sickness. Our van driver is already setting up breakfast, but first we need to officially cross the Bolivian border.
We queue up outside the building. I’m jumpy with anxiety – Americans need a visa to enter Bolivia, and officially I’m supposed to have bank statements, hotel reservations, passport photos, and special forms filled out. Because the guy at the tour agency told me I wouldn’t need them, and also because I was lazy about preparing, I don’t have any of those things. I have a feeling things will work out, but I’m also a little afraid they’re going to chuck me back over the border to Chile and make me fill out all the proper forms.
The long line of Europeans and Brazilians ahead of me moves smoothly through the border office – none of them need special visas like me – and finally it’s my turn. The border official sees my American passport. “Do you already have your visa?” He asks me kindly in soft, slow Spanish. “No, I have to pay the fee…” He nods kindly, sits me down and in five minutes he’s hand-writing dates on a little sticker that goes in my passport. 135 bolivianos (about $20) later everything is taken care of and I have a one-month tourist visa sorted. I breathe a sigh of relief – actually more like a gasp at this altitude – and head for the breakfast table.
Here I officially meet the rest of the group taking the tour. (Technically we all met on the bus but no one was really awake enough before for it to count). There are a handful of Germans, including, by wild coincidence, a girl I met in a hostel in El Chalten; three Brazilians who it turns out are in a band together; Boris; and me. After a few minutes of nodding politely while everyone speaks German, I finally work up the courage to ask if anyone minds speaking English as a group so I can participate. I feel quite ethnocentric and a bit self-conscious at being the only person who can only speak one language fluently, but it can’t be helped now. Everyone is understanding and willing to speak English, and the conversation is interesting, and I’m glad I asked. Over the course of the tour they teach me a little German (schmetterling for butterfly, which everyone loves to joke about) and French, which I’m supposed to be practicing for my trip to Paris later this year.
At the border crossing are parked a line of big sturdy jeeps. Drivers are unloading backpacks and equipment from some of them – the groups that took tours from Uyuni to San Pedro, or who opted for a four-day return trip tour, are returning today. Many of the cars have ribbons and flowers attached to the front as carnaval decorations. This makes me a little uneasy – one of the big dangers of this tour, along with the altitude and the harsh environment of the desert, is the supposed frequency with which drivers conduct the tours while drunk. Carnaval is the main drinking event of the year in this part of the world, and even though the agent who booked our tour assured us that they only hire drivers who don’t drink, I’m still suspicious. Eventually we’re split into two groups and shepherded over to a couple of waiting SUVs. The drivers introduce themselves – both seem sober and friendly – and after some milling around, loading our bags onto the top of the car, and some minor vehicle maintenance, we’re all squeezing in. Carmen and I share the very back – I think she must be terribly uncomfortable with her long legs. I’m pretty short at 5’2″ (or 157 centimeters) but my knees still brush the back of the seat in front of me. The men in the group – Johannes, Felix, Roschan, and Boris – stoically arrange themselves in the slightly larger middle and front seats, and, I assume, get used to being squeezed next to each other for a solid three days.
Rene, our driver, introduces himself, as the jeep lumbers off into the mountains. We’re in a high, barren country of rolling hills and steep, snow-capped mountains. There’s dirt around us on all sides – no bushes and certainly no trees – but we do see a strange sort of green fuzz covering the hills and sometimes pass groups of grazing vicuñas (a camel-colored member of the llama family). When we look closely we can see tiny bunches of small, hardy grass – this is what the vicuñas are eating.
The first stop of the official tour is a hot spring, which turns out to be a small concrete pool about half a meter deep and full of pleasantly hot, clear water. It borders a beautiful lake brimming with weird-colored algae. I soak blissfully in the hot water and chat with travelers from other tour agencies. Half an hour isn’t long enough but it’s all the time I have before we’re herded back into the jeep. Rene passes around coca leaves as we start off again. Like coca tea, the leaves don’t get you high (though there is a bit of an alert buzz similar to caffeine) – they’re chewed for the increased alertness and the medicinal benefits, mainly protection against altitude sickness. We’re now at an altitude above 4000 meters. I’m grateful to try the leaves, which have a bitter taste similar to green tea or yerba mate. I roll them gently into a ball on the side of my cheek like they say to do – you don’t chew the leaves, exactly, but instead kind of mash them in the corner of your mouth for a few hours. I feel the benefit almost immediately : it’s easier to breathe and the hint of a headache I was starting to feel fades rapidly.
Our next stop is even higher – 4900 meters. Even with the coca leaves, I feel a little light headed. We stop next to a plume of steam where there’s a series of small geysers and mudpots. Like in San Pedro, there are no fences or guard rails or warning signs – you just have to be smart enough to figure out not to stand too close to the pit full of boiling steam.
We continue through the altiplano, thankfully coming down in altitude a little, and stop at a beautiful turquoise lake. One of the oddest features of the altiplano is the flamingo population. I generally associate flamingos with tropical climates and I can’t figure out how or why there are flamingos here, in the high desert of a landlocked country; but they seem pretty content to graze in their colorful lakes. Over the course of the trip we visit several different high country lakes, all of them populated with flamingos.
Around 14:00 we reach a large lake with a shifting border of red and green algae, and eat a lunch prepared at the hostel where we’ll stay the night. We’re all tired – the bumpy jeep ride and high altitude make for an exhausting trip – and rest for a bit before exploring the lake. There’s a small trail that leads up to a hill overlooking the brilliant blue water. I take one or two photos but eventually just sit on a rock overlooking the lake, letting the colors and the atmosphere wash over me as the sun slowly sets.
A little later, back at the hostel, we drink coffee and eat a late dinner. We play cards and talk and eventually decide to go outside to look at the stars, which are as clear and bright as in San Pedro. This turns into a photoshoot – Johannes has an excellent camera – and we huddle under blankets, looking up at the Milky Way and watching the southern cross rise into the sky as the night deepens. Finally exhaustion gets the better of us and we curl up under wool blankets in the room we all share.
19 February 2015
It’s 5:45 and I’m wide awake. They say one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is trouble sleeping. I didn’t wake up gasping for breath the way some people do, but I woke from a vivid nightmare around 2:00 and passed the rest of the night dozing fitfully. After a groggy breakfast we’re moving again.
We more or less get past the park guards – I having somehow lost That Important Piece of Paper They Told Me Not To Lose – and drive to a series of rock formations called Piedras de Arboles (rock trees). This is a fun place to take photos and climb around, though I think we’re all still a little tired and cold to appreciate it.
For the rest of the morning we drive along the altiplano, visiting several different alpine lakes. They are all beautiful, but after a bit it feels repetitive – there isn’t much to do at each lake except take pictures and try to get close to the flamingos. We stop for lunch by one lake – Rene tells us we’re eating flamingo meat, a running joke for him.
The landscape changes after this and becomes rockier, drier. Soon we’ve reached a bare plain of rough, reddish rocks twisted into strange shapes by erosion. It’s actually a field of hardened lava spewed out by a nearby volcano last time it erupted. Rene tells us the volcano isn’t active anymore, but we see that a little bit of smoke still dribbles out the top. We explore the weird landscape as long as we can.
Everyone dozes for the afternoon as we drive to a tiny village – completely silent, which Rene tells us is due to the carnaval. One tiny shop is open and we all stop for a break in an incredibly basic bathroom where I encounter for the first time the concept of pouring water straight into the toilet bowl in order to flush it. For some reason this shop also sells toblerone, which is a delicious Swiss chocolate shaped like a pyramid. I buy one to share with the group, who are as surprised as I am that you can find good European chocolate in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano.
We make a stop at an old yard full of the rusting hulls of trains and stop to take photos. It’s interesting, though it feels a little pointless after the mountains and lakes we’ve been passing. Another long drive through mountains and canyons covered in cacti, and around dusk we arrive at a salt hotel on the edge of the salt flats. The walls are made of blocks of compressed salt, the floor is cold tile. There’s no electricity when we arrive, so we drink coffee by the light coming in the windows and wait for dinner.
Around 6:30 the electricity comes on, and with it the promise of a hot shower, though in my room the best we manage is a lukewarm trickle. We eat dinner together, us and a group from the other jeep, and as the dusk fades into night outside we listen to Rafael, a musician from Brazil, play beautiful songs on the guitar he brought on the trip.
20 February 2015 4:15 – we sleep soundly in our beds (thick mattresses placed on top of little salt platforms) but it’s not long enough. We’re up for breakfast at 4:30 and getting into the jeep at 5:00. There’s a pale grey hint of dawn on the horizon and it broadens and brightens as we approach the thin white edge of the salt flat. At present, this entrance to the salt flat is covered in maybe 10 centimeters of water. The jeeps rumble down a narrow lane that’s raised above the water and stop where it dips down. The sun is just about to come up and the water reflects the blushing colors like a mirror. Though it’s shallow, the surface is perfectly glassy and smooth, like a lake.
After a few minutes of sunrise we’re back in the jeeps and actually drive down into the water, Rene and the other driver guiding them carefully over the flooded salt. Gradually the water becomes shallower and shallower and soon we’re out again, taking pictures in the early morning light. It’s cold, as desert mornings often are, and my feet freeze as the water and salt seep up into the canvas tops of my chuck taylors.
We drive further and soon we’re gliding along a vast white expanse of slightly damp salt. Little ridges break the surface into panels like a turtle’s shell. The jeeps speed up here and we drive for maybe 20 minutes, deep into the salt flat. Once we’re in a really good dry spot everyone’s out taking the classic salt flat pictures. The draw here is that the landscape is essentially featureless – no trees, no rocks, no vegetation. I’ve never been somewhere so barren. This is probably depressing after a while but for the short term it means you can take some unusual pictures. We do this for probably two hours.
Eventually Rene has humored us long enough, and it’s back into the jeep. He takes us to what he tells us is a salt museum but appears to be just another salt hotel. Outside is a huge salt monument in the shape of the Dakar logo. We don’t know it yet, but we’ll see this logo everywhere in the next two weeks in Bolivia. The motor race, which until recently ran between Paris and Dakar, is being held in South America for the first time this year, and people are justifiably proud about it.
We cross off the salar into a tiny, poor village, where we eat lunch. The buildings here are made mostly of mud brick, lining dirt roads. I see for the first time indigenous women dressed in traditional Bolivian clothing: a long-sleeved knit sweater; a colorful, flouncy, knee-length skirt; stockings; sandals or flat shoes; and a hat on top of two long braids. Here, the women wear English-style bowler hats (the story is that colonists brought the hats over as men’s fashion but the Bolivian men didn’t take to them, so the women adopted the fashion instead). I learn later that the preferred style of hats and shoes varies depending on the region – here it seems they wear bowler hats. At first I think the women I see in this very touristic little village are just dressing up as a tourist stunt – one woman asks us to pay her to take a photo. Later on, when I’ve spent more time in Bolivia, I’ll realize that this isn’t a tourist costume – it’s the traditional dress and women all over Bolivia (especially the indigenous groups) are proud to dress this way.
Our last stop is another train graveyard – not a very interesting place, and we don’t stay long. Soon Rene is driving us into the town of Uyuni, where we say goodbyes and exchange information and quickly buy bus tickets to our various next stops. I head for Potosi with Boris, Roschan, Felix, and a German girl from the other jeep, named Michelle.