Published: June 21st 2009June 4th 2009
Salar de Uyuni - Part 1
So far so good. We managed to avoid yet another strike in Uyuni which would have resulted in us potentially having to reduce our time on the salt flats or ´Salar´. Thankfully the strike was resolved on the day we were due to leave Potosi, so we set off mid-afternoon in our 4x4 jeeps (the only mode of transport that you can use to travel through the flats & surrounding terrain) to reach the town of Uyuni, the closest town to the flats.
The start of the journey invovled a mad scramble to get into the jeeps, whilst kicking out as many people as we could from our jeep to give us more room. Lets be fair, this was going to be our home for the next four days and we didnt want to spend it cramped up like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for the duration of the ride. But it didnt take me long to have some serious doubts as to who I chose to ride with
......As I watched, the rest of the group (Laura, Charlotte, Jason & Chris) spend most of the 'morning' journey downing the remains of
our presents to the miners, a bottle of 96% alcohol and coca leaves. It was a bit like 'Sex, Drugs & Rock n' Roll' - without the Sex & without the Rock n' Roll (Although Laura may have thought that her singing counted for actual 'Rock n' Roll' status.)
The town of Uyuni was not the most 'hip & happening' of places. It was more akin to a deserted town, filled with mangey dogs, treeless dust covered streets, grey unfinished buildings, Jesus painted buses and bitterly finger numbing cold weather - but other than that, it was fine. For the first time in God knows how long, I had something more than dry bread & cordial from breakfast. They went all out this time and offered me some yoghurt & cereal to go with my dry bread & cordial. It must have been payment for the fact that I spent the night freezing to death, dreaming of how I could steal Laura's blankets without her actually noticing. Day 1 - The World's Largest Salt Flat
Day 2 - Continuing south towards Laguna Colorado
- Our first stop was the Train Cemetery (3669m) on the outskirts of Uyuni. It was filled with wreaked & rusted locomotives littered in the middle of nowhere, with sensational views of the Andes mountains in the distance. It also has one of the trains that was robbed by Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (When they moved to South America to escape attention from the US).
- From there we drove towards Colchani, Bloques de Sal (3653m), a village approx 7 kms from Uyuni. The town´s people process the salt collected from the flats to make table salt for domestic consumption. Considering that this is Bolivia, where prices are already low, each bag of salt cost the equivalent of 0.20 Bolivianos or less - disheartening given that the work invovled in processing the salt requires 10 days or more of manual labour. We watched a one lady in a family run salt factory, bagging her already processed salt & sealing the bags against a gasfire pipe, systematically doing this stooped over in the cold. She offered to let us have a go bagging the salt, which turned out to be rather more difficult than it originally seemed. Considering it took us twice as long to do one bag than it took her, she quietly declined any further assistance. I didn´t blame her!
- Moving on from there, we then drove towards the Salt piles, an area within the flats that is used to collect the salt, which is then left to dry in piles ready to be transported for processing. Huge cone shaped piles were neatly created in rows in the middle of the Salar to dry, while in the distance workers were gathering those cones that had already sufficiently dried for processing.
- Lunch was to be had in a Salt Hotel where we spent a good 1½ hours out in the flats doing our 'salt flat funnies', using all sorts of props to try and make the most of the landscape that allowed us to experiment with proportion & perspective in our photographs. This was followed up by my first ever bbq Alpaca lunch, which incidently, looked just like a t-bone but tasted a bit like lamb.
- We spent the rest of the afternoon driving through the flats, looking at nothing but a vast empty space of blinding white with hexagon markings as far as the eye could see. We continued to drive towards the Isla Incawasi (also called the 'Isla de
Pescadores), an island made of fossilised coral and covered in Cacti, some as old as 1000 yrs, set in the middle of the flats and overlooked by mountains & volcanoes in the distance.
The Salt factory in Colchani
The lady uses a gas pipe to seal the bags ready for shipping to the various shops
- Our first night's accommodation was made entirely out of salt (including my bed..). It was the only place for us to shower for the next three days and would also be the warmest of all our locations. I paid 5 BOL for the privilege of showering in total darkness, with boiling hot water in a freezing cold concrete shower box, whilst a queue of people formed around me waiting to use the one and only shower in the place - And let me tell you, It was ALL worth it!
- This was going to be a very long driving day, starting at 7am and not finishing till close to 7pm later that same evening, whlist continuing in our quest to get as far away from sea level as possible. Our first stop for today was the lookout point for the Ollague Volcano, a volcano in the Andes mountain range that divideds Bolivia with Chile.
On the way, however, we stopped in the small village of San Juan del Rosario for some supplies and the chance to play some football with the village expert - 5yr old Jose!
Working hard at the Salt factory
Laura, Kim, Chris & Me trying to pack salt and doing a miserable job of it...
- Our early lunch spot that day was along a series of rocky outcrops that was home to a family of resident Viscachas (part of the rabbit family) eagerly waiting for us to leave so they could eat up all our scraps.
- We continued along through a series of startling landscapes that were so beautiful and so untouched, it seemed totally alien, a part of the world I never thought existed prior to witnessing it for myself. Vast empty spaces of sand & mountain with the odd vicuñya roaming around or lagoons of salt & borax creating white sandy impressions on the ground, set against a backdrop of bright blue sky.
- After driving for what seemed like an endless distance, we next visited the Arbol de Piedra (4412m), a stone shaped like a tree, with views of the Andes in the distance. Very 'Dali-esque', I belived it formed part of the Salvador Dali desert (Its named derived from the fact that it too is very 'dali-esque', resembling some of his paintings) but I am not 100% certain.
- Our final stop for the evening, was the Laguna Colorado (4278m) or 'red lake' (made red due to the algae in the lagoon). The lake was filled with hundreds of wild pink flamingos, standing in grouped clusters scattered through out the lake. Everytime we tried to get near a cluster for close-up photos they would panic and immediately disappear towards the centre of the lake. All very frustrating when trying to complete your photos...aarrgghhh!!! This is the same for the llamas, who would turn away right at the exact time the photo needs to be taken.....aarrgghh!!!
- Our accommodation that night was in one of the local refugios in the National Reserve where the Lagoon is located. Offering very basic accommodation, it came as no surprise to us that we would have no heating (despite the -10/-20 degrees outside), cold showers (if you were crazy enough to want them) and little other than a bed with numerous blankets (and sleeping bags we rented earlier on). I spent that night wearing two pairs of socks, seven layers of clothing (two of which were
thermals) & two pairs of trousers, whilst being encased in my sleeping bag, just to have a cup of coffee. Sleep wasnt as difficult as I thought it would be, with the added help of gloves, a beanie hat and the combined body heat of five people.......
Salt is collected from the flats, piled into cones to dry before being transported to the salt factory.
More to follow on the next blog.....
There are more photos below