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Published: October 20th 2013
Remote, Touristy Uyuni Yikes--I had only five days left on my Bolivian visa! Time to leave La Paz, Bolivia's capital (the highest in the world) and head to remote Uyuni for a tour of one of the country's highlights--the Salar de Uyuni. Barring another Bolivian roadblock or problems with the tour jeep, I would be deposited at the Chilean border on August 15, the last day of my visa--ah, life on the edge. In La Paz, I boarded a sweltering bus full of locals to ugly Oruro where I had a long layover before boarding my freezing, budget compartment on the Wara Wara del Sur train that chugged me to Uyuni at 3 am. Fortunately, the hotel I wanted was a short walk away and had a duvet on my bed. At 3700 mts/12,000 ft, Uyuni was high on the Andean plateau and definitely nippy. The next day, I made the rounds of tour agencies, seeing little differences except for the fancy English-language tour that was twice the price. I randomly selected an agency, went out for incredible, gourmet pizza with some travelers I'd met and returned to my room with
its private bath. A tour, a restaurant and a private bath--oh, I was going to miss Bolivia and its lovely prices--too bad I could only stay three months!
Dead Trains, Desolate Town The next morning, I joined five French speakers--a couple from Belgium and three Parisian women in a Toyota Landcruiser. I rode shotgun, chatted with Waly, our excellent, knowledgeable and friendly driver/guide, and provided occasional translating. Salar means "salt flat" in Spanish, and that of Uyuni is the highest and largest in the world (10,582 sq kms/4,086 sq mi) and was formed when a huge, prehistoric lake receded and evaporated. It's ringed with extinct Andean volcanoes and contiguous to surreal deserts, rock formations, geysers, hot springs and multi-colored lakes with flamingos. We were going on a wild ride! Our first brief stop was at a train cemetery where the highlight for me was "Asi Es la Vida" (So Is Life) graffitied on a once-proud, now-dead steam engine used to haul salt and minerals to the coast. Next was the desolate town of Colchani on the edge of the salar, bereft of greenery and
where the only sources of income were salt mining and trinket sales. Men with shovels piled salt into photogenic pyramids to dry; it was later loaded onto trucks, refined and sent all over Bolivia. A museum made of salt blocks contained salt sculptures and sold little souvenirs crafted of salt and the usual artisan goods. Not great prospects for kids born here.
Salt, Salt Everywhere Finally, we headed out on the salar, a gorgeous, flat expanse of brilliant white hexagons stretching forever under a deep blue sky. The salar had no plants, animals or roads, but was crossed by a maze of jeep tracks on which one could easily get lost. We generally saw another jeep or two in the distance yet were told there were hundreds in the high season. We stopped to take fun perspective photos made possible by the flatness of the land and briefly visited (though didn't bother to pay and enter) a salt hotel, now a museum. It had been shut down because its water and trash systems had been polluting the salar. Now, no structures are allowed on the salar though the government wants to
build mining operations to extract lithium from the mud under the salt crust. I fear how that turns out. The salar is dotted with 32 small islands, tips of ancient volcanoes that were submerged under the prehistoric lake. We had a fine hike over and around the largest, Fish Island (due to its shape). The island is composed of sharp, volcanic black basalt and covered with fossilized coral and 1000-year old cactus that slowly grows 1 cm a year. From the summit, there were incredible views of the salar expanding in all directions to the volcanoes on the horizon. (see one of the 10 panoramas for a photo)
We had our first picnic here, and glad was I to be a vegetarian. We all had yummy quinoa and salad, but I got a beautiful avocado while the others had overcooked, tough llama. However, with this one llama exception, the food was consistently quite good.
A Salt Hostel That evening, we drove up to the foothills of the volcanoes where quinoa was grown, mostly for export, on every arable sliver of land. In tiny San Juan, we
stayed in a hostel with doors of beautiful cardon cactus, and walls and bed foundations of salt blocks, a great insulation from the cold. We were joined by three other tours groups this night and the next; for dinners, I joined a mixed group of French and Japanese who spoke English. The expeditions used to bring cooks with them, but now the tours utilize women who live in the little tourist-serving communities that have sprung up. It's less disruptive for the women, and the agencies can pack another body in the jeep.
Fantastical Landscapes We arose at 6:30 for a long day of driving through the wild Siloli Desert. We were often at a chilly 4800 mts/16,000 ft, which, as the French women pointed out, was the height of Mt Blanc, the highest point in Europe. We passed Volcano Ollague with fumaroles smoking out of its sides, and large expanses of land covered by borax, as brilliantly white as the previous day's salt and the next day's snow. The desert was occasionally punctuated by wild collections of rocks--often fossilized lava from the chain of volcanoes
that bordered the desert. The rocks had been wind sculpted into wild shapes such as waves, a famous stone tree and anthropomorphic beings while at the Desert of Dali, isolated rocks littered a plain of sand. At this high altitude, plant life consisted mostly of bunch grasses and looking like large pin cushions, bizarre, bright lime-green llareta that burns well and is harvested for fires. Unfortunately, it grows slowly and is endangered, but still used here. Later in Peru, I saw lots of it mounding the mountains on the way to the Colca Canyon and was warmed by a huge bonfire of it at a festival. We often saw wild vicunas, the smallest of the South American camelids, which looked rather like deer as well as llamas roaming in large herds. The llamas had different colored ribbons in their ears so owners could distinguish them when they brought them in at night for protection from desert foxes. We also spotted a little vizcacha, a wild relative of the chinchilla, snoozing on a rock.
Colored Lakes and Flamingos The highlight of the day was visiting flamingos in volcano-backed, colored lakes.
Wading and feeding were rare, deep pink James flamingos and the more common Chilean and Andean ones, Andean seagulls and lots of other waterfowl. For lunch, we stopped at Laguchna Hedionda, which had tons of birds. A sign at the lake warned us not to pee there but to use the expensive, ecological, self-composting toilets which we tourists did though the Bolivians felt themselves exempt from this. Environmental education has yet to arrive here. The last lake of the day was Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) which gets its color from red algae that the flamingos eat and which turns their plumage pink. Not only was the lake a deep red, but it was also partially topped by a swath of brilliant, white borax and dotted with flamingos. A perfect last sight of the day! We spent the night in the high desert in the middle of nowhere in a little collection of primitive buildings serving as tour group hostels. It dropped far below freezing that night and we turned in early. My roommates were snug in their rented sleeping bags while I just made it wearing all of my clothes and
handwarmers given me by a friend.
Hell to Heaven Rolling out of our beds in the freezing dark at 4:30, we chowed down on pancakes and sleepily piled into the jeep for an hour-long ride. The light gradually changed the mountains and desert from indigo to violet to rose. I must admit I hadn't seen this gorgeous transition since I was young and used to pull all-nighters--it was a revelation! We arrived at the Sol de Manana (Morning Sun) geyser field as the sun started to bathe everything in gold. At 5000 mts/16,400 ft, there was snow all around us, and we hoped in vain for the hot gases from the geysers and fumaroles (250 C) to heat us. Still, it was extraordinary to see the vast area of swirling, steaming vapor clouds and to hear the burbling of the boiling mud and sulfur. We left this vision of hell for one of heaven as we stopped by the Termes de Polques hot springs for a lovely soak. The springs were a perfect temperature though it wasn't easy getting in and out in the freezing air.
heavenly Sol de Manana hot springs Our last stop was to be the toxic, turquoise-green, heavy metal-laden Laguna Verde, though in this winter season, it was frozen in the morning when we were there. Still, it was an impressive sight towered over by the perfect cone of Volcano Licancabur at 6000 mts/19,000 ft. We didn't stop because Waly was afraid that the three of us continuing to Chile would miss our border bus connection--wrong. A few kilometers later, we three were let off at the border; a few adobes melting back into the earth and a rusted out bus appropriately marked the end of Bolivia. However, the bus for which we hurried was an hour late, and then the rather unhinged driver sat eating cheap Bolivian treats and chatting for a half an hour while we sweltered in the closed bus. Not a good intro to Chile.
great once in the water; freezing getting in and out
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile The Lilicancabur Volcano above Laguna Verde also towered over my next stop, the small, charming, touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. From here, one could also do the Bolivian Uyuni tour, but the price would be considerably higher.
San Pedro--adorable adobe fenseSan Pedro is a desert oasis watched over by snow-capped peaks and at only 2440 mts, much warmer than the salar. Catering mostly to tourists, it's a spruced-up adobe town with a pepper- and palm-shaded plaza, adorable adobe church, dry river bed, and lots of lovely walks all around the desert. However, as in all of northern Chile, prices were three times higher than in Bolivia. I stayed only five days and after a similar stop in coastal Iquique, Chile, headed back to Peru sooner than I'd planned. Oh well, it was a great ride!
and Volcano Lilincancabur that straddles the border
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