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Published: March 12th 2014
Today was one of those hateful early mornings. I was to be picked up at 4 AM to head to the airport. When the phone rang at 3:40 and the driver was waiting I knew it was going to be a rush. Luckily I had packed and organized everything the night before. At the airport I ran into problems checking in. The airline required that the credit card used to purchase the ticket be presented, which I would happily have done if it hadn’t been stolen and cancelled. No matter how many times I explained that it was the same company, but just a different number the agent just looked at me and told me I had to purchase new tickets. The fact that I had flown from Cuzco, Peru to La Paz just days prior with no issues would not sway her. I hated being “that person” taking forever at the ticket window with a huge line of people waiting. I ended up having to buy a whole new round trip ticket in the end. Nothing was going to stop me from making it to Uyuni. I was given the address for the company so that I could go get
a refund for the other ticket. What she really meant was to spend lots of time figuring out where this address was, get jerked around and get nothing in the end. I can already read the writing on the wall even if it is in Spanish. I will ask for the refund and will be told that they can only apply it back to the card, which I don’t have. We will go round and round, feelings will be hurt, tempers will flare and in the end Amaszonas Airlines will pocket my money. The good thing is that they did not ruin my trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Salt Flats. The trip was incredible and well worth the hassle to board the plane.
The flight was only 45 minutes, but a bus/train would have taken around 15 hours if I recall correctly. Dang, I don’t like doing something fun for 15 hours much less riding public transportation in a country with dirt and rock roads, so a 1 hour flight it was. I was met at the airport and driven to the tour company. Since I was so early I left my luggage and found a quiet park
bench and read for a while. When the town started to wake up and shops and restaurants opened, I found a place for pancakes with chocolate and bananas. Oddly there was no maple syrup, only the chocolate syrup. It wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad and the coffee was just what I needed. By then it was time to meet at the tour company for our group assignments. There were 3 groups going out that morning. I was pointed to a Toyota Land Cruiser with 4 other people, a driver and the guide. Everyone seemed very friendly and ready for an adventure, and happily I was not in the same group as the wildly unpleasant person with whom I rode in from the airport. My luck seemed to be changing for the better again after the bumpy morning. It was a hot and sunny day in the high plain or Altiplano and we were off for the tour that I had wanted for so long.
Our first stop was the train graveyard. These trains were abandoned when the mining stopped. Lines of rusting, graffiti tagged locomotives, tankers and other cars were left on sets of tracks to die. Surrounding the
trains were bits and pieces of wheels, axels, and other assorted train parts. I won’t try to name any of them, but let it suffice to say that it was something I really wanted to see. Although this is the low season there were more Land Cruisers parked at this site than there would be at a used car lot. Trying to find a photo opportunity without a zillion people in it was a challenge, but with cunning and ingenuity I was able to find some. I had to laugh as I was standing in the boiler of a locomotive and scared the bejesus out of some other tourists when I moved to take my picture. We spent a nice time wandering around before saddling up and heading out to the Salar de Uyuni. Our first stop was at a building made of salt. There we had our first lunch of the trip. The guide was slightly concerned of what a chef would think of the food. I don’t think he was too worried, but you know how it can be to cook for a chef. In reality he had no worries. We had the most wonderful roast chicken with
a super delicious rice and some vegetables. I was impressed. Slowly we 5 travelers started to talk, feel each other out and start to understand the group dynamics that we would have over the next 3 days. It was a very nice bonding experience as well as good lunch.
Shortly after leaving the salt building we found ourselves crossing a vast expanse of salt flat covered in a layer of water. Through this we drove very slowly. One can only imagine what the salt does to the undercarriage of the car. Luckily the water was only on the 1 section and soon we were on crusted, sun baked salt where we were able to virtually fly across the plain. It is difficult to describe what a huge, flat, white landscape this is. I have lots of pictures; however, it is hard to really get the scale of it. Picture a giant lake with the shore barely visible on the other side. Now picture this as a snow covered field. That is how I can best describe it. Since vast white plains of salt are not something I am used to, it looked like snow to me. In the distance
were mountains and the fluffy clouds I have come to love. As always, I won’t bore you with the details of how this was formed. If you are at all interested, I would really encourage you to do a web search on it. The history of it is fascinating. At one point it was a huge lake, similar to Lake Titicaca. Now it is a thick salt plain. We drove for over a half hour to reach the point where we would stop and take our perspective pictures. With everything white, the depth of field is screwy. As we drove it looked as if the edge of the white landscape was rising up, making me think of where Chevy Chase launched the car in the air in the movie Vacation. This of course did not happen to us, but it was fun to think about as we flew over the crusted land.
One of the biggest draws of the Salar is the skewed perception photos. I will post a few to give examples. In one it looks as if I am resting on top of my baseball cap. In reality I was flat on the ground a good 20
yards behind the hat. We did a group shot of us being chased by a dinosaur. True, the focus on us is a little blurred, but it is still a fun picture. On Facebook I had been asked what props I was taking for these pictures. Since I was stressed with work and the daunting task of packing I had no ideas and replied that I would probably end up having to do my shots with a pile of dirty clothes. In all actuality that would have been neat and very Brendan, but unfortunately our bags were tied to the roof of the car and were not accessible.
After taking as many pictures as we could, we piled back in and drove over the seemingly endless white salt. Yes, I realize that I keep repeating myself about how big it was, how white it was, how incredible it was. Well, it was and I am standing by my repetition. Hopefully it will drive home how impressed I was with this place. After a half hour or so we arrived at an island filled with cactus. I know, it seems odd calling this an island since it is not a
lake, but since it once was, this must have been an island. Even today that is was it looks like. While looking at the cactus pictures, focus on the vast landscape behind them. The cacti were huge. They only grow a small amount each year, meaning these bad boys were really really old. It was difficult to not veer into a sharp cactus while trying to avoid them. The more I told myself to stay away from them, the more I found myself straying into their path. Thankfully I did not actually run into any. When we were finished with the walk, we sat in the shade at a salt table and shared some beers while talking some more. It was nice to feel the group becoming tighter. There was a beautiful French woman from Paris who was visiting a friend of hers from the South of France. He is taking time to travel and has worked his way down from Montreal, I believe, to Bolivia. One guy was from London and was a lot of fun. He would stand on his head for some of the pictures. The other guy was an American from San Diego, who is spending
an extended period of time in South America. All were very friendly.
About another half hour after leaving the cactus island we came to more standing water. There was a dirt road going through the water where we stopped for more pictures. The sun was setting and I took what I think is my favorite picture of the trip. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun set. We drove along rutted dirt roads winding around a mountain to reach the hostel where we would spend the night. Our room was a dorm with 6 beds made of concrete. There was a bathroom in the room and to be honest, it was a nice enough accommodation. Dinner was a delicious quinoa soup which I ate 2 bowls of. The entrée was this nasty sweet and sour llama meat, sausage, onion, green bean thing topped with boiled egg. Perhaps I am not giving it a fair shake, but I was not into it all. It was a good thing the soup was so darn good. A shower cost 10 bolivianos and was worth every penny of it. The water was heated by gas burners, the pressure was slightly more than
a water pik, yet it was one of the best showers ever after a long day in the car. As I snuggled under the heavy warm blankets in the concrete room I looked back on the day and gave myself a huge pat on the back. This was one of those times where my expectations and hopes were so far exceeded by reality. Since this blog is so long and will have so many pictures, I will separate the next 2 days into a new blog. I really hope that you have been able to visualize the magnificence of the Salar de Uyuni. Until next blog, ciao!
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