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Published: August 10th 2016
No wonder Porteños ( Buenos Aires Folks) think of themselves as the center of the universe.
If you live in Argentina, Buenos Aires IS the center of the universe. In order to fly to Salta to cross the border we had to go back to BA and again spend the night, not really a bad thing since we wanted some nice healthy food ( we had found it at Le Pain Quotidian in the Palermo soho area) and we needed to plan our trip a bit.
The next afternoon we flew to Salta, a colonial city in the north of Argentina, here we were to catch the nice bus service to La Quinica and towards the Bolivia border and cross over to Villazón.
Right away you see the difference in the looks of the people, becoming a bit less European, more native, a bit shorter and darker, spiky hair, more Andean. After walking around we decided to have some Empanadas Salteñas, famous of this area, they even have an annual empanada competition, we had some winner ones and a beer.
Just like Cinderella, our bus was waiting for us at a bit passed midnight. Seven hours later we landed at an
altitude of 3500 mtrs. above sea level.
Early morning is not Nadine's favorite, on top of that freezing cold and gasping for an oxygen tank didn't help much, feeling exhausted, dizzy, light headed and with nausea she did her best to try and cope.
In order to cross into Bolivia we had to stay in a line JFK's airport would be jealous of. Together with some short, colorful, but yet pushy and bully old Bolivian ladies we waited till we got our passports stamped.
Due to the time difference we were at the other side at 8:15 and our train was bound at 16:00. Then we headed towards the train station to buy the tickets and perhaps store our backpacks. As I stepped out of the cab to check on the storage and the tickets - Nadine, as dizzy as she was - had "negotiated" a taxi ride to Uyuni in Spanish with the cab driver. When I returned I was confronted with the once in a life time offer.
Instead of waiting 8 hrs for the train that would take us on another 8 hr ride to Uyuni, we could go with him on a 6 hr trip for
the friendly price of $200 US.
For a moment i remembered Nadine was in sales, selling, not buying and bargaining in Spanish was not her specialty, yet.
Then, the adventure towards the Salt lake of Uyuni began.
As we drove away the driver said he would drive home to pick up his wife so she could drive with us.
Later on we guessed it was not so much he wanted to take her on his business trip but more like he needed a co-pilot. How hard he needed her became clear to us as we drove away.
The taxi was a 1990's Toyota small station wagon in a state that added the term " adventurous" to our trip.
We had read of the bumpy roads when planning our trip, but we were doing the first couple of miles on an asphalt road with tolls and all.
Although he was doing a top speed of 70 kms / hr, going onto the curve felt like testing all inertia theories. I was then glad he wasn't able to reach higher numbers on his meter, by then Nadine was sleeping on my lap, knocked down by the altitude pills.
First town we hit
was Tuquiza where we stopped to pump up the tires and get gas, in there a big sign of the Dakar Rally was advertising the event, so i asked Johnny ( driver's name ) about it. "They are going to follow the route we are about to take in a couple of miles", he answered, ha-ha, i thought, but Johnny was not joking and bumpy it was, trust me.
My wish for speed limits came true when our cruising speed couldn't reach more than 30 k/h. Nevertheless the fear that we could fall into an abyss or kill someone or at least a Lama or two the moment the car would fall apart grew by the mile.
We could see it in front of us, projectiles made of screws, bolts or transmission parts flying around due to the endless vibration.
As we reached the 2nd town Atocha.
all our organs had swapped places inside of us and every bolt in the car needed to be tighten.
Risking a brain concussion we were still on our way feeling at times like a bread in the make, covered by dust coming inside of the car even with the windows closed. At one
point Johnny stopped to place a cloth between my door and the chassis of the car so that no dust would come in. Jolly good bloke this Johnny but a bit naive.
After Chocaya the 3rd town the only thing we saw now and then were road workers ( a gift from Evo Morales to his people, a real road between Uyuni and Atocha, unfortunately for us we drove it in stage one, 3 or 4 years to early) a couple of 4x4 trucks, a few lamas and huge construction trucks coming against us bringing a ton of dust with them that ended inside of our car, suddenly we were all wearing Kaki colored clothes.
The scenery was breathtaking ( also due to the dust) red colored gravel mountains, the sierras, canyons, valleys, rivers, the works. This didn't stop me ( Nadine was still trying to recover on my lap) to start acting like the little dunkey in Schrek, are we there yet? Are we there yet?
At one point i started to do the maths ( by the way, i suck in maths, ask my boss) 245 kms to go, at a speed of 30 bloody kms per hr,
6 hrs?? Yeah right.
Karma stroke for being critical of the drivers calculations.
As we were going down in one of the canyons and if you ask me, probably due to auto parts jumping all over the car stopped, right there, in the middle of freaking nowhere. We could already see the tumbleweed passing in front of the car accompanied by the music of Ennio Morricone, non of us said anything,not even oh-oh, we just listen to Johnny's attempts to start the engine again, shtikitiki-shitikitiki-shhhhhtikikitiki-broooooom!
It started!! How he did it? No clue.
It was then when he earned the nickname " el mago" the magician.
Are we there yet ? Nope, we were in town number 4 Noriel Mariaca, no, not Marica.
Lunch break, Johnny and co-pilot, aka the boss announced, we? Lunch? Here? Growing in México my stomach probably could handle the hygienic conditions of this place, Nadine? Naaaaah, don't think so...we just stated we were not hungry and set our teeth into some saltines and had some water as we waited for the red bull team to come back.
On the road again, well actually on the river, this after we had drove up the mountain
for about 10 kms to discover that the road there was closed and needed to go back...not "Mrs. Tom-tom's" fault, she couldn't possibly have known.
Down by the river we went, just like the song. Literally driving on the river banks, going through pools of water becoming amphibious, at one point we were going to ask for life jackets. Miles and miles of muddy paths and water. ( much better than the dusty bumpy roads, damned right)
Are we there yet? Nope, but by then our butts had reached our necks since we were back on the bumpy, washing-board like dusty road.
Now on a very flat surface ( the scenery, not the road) Lama's here Lama's there, mountains far, far away.
In here the road was so bad that at times Johnny the magician preferred to go off road, really, off road! He had caught the taste of the Dakar Rally again! Off road red gravel trails, driving and avoiding plants, bumps, stones, and at times crossing a little hole on the ground. It was then when we encountered our second challenge ( this time wasn't any Karma as we hadn't commented anymore on anything regarding the road trip)
as we tried to cross the gap we got stucked in the red moist sand. As Johnny wanted to pull another trick pulling us out of there, we could hear the tires rotating, fighting to get a grip, ho-ho moment.
He then jumped out of the car, looking to figure out how this bunny was going to come out of his hat, then jumped in again and started to rock the car, like on a roller coaster, back and forth, back and forth, till we got out, woooooohhooo Nadine and I yelled, Johnny el mago did it again!
Are we there yet? Jeeessssuuus! 6 hrs ????? We were by then reaching the 8th hr. If we ever had a butt it had gone to heaven by then.
Sweet lord, we started to feel like nomads, flat butted nomads. How long more?? Again, nothing but construction folks, Lamas and the big dust moving trucks and 4x4's, the hope we would ever get before our original train was fading, the 30 km/hr started to feel like slow motion, remember this is desert country, we have had full sun, full dust, full motion and vibration the whole day, as Johnny's wife got distracted
for a second, BAAANG! Johnny's front wheel hit a rock, causing the car to come to a full stop 20 meters later.
El mago tried and tried and tried but nothing was happening, that famous noise of the engine not willing to start kept sounding.
Nadine saw him putting Coca Cola in the carburetor ( ?????) - what does Max Verstapen puts in his? Red bull? Fanta? ApfelSchorle? Although we are both very positive and optimistic, we found ourselves stranded in the middle of the middle of nowhere, we could see the vultures or the Condors flying around in circles, just when we thought we were going to get there this happens.
5-10 mins later nothing, numerous attempts, nothing, but then, Johnny gave us his final trick, his grand finale, the moment we hit the rock had disconnected the cables of the starter, you know, where you put and turn your key to start the car, so he went on and hot wired the car.
Standing ovation for this incredible Houdini trick, David Copperfield eat your heart out.
On the road again, 45 mins later we came into Uyuni, just as we were celebrating victory we noticed that our hotel
was not in Uyuni but inside of the salar, 30 kms further, bullocks!
Johnny was not amused, we guess he had more of a disappearing trick in mind, as he needed to head back, yep, head back, through that road? At night? Were they suicidal? I love my wife, she even wanted to offer to pay for a hotel so they could stay overnight and didn't need to drive. I am a very lucky man indeed.
The night had started to fall as we reached our destination, 10 and a half hrs later, nevertheless, in one piece, well almost, we kind of lost our butts, but safe and sound, thanks to Johnny " el mago", winner of the Dakar Rally 2016.
Since we arranged an afternoon-evening tour ( it is a must to do it with a tour) we were able to sleep out a bit and recover after the " magical" journey.
We took off with our driver to the village close by, Colchani, where the " entrance" to the Salar is, population of which 60% is female.
Right away the first stop was to do some tourist shopping on the " main street", this consisted of 6 little
huts - shops- selling hats, ashtrays and handcrafts. 15 mins later he hit the road towards 2 ojos.
Two holes in the ground from which volcano water erupts ( this being miles and miles away), the water runs underground and produces wells that at the same time produce salt crystals that look like quartz and are " hand picked" by the locals.
The salt- sand surface can be 20 cm thick and once a whole is made it auto regenerates itself in 2 years time.
Layers of salt, dirt, salt can be seen, just as the rings that determine the age of a tree. The salt mixed with the winds, the rain and the sun during the seasons produce incredible hexagon shaped features that look like the vanes of the ground.
After that we drove to Isla Incahuasi, 45 mins down the road.
Here we felt as in being on a rally or expedition when arriving to it.
Lots of jeeps and SUVs parked in front of the island and its flags from all over, a funny thought to have an " island" full of cacti in the middle of a salt " lake".
Picture time! But first you need
to pay - no pay, no picture and no toilet. 😊
After a 40 min foto-shoot we headed back, this time to visit the first salt made hotel (no longer in operation but now a museum) and await for the sunset to start.
Sunsets - who doesn't love them -being here watching it was way different than seeing them at the beach or on a mountain, the size of the Salar allows you to see an amazing panoramic of it, the hexagons edges create a wonderful effect and the twilight wraps you fully as the last bit of the sun goes down.
By then our driver had put a table together and armed us with tea, wine, cheese and crackers to admire the night sky.
The temperature difference once the sun is gone felt as if we had gone from 13 to 0 in a minute. As we were getting our jackets, gloves and hats on, our driver informed us he was going to leave us here for "ten minutes" since he had to drop two of our co-passengers so they could be brought to the airport.
Since we didn't want to miss anything we - together with a Japanese
couple - decided to stay, Nadine protesting a bit but I convinced her to have a little trust into the drivers capabilities finding us again.
As the darkness took over it suddenly became obvious how insignificantly small we were in the Salar.
The sky was lit by stars we had never seen before and as the time passed more and more appeared.
The only one who didn't appear was the driver, 20 mins had passed and he was not back yet...so the German-Japanese alliance started to get worried, more so when the two lights that were coming our way passed us 300 meters away without stopping or turning and kept driving away to the wrong direction, stopping - what we think was 800-900 mtrs away from us - to then drive around in circles " looking" searching for us, to then drive further away.
By now it had become a German-Japanese-Mexican worrisome alliance. Trying to reassure Nadine it wasn't that bad since the village lights were visible and in worst case we could walk to it, 2-3 kms, and we had wine to keep us warm too,
German sense of humor doesn't work well under stress related situations - I
got to learn. :-)
Signaling with my iphone's light and our Japanese colleagues camera ( very suitable since they are always taking pics) we tried to call our drivers attention but with no luck.
He was still " there", parked trying to figure out where on earth he had left us. As he decided to drive back I started to walk away from our group, more towards the line he had come in the first place, 200-300 mtrs away from us, signaling with the light like a mobile disco, morse code? Nope just on and off, finally as he was getting closer he saw us and drove towards us.
First question my beautiful Mrs. asked was, how far is the village from here? Unfortunately it was 4 times more than I had calculated, so no brownie points for my skills this time.
Once the scare was gone we started to enjoy more of the shattered skies.
This was a unique spectacle, it was not only the 100's of stars but it was now possible to see the milky way, the most amazing thing we have ever seen. To make it up, the driver help Nadine with a tripod and with
setting up her camera so she could capture this precious seen.
Too bad for us Iphone and android users since pics on mobiles don't get these images frozen.
After 100's of wows and oooh's we headed back to the hotel.
All the bumpy roads, the butt-less bodies, the altitude pills and short sleep had been worth it, simply because of this day.
El Salar de Uyuni is the largest In the world, with a surface of 10,582 sq.kms and is located at 3656 masl.
Produces tons of salt and is the biggest producer of Lithium in the world. ( 50-70 % of all )
The legend says that the volcano Tunupa and the mountain Kusko represent the Couple that had a son , she, the volcano had a best friend ( Kusuña Mountain) that ended running away with Kusko and her son, leaving her behind.
The 2 ojos de agua represent her tears ( salted ) and the white of the salt represents the milk of a mother that feeds her son....
The area has a relatively stable average temperature with a peak at 21 °C (70 °F) in November to January and a low of 13 °C (55 °F)
in June. The nights are cold all through the year, with temperatures between −9 and 5 °C (16 and 41 °F). The relative humidity is rather low and constant throughout the year at 30 to 45%. The rainfall is also low at 1 to 3 millimeters (0.039 to 0.118 in) per month between April and November, but it may increase up to 70 millimeters (2.8 in) in January. However, except for January, even in the rainy season the number of rainy days is fewer than 5 per month.
Regardless of the season, bring warm clothes and a hat.
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