Salar Tour, Uyuni, Bolivia, 6-8 May 2011

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May 12th 2011
Published: May 12th 2011
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We arrived in Uyuni after a 6 hour bus trip and settled into our Hotel Samay Wasi. The town is very dry and dusty (white dust) and our hotel is the only 3-story building in the town and is quite new and comfortable.

Our guide Betzy took us to a place called Minute Man for dinner which is owned by an American who has married a local girl. They run a slick outfit. There is a Hotel attached. For the first time, we ordered at the counter and paid on the spot. This meant no sorting of money at the end of the night – not that this has been a problem as we all pay for what we have ordered – there is not bill-splitting. Tom and I shared a family-sized pizza – paid 95 Boliviano ($14). We will miss these amazingly cheap prices when we go into Argentina, Chile and Brazil!!

It was back to the hotel and we were briefed about the next 3 days where we will be travelling by 4x4 wheel drive Toyota Landcruisers. Our hotel room was cold but the bed was warm. We slept well and I am pleased to say my cold is improving – now on antibiotics (hope Tom doesn’t catch it).
We were up at 7.00am for breakfast in the Hotel before walking with our day-packs to the travel company who was going to lead our 3-day tour.

We were met by a very ‘interesting’ local guide who had wiry hair, unshaved and missing one of his front-middle teeth. What a character he was but very informative. Our day packs were put up on top of the vehicles with the spare tyres, fuel, water and food. The eggs were put under the back seat. Our group of 12 incl guide, 2 drivers and a cook fitted into 2 vehicles.

We drove out on a very bumpy road to a very small town, Colchani, which had the obligatory stalls selling hats, scarves, gloves etc. etc. Our guide took us to a small building to show us how they make and package salt. The only difference in the stalls was that they had a lot of items made out of salt (vases, ashtrays, dice) which were also painted (see photo).

We then drove onto what we were really looking forward to, the Salar de Uyuni, or as the locals called it, The Salar. This was an amazing spectacle. We pulled up at The Salt Hotel, which was where we also had lunch (Llama, salad and rice). There was brilliant white everywhere. We were strongly advised to apply sunburn cream frequently (saw a girl at the restaurant last night who was brilliant red!!!).

Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world's largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's lithium reserves. The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingos.

Salar de Uyuni is part of the Altiplano, a high plateau, which was formed during uplift of the Andes mountains. The plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats and is surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets. The Salar was formed some 30,000–42,000 years ago, the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake. The largest lake today is Salar de Uyuni which is roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States which Tom & I drove over in 2007.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which less than 25,000 tonnes is extracted annually. All miners working in the Salar belong to Colchani's cooperative. The workers earn 1 Boliviano per pile of salt, which they scrape up by shovel, and they only do one per day.

We stopped at the Salt Hotel which is made from bricks of salt sawn from The Salar. Tables and chairs are also made from salt-bricks – fascinating. After lunch we had great fun taking photos on the salt flats – what do you think of them?

We did not go to Incahuasi Island, or Fish Island, located in the heart of the Salar, as they have had a ‘lot’ of rain so we could not drive to it. What we missed was seeing the giant cacti. Never mind – can’t see everything!

We continued our journey heading south west toward the coloured lagoons (Red, Blue, White, Yellow and Green), located in the Parque Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. We also saw many llama. These sites are also occupied by volcanoes, and offer wonderful and surreal views. It was almost like every 30 minutes the scenery was different...and spectacular.

We drove onto visit Solar de Manaña geyser basin (4850m) - a collection of bubbling sulphur pools and a geyser. There were no railings so we followed our guide pretty carefully. A week earlier, the guide had a fellow who was told to stay close but he decided to go off on his own. He slipped into a bubbling mud pool and ended up with 3rd degree burns on his foot.

We then visited Termas de Polques hot spings where 5 of our group had a swim. The water was at 38 degrees. The challenge was getting out of this warm water into a wind-chill factor of sub-zero temperatures. Those of us who didn’t swim had a coffee behind a window, watching the swimmers.
We saw the Laguna Verde (at 4400m above sea level) which was coloured green by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and other heavy metals, provided a perfect reflection of Vulcán Lincacabur (5960m). We also saw Volcano Uturuncu (6020m) both of these volcanoes being on the Argentine side of the border as at this stage we were very close to the border.

This was where we said goodbye to 2 members of our group as they were going to trek up Vulcán Lincacabur. They were unsure what the weather was going to be like as we had been driving through flurries of snow and could see snow clouds around us. We had a bitterly cold night that night (approx -10-15 degrees) but the morning was clear, crisp and would be wonderful for trekking. After dropping them off, we turned north and got back to our accommodation as night fell.

That night we rugged up and had dinner – lasagne (it was very tasty). After dinner, over some red wine, we played lots of card games until 9.00pm when the cold weather beat us. My bed was very toasty so had a good sleep, as did Tom.

The morning of our last day we were all organised with breakfast at 8.00am and to leave at 9.00am. While having breakfast we heard one of our cars trying to be started...but no success. The battery sounded flat or there was no spark to ignite the engine. Tom gave a few suggestions which weren’t taken up. They had very, very thin jumper-leads with which they were trying to start the car with. Cut a long story short, it was the spark plugs which they fixed up by cutting a bit from a beer can to improve the connection!!!! This solution took 2 hours.

While we were waiting for the bush mechanics to weave their magic, we played games of boche (with rocks), a co-ordination hand game and cards (sevens) so we had a bit of fun. We were now 2 hours behind schedule when we set off. Our driver, instead of driving his normal 30-50 miles per hour, all of a sudden found some speed to make up for lost time.

We drove past Laguna Blanca - A white lake filled with Borax. We had lunch back at Laguna Colorada. We saw Laguna Celeste - A clear-blue lake coloured by magnesium and manganese and Laguna Amarilla - A yellow sulphur lake.

After driving for another hour, we then saw the spectacular Valles de Rocas - many strange valleys of rocks popping up out of the altiplano. We could see many different patterns in the rocks that resemble familiar objects.

Our accommodation the first night was at a small town of Alota. That night we saw another most amazing sunset. The second night we stayed at Laguna Colorada. Both accommodation was very basic, with shared bathroom (for everyone). Power at Laguna Colorada was by generator. These towns were out in the middle of nowhere so there was no choice re accommodation. A warm comfortable bed was the main ‘selection’ re accommodation.

The last attraction before arriving in Tupiza, on our way back to Uyuni was the Sillar or the Valley of the Rocks - which are giant columns of clay formed by erosion. They were a spectacular site.
We also stopped to see more flamingoes at Laguna Hedionda. This was the most we have seen.
On our return to Uyuni, we visited the little town of San Cristóbal, where we presented our tour staff with the obligatory tip.

The road back to Uyuni was very bumpy but we had a fantastic driver.

We saw Uyuni in the distance but stopped to see the well-known Train cemetery. It is 3 kilometers outside Uyuni and is connected to it by the old train tracks. The town served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals enroute to Pacific Ocean ports. The rail lines were built by British engineers arriving near the end of the 19th century and formed a sizeable community in Uyuni. The engineers were invited by British-sponsored Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies. The rail construction started in 1888 and ended in 1892. It was encouraged by Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, who believed Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system, but it was also constantly sabotaged by the local Aymara indigenous Indians who saw it as an intrusion into their lives. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly because of mineral depletion. Many trains were abandoned, producing the train cemetery.

We got back to Uyuni at about 6.00pm and we were all looking forward to our 1st shower for 3 days!!! After a shower, we all went back to our favorite Pizza restaurant. This was to be our last day in Bolivia. I haven’t talked much about our tour group which changed in La Paz. We have 3 English people (2 girls and Matt), Sandy and Isabella (both from Switzerland) and Stephanie from Canada (the last 3 were in our previous Peru/Ecuador tour). With less Australians and more Poms, it’s a lot more conservative group. We might have to do something about that!!!! At the Pizza place our 19 y.o. Matt demolished a Family sized, all meat pizza by himself, plus 3 beers, plus chocolate cake and ice-cream. Wow, what an effort. He had a lovely time.

Monday 9 May @ 2.00am we caught an overnight sleeper train to the Argentina border then caught a bus to Salta in Argentina. These past 4 days have been the toughest of the whole tour but we survived it well. At 8.00am we went to the dining carriage and had a hot breakfast which was great. We were still in Bolivia. The landscape was dry with many large cacti.

Now that we were leaving Bolivia, on reflection, despite it being the poorest country in South America, we have really enjoyed the country, particularly from Sucre down to the border. It has been very cheap, which is a reflection of the poor economy of the country. The major down-side has been the low access to communication. Out on the Salar, this was impossible to stay in touch with anyone. Internet was not in existence. In Uyuni, there was also no internet in our hotel. If there was Internet access, it was desperately SLOW! My mobile is with Vodaphone, which does not have a ‘sister-carried’ relationship in Bolivia so no emails through my phone either. We were looking forward to getting back into more sophisticated services so we could contact everyone.

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