March 28, 2012

The Road to Uyuni

From Salta, we took a 7-hour overnight bus to the Argentina/Bolivia border town of La Quiaca, with two other couples from Australia and France that we met along the way. Once we got our visas and passed through immigration, we took another 2 hour bus ride to Tupiza, Bolivia

We arrived on a special day in Tupiza because there was a parade celebrating the Dia del Mar or “Day of the Ocean”. That’s funny, we thought, because Bolivia doesn’t even border an ocean. It turns out that they were celebrating the day that Bolivia lost the war against Chile, which in turn, cost them their ocean border. I’ve never heard of a parade for losing a war.

The Tupizans were out in full force and the parade route was packed 3-5 people deep. It’s a good thing that Bolivians are, by nature, extremely short people. Steve was at least a foot and a half above everyone else in the crowd.

Tupiza was the starting point for our 4-day four-wheeling tour through the Bolivian countryside, culminating with Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flats.

Day 1
It was time for introductions. Gemma and Dave are best friends from the UK who have been traveling around South America for three and a half months. Tours are booked with 4 passengers, and we were incredibly lucky to be paired up with these guys. They are super laid back and easy to talk to. After 4 days in a car together, we became fast friends.

Milton was our 28-year old driver and guide. He’s a Tupiza native and has been touring people to Uyuni for 10 years. He speaks very good English and has an impressive collection of American pop hits from the 80s and 90s. There were 3 trucks in our convoy…Milton’s brother and cousin were the other two drivers.

Natalia was our cook extraordinaire. When not preparing meals with the two other cooks, she sat in the back of the truck knitting, chewing on coco leaves, or napping. She’s a very sweet lady.

And last but not least, our trusty Toyota Land Cruiser.

These trucks were comical. Ours had about 300,000 rigorous kilometers on it. The drivers were constantly checking the suspension, engine and tires. The windshield wipers didn’t work. The locks froze overnight. To get the windows up, we had to pull up on the glass with our hands at the same time as pressing the button. One morning we saw one of the drivers pumping up his truck’s tires with a bike pump.

From Tupiza we traveled about 7.5 hours over 200 kilometers. First we stopped at Quebrada de Palala to view the needle-like red rock formations.

From there we entered El Sillar or “Valley of the Moon” where erosion has caused the countryside to look like a lunar landscape. This is llama farming country. The llamas are farmed for their wool and their meat, and to our surprise, were wearing colorful tassels on their ears. When we asked Milton what the tassels were for, his very matter-of-fact answer was, “fashion”.

Along the drive we passed through several tiny llama farming villages of no more than 200 people, and eventually arrived at the village where we would spend the night. At 13,780 feet, San Antonio de Lipez sits at the base of Volcano Uturuncu.

We had time to hike up the hillside and play with some of the local children before our dinner of hot vegetable soup, Bolivian meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

After dinner, a local 10-year old boy sang us a couple of traditional Bolivian songs. He was cute, but his guitar was so incredibly out of tune that it was terribly hard to keep a straight face.

Milton came in to deliver the bad news that our call-time for the next morning would be 4:45am. We were in bed by 8:00pm on a mattress made of hay and under a heap of thick wool blanks that felt like they weighed 15 pounds.

Day 2
Over 10 hours, we covered 300 kilometers. We started out in the morning while it was still dark and got to a silver ghost mining town right as the sun was rising. This tiny town used to have 27 churches because people would change partners frequently and get married every few days.

After a long drive through arid boring land, we entered a national park and arrived at Kollpa Laguna where we swam in the natural hot springs with a stunning view.

After lunch we drove to Laguna Verde, where the water is naturally colored by the high concentration of arsenic and magnesium. The mountain in the background is so close to the conditions on Mars that NASA uses it as training grounds.

The next stop was in a geothermic area called Sol de Manana or “Sun of Tomorrow”, where we were free to roam around the geysers and bubbling mud.

This was the highest either of us have ever been – 5,000 meters or 16,404 feet. To give you some perspective, the highest mountain we’ve ever hiked in Colorado was 14,440 feet. Milton and the Land Cruiser did all the work to get us there, but we were out of breath even walking around or bending down to take a picture.

We ended the day with Laguna Colorda, where algae make the water red and there are islands of ice and borax. 20,000 flamingos call this lagoon home, and Steve even spotted an egg on the shore.

We ended the night at our little village trading music with Milton.

Day 3
We “slept in” until 6:00am and our first stop was Deserti de Siloli to play around on rock formations that have been shaped by the strong winds in this area. The most famous rock  is Arbol de Piedra or “Stone Tree”, which is predicted to topple within the next 500 years.

Much of the morning was spent driving through the desert to visit more lagoons. There were several times when it felt like we were in a real life car commercial. Then it was onto Valley of the Rocks.

In the afternoon we drove past fields of bright red, yellow, and green quinoa farms. We ended the day at Uyuni’s Train Graveyard.

Day 4
Another early morning, but it was worth it for the grand finale. We arrived at the Salar de Uyuni in time for sunrise.

The Salar sits at approximately 11,480 feet above sea level and is the world’s largest salt flat covering 12,000 square kilometers. The salt is 33 feet thick and feels like crunchy snow when you walk on it.

At the entrance of the Salar, there are square plots of salt that families own and mine.

This area is mined not only for salt but also for lithium. In fact, this is the world’s largest concentration of lithium. As the demand for lithium in batteries continues to grow, we wonder (and worry) about how the increased income will affect this area.

After sunrise we had breakfast at a hotel made entirely of salt bricks…even the tables and chairs. Then it was off to play in the white stuff.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite posts so far. I love the pictures! The one of the Flamingo egg with all those different colors is amazing. And now I really want to play around with our camera and do the fun things you did in the last pictures. Looks like a blast you guys!