Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Feeling a little salty (and very out of breath): The Uyuni Salt Flats Story

A $500 American Airlines voucher that was about to expire, a week off and a long-held desire to hang out in the world's largest salt flat: these were the factors that led to me standing in La Paz Int'l Airport, gasping for air at an inhumane 11,913 ft elevation. Minutes after landing, I was in line waiting to pay for my visa and ready to drop, when I noticed that the yoga instructor standing behind me had beat me to it. I bent down to help her up, so now the poor customs guy who came running over now had to help not one but two women to the nearest seats.

It was 5am, I was in Bolivia and altitude sickness was kicking my ass. This was going to be a challenge. I expected this, maybe not to this degree, but I knew that the first day was going to be rough so my plans were simple. I was catching a connecting flight to Uyuni, choosing an agency for the aforementioned salt flat sojourn and napping...or as they like to call it acclimatizing.
The connecting flight and its gloriously pressurized cabin were a welcome reprieve.  Not only was I getting a sneak peak at the landscape that awaited, I was doing so with oxygen generously flowing in and out of my lungs.  Sometimes it's the little things that matter.

As far as I could tell, the town of Uyuni is made up entirely of four things: hotels, agencies offering salt flat tours, drug stores selling soroche pills (or coca leaves by the bagful if you want to be more natural about it) and pizza places. I hit them all up.

The agencies all offer virtually the same thing. Three day tours going to all the same spots with meals and simple lodging included, yet the prices vary between $95- 195.  The differences lie in the number of people they cram into a vehicle, the language capabilities of the guides, the sobriety (or lack thereof) of the drivers, the quality of the food and foremost in my muddled mind, whether or not they carry oxygen tanks. It was this last factor that led me to choose Red Planet, the most expensive of the options.

The next morning, fifteen of us met in the office and were divided into three vehicles. My silent pleas of "Don't group me with the giggling gaggle of Scandinavian girls" was heard and I was placed with an adorable couple from San Francisco and two sweet young guys from London.

First stop on the tourist trail: a locomotive graveyard. Why would you abandon a bunch of trains in the middle of the desert?  Good question.  At one point, Uyuni was a major transportation hub for minerals so the British decided to build rail lines..and then a couple of things happened.  Bolivia lost ocean access to Chile in the war of the Pacific (something which is still being fought out in the Hague) so it was harder to get goods out of the country. The indigenous people, who were none too keen about the pillaging of their lands, engaged in acts of sabotage.  And finally, Mother Nature said screw this. The desert gets bitterly cold at night, leading the tracks to often freeze over. Add to this a speeding locomotive and you soon have trains literally careening off the rails. So much for the rail hub.  The trains were left to rot and nowadays, non-existent liability laws have resulted in one giant playground for backpackers, with people free to climb all over these rusted out husks.

Next up: the reason we were all here.  The salt flats.  In prehistoric times, there were massive lakes to be found in the Bolivian Altiplano.  Once those lakes dried up, they left behind ten billion tons of salt spread out over 4086 square miles and one of Bolivia's chief tourist attractions.

In the small town of Colchani, we got a quick glimpse into the labor-intensive methods used for the production of table salt (note: a lot of drying is taking place whether it be overnight in manmade pyramids or on specially constructed heating tables.)

It was also one of the surprisingly few souvenir stops.  Unlike many other places (ahem: Peru) the sales ladies were not aggressive at all and allowed you to browse in peace.

Does anyone else see a giant salt penis?  No?  Just me?  Alrighty.

Lunch was served in a salt hostel.

The vastness of the flats (and for lack of a better term, the flatness of the flats) create a surreal landscape like none other. Over the course of the next couple of hours, we admired our new white shimmering playground.

For two years running, the Dakar Road Rally has crossed through the Salt Flats

My one regret: not knowing this was a thing.  I could have been the one to represent Cuba en el salar.

The former Salt Hotel, now a Museum

Part of the fun involves the perspective pictures that everyone takes. Google salt flat images and over half of the results will have tiny humans falling prey to giant dinosaurs, wine bottles and often to other much larger humans.  It's easy to see why.  The images are cool, the opportunities for creativity are endless and, let's face it, who doesn't need a new a fb profile pic. My only question is why is this a thing that is particular to the salt flats.  Isn't this something you could do in any wide open space? Maybe it is just that the all white surroundings really make the images pop.

What is the last thing you would expect in the middle of this gorgeous yet seemingly inhospitable terrain?  If you said an island full of giant cacti, boy are you in for a surprise. Isla Incahuasi (Quechua for Inca House) has a tourist center, a tiny museum and a trail that takes you from one end to the other.

After only 24 hours, I was coping better with the altitude but trying to hike this thing had me gasping like a fat kid chasing an ice cream truck.  It wasn't pretty.

I made it about halfway up, returned to ground level and attempted to climb it from the other side.
If there was anything interesting at the peak, I'm sure I would have heard about it but as it is I was content with only have visited a portion of the Inca House.

Soon the sun was setting on our saline paradise.  We didn't know it at the time but this was to be the our last chance to take photos on the salt flats.  It turns out that the tour is actually half salt flat and half Atacama Desert, which lent some unexpected variety over the next couple of days.

Our Happy Fivesome!


Having only seen the other tour groups in passing, it is tough to fairly compare packages but I will say that Bismark, our guide was great, the driver was very responsible and had a good music selection, the food was abundant, there were special provisions made for me as the only true vegetarian (one of the Scandinavian girls was clearly a fakeatarian) and our "salt hotel" on the first night was not nearly as cold as we had been warned.
Our salt hotel was really 80% brick and drywall and 20% salt. Oddly enough, the latter part included the floor, which does not really make for a comfortable walking surface.
Day two: desert time.

We crossed through long stretches of sandy plains, quinoa crops, volcanoes (both active and non), occasional vicuña and llama sightings and then out of the blue there would be a small village. Or maybe just the appearance of a village.  There would be a couple dozen houses, a church, something that looked like an athletic center but no people.  Not a one.

The most life we saw was in an area dubbed Llama Valley.  This field was full of the most carefree llamas imaginable. There were mothers with babies totally cool with three cars full of tourists traipsing through their field and paparazzing their entire families.

You would think that this laissez faire attitude would make them less than ideal babysitters but our guide informed us otherwise. The locals (wherever it is that they may have been) use the llamas to watch their (human) babies while they are out in the field.  What the llamas lack in diaper-changing ability, they make up for in protecting the babies from any predators.  This led to a long discussion over whether the idea of Llama Nannies could catch on in the states. We concluded that if marketed correctly, as artisanal organic LN's, it had a chance.  I predict that my new friends from the Bay Area are going to make a killing on this.


As the terrain got more and more remote, so did the accommodations. Our lunch stop was a picnic amongst a series of cool rock formations. After eating, the guides suggested we walk for awhile in order to prepare for what was coming.  We were going even higher!  Sweet Pachamama, why?! We were already at over 13,000 elevation.

Why yes, I did see these flamingoes and yell "Fly, Pelican, fly!"

#NoFilterBaby. These colors are a result of the different minerals in the sand.
In an area full of incredible natural formations, there is one that deserves a special mention.  It is the stone tree which really does look like it was carved by a particularly talented surrealist. This is most likely why this rock is credited with inspiring Salvador Dali, who himself never visited Bolivia. The story is that his friends did and brought home sketches.  It's possible but it wasn't even 3 in the afternoon and I was already on my 2nd cup of coca tea and I'd lost count of how many coca candies I had sucked on, so I can only imagine what state Dali's Dadaist pals would have been in.  I'd take this story with one big grain of Uyuni salt.

A Bolivian Smurf House

Baboon or Sam the Eagle?

Located inside the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, is the famous red lagoon, known for its blood red color. Or not.  The color is a result of certain algae and sediments in the water that are not always present.  For example, on Friday, April 15th, they had clocked out for the weekend and were nowhere to be seen.

Luckily, the much harder-working flamingoes were out in full force.

At this point, we had already ascended to 14,000 ft but had yet to peak.  We were heading to the Sol de Mañana geothermal field, located inside the crater of a volcano, and clocking in at 5000 meters or 16,404 ft elevation (for comparison's sake, the base camp of Mt Everest is 5,300 meters).  I wondered if there were enough coca leaves in the country to get us through this.

But a strange physiological phenomena revealed itself.  It turns out if you are so blown away by a place that your mind is too occupied imaging that you are on the surface of the moon, you forget all about your previous relationship with O2.  I had booked this particular company for their promise of Oxygen bottles but here we were at the highest point and thankfully, it was the last thing on my mind.

This is not to say that I should have skimped and gone with a cheaper agency.  The true value of Red Planet revealed itself that night.  All tours visit the hot springs, usually early on the morning of the third day.  We were ahead of the game.  Through some kind of exclusive deal, (read: proper use of payoffs) our simple hostel that night was at the hot springs.  After dinner, we all bought bottles of wine from the caretaker, whose wine cellar was conveniently located under her bed and soaked in the warm geothermal waters while admiring every single star in the nighttime sky.  If there is a more perfect way to spend our last night together, I can't imagine it.

And beating the crowds to the springs had another advantage.  The other groups had to be up at 5am to visit the crater and then join us at the hot springs as we were waking up at the relatively respectable hour of 7am.

The third day is not so much a tour day as a "let's get everyone where they need to be" kind of day. For the one person in the group continuing  on to Chile, her last stop was the Dali Desert (not to be confused with the earlier Stone Tree).  This is the other place he didn't visit with really interesting formations.

The Green Lagoon not being Green
The rest of us returned to the hot springs to wait while she was sent on her way.

And from there, it was an eight hour drive back to Uyuni.  For maybe the 999th time since the trip began, I marveled at our driver's ability to get one from one point to another in an area with no roads, no signs and no gps. They navigate purely guided by the shapes of the mountains.

There were a handful of stops along the way home: at another abandoned village for lunch, at a park with yet more super funky formations and at a roadside mini-market where our group might have exhausted their supply of ice cream.

Polly want a coca leaf

Runaway from Easter Island

We were back in Uyuni by 5:30pm, giving me enough time to run some errands and grab some pizza before boarding a night bus at 8:00pm.  I was returning to La Paz, whose puny 12,000 ft elevation no longer intimidated me.  I had other things to worry about, such as the small child at the train station who had systematically chewed through all of my luggage tags and had progressed onto gnawing on my arm.  If only I had had a Llama Nanny to keep me safe...

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