Bolivia March 4, 2008
Early on Tuesday morning we waited at the hostel in San Pedro Atacama, Chile for our tour bus to pick us up at 7:30. It was late and Ted went off to see what the problem was. We didn’t worry about being separated since there were only a couple of streets in town. About 8:30 a bus came and picked us up, drove about a mile and dropped us off at the Chile border. There we had our exit stamped into our passports, loaded all our stuff onto one of three jeeps and with 16 other travelers, began our Bolivian adventure.
A few miles into Bolivia we came upon two small buildings set in the middle of nowhere. The Bolivian immigration station. Our party was composed of 17 people, some from Switzerland, from Ireland, Spain and Japan. Our jeep held us, three other Americans and one German man. The immigration man took all American passports, explaining that a police would deliver them to Uyuni, Bolivia waiting for our arrival. Traveling without our passports was a bit un-nerving for us all, but since there was nothing between us and Uyuni but empty space for the next 3 days, we didn’t worry overly.
Our driver then proceeded to start driving across the desert with nothing visible except tracks in the sand. This was our introduction to Bolivian roads, at least in the south. The first stop was at a National Park Reserve where we visited several salt lakes. One of them was green from the dissolved copper, and one was white. Three different species of Flamingos live in the salt lakes of the Atacama desert. The lakes are quite shallow and allow different types of algae and other organisisms to thrive, providing food for the flamingoes. The lakes mirror the mountains and the few scattered clouds with a wonderful brilliance.
The high altitude, the dryness and the blowing cold wind made us quite uncomfortable during most of the first day. As we continued to drive through miles and miles of dry desert, a few dwarf plants grew in patches here and there. Mostly the plants appeared slightly dead, growing a sickly yellow against the light brown of the ground and hills. We arrived at an area of active geysers and thermal pools. In the distance we could see several geysers blowing up but I couldn’t get any good pictures. Nearer to our parking lot there was one blowing smoke from the ground. A pool had been built so people could lounge in the warm waters. But eventually they had to leave the warm water and dry off in the very cold blowing air.
Driving again through miles and miles of dry land, we arrived at an area where boiling water and mud bubbled in pits, throwing yellow sulfur around some of the pits. In the distance we spotted several Vicunas grazing on the small yellow plants. Even though the landscape was barren and the mountains devoid of any living plants, the ground continually changed. From sand, to sand strewn with small rock, gravel, sand with a thin layer of gravel, back to sand. In most areas where plants did grow it appeared that they were growing around rocks where the rocks might have captured small amounts of morning dew. In other areas, a flat yellow type of plants looking almost like fungi grew in circles around the rocks. The different salt lakes have different colors depending on the concentration of minerals or algae. At the Colorado Lake (red lake) the red algae drifted back and forth with the wind while flamingoes peacefully grazed..
Finally we reached our “hotel” for the first night. The wind continued to blow and very few people ventured out to take a couple of pictures, then ran quickly back to escape the cold. A pet llama (or maybe next year’s meat) was feeding outside. She or he didn’t seem to want to be touched and no one was brave enough to try. Our beds were six to a room, meaning that the occupants of the three jeeps continued to be separated, meeting only at meals and tourist stops. The blanket on each bed was folded such that it was impossible to cover both the shoulders and the feet. The communal bath was down the tile hallway making for cold feet if one should have to use it in the night. Also, electricity was only on for about three hours from seven to ten. Everyone spent a rather sleepless night, each suffering from headaches because we were over 12,000 feet up from sea level.
Day 2 we headed across more flat dry land. Spotting a few vicunas grazing or standing in the lifeless plain. Our driver explained that they feed in the greener areas, and then move up to avoid predation by pumas. In the museum back in Chile we discovered that the llamas are a cross between the vicuna and the alpaca done by the Indians about 14,000 years before when they found that they could capture baby animals and raise them to insure future meat and the animals cross bred naturally.
The wind has carved large rocks into unreal shapes sitting in the middle of miles of sand. One tourist stop was at a rock that resembled a tree. Some of the group climbed on the rocks while most of us were content to stand in front of them and have our pictures taken.
Back in the jeeps we drove miles through the desert, spotting lakes filled with eating flamingoes. Arriving in a small village, devoid of either trees or people, we stopped for a lunch of soup, bread, rice, chopped wieners and coke, a typical meal.
Now the landscape changed again, through small green valleys filled with herds of llamas, up through volcanic rock and barren patches.
Small adobe houses appeared sometimes and lots of short rock walls, the rocks just lay upon one another, no mortar holding them in place. On one hillside it looked like a map had been drawn with short walls forming rectangles or very small territories, matching those in the valleys. Our driver told us they were Incan, but it was a bit hard to believe that unmortared walls have remained in perfect condition for five hundred years. But maybe. Small creeks meandered through the green valleys and large herds of llamas grazed. Most of the llamas had red ribbons wrapped around their ears and some wore ribbons stuck in their backs. There are some black, some white, some white and brown and some brown llamas, giving the whole herd a wonderful variety of the grazing animals.
One stop in a very small town built at the foot of some rock palisades seemed completely empty, as did most of the villages we passed. Our driver explained that the people of the village were either out with the llamas (we saw two) or minding their small crops of Quenoa bushes, gluten free grain that comes in three colors, red, yellow or green. Our jeep stopped to examine some of the low Quenoa plants.
Now we began to see sheep among the herds of lamas. Sheep were introduced a few years back and because they are cheaper to raise, more and more sheep’s wool is replacing the traditional lama and alpaca sweaters and shawls for sale by local women.
Now the areas were greener and on several occasions we had to drive across small streams. One time we drove up the stream until the road again moved onto dry land. Suddenly the landscape changed to an enormous salt flat, the largest in the world.
For Millions of years, this area of South America was covered by a salt sea. As the Andes were pushed up and the climate dried out over successive periods, layers of salt were deposited until the entire sea had finally dried up leaving the world’s largest salt shaker; pure sodium chloride covering an area of almost 5000 sq. mi, and some 400 ft. thick. This is the Salar de Uyuni, merely the largest of several huge salt pans left behind by the receding sea. While the Salar is irregular, it is roughly 50 by 100 miles along its perimeter, giving one some perspective on its huge size.
We drove for miles alongside the flat salt pan, finally arriving at the hotel for the night. This hotel is only three years old, has 27 rooms each having six beds and private baths. A suicide shower provides warm water and the electricity is on for four hours. Big windows face out looking at the back of a small village and mile upon mile of flat, white salt.
After breakfast, we drove out onto the salt. The three jeeps occasionally drove through shallow salt lakes produced by recent rains, reflecting the snow topped mountains along the edges of the salt flat, but. for the most part, the pan was dry and blindingly white. Isolated islands in the salt are home to small hare-like animals, Vizchayas, now beginning to evolve into separate species. At one, we stopped while tourists climbed up for the view of an ocean of white salt. The whole island was covered with large saguaro cactus and the buildings had been built out of ancient coral. The outside tables were salt blocks. On one building the chimney was a tall cactus skeleton. Because of the completely flat and white salt pan, photo perspective shots were amazing and the various groups of travelers spent many minutes posing. In one photo, Jesse. The American girl traveling with us, sits cross legged on the salt while a tiny Bryan and an equally tiny Joe appear to stand on her outstretched hands.
Now our jeeps continued across the Salar until we reached the “Salt Hotel”, a building made entirely out of salt blocks, standing in the middle of miles and miles of salt. Inside, the tables, the beds, the walls and walks were made of salt blocks, clearly showing the layers of salt sandwiched between layers of brown sediment. Sculptures filled the hall ways with even a standing clock, a salty Big Ben, all carved from salt.
Next mounds of white salt appeared, the salt mines of Bolivia. Trucks haul the salt to other small villages where it is loaded onto trains and taken to Ororu for processing. At one village where the train line begins, villagers sell small bowls and other small items made of salt. This was the first village we had seen that had people walking about and selling tourist items. But again, not a single sign of anything green, just brown adobe huts, a few television antennas leaning away from the wind, and brown ground with white mounds of salt with several houses made of salt blocks.
About 12 miles from the mines, Uyuni, 12,000 ft. above sea level, appeared and the end of the tour. It was Thursday and the weekly market with women selling everything from school supplies, clothes, lotions and soap, skirts and fruit, filled the main street. Bolivian women in colorful pleated skirts, aprons, bowler hats, long wool stockings, long braids hanging down their backs sit by their wares or shop for supplies. All the women that sell produce wear blue aprons over their clothes. Young Bolivian women don’t wear the old traditional clothes but have changed to Western clothes.
We were unloaded on a street corner after the driver drove by the immigration office (closed until 2:30) and left to fend for ourselves. While Ted went in one direction to see one Hostel, Joe (another American) went in the other direction to check out another. Finally, we decided on Joe’s hostel and dragged all our belongings a block and a half to the Hostel Marith, a very nice place.
After dumping all our stuff in the rooms, we headed back in a group of five, to hopefully find our passports waiting. All the information that we had gotten off of the internet, the photos without glasses, the copies of credit cards, etc. proved un-necessary. They stamped our passports, and after filling out a small form and paying our $100 each, we had our visas. So easy!
Now we had time to wander around, taking pictures, eating lunch and finding our bus or train schedules. Johann, the German man with us, took a train to Argentina to continue his trip. The three other Americans were going north to work in an Animal Reserve for two weeks before returning to Colorado. We bought our bus tickets to La Paz.
Near the bus terminal there was a street of stalls that sold nothing but used clothes. Shops for the poorer or toiling class.
Everywhere dogs roam, all seemingly in good health with some wearing collars. Big dogs with obvious German Shepherd heritage, little curly poodle like dogs, shaggy small dogs, even a few puppies, all well behaved but follow tourists around hoping for a hand-out. At dinner we watched as a tourist put her coat on the floor by her chair so a small puppy could lie down. After it rearranged the coat it rolled off while trying to lick it’s hind leg, it settled down for a warm and comfortable nap. It was still sleeping when we left at 9:00 p.m.
Friday morning the street was empty of the market people and it was easy to believe the city is home to only 14,000 people. The main industry of Uyuni is the many tourists that walk through the park or find their way to the half dozen internet places. Every tour company that has an office in San Pedro de Atacama has one here. Tours back to Chile or tours around the salt flats of Bolivia keep the industry well and happy. While eating lunch at an outdoor café, we were spotted by two Israeli girls that we had met in Buenos Aires over a month and a half ago. After catching up on the different trips each of us had taken, they left to ready themselves for the 3 day, 2 nights tour that we had just finished. A very interesting tour and one that we are so glad we had the chance to see.