Friday, September 23, 2011

Salar de Uyuni Part 2

As I´m going through my pictures to remember everything that we saw and did I´m amazed that it went by so fast. 

The second day of the tour started off with a visit to the Arboles de piedra, or stone trees.  It´s literally a large field of stone in various formations that you can explore and climb.  It´s in the desert and the terrain is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.  We found a few patches of snow, giving testament to the frigid temperatures we encountered the night before in the hostel.

Our next stop was at the lagunas antiplanicas, which were high altitude lagoons.  The first one we visited reflected the mountains in the water as if it were a mirror.

Then the laguna honda, or round lagoon, had a lot of flamingos.  After snapping some pictures we sat down for a picnic lunch of pastel de papas (potato cake) with tomatoes and cucumbers.

A short ride later we arrived at el volcan Ollague.  We snacked on some lollipops while we explored the area and took pictures.

En route to our next night´s luxurious accomodations we crossed a railway tracks that connects Bolivia to Chile.  As we all lay down on the tracks for a picture, our tour guide joked with us that a trains was coming from the opposite direction.  We all fell for it.

Around 8 that night we arrived in our next night´s stay, which was a salt hotel.  The word hotel is much of an overstatement, and I heard that it´s actually more accurately referred to as a refugio (or refuge).  Yes, it´s pretty much what it sounds like: beds on slabs of stone, one light in each room that didn´t necessarily work all the time, as pretty much as bare bones as you can get.

The cool part of staying there was that everything was made of salt: the walls, the bases for the beds, and even the ground was grains of salt.  Our dinner was a soup with bread followed by chicken and french fries and rice.  We turned in pretty early, as we had to be up before sunrise on the salt flats.

The third day of the tour was the most amazing part.  We woke up before sunrise and piled into the 4x4 to drive to the salt flats.  Just to give you an idea as to how vast they are, they cover 12,000 square kilometers, or about 4600 squre miles.  We arrived as the sun was rising, and it gave a really beautiful view of the mountains in the background.

After snapping a few pictures there, we went on to the Isla de las pescadores, or Fisherman´s Island. It isn´t an island as you would typically think of it, but if you think of the salt flats as a huge lake it would make sense. It is covered with lots of cacti and has amazing views of the salt flats and mountains. The climb up was a bit challenging and you had to be careful with your footing, but once you made it to the top it was worth the trip.

Somehow on the way down I didn´t see the path continue, and so I figured I had to go back the same way I came. I went off the marked path a few times since the arrows were coming from the opposite directions, but after seeing the steep inclines I made my way back on track. I was a bit annoyed at myself for not waiting for the group, but as I was on my way back I noticed something: vizcacahas!

Vizcachas are animals that are native to Peru and Bolivia (and maybe a few other countries too). They´re a hybrid between a rabbit and a squirrel, with the main body of the rabbit but the tail of a squirrel. So in the end my detour was worth it.
We then had a breakfast of sweet bread with manjar, jam, yogurt, and tea and coffee. While we were eating a pair of alpaca (llama like animals) walked by.

After that was the highlight of the tour.  We drove out to the very middle of the salt flats to admire the beauty and take lots of awesome pictures.  Our tour guide showed us that the salt flats can actually be drilled through, and that under them is water that crystallizes the other side of the ground. 

 The white ground and blue sky background makes for some amazing picture taking. You can use the blue backdrop to create some pretty cool optical illusions:

 After about an hour and a half of taking any type of picture we could think of, we made our way to the salt mines. There they actaully dig up the salt and put it into huge piles. They are then later taken to a salt prcoessing plant, heated up, and treated with iodine before being bagged and sold. They can produce 50 kg of salt for about 13 bolivianos. So that´s about 110 pounds of salt for 2 bucks.

Outside the salt plant there were artisans selling a lot of goods, and so I got some alpaca scarves and other souveniers for a good price.  Unfortunately I didn´t have enough bolivianos on me, but they accepted Chilean pesos for a bit of a higher price.

As we continued on, we stopped for lunch at an area where we saw some deer crossing.  Lunch was basic but filling: tuna fish, rice, and tomatoes and corn.

 Our next stop was to a place I never even thought existed: a train cemetary. Apparently Bolivia puts its old trains into this area of the desert, and people coming through can visit and admire them. A lot of people also decide to leave their own calling card on them, as seen by all of the grafitti.

After this, we arrived in the town of Uyuni. I had to go to immigration to get my tourist visa, so the tour guide went with me.  This ended up being a bit more problematic than I was expecting.  First off, they told me that I couldn´t pay the $135 US dollar tourist visa fee in US dollars.  I told them that I called up and they specifically told me that I could pay in dollars.  Then after that they told me I needed a yellow fever vaccination.  I told them that my tour never told me about it and that the customs officials at the border crossing never advised me about it, so I didn´t know how I could be held responsible for it.  Despite that, they issued me a fine of 50 bolivianos (which is about 7 dollars).  I told them that I didn´t have bolivianos, so they took it out of the change they owed me since I had 3 fifty dollar bills.  I was a bit annoyed and felt like they took advantage of the situation, but in the end I got in and out of the country without a problem.

I then met up with the rest of the people on my tour.  We left Uyuni at 5:45, and we were supposed to arrive at 9 at night.  Note the key phrase "were supposed to". Around 8 it was already pitch black, and the truck´s battery died.  This didn´t seem to phase anyone else, as it gave them the perfect opportunity for a smoke break.  As we stood outside it was amazing seeing the night sky, as you can see all of the stars and constellations with the naked eye in San Pedro.

After about 20 minutes, the driver got the truck started.  We boarded and continued on our way.  Then half an hour the same thing happened again.  After about 10 minutes he still didn´t have the truck working, and I seriously thought we were going to be stranded in the Bolivian desert for the night.  (Keep in mind that we are in the middle of nowhere and without any cell phone reception).  I knew that worrying about it wouldn´t change anything, so I simply continued resting.

Eventually it started again, and every once in a while the truck died again.  The last time was in the middle of a river with water about a foot deep, but luckily our driver got it started again without getting out.

We finally arrived at about 10:45.  I was too tired to take any pictures, but the accomodations were bare bones again.  We were hungry for dinner and devoured some pasta with sausage and tomato sauce before turning in.  The following morning we´d have to be up at 5 to be on the road by 5:30 so that we could make it back to San Pedro by 1 in the afternoon.

At this point the reality was sinking in that the trip was coming to a close.  I felt sad that it was ending, but at the same time so happy that I finally made it to an area that I had wanted to see ever since I arrived in South America.  Adding in the fact that I hadn´t showered or shaved for four days by the last day of the trip made me glad to be returning to San Pedro.

No comments:

Post a Comment