Salty Business

In the southwest of Bolivia is a small town called Uyuni which is not the greatest of places in this writer’s humble opinion, but it is the place to go if you want to see salt.  Lots and lots of salt.  I mean, if that’s your kind of thing.  Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, after all, and it is a huge  tourist attraction.  In fact, before travelling in Bolivia, if someone said to me “say the first three things that come to your mind when I say ‘Bolivia’” I would say “salt, sloths, poor”.  So that shows just about how much knowledge I had of the place, because there is a lot more than salt in the country of Bolivia, I’ve yet to see a sloth, and people who look poor are probably richer than I am.

Anyway, the town of Uyuni offers a multitude of different tours and it seems you get what you pay for.  We have heard horror stories of drunken drivers, poor food, lack of English-speaking tour guides, so we went with a highly reputable company called Red Planet Expedition and chose a three-day tour.  I had no idea what to expect as Callum made it sound like we’d be freezing cold and camping at night with no toilets.  So I guess I expected the very worst situation for a summer-baby hot weather and luxury loving city gal.  Well, it was a bit difficult at times (no hot showers, fewer toilets available then the need to pee) but it was worth it because we saw some of the most diverse scenery I’ve ever seen.

We were in a group of about a dozen tourists, three drivers for three 4WDs and one guide named Christian (who was the absolute bomb.)  We started out with seeing a train graveyard of sorts.  It was bizarre.  Imagine a bunch of abandoned old trains, rusty and vandalized with graffiti sitting forlornly in the middle of a desert.  Yup, that’s the train cemetery.  We were a bit bewildered by it all but got a few cool pictures among the millions of other tourists crawling and climbing around the old trains.  One guy had climbed atop a tall piece of machinery, sat cross-legged and played his ukulele.  He had a wide brimmed hat and was playing a Vance Joy song.  Callum remarked “How white is that guy” and I agreed.  But then I noticed his friends were filming him and I started to imagine that he must do this every place he goes. He’s probably going to thread together all the videos of himself playing this one awesome Vance Joy song and end up with one epic clip of himself all over the world!  I began to get a bit jealous.  Why didn’t we think of that idea?  Why didn’t we do a song?  Why don’t I have a ukulele?

Anyway, the next stop was a brief introduction to salt (have you heard of it?) at a miner’s house and workshop.  The Bolivians don’t actually have a large factory for the processing of the salt.  They tried to make one but it didn’t work out.  So, they do as they have always done: the locals process and sell it themselves.

Finally, what we were all waiting for: the Salar de Uyuni.  The large expense of blinding white crunchy stuff set against a backdrop of blue sky and white clouds.  No water on the flats the day we saw them, so no epic reflection shots for us (boo) but it was still impressive and we got a couple fun pictures.  The flats themselves are roughly 12,000 kms square and used to be a lake, so it goes far underground as well, like a bowl.  So they have a lot of it.  It seemed we drove for hours across it, millions of other 4WD’s passing and criss-crossing our car, each with at least 6 tourists inside, just as excited as we were to see all that salt.

We got to climb cactus island as well which was unique.  I enjoyed that it was referred to as an island, even though it is surrounded by not water, but salt.  The cacti on the island itself were bizarre and dangerous and looked really interesting.  Something cool happened on this island—we saw a real live wild chinchilla!  It was big and grey.

After this we watched the sunset over the salt flats and it was breathtaking.  We drove for a long time until we got to our stop that night—a lodge sort of place which must cater to tourists doing a tour of this kind, as there were several rooms and a large dining area.  The bricks of this lodge were made from salt and we had salt gravel on the ground.  It was freezing cold at night but thankfully we were provided with very warm blankets on our beds.

The second day we were feeling pretty sick despite taking our altitude sickness medicine and drinking our coca tea.  The headaches put both of us in sort of grumpy moods but something that cheered us both up was getting to walk up close to a whole pasture of llamas.  For the people who have already been through Peru, the llama-watching may have been a bit boring, but we were both thrilled because neither of us had seen llamas up close before.  We even got to watch and follow a couple of babies around for a while.

The day continued with long stretches of driving and several stops along the way to view different points of interest and to stretch our legs.  Our next favourite thing was seeing the pink lagoon and the flamingos that feed there.   The lagoon (and the flamingos) are pink because of a particular type of algae that grows in it, and which the flamingos eat.  It is the first time I’ve ever seen a pink body of water.  I wish there were more strange coloured ponds, lakes, or oceans in the world.  It would be amusing to see a rainbow of different lakes in your lifetime.

Our second night’s accommodation left a little to be desired to be honest as the hosts of the lodge did not seem to be interested in having tourists stay with them.  However, one good point was that there was a natural hot tub which all of our group enjoyed together like one big happy family under an intense sky of stars.  It was wicked cold getting down there (about a 3 minute walk in the freezing night air) and a bit painful getting down to our bathing suits, but the water was perfectly hot and though the getting out was a bit painful as well, the hour or so spent in the water was delightful and worth it.

The third day was mostly just driving back to Uyuni, but we did stop at a lovely little settlement for a two hour lunch and stroll to see a pond and again, very interesting rock formations.

If you go to Bolivia, it is definitely worth it to go on a tour such as this.  The different scenery we saw was diverse and beautiful and new to our eyes.  Uyuni the town itself is kind of a crap place, though my opinion may be tainted by an encounter with quite possibly the rudest person I have ever met—the hostel owner where we stayed—but really, it looked boring and seems to only serves as the place to organize and go on tours.

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