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|Uyuni Salt Flats • Bolivia 4wd Expedition|
|JULY 23, 2006 – SUNDAY|
|9am we are at the tour office. Our “custom” tour is the regular $25 tour: Uyuni salt flats, Isla de Pescada (Fish Island), salt mountains, and Salt Hotel, plus extras: village of Colchani where they make salt souvenirs, the volcano, small red lake, and small fish island. We ask to have the train cemetery stop removed to give us more time for the other things, because we were going there on our way out of town tomorrow.We finally board out Landcruisers at 9:30. About 15 minutes into the ride, we decide that the driver is taking us to the train cemetery (which is the opposite direction from the salt flats). We get him stopped and explain that we had a custom trip. He doesn’t speak English, but we are pretty sure that this is the first he has heard of this. After reviewing our receipt and some discussion with the other driver, he turns around and goes back to town. Then we stop to get a spare tire for the other Landcruiser, this is another 30 minute delay. Finally at 10:15 we begin our journey. We are hoping that this doesn’t cut us short today.
A 30 minute drive across dirt tracks takes us to the village of Colchani. There used to be a pretty big salt processing plant here, but if I understood correctly, when silver started being mined around there, all of the people and money left Colchani. They had a old jalopy machine to put chunks of salt in and it spit out granules at the other side. There were several building built with blocks of salt, including the squatter bathroom. There was even a newly constructed hotel with beds of salt, tables of salt, benches of salt, walls, ceiling and floor of salt, EVERYTHING of salt! There was a baby llama, and I had to have my pix taken with it. It was SO SOFT, I could have taken it home with me. There were a few venders selling salt trinkets. I bought a green salt crystal.
Next was the luguna pequena rojo, small red lake. Its name comes from the fact that the red algae gives the lake a red hue. It really does. It is very toxic, and it looked like an egret forgot this, took a drink, and had died there. We walked to the white lake, with sweet water. It had some ducks on it and weird plants. Amazing that a couple hundred feet apart, the waters could be so different!!
We passed some fields ready to plant quinoa. Quinoa is a type of grain, although it is called a vegetable with many uses. It can be puffed like popcorn, ground into flour, made into pasta, used as a cereal, and has all 8 of the essential amino acids. It is planted in August and September and harvested in March. It is a huge staple to the Andean mountain people, much like we use wheat.
We had not been driving on the salar long when we arrived at the salt “mountains”. I expected real mountains, but they were 3 feet mounds of salt which had been scraped up by hand to be sold. I think Marcello, our driver, said that 500 kilos of salt was sold for 70 bs ($90US). That seems really cheap. We of course had to take the popular pix of everyone standing on a mountain, acting like we were flying.
We drive, and drive, and drive across the salt. It looked so much like ice. It was even cracked in octagonal shapes with heaved edges like broad expanses of glaciers do. After 45 minutes, and a short nap for birthday boy, we arrive at the Tunupa Volcano. To leave the salt and get to the land was quite interesting. There is a salty slush and the salt is very thin, so you have to stay on the main tracks. Marcello said that about 8 people die every year from driving on too thin of salt and drowning in the lake below. They have cut block of salt for the tour operators to cross on. The grassland at the edge of the salt has flamingos!! This is a bonus because we were told that we had to do the 3-day and go further south to see them. Lunch will be ready for us in 20 minutes, so it is off to catch photos of flamingos and llamas.
There were all colors of llams, many of them decorated with colored yarn. This is the first time I have been close enough to see that their ears are actually pierced! Then a string is put through with colored yarn pom-poms tied onto it. We found a tiny speckled baby llama. It was the youngest I have seen, and hardly had any wool, but it did have a green kerchief around its neck. I hate to think of it at -20F nights. I stood still and got a “llama parade” going past in single file: black, brown, tan, white, and spotted of all colors. Great pix!
The large flocks of flamingos go further south in the winter, but there were enough for good enjoyment. Most of these were the Chilean (salmon and reddish/orange) and James flamingos (smaller with black on its body).
There was also a cool geological phenomenon here also. The rocks are fossilized coral!! You can see fan coral, brain coral, and other that I don’t know the names of. The chunks had been picked up and used to make fences/corrals. The large sections were just left to add beauty.
While we waited for lunch, we took a peak at the sleeping accommodations and toilet facilities. There were piles of wool blankets 2 feet thick on each bed besides the sleeping bad. Six beds per room. Definitely no heat anywhere. Toilets, but no showers. It would work for a few days, but a good hot shower and heated living area would be greatly appreciated upon return.
Lunch was actually very good: grilled chicken breasts, seasoned rice, a salad of mounds of peeled and diced tomato, cucumber (1st I’ve had here), and carrot, then a dessert cup of canned peaches and strawberries. Delicious. The fresh veggies were so good!
Back across the salar floor to Isla de Pescado, Fish Island. It is just incredible how there is salt everywhere you look. Most places it ends at the mountains, but if you do a 360 look, there is about a third that just goes off into the horizon. This salt flat is the largest in the world, and also the highest in altitude. The SW of Bolivia was once covered with a sea. The water receded slowly, leaving these vast amounts of salt. In the winter the salar is covered with water, maybe up to 14 inches. This is when they have the most problems of vehicles leaving the trails and falling through the salt.
There is nothing fishy about fish island. Maybe they found some fossils or something, once upon a time. It is a literal island popping up out of the salt. It is COVERED in cactus and fossilized coral. There is a coral step path to the top where you get a 360 look of the salar. Amazing. We take pix of Landcruisers (the only vehicle used they the various tour companies) crossing the salar. They look so small. There is a snow-capped mountain in sight. They point out a 1200 year old cactus, knowing that this type of cactus grows only one half inch per year and assuming this has been unchanged for that period of time. The few buildings that were there were rock with cactus trim — soffit, shutters, window and door frames.
Last stop is the Hotel de Sal, Salt Hotel. The hotel itself, although old and very run down, is interesting. A sign at the entrance asks that if you want to take pictures, to buy something. We oblige and buy a drink. The outside has rows of “patio furniture” fashioned from salt blocks. The blocks are not just white, they are a layered effect of white and a tan/brown. This gives some color interest. The arched entrance has some interesting construction. Inside are a few rooms (uninviting) and 2 separate dining areas with 3 foot carved block llamas. I suppose when it was new,, it would have been THE tourist destination. I would have loved to stayed here if it had any inkling of being clean, but it didn’t. We were told that they put down 4 or 5 llama pelts on the beds to shield the cold from the salt.
Sunset will be soon, so we all go out to enjoy. I find a very cool hole. They have drilled/cut down through the salt and exposed the salt water. It literally looked like a fishing hole through ICE. In fact, every one of us today called the salt “ice”. “We were a bit mortified to find that the salt was only about 14 inches thick here. No problem if the water is just a few inches deep, so one of the guys grabs a flagpole to test the water depth. It finally touches at the bottom. The flag pole is 9 feet tall!!!! Not very reassuring!!!! The sun sets in oranges and pinks across the salt.
Back in Uyuni at 7pm we decide to have birthday dinner at “The Minuteman”. It is inside the Tonito Hotel, at Avenida Ferroviaria #60 (693-3186), owned by Chris Sarage. It is also where we are parked. It is suggested in the travel books and Clive and Ann’s 2 daughters just came through here in March and said it was the best pizza they had. They were right! We did a large pizza: 1/2 Mexican, 1/2 Mediterranean with feta cheese — Wonderful!! Enough left for lunch tomorrow. They even had cheddar cheese which we haven’t seen in S.America. They also made a fantabulous gorgonzola cheese bread. We are not eating badly, at al!! I buy desserts for everyone in lieu of a b-day cake.
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