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Salt Flats of Uyuni - Day 1

Written on: Monday January 7th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Author: Julie

Hola!

I had hoped this blog entry would have been about the beauty of the salt flats we saw today, but unfortunately it?s more about the fiasco of our trip. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did.

We woke up that morning excited to start a new stage in our trip. We quickly checked out, grabbed a fast breakfast, and ran over to the immigration office to get stamped out of the country. At 10:15 we were at the office with our bags, ready to get going on our trip. Unfortunately, our truck hadn?t arrived yet. Time ticked by and at 11 AM, we asked the girl what was going on and she said the truck was at a hotel to pick up the 4 passengers but had a bit of mechanical problems that were being sorted out. We thought to ourselves ?Okay, at least it wasn?t once we were out there.? So we sat down on the stoop and met one of our fellow passengers: Thomas from France. I was a little confused on why he was there since the day before she had told us we would be sharing the truck with four English girls and here was a French guy. Andrea, our agent, said she was walking over to the hotel to see what was happening. While she was gone, another agency worker came in and sat down. Kevin was really getting frustrated so when the representative got up from his desk he checked the trip log and saw only our three names on the list and none other. So we started getting suspicious about what was going. We asked him where she was gone and he answered to the bus terminal, when she had told it was to a hotel. Kevin continued to ask him questions and he finally confirmed that not only they didn?t have enough passengers but also didn?t have an actual truck lined up. We were really angry at that point and walked over to the other tour operator next door to inquire if they had any seats available for today but they only had one single seat which Thomas was considering taking when Andrea arrived with a truck, filled with three other people ready to go. At this point we just wanted to get going, so we got in. We quickly met everyone: Julien and his wife Galia from Belgium and Laura from New Zealand. They too were frustrated, only a few minutes earlier they had been picked up by the driver at their agency. Turns out what actually had happened was that Andrea had gone to a bunch of different tour agencies to cobble together all the loose travelers and hired an independent driver, cook and truck.

We finally thought the drama for the day would be over but it was only starting. Fully loaded, with our bags wrapped in a tarp on top of the truck, we got into the back seats and drove off. Our first stop before leaving town was to pick up the cook and her boxes of food and cookware. She made Laura, who was sitting in the front seat, switch to the back seat so she could sit in front. Then after driving off, we stopped once more at an intersection to talk with another truck that was just coming back from the salt flats. I couldn?t believe we were wasting time till we realised that they were swapping stove tops because ours didn?t work. Phew, at least we didn?t find out once we were out there.

At 1 PM, we finally headed out of town for our first stop at the train graveyard a few kilometres away. A dozen steam engines and cars are rotting away in the flat lands of Uyuni. We were told we had 10 minutes to crawl around the abandoned and rusting metal structures before we head out towards the salt flats. We were three hours behind the schedule and we needed to try to make up time before the sun set. It was great fun to stand in the conductor cabin pretending to drive the train while sounding an invisible horn. Choo choo! Time passed by and our driver was tooting his own horn at us to get back in the truck. The trip had finally started so we were all in a good mood with the morning?s confusion behind us.

We drove for about an hour till we arrived at the community of Colchani located at the entrance to the blindingly white salt flats. Some 40,000 years ago, the area was part of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. When the lake dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó Lake and Uru Uru Lake, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa and the larger Uyuni. Uyuni is roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. It is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually. All miners working in the Salar belong to Colchani's cooperative. The community is a tourist trap with a couple of unofficial salt ?museums? as well as a few stands selling tourist souvenirs made from sculpted salt, including dice, ashtrays, pen holders, paper weights, etc. We wandered around for a little while and decided to enter one of the museums. There was no one at the entrance and we didn?t see a sign stating prices, so we figured it was free but when we went to leave the room, with a dozen sculpted salt figurines, a woman entered and demanded we pay her 10 BS each. We were all a bit irritated because if we had known we had to pay we wouldn?t have entered. I like to be given the choice to decide to pay and enter or not. I guess we were just dumb tourists to assume that it was free. Anyhow, we paid our fee and left to find our truck and driver. We found him with the hood up and looking at the motor of the car. We hoped he was only fine-tuning it for our ride across the watery salt flats.

We loaded back into the truck and headed out across the white expanse of never-ending salt. It was so beautiful and we stopped about 10 minutes into our ride to take photos. I was hoping to stop at a place with less trucks because we weren?t able to take a photo without at least 15 other people in them. Due to its large size, smooth surface, high surface reflectivity when covered with shallow water, and minimal elevation deviation, Salar de Uyuni makes an ideal target for the testing and calibration of remote sensing instruments on orbiting satellites used to study the Earth. In addition to providing an excellent target surface the skies above Salar de Uyuni are so clear, and the air so dry, that the surface works up to five times better for satellite calibration than using the surface of the ocean. Again, our driver was rushed to make up time and he rushed it to get back in the truck for our next stop at the so-called Salt Hotel. It is considered an illegal structure, operating without permits.

When we arrived at the Salt Hotel, we found a few dozen trucks stopped and hundreds of people spread out over the salt flats taking the photos I really wanted to take earlier. I was so happy to be able to have the chance. We were told we had 20 minutes before we had to meet at the hotel for our lunch before quickly heading out on the road again. Kevin, Thomas and I took off our shoes and headed out barefoot in the 3-inch deep water that was covering the salt ground. We took our time to take photos by using the reflection and flatness of the ground to create cool optical illusions. We had seen so many great photos the day before at the Rankings office, some people have with their imagination created stunning images. Take a look at the photo album to see what we mean.

After a nice lunch of pork chops and pasta, we started to drive across the salt flats. It was a fantastic experience. The pool of water was perfectly reflecting the blue sky and white clouds. We couldn?t tell where the earth ended and the sky began, it was a perfect mirror image. It had rained for the past three days and we were lucky enough to be able to have perfect conditions for taking amazing photos. We had the sensation of being in a marine craft, with the water splashing high around us. Without a break in the perfectly reflected horizon, we drove for two hours in what seemed to be a straight line without any indication or marker showing us where we were headed. We asked the driver how he knew where he was going but all he answered was that he did. He wasn?t very talkative and never asked our names. We were told he would provide the dual service of driver and guide (in Spanish) but he never communicated with us and at the various sites he would sit in his truck waiting for us. Luckily, we remembered what the tour agency representative had told us so we could figure it out for ourselves.

Our next stop was at Isla de los Pescadores, named because of its shape resembling a fish. At the parking area, our driver told us we had 10 minutes to explore a bit and to take photos. He advised we didn?t head up to the top of the island since we were short on time. I was appreciative that he was trying to play catch up on time but this was the last official stop on the tour today so even if we were a bit late getting to the accommodations it didn?t matter. I just didn?t get what the rush was all about anymore. Anyhow, Kevin and I hurried up to the entrance to take photos of the giant cactuses that grow naturally on this island in the middle of a sea of salt. They were beautiful and we took quite a few photos, till we were approached by a woman who worked in one of the buildings on the island. Thinking she wanted to sell us drinks or water I said no thank with a smile, but it turns out we had to pay to enter the island, something our driver had neglected to tell us, there were no signs and the path from the parking lot to the island did not lead towards the buildings. There was no way for us to know. We were both frustrated because we only had 10 minutes per site to visit and it seemed like this tour was a non-stop money pit where we had to pay each time. Anyhow, most people on our tour refused to pay and walked off the island towards the truck. At this point, our driver was trying to force us to pay and people were getting mad at the lack of communication on his part. All he had said was ?Get up there, you?ve got 10 minutes and then we?ve got to go?. So, out of guilty conscience I marched up to the office and paid for myself. It wasn?t about the price because it was cheap at 10 BS per person but more the principle that there are no signs and the driver doesn?t tell us so we?re again not given the choice to decided to spend the money or not. Finally, the whole group got into the truck and waited for the driver to get in and go. With the late departure, the lies told by the travel agencies, the rip offs at the tourist sites, the lack of professionalism on the drivers part, we were all getting tired and just wanted to get to the hostel for the night and start fresh tomorrow morning.

Unfortunately, that wasn?t the case. As we drove out of the salt flats and onto firm ground again, we merged with a muddy, deeply rutted road. The rains the previous days had turned the road into a patchwork of mud and giant puddles. We tried to go around as many puddles as we could, but there were a few quite deep ones that we did not have a choice to evade. It was a little after one of these deep ones, that we began having car trouble. The battery was starting to lose power, the truck was starting to lose speed till we finally came to a stop. We were approximately 30 minutes outside of the village where our accommodations were located. The driver popped the hood and started playing with the distributor cap. Kevin tried to help him as much as he could but not much could be done for it. The sun was setting, the light was becoming poor and the driver did not have a flashlight with him and his toolbox consisted of a few basic tools. We lent him our headlamps while a rainstorm was quickly moving its way towards us. It was 8:30 PM by then. The winds came first, with enough strength to rock the truck loaded with our gear on top and the eight of us sitting inside it. The temperature which had not being warm to begin with quickly dropped and a hail storm started to pound the truck. We were all freezing by then and trying to figure out what to do. The driver decided to walk to the village to ask for help and estimated the walking distance to be about one hour, but he needed one of us to go with him. I knew it was much more and had calculated it out to be closer to four hours based on the remaining distance and the speed we had been driving previously. Julien was good enough to volunteer and we lent them our headlamps and thick rain ponchos as the weather hadn?t abated its pounding. They headed out at 9:30 and we expected them back in the next couple of hours if the driver was accurate in his estimate. The remainder of us sat in the truck, in the dark, starved from not having supper, waiting for the cavalry to come save us. It became so cold that although we were all warming up the cabin with our bodies, we were all still shivering. I wanted to go on top of the truck to retrieve my sleeping bag to share with everyone but the driver had forbidden us before leaving to go on the top. So, there we sat only a few feet away from all our warm clothes, shivering. We tried to sleep but we would awake often when our bodies became numb from the cold.

At close to 1 AM, I told Kevin they had 20 minutes to make it back or I was going on top no matter what had been said, but at that instant far off in the distance we finally saw headlights coming in our direction. It had taken the guys almost 3 ˝ hours to walk in the freezing rain and hail to the village then another few minutes to find a hostel that was open with someone willing to come get off. So, the other driver had us move to his nicely warmed truck, attached a rope system to our truck and we headed off towards the village and the warmth of our rooms. We finally arrived at the hostel at 2 AM and happily grabbed the first rooms we saw that were free. The whole hostel was made from salt: the floor was salt grains, the tables were carved from salt and the walls were made from salt blocks. It was really cool to see but we were so tired. We quickly drank the hot tea the cook made for us and we crawled into our salt beds. Tomorrow we would deal with the truck.