Thursday, 22 December 2011

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - The Largest Salt Flats in the World

After packing up and taking another alarming shower we headed out and found our bus to Uyuni. The bus was over an hour late setting off. We would eventually come to expect this as standard and even romantically mythologise about the days of buses 'only' being an hour late when we realised quite how bad the public transport in Bolivia really is.

After the locals lashed their tyres, barrels of cooking oil, bags of Coca, chickens and a fridge to the top of the bus and stowed the rucksacks, sacks of grain, a chest of drawers and yet more Coca underneath it, we eventually set off through Villazon, stopping briefly to pick up a man with a huge satellite dish tied to his back. And we were off.

The driver was obviously skilled and by our standards was not driving fast, but when you looked out of the windows and saw sheer drops, hundreds of feet, straight down, just inches away from the wheels of your rickety bus, 30 kmph makes it feel like you're on the back of an irresponsible Ducatti riders poorly maintained bike. We were glued to the windows, silently planning our escapes if the bus did suddenly start to roll, gently at first but soon gathering speed, down the skree.

Periodically, we would stop to let people off or pick people up, but we never saw any villages. It was surreal. They would get off, shoulder huge bags of grain and set off into the vast expanses of wilderness. We came to the conclusion that they must be walking tens of miles to get back to their villages as the horizons on all sides were completely clear of any kind of settlements. It must be an exceedingly hard life. Although it looked incredibly harsh and unforgiving, the area has a kind of quiet beauty that is difficult to describe. The altitude means that few living things, with the exception of humans and their livestock, tend to live there and when we got off the bus the only sound was the bluster of the wind in your ears. I'm trying desperately not use the word 'lunar' to describe it, but I suppose the reason so many people do, is because that is exactly what it looks like.

We stopped off in a couple of towns along the way for food and 'comfort' breaks. This one was probably the most sizeable but had nothing comfortable about it. Nothing.

After one of the most uncomfortable and exciting journeys we'd ever had (barring our Greyhound bus journey earlier on in the year) we arrived in Uyuni. A short wander later and, after finding our digs and booking a tour around the salt flats and surrounding areas the next day, as well as seeing a man punch a dog in the street, we bedded down for the night. What has Bolivia got in store for us next we asked ourselves. The answer was some absolutely incredible shit.

The tour picked us up bright and early the next morning. Before the main event of the Salt Flats we had a pretty impressive undercard to get through. First stop a steam train which had somehow arrived into the middle of one of the most barren areas in the world and had got itself stuck. Our guide wasn't much help when we asked for some kind of explanation. He just upped the volume on his portable radio and wound up the window, so we could only imagine why this train had been left to sink into the earth, which was so mineral rich it sparkled in the sunlight.

We then took a little detour to swap our angry guide with a friendly one and his mate, who was supposedly the cook. Although we worked out throughout the trip that he was was no such thing. He was nice enough, but took up a seat and a half in an already crowded 4x4. No matter we thought, this is Bolivia, at least he isn't carrying a cage with 6 chickens in it. Onwards to the Salt Flats. We had the obligotary souvenir stop to negotiate first, but the sales techniques I saw involved, among other things; sleeping, chatting on mobiles and ignoring the tourists, so it wasn't as aggressive as running the gauntlet of gift shops in SE Asia or India. Al paca woolen goods, and statues carved from salt cluttered the tables we walked past before we got back in the car and motored towards the Salt Flats. We had heard that they were flooded due to unseasonally heavy rains and, having only seen photos of them completely dry, were a little concerned that we may be arriving into some kind of quagmire that could be viewed only from within the vehicle. We needn't have worried though as when we stopped on its outer edge, this was the view that greeted us.

It was absolutely beautiful. The water which sat on the surface was perfectly clear and varied from ankle to shin deep. When the 4x4 stopped for a while it created a mirroring effect which actually confused the brain with its vastness. For 270 degrees, all we could see was the reflection of the perfectly blue andean sky. We asked to sit on the roof of the car for the journey to the hotel made entirely of salt where we would be stopping for lunch. A hotel made entirely of salt sounds a lot more impressive than it actually turned out to be. When we got there, it transpired that actually, it was just a shoddy building, cobbled together with blocks of salt that had browned gently over the years giving the impression that sewage was leaking into the foundations and seeping throughout the structure. We spent about an hour eating and then drove further into the 10 000 square kilometres of what is effectively the largest salt mine in the world. People still work, as they have for centuries digging huge piles of salt to be refined for dinner tables and kitchens throughout the world.

If we thought our bus driver was skilled he wasn't a patch on our new guide. The guy had an almost telepathic understanding of the tracks we were driving on. Veering suddenly onto an invisible path, he took us to our next destination. Some weird rock formations that I really cannot for the life of me recall the name of. Apparently they were dead old though.

We were gradually going further and further above sea level the more we drove and by the time we got to our next stop we were over 5000m above sea level which, to give you an idea, is near enough as high as the Everest Base Camp which sits at 5364m. I'd suffer the dull ache which had started in the centre of my skull again if I was guaranteed a view like this again, however.

It started snowing shortly after this picture was taken, which was weird considering that when we were on the salt flats just a few hours before, the thermometer was touching 30C but that's altitude for you, gives you a headache, makes you feel sick and then starts to snow a bit. Laguna Verde next (Green Lagoon) which is so inhospitable to life it glows green with unkind minerals to warn off potential inhabitants and the thirsty.

After a brief stop on the border of Chile to drop off one of our party, a particularly mouthy Brazilian, we made our way to a lake which is home to flocks of flamingos, which I had no idea lived at these altitudes but as you can see by the next photo, they don't only live but thrive there.

We had to make it to our accommodation after this and the next day we were simply driving back to Uyuni, but almost on the stroke of nightfall it started to snow extremely heavily. The roads weren't roads, they weren't even tracks, they were grooves cut into the mud since the last rains so this is when our guide displayed almost super human driving ability. I was sitting in the front seat so I could see everything he could, which was practically nothing. I'm not exaggerating when I say that visibility couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 feet in front of the 4x4. I was now suffering quite extensively with altitude sickness, a thumping headache and almost overwhelming nausea were threatening to force me to open the window and return my rice and mystery meat to the land from whence they came until the adrenalin kicked in. He honestly must have been driving the tracks from memory because I really couldn't see a single thing. His driving really was astonishing. I think he was also a little tense as, when we arrived and after prising my hand from the door frame where I'd been grimly holding on for dear life, I turned to him and said 'increible' (incredible) and he responded by letting out a whoop of joy and high fiving me. I was starting to get the impression that if you embarked on a journey, in any vehicle, in Bolivia, there was a very real chance that it could, quite easily, end with you trapped in mangled wreckage at the bottom of a ravine. This however, also made for extremely exciting times and that, after all, is what travelling is all about.

Next stop Potosi and a visit to a mine that has claimed 8 million lives in its 500 or so years of operation.

Bolivia - The air is thinner the closer you get to the sun.

The bus journey to the dusty border town of  La Quicha was largely uneventful barring the 7 hours of films, dubbed in Spanish, depicting the horrors of Human Trafficking as well as the soothing tones of Bolivian Folk Music at full volume out of the pitiful speaker of an early 90's Nokia mobile phone, repeated more or less for the full 26 hour duration. As you can imagine, sleep didn't come easily. The first thing we noticed as we alighted, shrugging on our rucksacks, was that the air had become a lot harder to breathe. A side effect of being almost 4 vertical kilometres high on the Andean Plateau (Altiplano). I had been expecting the air to thin out, but having never experienced it first hand, was surprised at the effects none the less. Eventually your body gets used to it but at first it really is a little uncomfortable having to regulate your breathing and conciously thinking about each breath, as you inhale and exhale, becomes tiring for your oxygen starved brain. We shuffled slowly into the centre of  Villazon in search of a bus to the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). It turned out we would be spending the night.

We checked into a hotel on the main street and went out for a walk and to get some food. We'd been subsisting on weird cakes we'd bought from a shack on one of the stops betwen Mendoza and La Quicha and were absolutely ravenous. Quite different to the land of milk and honey that had been Mendoza, the choice in Villazon was somewhat limited. We ended up opting for some kind of gruel with bones in it bought from a friendly woman sporting a bowler hat like some kind of wizened, colourful skirt wearing 1950's London commuter.

It didn't look all that nice, but once you'd fished the pieces of spinal column and and shin out of it and thrown that to to the pack of stray dogs congregating nearby, it was actually quite tasty. It was impossible not to reminisce about our very recent Argentinian steak bonanza, but Emma and I both agreed that we were secretly relieved that the option of tenderloin was not and would not be available to us for some time. Bolivian food is very simple and tends to be comprised of roughly 12.5% protein and 87.5% carbs. It's not unusual to get a meal (either chicken or beef) with potatoes, rice and pasta piled high, which for me, is too much.

We took a wander around after that and although the town didn't have much by way of amenities we pottered around happily, pausing only to buy a bag of coca, which, according to the locals, helps adjust you to the altitude. Almost every store has a huge sack of Coca leaves sitting in front of it. Coca is a hugely contraversial issue in large swathes of South America particularly across the Altiplano. It has been used for centuries by the 'Campesinos' or peasants of the Andes due to its health benefits, hunger suppressing qualities and the slight narcotic high it produces. Evo Morales became hugely popular in the United States after becoming the first 'Campesino' President of Bolivia, immediately expelling all US DEA representatives and generally becoming a short stout thorn in the United States' effort to erradicate drugs. He was born into a family of subsistence farmers, whose main crop was the coca leaf and therefore has been a welcome voice for the poor majority in Bolivia, gaining a 69% majority in the most recent elections. Whether or not the cause of all this political upheaval I ended up chewing, did anything more than hurt my gums is debatable, but people always say that you should do as the locals do, so I did.

We wandered aimlessly around, stopping to peer curiously at things cooking on spits and in huge pans of oil and trying to avoid the packs of semi wild dogs, covered in scars from years spent on the streets. Women in local dress consisting of the ubiquitous bowler hats and colourful skirts carrying impressively heavy loads in multi coloured, multi purpose blankets slung over their shoulders. It was as though we'd gone back in time compared to Mendoza.

The tall and beautiful people of European origin, prevelant in Argentina, were replaced with the stout powerful build of Mountain people, built for maximum efficiency in the thin air found at altitude. The roads, little more than dirt tracks as heavy lorries and buses with exposed engines barrel past kicking up an amalgam of dust and toxic fumes in their wake. It was without doubt the poorest country we'd visited until now but we found ourselves begin, almost immediately, to like it.

That evening we returned to our hotel and took a well earned shower in one of the most dangerous looking contraptions we'd ever layed eyes on. The shower, to all intents and purposes looked like any other, apart from the dangerous looking collection of bare wires just a little too close to the shower head.

It would smoke angrily after each dousing, reminding us that, in Bolivia, life and death was only a matter of inches. Something that would become even more apparent on the frankly terrifying bus journey we would undertake on route to Uyuni the next day.