15 November 2011

Bolivia day 3: salt salt everywhere!

Our expedition is marked with a red line
Our departure to the Uyuni salt flats was supposed to be at 10.30am and my guide was supposed to pick me up at 10am to take me to Immigration ... but this was Bolivia ... it’s like a different time zone! The guide finally collected me at 10.45 and took me to the Immigration office but, as neither she nor the officials spoke English, nothing productive happened. So, we went to the Red Planet Expeditions office, where I finally got some help. Al, their tour guide, walked back to Immigration with me and interpreted. There was no getting round it – the regulations said it was my responsibility to ensure I got my passport stamped and completed the correct paperwork – difficult when you don’t know what to expect! – so I had to pay the 300 Bolivianos’ fine, or I would have had to pay 150 Bolivianos for each day I was in the country when I finally left it. No contest there!

Back to the Red Planet office, where Al helped again. He asked whether I had enough money to pay the entry fees to an island and the national park that were part of our tour. On checking my itinerary I discovered the entry fees were supposed to be included so he phoned my tour company. The local guide turned up 10 minutes later with the money – presumably she would have kept the cash if Al hadn’t checked.

By this time it was 11.30 and we obviously hadn’t left Uyuni. Turns out there was a petrol tankers’ strike on, so petrol was in short supply. The queues at the local gas station were long so, eventually, the woman managing the Red Planet office gave up and bought black market petrol – and we finally got underway at 12.30.

My fellow expedition team members
There were 12 of us tourists: 2 young guys from Melbourne; an Irish couple and Michelle, a 35-year-old Irish woman from Sligo on a 4-month holiday from her job as an A&E nurse; an English couple on a 9-month honeymoon that later includes 4 weeks campervanning around New Zealand; 2 Polish guys; and Gabriela and Richard, a Slovakian couple from Bratislava.

We were in two Toyota Landcruisers, one with rally driver Luis and the other, with more safe and reliable Blass. I was particularly glad to be with Blass when Luis’s vehicle later lost a wheel on the salt flats! Luckily, he stopped the car quickly, without injury, though it was the stuff of Trip-advisor horror stories to see the hubcap heading off in one direction and the tyre in another!

First stop was the train graveyard, final rusting place of the trains that either used to run from La Paz or carried minerals to ports on Chile’s Pacific coastline. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly due to mineral depletion, so many of the trains were abandoned. Apparently, there is talk of a passenger service from La Paz being restarted, but no one knows when it will happen. One interesting piece of graffiti among the many declarations of undying love that covered the dead machinery was Ghandi’s ‘An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind’.

Next stop was the little settlement of Colchani, where we observed the process of manual salt production by a local man. We had lunch in part of his house made of salt bricks. There was even a salt-brick llama statue in the little gift shop attached. And I spent a few minutes there tickling the tummy of the man’s baby to stop it crying while the mother was pouring water down the toilets to flush them.

Soon after we left there, we stopped for photos of piles of salt drying on the flats, prior to it being trucked off to Colchani for processing.

Then we drove further on to the salt flats, to a salt-brick hotel. It’s no longer used for accommodation but has not been demolished as it provides an essential landmark for the drivers on the visually challenging flats. We stopped nearby to take lots of crazy photos. There’s something about the refractive or reflective properties of the salt that allow you to take photos with unusual visual effects. For example, objects that are relatively close together appear quite far apart, so a person might appear to stand on a bottle, or one person appears to pull another out of a hat. It was great fun working out new and strange compositions!

The salt flats -- the Salar de Uyuni or Salar de Tunupa -- are the world’s largest at 10,582 km2  and were formed from the transformation of several prehistoric lakes. The centre of the flats contains a few ‘islands’, the remains of the tops of ancient volcanoes. The black basalt rocks are covered with fragile petrified coral, conclusive evidence that the islands were long ago under water. Our last stop for the day was at Inca Huasi Island (also called Fish Island, due to its shape), on which grow about 4000 giant cactus plants. Those cacti with a single trunk are male, those with ‘arms’ are female, and there are two varieties, one with white flowers, the other with pink. They are slow-growing plants and some are apparently over 1000 years old. It was a very beautiful, if very unusual place, and cold, as the wind was blowing a gale across the flats.

The sun was setting as left the island for the hour or so drive to the little village where we spent the night in a hostel made of salt bricks. Dinner was at 9pm, and the electricity generator was shut off at 10pm, so that was also time for lights out. I slept like a log on my salt-brick bed.

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