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Thursday, March 22, 2018

11/16: Salar de Bolivia: Train Cemetery & Perspective Shots with Mr. Dino!

We had arrived the previous day around 1:30 in Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia to arrange a three-day tour of the country's Southwestern Circuit including its Salar de Uyuni beginning today. We weren't being picked up until mid morning so, while Steven still rested, I wandered around the town's busy weekly market that was taking place on its main streets.
The town's many tour agencies took tourists essentially to see the same locations, but the hundreds of reviews I had read months in advance rated the agencies in safety of the driver cum guide, the vehicle, the order of what would be seen, the number of passengers, the quality of food, the type of lodging, whether they could accommodate tourists like us who wanted to be dropped off, at tour's end on the third morning, in Chile, etc. 
There were more than 100 legal tour operators offering trips to the salar or salt desert in Uyuni but, though the competition may have meant more choice, we knew that cost-cutting led to corner-cutting by some agencies, at the expense of tourists' safety and the environment. We obviously didn't want to join the number of tourists who had been killed in jeep accidents because of ill-equipped vehicles, speeding drivers, a lack of emergency equipment, breakdowns and/or drunk drivers.
We ended up going with Cordillera Travellers even though we knew the driver spoke no English and our Spanish was minimal at best even by that time on our South American adventure!
Medicinal remedies that thankfully we had no need for!
Herbs and spices:

When we saw the long line of large vans from different agencies all packed up and ready to leave at the same time, I wondered if we would be part of a large caravan all going en masse. I sure hoped not.
We noticed several signs in town about the Dakar Rally I mentioned in the previous post. 
Isaac, our guide/driver and cook for the next three days didn't speak more than a word or two of English but, luckily for us, Anna, a delightful young woman from Sao Paolo, Brazil, was pretty fluent and patiently translated for us when Isaac talked about the sights we saw along the way. Fabio, a charming man in his early twenties from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, spoke some English but the young couple from Sucre spoke none. We sure hoped they all didn't mind having us old American/Canadian fogies along for the ride and cramping their style!
Not far out of town was the Cementario de Trenes, a rusty collection of historic steam locomotives and rail cars. It dated back to the 18th century when there had been a rail-car factory in Uyuni. You can see that the other agencies also stopped there before entering the Salar de Uyunu, the world's largest salt flat.

The decaying rail cars were so much fun to clamber on! Isaac explained that the cars had transported the desert's minerals to Bolivia's capital of La Paz, to Argentina and elsewhere. 

Israel conveyed, on our way to the artisans' community of Colchani, that there was some agriculture going on in the area around Uyuni and it mostly consisted of organic quinoa. 
I read that the Salar de Uyuni is a center of salt extraction and processing particularly around Colchani. The estimated annual output is nearly 20,000 tons, 18,000 tons of which is for human consumption while the rest is for livestock.
We, and the passengers in the other agencies' vehicles, all descended on the craft stalls that lined each side of Colchani's main street. The choice of souvenirs was plentiful and the prices were very reasonable, a perfect combination.

These 'souvenirs' were just a tad too large and cumbersome to haul home!

Our first view of the mammoth Salar de Uyuni, the salt flat that was at almost 12,000 feet altitude and measured more than 4,600 square miles.
When the surface is dry, as it was when we were there last November, it is a "pure white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable - just blue sky, white ground and you. When there's a little water, the surface perfectly reflects the clouds and the blue altiplano sky, and the horizon disappears. If you're driving across the surface at such times, the effect is positively surreal, and it's hard to believe that you're not actually flying through the clouds." Doesn't that sound magical?
I've read the salt flat is at its most spectacular after a rain, when water sitting atop the cemented salt acts like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the sky above. I urge you to take a moment and google Salar de Uyuni so you can see what I mean. You will be blown away! 

The salt flat is a result of the gradual transformation of a giant prehistoric lake that existed about 40,000 years ago. The crust is a composed of a mixture of salt and other minerals such as potassium, magnesium and lithium, with approximately 50% of the world’s lithium reserves coming from this place. Lithium is used in almost everything from medicine, to batteries, ceramics, rocket propellants, nuclear weapons and in the polymer industry. The lithium deposits should fuel Bolivia's economy for the next 100 years!
In the early afternoon, we stopped for lunch at the Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca, or White Beach Salt Hotel. We didn't see anyone staying at the hotel; it seemed to be a stopping point for most guides so their tourists could relax and enjoy a lunch that had been brought from Uyuni. 

The tables and seats were all made from salt!
Even though our little group had only been together for a few hours, we had already shared many laughs and fun times. Steven and I so lucked out that we were with them.
One agency guide braved the heat and stiff breeze so his tourists picnicked outside.

Just outside the hotel was this huge monument to the 2017 Dakar Rally where participants had traveled through a swath of South America, starting on January 2nd in Paraguay and ending just twelve days later in Buenos Aires.
The Flag Monument represented the participants' homelands.
All those who know me wouldn't be surprised to know I made a beeline for the Canadian flag!
I wrote in the previous post that I had brought along from home Mr. Dino, a Barney lookalike, that I discovered when helping to remove junipers from a neighborhood park over the course of a couple of months last spring. Why, you may ask would I tote that all this way? Because my reading had indicated the Salar de Uyuni was the perfect place for perspective shots and a toy dinosaur was the ideal thing for those photos.
Steven taking shots of me with Mr. Dino with the hotel in the background. Those photos were blurry but you will see more further down.

In case you were wondering, there were no roads in the vast salar but somehow Isaac knew where to go. It was so desolate, there were no signs of life but it had a remarkable beauty all the same.
What confounded us was how Isaac knew where to go without any signs or anything to determine direction considering the land mass was nothing but salt. After being in the car for a good bit, it was great to get out and stretch our legs. Isaac knew this spot near Isla Incahuasi would be ideal to take some perspective shots as no other vehicles were anywhere around.
As it was nearing the end of the dry season in the salar, the ground was very, very crunchy. It is a sound I hope I will never forget as it was not one I've encountered anywhere else. If you're over at our place, you'll have to see some of the salt we absconded with from this area!

Isaac had clearly had a lot of experience taking perspective photos so he was designated by all of us as the cameraman!

This was about my third attempt to jump in the air! I was wiped after that - I'll put that down to the altitude, not to my lack of any gymnastic ability!
Phew - I landed safely!
These were some of the funniest moments I had all trip as I tried to balance 'on top of the car' while Israel was telling me where exactly to place my foot to get the perfect shot!
Balancing is clearly not my forte so Anna kindly held my hand in this shot. My excuse is I was laughing too hard to get my balance and I'm sticking to that lame excuse!

What a lot of giggles we had when all six of us tried to jump up at the same time. Clearly, Anna took the cake for the most artistic leap while I flunked that task miserably!
Way to go, Steven - his feet left the ground unlike mine!
One, two, three or uno, dos, tres in this case as we tried again and again.

After about ten attempts, we all managed to achieve liftoff at the same time - no small feat for our feet!

The 'director' didn't quite manage to have Steven in the right spot for his car shots.

Oh - to be young again!
Another shout out to my hubby!
He was pooped after all that jumping on the flat, white sea of hexagonal salt tiles! In the background was the remarkable Isla in the heart of the salar 50 miles west of Colchani.
The hilly outpost was covered in Trichocereus cacti.
Apparently, Isla Incahuasi was once a lonely otherworldly place until the advent of salar tours when it sometimes becomes overrun with visitors.

We could have chosen to pay the small fee to climb the hill but Steven and I opted to walk around most of the island and take in the gorgeous views of the flowering cacti, bright blue skies and white salt ground.
During the wet season when the salar is flooded, the island is inaccessible. That was the good news/bad news of being there in November and not in January or February when the water sitting on top of the cemented salts reflects the sky above, turning Salar de Uyuni into the world’s largest mirror. 
There must have been some rain recently as the salt was quite mushy when we walked closely to the island. 

It was so peaceful walking to the end of the tiny island and getting away from the other tour groups.
The other end of the island:
Now, THIS was the first time we'd seen such a sign anywhere in the world!

Just in case you'd forgotten what we looked like that day!
As you can tell, the island's stunning cacti flowers caught my attention.

I understood from Isaac, by way of Anna, that we had almost two hours to go from the island oasis to San Juan, our stop for the night.
Thank goodness, our itinerary included a stop near the community of Colca K, south of the salar, so we could see the natural pool's gorgeous turquoise waters. Yup, the water was very salty!
Stepping barefoot into the water would have torn our feet to ribbons because of the salt formations.
The topography changed hugely the further south Isaac drove from the salar but at least there were roads after a fashion which I am sure must have made the drive much easier. 

That was the case at least until the van got a flat tire on the very bumpy road and Isaac had to change it! It looked like I also had to add mechanic to his job description in addition to that of guide, driver, cook and photographer!
Even though we had seen no recent signs of any community or development, Isaac said people walked many miles each day to work these quinoa fields that bordered each side of the road. 
Soon, the terrain became so incredibly harsh and unforgiving I wondered how anything could grow there. We learned it had once been a sea.
The flattened mountaintop in the distance was a volcano.

For well more than an hour, the only evidence of any other cars was the dust coming from one in the distance.

All of us were delighted when at long last, tiny San Juan was spotted in the distance as our home away from home was there.
Our rudimentary accommodation consisted of a bed in a salt hotel with the floor made from powdered salt, I kid you not! We didn't know how very lucky we were that night as it wouldn't be quite so private and 'charming' the next night!
We were so happy that we didn't have to wait long for a delicious hot meal prepared by the hotel.
Our joy was helped along when the six of us managed to down a couple of bottles of Bolivian wine before calling it a night after a long day in, and south of, the Salar de Uyuni!
Finding the words to accurately describe Salar de Uyuni is no easy task. It's a truly unique and awe-inspiring part of the world, one which must be seen to be believed.

Next post: Flamingos galore and other animal life!  

Posted on March 22nd, 2018 from Littleton, Colorado.