Salt, Snow, Sulfur, and Solidified Lava: the Four Elements of the Salar

The Salar De Uyuni is one of Bolivia’s greatest attractions. It’s the largest salt flat in the world and also the largest lithium reserves. When I first told friends I was going to Bolivia, the number one recommendation was to go see the Salar. So I’d been trying to make the trip basically since the day I arrived. Finally after six weeks of talking about it we found a week where most of us had days of or could take days off. We set off on Wednesday at 3 pm from the Cochabamba bus terminal. I tried to make the departure as late as possible so those of us who needed to work that day could still make it. We ended up having thirteen people join but we were able to get seats for everyone on the first leg of our trip – a 4 hour ride to Oruro. The ride ended up taking closer to 5.5 hours and probably was a big reason we couldn’t find any seats from Oruro to Uyuni. But at least the ride was long enough for us to watch the movie What a Girl Wants with Amanda Bynes.

After asking around at several bus agencies, we learned that we could get drivers with vans for hire called “surubis” outside the terminal. A few minutes of searching and negotiating got us two surubis which would take us to Potosi – roughly halfway to our destination. We all agreed that was our best option, and after grabbing a quick dinner in a random eatery, we piled into the surubis and tried to get comfortable for the 4 hour ride.

The drive was a bit scary as our drivers seemed to be training for NASCAR. They flew around corners while passing trucks on the highway despite it being dark and barely visible. We joked that it was like Mario kart in 3D but I bet deep down we were all fearful for our lives. I thought about saying something but I was afraid breaking his concentration would only be worse. In the end, we all arrived safely in Potosi around 2 am. Once again we needed to seek out surubis. There were plenty of them parked there but we had to wake up the drivers sleeping inside them. The second pair of drivers were a little more cautious than the first much to our relief and it allowed us to sleep a little before reaching Uyuni a little before sunrise. The temperature displayed outside the bus terminal read “-9°C” (16°F). Our drivers were nice enough to let us sleep in the vans for about two hours waiting for everything to open. Our cost for the two sets of surubis came out to about $20 per person maybe $10 more than a bus would’ve cost but it made for a more interesting experience. We probably would never have learned about this whole surubi system otherwise and we might’ve had to get a hostel if we didn’t have the vans to sleep in after reaching freezing early morning Uyuni.

When we finally got out there was a lady from a nearby cafe who saw our group and easily won our business with the promise of a hot breakfast. Along our way to her cafe, we learned that it was the 123rd anniversary of the founding of the town so there were all kinds of preparations being made. No wonder all the buses were packed.

That hot breakfast was exactly what our cold tired bodies needed. We thawed out in the warmth of cafe for an hour or so before deciding to explore the town. There was a parade being set up with cars decorated as floats and guys in military apparel lined up to march. Along the sidewalks were all types of stalls selling llama and alpaca fur sweaters, gloves, and other winter wear. The sun had made it warmer now, about -3, but a few extra layers was still a good idea.

Our tour was scheduled to start at 10:30 so we were eagerly waiting our jeeps at 10:15. As it turned out they had trouble getting gas because with the influx of tourists for this special weekend the lines were ridiculous. An hour and a half later both our jeeps were ready and we were off to our first destination – the cemetery of trains. It looked like the middle of a desert but with a whole bunch of rusted out old trains that we could climb all over. That day there happened to be a band called tiqueta negra filming a music video on top of one of the trains. They were cool and let us take pictures on their set with their drums. A pretty cool start to the tour, the train cemetery was just to whet our appetites before heading to the main attraction, the vast white expanse known as the Salar de Uyuni.
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We could see the salt long before we reached it. It was just glowing white ground in every direction seemingly perfectly flat except for the mountain-lined horizon. Because it’s so flat and bright it’s perfect for capturing perspective photos. We got pictures of people eating each other or stepping on each other or holding everyone else in their palms. We must’ve spent at least an hour before lunch taking photos and another hour or so after.
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In between, we also stopped at cactus island. Not a real island – it’s just a large hill in the middle of the salt with all kinds of giant cacti growing wild. I have no idea how they got there but it was interesting climbing all over while trying to avoid being pricked. The larger cacti are over 1000 years old; the way you can tell is by their height since they only grow about a cm per year.
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Our first tour day came to a close around 5 pm at a salt hotel. Almost everything in this place was constructed with salt, the walls, the tables, decorations, even a salt chandelier. At night I learned salt is a good insulator because I stayed warmer than expected. Before going to bed though we spent some time exploring our surroundings which were just a couple of hills behind the hotel with salt everywhere else. We whiled away the rest of the evening playing cards and charades. Lastly we faced the freezing winds outside to look at the stars. The cold was getting to us until we decided to try the penguin huddle and the penguin shuffle. That helped a little bit mostly because it was funny. But the stars! The stars were amazing! The sky was so clear and the landscape so flat we could see so much. We could see the Milky Way clearly and there were so many shooting stars. And every one was followed by a bunch of “Oohs”, “Aahs”, and “Wows”. That sight may have been one of the best parts of the whole trip.
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Next morning we were up and ready early but our drivers didn’t show up at 8 as promised. It wasn’t until about 10 or so that they arrived. It seems one of the jeeps broke down. Luckily we weren’t in it. The second day was not as thrilling although we climbed some lava formations which looked like a scene from Mars, plus we saw lots of flamingos. The main attractions were the lagoons of different colors – green, blue and red. The colors are determined by mixes of bacteria and various chemicals like borax or sulfur.
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After another night of charades and stargazing we went to bed early because we had to start the next day at 5 am. That night was freezing though so we didn’t get that much sleep. First stop for the third day were the geysers. Some of them were small enough that we could jump through them and get a steam bath for a second. Others were large enough for all of us to fall in and drown and boil at the same time. Like some of the lagoons, they smelled of sulfur (just like rotten eggs). The smell along with the cold soon drove us back to the cars and we headed to maybe the 2nd best part of the whole trip, the hot springs.
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Most of us had not brought swimwear. Everyone had warned us of the bitter cold of Uyuni so the idea that there would be swimming involved at any point during this trip had not at all crossed my mind nor I think anyone else’s. We were hesitant to remove any of our 20 or so layers of clothing for fear the biting wind would freeze us in our tracks. But once you dipped your feet in the warm soothing water, you quickly stripped down to underwear and jumped in. It had been about three days since any of us had experienced even a hint of warmth so it was just pure bliss. For two hours we basked in the combined warmth of the sun and the hot springs while deliriously proclaiming we would never leave – to hell with the rest of the tour or going home. We even made a Harlem shake video…only about a year late. That video may never see the light of day; probably a good thing for all involved. Despite our valiant protests our guide eventually got us to forsake our momentary nirvana and head back on the long road home.

Along the way back to the Uyuni bus terminal, we made a few stops. One of these was memorable for more cool lava formations that we climbed all over. Another was a small town where Kory joined some locals in a soccer game, and Ryan and I tagged along. They beat us pretty bad but I’ve conveniently forgotten the score and it was a fun break.
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Back in Uyuni, once again there were no seats available to Oruro. Maybe we should’ve asked the tour company to reserve some for us. From what I’ve seen in Bolivia, you can’t reserve seats more than a day in advance and you usually have to do it in person. At any rate, we put on our problem-solving hats on and decided to get a bus to Potosi and play it by ear from there. I have to say I was really happy with our group. No one really got into a sour mood although we would’ve loved having a nice sleeper bus for the 8 hour ride to Oruro. We were really flexible about figuring it out as we went. Once we got to Potosi, there were no buses but we got two surubis to take us all the way home to Cochabamba.

The driver of the one I was in brought his wife along. It became apparent very quickly that this was a vacation of sorts for them. They began calling friends to make plans and all along the road they were pointing out sights and landmarks. We were happy for them but it delayed our arrival home about an hour and a half. In contrast to our first surubi experience with the NASCAR wannabe, this driver was going unsafely slow. We were being passed by everything on the road. I think a cyclist passed us at one point. Ok maybe not but he could’ve if he wanted. Sightseeing driver and all we at last concluded our epic adventure around 10 am Sunday and were faced with a tough decision: warm bed or warm shower?

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One thought on “Salt, Snow, Sulfur, and Solidified Lava: the Four Elements of the Salar

  1. Dianne Daley says:

    Jason, I loved reading about this adventure. I envy your youth and courage!
    Best to you,
    Dianne Daley from Occupy Long Beach

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