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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Aymara New Year, La Paz, Death Road and Cristo

Aymara New Year

June 21 was the solstice (summer in the north but winter here in the south). It was also Incan or Aymara New Year. We heard that the best place to celebrate the new year was in Tihuanaco, a town and the site of pre-Inca ruins including a small pyramid outside La Paz. So Thursday after work a few of us caught the late night flight from Cochabamba. We had heard it would be cold because of the altitude in La Paz – just under 4,000 meters or 12,000 feet – but still we assumed it was just cold by Cochabamba standards meaning slightly chilly so we were not prepared. I wore layers but I hadn’t brought any winter clothes at all.

There was ice on the ground as we made our way through the crowds huddled around bonfires at Tihuanaco. Using some dry brush and random objects laying around like old sweaters we started our own fire but with no wood it burned out very quickly.

We were freezing terribly from about 3 am to 7 am watching traditional music and dance performers parading by in the large open field outside the walls of the main site, and waiting for the sunrise above the ruins when there would be a llama sacrifice and a speech by the president, Evo Morales, to mark the occasion. By 7 we were still standing in line to get into the site of the ruins when one of our companions collapsed with hypothermia. At that point we realized she needed medical attention and the rest of us might too if we stayed any longer. So we decided to leave without having even seen any of the ruins, never mind the rituals. The sun was just rising as our hired vans left the town and hit the road back to La Paz. I couldn’t even take any pictures because my camera was “unable to use flash due to low temperature”. I at least got this poster as a memory.
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La Paz

Much bigger than Cochabamba, La Paz is the unofficial capital and is much more touristic which also means more expensive. The layout of the city is incredible though. Situated along mountainsides, it is one of the highest altitude cities in the world. (The highest, El Alto, is part of the metro area of La Paz). The air is thin and cold so you lose your breath very quickly and it takes a few days to get adjusted. Walking the city means going up and down hills much of the time – similar to San Francisco. Add in the cold thin air and you’re gasping for breath after just two blocks.

We slept all day Friday before checking out the nightlife; somehow we ended up in bars and clubs full of tourists. I had fun but after the freezing night, I was sick and didn’t have much energy for partying. But I do love to dance so I ended up even more exhausted and slept much of the next day as well.

Saturday I got up briefly to explore the neighborhood around my hostel. There were at least ten different travel and adventure agencies within a couple of blocks including the one we would go to for the Death Road. I enjoyed some coca tea at a small cafe before going back to bed.

Death Road

Sunday we got up bright and early  to take on Death Road. The agency took us in 2 vans to the start of the trail. Most of us were a little hungover from the night before especially me but the anticipation of speeding down a winding mountain path on a bike outweighed anything else I was feeling. Our first ride was mainly a warm-up. For about 15 minutes, we rode along an asphalt road; we were going fast but nothing too crazy except for the dense fog below us making it difficult to see very far down the mountain. Probably that was better since we couldn´t see how far a fall would take us. After the asphalt ride, we loaded the bikes back on the vans and drove further down the mountain to the real trail.

I was not feeling well at all – except when I was on the bike just flying down the rock-strewn dirt and mud path. All along the way as the fog lifted we got beautiful views of the valley and rivers beneath us. For about four hours we went on with a few minor crashes but nothing serious. I skidded a few times but that´s about it. We had a few stops every so often and every time we stopped I remembered how bad I felt and I would go off to the side to puke. I just  needed to stay in motion to feel better. My only close call was towards the end – I was going as fast as I could when suddenly a car approached from around a turn. We both hit our brakes and I shifted to the left hand side of the trail which was the side you could fall off if you went too far. Luckily, the car stopped  completely and I safely swerved by it and kept going. Besides that the Death Road was not as dangerous as it sounds. It´s just a thrill to go that fast knowing that if you do lose control, you will practically be skydiving without a parachute.

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Cristo

After one weekend hiking in Toro Toro and then the weekend in La Paz, most of us wanted to take it easy this past weekend. So we threw a house party at Casa Bolivar (our house) on Friday night complete with a bonfire and beer pong. On Sunday we decided to get our adventure fix by hiking up to the Cristo statue. Even though I have been here for over a month and I live only a 15 minute walk away, I had not yet gone up the hill to the Cristo. So it was about time I climbed the 2,000 steps to the statue. Going on Sunday also meant we could climb up the spiral stairs within the statue up to about his neck. Inside there were holes all throughout from which we could see the city below  – I was even able to fit my head through one of them. It was a fun hike and it was cool trying to identify landmarks from so high above the city.

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Kids Mural

I also took a couple of days this week to help out with a mural outside one of our partner organizations which is a day care center. The kids and adults at the center made paintings on large tiles which we put up on the wall outside with cement. We surrounded the paintings with broken colored tiles to fill in the space. It came out really nice and while we were making it many neighbors passing by told us how beautiful it was. Some even  thought they would do one outside their own workplaces. For me it was just nice to do some work outdoors in the sun.
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Random Observations, Rain, and Trash

Random Observations

  • There are so many stray dogs everywhere; so far they’ve been pretty friendly to me but I still keep my distance just in case. There is also a lot of dust – my jeans are pretty much dirty all the time.

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  • I heard a rumor that McDonald’s was banned from Bolivia. But there is a Burger King here. After taking to a few people it seems what actually happened is there was a mass boycott and McDonald’s couldn’t stay in business. Whatever the case, besides the Burger King, I have yet to see large multinational chains around here. Small independent sellers and a handful of Bolivian chains seems to be the norm. One huge exception though – Coca-Cola is everywhere. From what I hear they provide supplies such as tables, chairs, and stands to many small stores and restaurants in exchange for having their signage prominently displayed. I’m not sure if this is a good thing overall. On one hand, it saves these small businesses some start-up costs which they may not have been able to borrow from elsewhere. On the other had, they’re promoting an unhealthy and addictive product. I would think these entrepreneurs could have managed without Coke’s help.

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  • I do know I’m a fan of more local businesses rather than large multinationals. In general, the need for economic scale and efficiency of large corporations seems overblown while the harm/danger of concentration of money and power in fewer companies is usually ignored. At least with local businesses, the concentration of wealth is in many more hands and those hands tend to stay local. I think worker-owned enterprises are even better. Just a tangent on economic issues.
  • Practically every street here has an internet cafe. And most of them seem to be for online gaming. Funny how these things become popular in unexpected places.
  • Beauty salons and barber shops seem to love using Hollywood celebrity photos as advertisement. So if I want I can ask for Ryan Gosling’s haircut.

Rain and Trash Day

Last Wednesday it rained for the first time since I’ve been here and the power went out for most of the day. I hear it’s pretty common and it’s something I’ve also experienced in India. I was supposed to take the trash out at 6 am but the rain made me postpone that. Let me clarify; take out the trash in Cochabamba does not mean put it on the sidewalk in front of the house the night before. It means get up at 6, drag the bins to the corner and wait for the truck to pass by sometime between 6:15 and 6:30 hopefully. You might be asking as I did: why not leave it out at night? Well, remember those stray dogs I mentioned? They would tear through the trash in minutes and even if they didn’t, the trash only gets picked up if someone is standing with it. Interesting system.

Stay tuned for an update on our weekend trip to Toro Toro national park…

Week 1 continued…

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One of the first things you see is the Cristo statue to the east overlooking the city and then the mountains to the north. After a brief orientation at the office, we took a walking tour of the city. One stop that I remember well is the 25 de Mayo market, a supermarket of sorts with maybe 100 stalls of fruits, veggies, grains, toiletries and other such things you usually see in a supermarket. The difference here is that you are buying directly from local producers/vendors rather than from a multinational company.
I finished the day by attending a discussion on the indigenous Quechua language, its history & significance, and current policies to preserve it. All in all “un buen primer día”.

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Summer Internship

10 more days till I start my summer internship in Cochabamba!

I’ll be working with Sustainable Bolivia for 10 weeks and then I’ll have a couple of weeks to travel to other parts of the state and the region! Can’t wait!

Here’s the work I’ll be supporting: http://www.sustainablebolivia.org/PAI_Tarpuy.html

Stay tuned for updates!

http://www.sustainablebolivia.org/