Salt Flats Tour Day 1

November 17, 2005
Day 50

I knew that I was about to start a four-day trip in which I would have no contact with the outside world, so this morning I attempted to use the Internet before I left. I found out that it costs three times as much as normal here, and it is horribly slow. For me, the lack of decent computers with good Internet connections is the most annoying thing about Bolivia. Of course, considering that new computers cost more than the average Bolivian makes in a year, I probably shouldn't complain about it so much.

There was mass confusion when we were supposed to start our tour. The vehicle we were supposed to ride in, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, wasn't there yet. We were told that it was gassing up and would be ready shortly. Also, only Chris, Katrina, and I were at the tour agency, but six of us were supposed to go on the tour. Jenny, an Australian girl who we were supposed to meet last night never showed up and we had no idea where the other two people were, if they even existed.

Eventually, things got straightened out. The Land Cruiser showed up about an hour late (not bad by Bolivian standards). Kirsten and Stephie, from Germany, were combined with our tour group. Jenny also suddenly appeared. She couldn't get on the early bus to Uyuni yesterday because it was full, which explains why we never found her. She signed up at the last minute and we were finally ready to leave at noon, but there was still one more problem (Warning: the next paragraph is rather confusing).

Chris, Katrina, and Jenny all wanted to be dropped off in Chile on the third day of the trip. Kirsten and Stephie had signed up for four days. That left me all alone because I had been talked into returning to Uyuni on the third day in exchange for a discount for the group. One of the tour operators tried to convince me to go back in an over-packed truck with a different group on the third day. Knowing how uncomfortable it would be riding back the entire day with nine people in a Land Cruiser, I said I wouldn't do it. However, I would agree to return on the fourth day because there was more room in the other truck. The agency lady reluctantly agreed. It worked out well for me because I got to go on a four-day tour for the price of three, and I had planned on going for four days originally, anyway.

The first stop on our tour was an old train graveyard near Uyuni. The trains that were left there were steam powered and dated back to the 1880's. The area around Uyuni was perfect for dumping old trains because there was absolutely nothing nearby. The first thing I noticed when I got out of the truck was how bright it was because there was not one cloud in the sky and the ground around the area was white. I'm sure glad I bought a pair of sunglasses in La Paz.

Next, we went to Colchani, a small village on the border of the salt flats. I quickly noticed that there was a salt theme to everything I saw: the museum was made of salt, there were blocks of salt scattered around everywhere, trucks showed up dumping off salt in random locations, and even all of the souvenirs for sale were made of salt. I guess this is to be expected when your town is on the border of the biggest salt lake in the world.

We continued driving to the Salar de Uyuni, which used to be a massive lake, but now is just a huge area of salt several meters deep. We stopped at a collection of salt mounds that the people of Colchani had gathered. They pile the salt into mounds to dry it out completely, after which they transport it to town to make into souvenirs for the tourists. It was one of the strangest landscapes I had ever seen. Almost as far as I could see in every direction was the pure whiteness of salt. The site seemed to be devoid of all living things other than us tourists. Suddenly it occurred to me that it would really suck if our truck broke down here.

We continued driving for another half hour to the Salt Hotel. Located in the middle of the salt flats, the hotel is made entirely out of salt. They no longer allow people to spend the night there, but they do let people enter it and take pictures, provided that they buy something at the gift shop. I bought a Coke and checked the place out. Indeed, everything there was made of salt, including the beds and chairs. Maybe it was a good thing that we weren't going to sleep there.

Our next stop was the Isla Pescado (Fish Island), located almost directly in the middle of the flats. We were told that lunch would be ready in forty minutes, so we should take a walk around the island. The entire island was covered with cacti, but I don't think I saw any animals at all. I wasn't quite sure how anything could live in that environment, without any water or nutrients, but I guess cacti always find a way. Fun fact of the day: the tallest cactus on the island was 12.03 meters high. Since cacti only grow one centimeter per year, it was 1203 years old.

We had llama burgers, rice, tomatoes, cucumbers, and Coke for lunch, and began a long drive across the rest of the salt flats. The "road" was really just an area that other people had obviously driven on before. At one point, our guide, who was also our driver and cook, reached down to grab his water and drifted about ten yards off the path. I got a little scared, but the ground was so hard that it didn't matter. If he had wanted, he could have just turned on the cruise control and gone to sleep for a few hours. That's what I would've done, anyway.

We finally arrived at our stopping point for the day at 6:30 PM. It was a tiny town a few miles outside the salt flat. The hotel we stayed in was a surprisingly cozy place. There was only electricity from 7 till 9 PM, but the rooms were clean, there was running water, and a gas-powered shower was available for a small price. Our group was the only one in the hotel, so it was very quiet. We ate a nice chicken and rice supper, and considering that the electricity had been cut off and we had to rely on candle power, we went to bed rather early at about 10:00.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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