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Archive for August, 2011

By the time that we reacquainted ourselves with our vehicle and our gear, and set out once more for the famous salt flats, I must admit that I was ready to be underwhelmed. Maybe it was just being tired. Our tour had been interesting, for sure, but a lot of driving for only a few real “sights.” There was grumbling among the passengers, and already talk of getting some of our money back for all of the trouble and the lack of sightseeing.

Around lunch time we made it to the first real tourist stop… a restaurant made of salt, replete with a gift store, carved salt figurines, and a roof that looked likely to collapse at any minute. But out front was a collection of many flags ripping in the wind, and they were quite pretty against the white and the blue.

And in truth, the place was starting to get pretty. We drove through a salt-gathering operation where trucks, light machinery, and people were gathering the salt into piles to be picked up and carted away, and the triangular shapes of them were strange and symmetric in an increasingly strange landscape. And we were starting to see our first large expanses of water, too.

But it was probably an hour or so later that the Salar de Uyuni began to show itself as the most incredible sight I was to see inBolivia.

It was explained to me by a tour guide at Lake Titicaca that the salt flats at Uyuni are the leftover remnants of a sea that was trapped inland by the rising mountains of the Andesand evaporated. A similar story to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But in the case of Bolivia, Lake Titicacais on the same high, flat plateau (altiplano) as the salt flats… and Titicaca is certainly not salty. Apparently there is an outlet down near Uyuni, and over the course of however many thousands of years, the fresh water pouring out of the mountains onto the altiplano slowly pushed the salt water down to the vicinity of Uyuni before things dried out and the whole thing evaporated.

In any case, the take-home message is that the Uyuni salt flats is a huge expanse of salt left over from the slow evaporation of an inland sea. And it is very flat. And it had just snowed for several days in the high country.

All of this meant that there was a 2” deep or so layer of water, let’s call it a sheen of water for poetry’s sake, spread evenly across miles of white salt. And the sky was liberally scattered with beautiful clouds to break up the neverending blue. In the distance deep blue hulks of mountains and volcanoes gathered clouds to their heads before letting them sally out across the flats.

And there was not a whisper of wind.

The salt flats were a giant mirror reflecting all of this.

Now, I suppose you can imagine, perhaps, the beauty and strangeness of this. But this wasn’t just an isolated vista somewhere; this was hours of driving in this alien landscape. It looked like we would reach the mountains at any time, but we were driving for hours in this surreal beauty. At times it was almost too much. I could feel brain cells smoking and exploding as they tried to reconcile the fact that I was sitting in a Landcruiser, but that somehow the horizon had disappeared. There were times when I could feel vertigo and had to stop looking out the window and fix my gaze on something concrete and unchanging. My hat on the dashboard. The steering wheel.

After a few hours of this, one of the mountains on the horizon began to separate itself and creep closer. Incahuasi. Out in the middle of the salt flats there exist a couple of small islands, and one of these islands is maintained as a tourist destination. And it is covered in large, ancient cacti. We were told these grow about 1 cm a year… and some of these specimens were up to 12 meters tall. Old beings.

One of the strangest feelings of the day was when our Landcruiser circled half around the island to reach the trailhead on the back side. After hours of driving on a sheen of water, it truly felt like we were a boat taking a wide berth around the shallows and seeking the safe landing on the back side of the island.

Before long we were safely ashore and snapping photos.

salt "surf"

After our allotted hour on the island, Victor broke the news that climbing Tonopa, the volcano to the north, wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have time.

What we did have time for, however, was a stop on the way back to Uyuni to watch the sun bid its fiery farewell to the day. As the light faded the clouds took up its colors in a wide spectrum of changing colors and textures that was, of course, reflected upon itself upon the skin of water.

And well after dark we rolled into Uyuni in salt-covered vehicles, found a hostel, and brought our guides and cook out to dinner in Uyuni. And slept well. Very well.

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4 am. The world still dark and sleeping, but when I stumbled out of the half-finished quarters Victor was already on top of the Landcruiser getting ready for a day on the road. The engine purred, warming forced air to release the frosted windows from winter’s touch. And somehow, magically, we managed to get everything packed up, including the groggy tourists.

Two hours to Uyuni’s quiet morning streets, another half hour approaching the salt flat… and a misty light was growing on the eastern horizon. You could sense the beginning of something beautiful. And then up ahead, vehicles with hazard lights flashing. The Bolivian army.

It seemed a routine check. Raoul’s ‘cruiser was ahead of us, but our army man seemed satisfied with our papers pretty quickly and waved us on. And we almost made it. We were partway past Raoul when some shouts and another camouflaged man waving at us to stop again. And meanwhile the steady sun was gathering its colors for a morning appearance.

And suddenly we seemed to be the focus of a small, disorganized military operation. Two more truckloads of soldiers pulled in from further down the road. Seated in the back seat, watching the commotion ahead of us, I could see a drawn pistol silhouetted briefly in the hand of a soldier. Suddenly this seemed very serious. And it seemed like we were going to be pulled over at this spot, just short of the famous salt flat, for a bit of time.

The word was that there were stolen cars being driven toChileon this road, and they wanted to be sure that these vehicles weren’t hot property. Unfortunately for us, the registration papers weren’t in the vehicles. According to Ema and Victor, they had never, in years of tours, been required to have registration papers for the vehicles. This argument did little for the soldiers. Apparently the requirement was new. It all seemed a little strange – I just couldn’t wrap my head around why they would think that the rigs were stolen if they were chock full of tourists and their equipment. Stolen tourists, too?

But soldiers aren’t trained to think for themselves.

We waited while one drove off to find cell service to call the agency in Tupiza. He came back and apparently whatever he found wasn’t good enough, for soon enough we found ourselves a part of a small train of vehicles and camouflage headed back to Uyuni. We even had our own, quietly threatening soldier ride in the passenger seat with us to make sure there was no trouble.

Victor sneaks a look at our camouflaged (and masked!) companion

I don’t believe that Uyuni is a good place to spend much time. It is one of those towns that seems to have just sprung buildings up in the sole need of occupying a space for tourists to arrive and depart for their towns. It reminds me of a railroad town out west.

I can say with surety that a curb just outside the gate of a military compound in Uyuni is a very poor place to spend hours of your time. And this is where we spent the next three or four hours. Waiting. Tupiza Tours was faxing the registration papers to the military, and until they received said papers and matched them to the vehicles, our trucks were locked inside the gates of the compound while we waited outside.

Unfortunately, since we didn’t know when the Landcruisers would be released, we couldn’t even wander far from the gates to spend our time more productively. Léa borrowed my cell phone to get in touch with Tupiza Tours to express our disapproval of our morning being ruined by them not having the papers in their vehicles. Spirits were pretty low. And it only got worse when a small contingent of camouflaged army men came outside the gate to practice their military band skills. Luckily, their efforts seemed to tire them out and there were long breaks between songs.

Eventually – and I don’t exaggerate when I say I think it was four hours later… they released our vehicles back to our possession. Apparently the caveat for the new law about carrying your registration papers was that if you didn’t have proof of ownership, the military was allowed to confiscate the vehicle for their own use. So it would seem that the situation was less about tourists and vehicles being stolen and driven toChile, and more about soldados hoping to get themselves some stylish rides. An hour or so later we passed the spot where we had been stopped. Not a soldier in sight.

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There is something about snowfall that makes everything quiet. Imagine millions of little sound-absorbing particles on the wind, blanketing the ground, filling cracks. It is as if, during a snowfall, someone has sound-proofed the world. When I woke on the third morning of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I noted two things – that it was warmer than I thought it would be at over 15,000 feet, and that the morning was unnaturally quiet. And so I wandered out of the room and down the hallway to the doorway that led outside to see how much snow there was. There was over a foot on the ground, and more still falling hard.

Now I should mention that every time I see a snowfall like this, it always makes me happy. There is something magical about a storm that is burying you in whiteness and giving you the gift of such beauty. However, my normal elation in this case was tempered with a slight concern about the future and fate of our tour. Our discussion with Victor the night before about trying to see some of the sights in the morning seemed a touch absurd. Were we going to need to be rescued? No chains in these Landcruisers, I was pretty sure, but a fair share of bald tires. Hmm.

Over breakfast the rumors started flying… we were going to spend another day holed up in the tourist quarters and see if tomorrow was a better day. But what if tomorrow was a worse day? The drivers held a congress while the passengers all discussed what they wanted and didn’t want. In the end it didn’t really matter. The word came back from the drivers that we were leaving – quickly – and heading toward Uyuni and the Salt Flat. We were getting out while the getting was good.

In retrospect, this was a wise decision considering the conditions. Victor had mentioned earlier in the trip that in 2004, fifteen meters of snow had fallen on the high country around Laguna Colorada. People in several small villages had to be evacuated by helicopter while their livestock were left to flounder and die. Snow like this was unusual (haven’t seen snow like this since 2006, Victor said over tea), but who was to say it wouldn’t keep snowing until we were 15 meters under?

photo by Anne Kalker

Still, there were grumblings from the tourists. We’d already missed most of the sightseeing in the park and high country, and now we were going to go to Uyuni and see the salt flat from there? One of the reasons for doing the tour Tupiza-to-Uyuni was that on the last day, you arrived out on the salt flats at sunrise. And in the process you enjoyed a touch of solitude while the caravans of tourists from Uyuni were still on their way out there. All of this seemed very much in jeopardy.

But, for me at least, it didn’t take long before it was clear that what mattered was just finding the way out.

We helped Victor gas up the Landcruiser, did our best to secure the gear and our packs tightly in a tarp on top, and set out into the whiteness. Not thirty meters from the front door, one of the ‘cruisers was already spinning its wheels. It was going to be a long day. Before long we were in a thirty vehicle chain on the flat, white expanse around Laguna Colorada. The vehicles in front were in charge of finding the buried road, while those in back simply tried to follow the tracks of the truck in front of them without getting stuck.

Victor, a 7-year or more veteran of this route, eventually turned and asked if one of us would drive while he went up ahead to help find the road. And so this is how I found myself in the driver’s seat of a Landcruiser in whiteout conditions, doing my part to stay in the tracks and keep from burying the ‘cruiser or ramming the Landcruiser in front of me.

photo by Denis Marechal

It was slow going, but eventually we reached the park entrance, where Victor assumed control of the vehicle again. The weather changed, too. Instead of heavy snowfall, a strong wind took over, so now there was a shifting sheet of white snow about three feet high, being blown sideways across the landscape and gathering in the lee of wind breaks like the road.

We passed Laguna Capina again, and before long we found ourselves on the safe, low ground, where the sun was even beginning to show its face a little.

And we found one last beautiful place before the sun said its farewell. I forget the name…Valley of the Rocks? This was a Utah-like setting where orange and tan sandstone blocks stood silent and eroding in an open landscape surrounded by mountains. With the sun setting and touching everything lightly, there was a glow to the landscape that was truly magical.

And so, with darkness well-established, we pulled into a village two hours from Uyuni. After some searching, we found an alojamiento with open rooms, though we had to wait a few minutes while the pillows were stitched, a door was finished, and some carpet was laid.

And after some discussion, Victor agreed that we would get up and out of there at 4 am in order to see the sunrise on the famous Salar de Uyuni.

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In the morning, we reluctantly pulled our fully-layered bodies out of our fully-zipped sleeping bags, adjusted the hats we’d worn through the night, and looked out upon a still-dark morning tinted in white. Snow. Two inches or more of snow. This was scheduled to be one of the longest days of the tour, and so we were up early. The cooks and drivers were up even earlier, and were already together and discussing the weather.

As we sipped our coca tea, the word came from Victor… because of the weather, we were going to avoid the high country and the normal road, and take a new road, lower in elevation, that would get us to Laguna Colorada. We began to worry a little… would we still be able to see everything we were scheduled to see? … two lagunas, some glaciers… Victor said he wasn’t sure. There was a good chance that the road to Laguna Verde would be impassable, but we would have to wait and see.

And so, with daylight just bringing a gray light to the spitting snow and Landcruisers, we pulled out of the little town with the ten or so other Landcruisers we had been at lunch with the day before. With Ema repeatedly wiping the windshield so that Victor could see, we set off on our adventure. It was still snowing hard.

What followed was a slow morning. The Landcruisers were in pretty good shape, but there seems to be a dearth of tires with treads inBolivia. Ours had good tires in the front, but one of the back tires was bald… the state of tires in our little entourage was a mixed bag. And so things got a little slippery and there was the occasional sideways slip. And on descents and climbs the whole line stopped and worked on the road a bit before attempting to pass. Denis and I joined the others in kicking snow off the road and exposing secure ground for the iffy tires. By the end of the morning I was glad to have waterproof boots and Denis was wishing for dry socks.

Throughout the morning the clouds hovered low and the snow kept spitting. But by noon or so we began to see breaks in the clouds and started to anticipate what this landscape might look like painted in white under a blue sky. Even as it was, there was a sparse, rugged beauty to the clouded-in world. But it could definitely get better.

We learned from Victor that none of the drivers had ever been on the route we were now on. One of the Landcruisers was carrying a local from the village where we had slept, and he was showing the group how to get where we were going. And the plan seemed to be working. Before long a wan sun was beginning to melt away some of the snow cover, and we had descended enough that we were often on firm ground looking up at heights baptized in snow.

There were occasional stops where the drivers got together and discussed where we were and where we were headed. Sometimes this was accompanied by tinkering with the vehicles. Raoul seemed to have an electrical trouble of some sort and occasionally had to fiddle with some wires a bit before his ‘cruiser would start up. One such stopping point was on a wide, flat, dry riverbed covered in a few inches of snow. Someone in our group reached down and gathered a ball-sized bit of snow in his hand. Another member of our group was promptly pegged in the back with a snowball. This, of course, developed into a minor skirmish which eventually involved our group of four, a couple of other French tourists, as well as Victor and Ema. One of my favorite memories of the trip was Ema, braids and skirt flapping, chasing me down with a large snowball in her hand. It was a welcome break from being in the rig. For us at least. Our lunch companions in Raoul’s Landcruiser never exited their vehicle.

At this point our guide from the village turned back, since we now had a riverbed to follow to the road that our drivers knew, and the sun began to come out. Although we were barely on a road (sometimes creating a road through the brush) and we weren’t exactly doing what was scheduled, there was something promising about being here.

There were some stops… lunch, a small village. And then we started climbing back up into the clouds a bit. We stopped at Laguna Capina for a look. On a good day I imagine it would have been quite beautiful, but the colors were muted by the gray sky and the surrounding mountains were a bit clouded in.

This laguna was being worked as a source of borax. Heavy equipment was at work scouring the flat… digging holes and collecting the borax. The edges were tinged in yellow, which Victor explained was sulfur. He also explained that, although many Bolivians were working at Capina, for the most part they were the grunts, while the bosses and executives were Chilean. And we all suspected that most of the profit was headed to Chile.

As the day began waning, we continued our climb to Laguna Colorada. And eventually, down below us, we made out a reddish lake. It became more and more beautiful as we got closer.

Unfortunately, there was a gate and a ranger station in the way. We stopped, and a discussion began about paying for entry into the park. On a normal tour, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The park encompasses the high country that holds many sights for eager tourists, and it is one of the major draws for choosing a 4-day tour instead of just paying to see the salt flats themselves out of Uyuni. But this was no normal tour, and the necessity of us paying the full price for entering the park was a valid question.

While we huddled in the lee of the tiny ranger station (the wind was quite cold), the drivers and rangers engaged in a quiet, reserved discussion about the subject. A few of the tourists paid and got back into the vehicles, while the rest of us waited outside to see the outcome of the congress. It was taking quite a while.

And that’s when Ema stepped in. Running out of patience, she pushed her way through the throng of men and into the ranger shack, and began dressing the parkies down about charging us. A second-hand account indicated that her arguments ranged from the practical (we’re just going in for Laguna Colorada and spending one night, not even seeing most of the park) to the somewhat personal (besides, you guys don’t do anything anyway, the roads aren’t even graded or plowed… why should we pay?), but throughout was quite animated. It didn’t take her too long to say her piece and return to the Landcruiser, but it did seem to be the tipping point in the discussion. We were allowed to enter the park without paying, and would negotiate a price on our way back out. This only increased out appreciation for Ema.

And Laguna Colorada was beautiful and amazing.

Yes, those are flamingoes. Forget your image of flamingoes hanging out in warm, tropical climes. These guys are forging in food-rich waters at about 15,000 feet or higher on the edge of the Bolivian altiplano. Tough birds, and very pretty. As I understand, during the summer there are many, many more of them. And flamingo babies…

photo by Anne Kalker

And so, after some last looks at the red waters of Laguna Colorada, we drove the final mile or so to the tourist compound. In the middle of nowhere, but within striking distance of the laguna, is a sprawling complex that exists, I imagine, only to serve the tourists seeing the park. We drove around to the side and found our niche with other familiar Landcruisers from our group, and settled in for the night.

The first night was just us and our companion foursome, but tonight there was a communal dining area where the occupants of eight or more vehicles gathered together for a meal and socialization. Not far away was a tienda that sold rum and whiskey. So after a good meal, a guitar came out and people gathered around the pitiful wood stove in the middle of the room. Fun was had by all.

And during this evening, over drinks, we raised the possibility with Victor of getting an early start to see some glaciers that Anne really wanted to see. Victor seemed uncomfortable at this. We’d already heard that Laguna Verde was out of the question, and our next day of touring seemed a little thin. There was discussion of simply heading to Uyuni and seeing the salt flats from there. None of this sounded very promising. But Victor was open to possibilities. Still, wisely, he adopted a “let’s see in the morning” attitude. Smart guy.

Eventually we zipped into our sleeping bags wearing all the clothes we owned. As it turned out, the night was fairly warm… as it often is when clouds come in (again) and snow is falling…

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