It seems that all good things happen for a reason . . . and often by chance. On the way out of Sucre and the way into Uyuni, we stopped in Potosi for the night. Potosi is an old mining city 4090 meters above sea level . . . bustling, dusty, and charming, depending on where you’re holing up for the night. Where we “holed up” wasn’t so charming, however, so we decided to buy a ticket for the bus to Uyuni the next day. Little did we know that the ticket we bought from one bus station wouldn’t be honored at the other one. Ah, Bolivia.
In the end, as in other serendipitous pockets on this trip, it all worked out for the best. If we hadn’t had to exchange the ticket we bought for another ticket on a different bus a half-hour later, we wouldn’t have stumbled into Juny and Steve, a particularly fantastic couple from Sydney, Australia. We wouldn’t have been on the very same bus that, yes, busted a gasket and broke down in the middle of the altiplano. I wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with Juny while waiting for another bus to come and pick us all up. And we probably would’ve missed our opportunity to spend the next 5 days with them—first in Uyuni and then on an “all-inclusive” (ding! ding! ding!) tour of the Salar (the largest salt flat in the world) and the surrounding areas. Thanks to chance and a little bad bus karma, our week in Southern Bolivia turned out to be pretty damn special.
But, wait . . . enough about buses. An all-inclusive tour? Has the world turned upside down? While it’s true that neither Mark nor I are fans of organized anything, especially when traveling, it just so happens that this decision to book a tour of the Salar was a shockingly good one. First, because it’s difficult to see all there is to see in the Salar and the surrounding region without a hired guide (distances are vast; towns and supplies are scarce), nor can you drive out there on your own unless you happen to have a hefty 4-wheel-drive vehicle. (Do you know how to fix a persnickety jeep with a salty, sputtery engine? We don’t.) Second, because the tour itself was pretty flipping awesome. None of the glitz and glamour of most tours (no shuffleboard . . . waht kind of toah doesn’t have shuffleboahd!), but a few really simple but wonderful surprises that went a long way to helping the four of us enjoy ourselves to the fullest. Here are a few highlights:
Day 1: The first day, after a ridiculously freezing night in our Uyuni hotel room that included a gigantic bed but skimped on the heat, we departed in the morning, ready to see some sights, but with semi-low expectations. The first stop, the train cemetery a few kilometers outside of town, was our first inkling that things might not be what we expected. Uyuni used to be a distribution hub for trains carrying minerals on their way to Pacific Ocean ports. The train lines to and from Uyuni were built by British engineers who arrived near the end of the 19th century and formed a community there. When the mining industry collapsed in the 1940’s, the trains were basically abandoned. As you can see from some of the photos in the slide show, they are still quite beautiful in all their rusty glory.
The four of us were already having a good time and the tour had only just begun. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Skepticinsky would be proven wrong?
After driving for a bit, we arrived at the Salar. There really aren’t words to describe this thing. Imagine miles and miles (in fact, 10,582 square kilometers or 4,086 square miles) of crunchy, glistening rock salt, flanked by snow-capped mountains and, well, nothing else aside from a few scattered huts and a strange motel made out of, yes, salt. Pretty stupefying. Lots and lots of goofy photo-taking ensued, mostly thanks to Juny’s seemingly endless supply of wacky ideas. Only in the Salar, folks.
As a side-note, Bolivia contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium, the majority of which is found in this Salar. Who knew?
Day 2: After yet another freezing night spent under 7 (yes, really) blankets, we set out again in the car with our driver. We had a lot of ground to cover and had no real idea of what to expect or what we would see. A quick run-down? The Valle de Rocas were exquisite (a bit like what one might see on a Salta road trip to Cafayate, but on a smaller scale. Volcan Ollague (not active, but still beautiful) looked like it could’ve been visiting from Chile, with all its looming majesty. The Arbol de Piedra . . . who doesn’t love a bunch of rocks shaped like a tree? But the sight that really blew our minds was the Laguna Colorada in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. It’s red. Literally. Because the red rock sediment mixes with certain types of minerals, the water in the lagoon actually turns red. Plus, there are zillions of flamingos that feed on the high concentration of borax in the lake. We must’ve spent hours just staring at the water and snapping photos from different angles. Despite the touristy nature of the trek, I will wholeheartedly say that I feel lucky to have had the chance to see it and to have been able to spend a little quality time there.
Day 3: Sleeping literally in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano in a place that looks a lot like what Mars probably looks like is a pretty intense experience. Did I mention the biting cold? But it was well-worth the 5:00 a.m. alarm bell. Geysers spouting hot air at 4850 meters above sea level just as the sun was rising, a salt-water lake tinted green by copper sediments backed by the dormant 19,555ft Licancábur volcano, and sizzling thermal pools were what awaited us on the drive back to Uyuni. Plus, we managed to put together a pretty stellar soundtrack to accompany our ever-changing surroundings, thanks to Steve and Mark’s ipods. Some Bread, Jesse Sykes, Bob Dylan, and of course a little Elliott Smith.
And . . . a post from me wouldn’t be complete without a bit of food talk: If it wasn’t enough to do all of this cool stuff with two high-quality people, we were also treated to a multitude of delicious meals along the way. Fluffy quinoa, steamed veggies, and veggie latkes, accompanied by a fresh (and crispy!) cucumber, tomato, and avocado salad. Omelets with onions and green peppers. Pancakes almost as good as the ones Dad makes. Velvety vegetable soup with squash, potatoes, spinach, green beans. Caramelized onion, tomato, and French Fry Stroganoff (OK. This one was a bit strange.). Plus, evening tea and cookies that tasted oddly like the kind I used to eat in kindergarten (the round ones with the hole in the middle). It was pretty great that the food was almost always hot and that it was included in the whole tour shebang. (Al, all the lobstah you can eat at no additional cost! Such a bahgain!)
Pingback: More Salty Pictures | Andes Not The Mint dot com
Spectacular. Those colors are incredible. Makes me so happy to know you’re doing this. Thanks for giving us a flavor through and through — what a treat! Send my best to the birthday boy. Missing you lady Lex …xoxo
OK……so what about my cooking?????? Just accolades for Dad’s pancakes?????
The colors are so interesting. Think I will create a throw in those tones. what should I call it?
Love, Mom B
Oooh…looks like death valley. This is a great post! You look really tan.
Meanwhile, its a full on poopfest here. I’ve changed sasha three times in the last 10 minutes. Can’t believe…
Terrific post — looks like you are having a way “cool experience” — salt of the earth? And thanks for the photos, they really capture the place…love to you both.
Extraordinarily beautiful surround, and great recipes. We should assemble a feast of the food when you return. Dad W
If I didn’t know better, I’d guess the Alvord Desert in Southeastern Oregon. Except exponentially bigger. Truly amazing.