The Salar – Uyuni, Bolivia

29 Jan

The morning following our ride down The World’s Most Dangerous Road, we were up at the crack of dawn once again (4:30am)

Playing the Role of Jonny's Mini-Me - Note Tals in the Background

to catch our flight to Uyuni, Bolivia.

We arrived at the tiny military airport (think the size of Toronto Island’s Porter airport, on the mainland side) in La Paz about an hour earlier than was recommended only to find that none of the airport staff had arrived to work yet. We walked around the frozen, snowy grounds and were shooed out of an airplane hanger before finding an open door in the airport building.

Finally a woman from Tam, the airline we were flying (and I think the only airline to fly out of this airport) arrived. We checked in, knowing that the weight limit for our bags was 15 lbs. I’m proud to say that every single one of us managed to pack our checked bag in a way that was under the weight limit and even prouder to say that mine was not the heaviest. Heaviest bag award goes to Jonny due to his purchase of a few pounds of coffee beans from the best coffee shop we found in La Paz.

When it was time to board the plane, the authorities had everyone line up outside the waiting room and come in one at a time so that they could physically go through your carry-on. No electronic scans here, the Bolivian military is old-school!

We walked out on the runway and climbed the stairs up in to the plane, walked over the checked luggage (convenient, because you could see that your bag had made it on the plane) and found our seats on the small military plane.

To date this is the only flight I’ve taken where there has been no flight attendant identified and no safety messages.

The plane touched down and we loaded up our stuff to exit the plane only to be told that this was only a short stop in Sucre to let out some passengers. Seriously, this was more of a bus than a plane!

One more take-off and one more touch-down later we arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia. I thought the military airport in La Paz was tiny, but it was nothing compared to Uyuni. When we got off the plane, on the tarmac, we were greeted with what looked like a scene from some ‘the world is ending’ movie.

Getting a cab was near impossible at first, as there seemed to only be 2 cabs for the whole town. Finally one of the 2 cabs returned to the airport and we loaded up our stuff and offered to squish in 2 fellow Torontonian travelers we’d met en route so that they wouldn’t have to wait for the cab to circle back a third time.

We hadn’t booked a hostel in Uyuni in advance and visited 2 or 3 before landing on one. We had private rooms which weren’t any more than a bed and a chair with a tiny bit of floor space but at 30 BS a night, it was perfect (30 BS = approximately $4.50 CDN).

That afternoon we found a tour company, Andes Salt Expeditions, that offered an English speaking guide for a 3-day tour of the Salt Flats for 800 BS (the cheapest you’ll find). The rest of the afternoon was spent pinting and playing cards on a patio before hitting the Extreme Fun Pub for dinner.

How did the Extreme Fun Pub get its name? I don’t know the official answer but I have some guesses:
– there’s an entire section where the floor is covered in sand
– they play music that people the world over recognize and love to sing along to when drunk
– drinks are offered in teraccotta penis or boobs mugs
– the drinking records of customers past decorate the walls and include name, country and the amount of time it took to down a particular drink
– magic tricks were being done at the bar
– a huge pub crawl rolled in just as our food came

I’m sad to say we didn’t really participate in the Extreme Fun of the pub crawl but we had to get ourselves ready for our 3 day Salt Flat expedition that we were leaving for the following morning.

Our tour started with meeting the 2 other girls that would be in our jeep: a Korean named Anne who was living in Mexico City and working at the Korean Embassy and a Dutch girl named Fleur who worked for Shell in Holland.

We got going off to our first stop which was out to the train graveyard which is essentially a bunch of rusty trains that make for fun photography. Then it was off to a local market, which sold pretty well the same things we’d been seeing throughout Peru and Bolivia but surrounding it had buildings made out of salt. Afterwards we drove out to the Salt Flats (or Salar) for what was basically a 2 hour photoshoot. Not only was the Salar unlike anything any of us had ever seen but because there are no shadows and it’s a flat white surface that is 20,000 square kilometers you can take hilarious pictures.

Tiny objects can look enormous in a picture with people just by standing a few feet back from the object. Hands down, funniest picture of the day is where Jonny wanted to have someone coming out of the fly of his pants. I volunteered while Tals was groaning “Gross, Jonny!” and we inadvertently got her in the shot off to the side looking disgusted.

We then drove to the hostel where we’d be spending the night, stopping along the way to take photos of the scenery which on this first day happened to have been under the ocean and we could see tons of remnants of coral.

We were first group to the hostel and were given our rooms and assigned our table in the dining room. We had our evening tea and snack and then had some time to go out in the extremely small town to take some sunset photos. There was a mountain in the distance that looked almost like an erupting volcano in the fiery lighting, terracotta coloured dust formed the streets and huts and in the center of it all a stone church and a heightened gazebo. Photography heaven of the day, part 2.

After the sun had set we met back in the dining room for some stories from our tour guide, Gonzales, who was Bolivian but had lived and gone to school in both Miami and Maine. He told us a bit about the more recent history of the Bolivian government and stories about businesses in Bolivia. It was incredibly interesting and my only complaint is that he didn’t pause for breath once so that we could ask any questions. He excused himself once he was finished and told us dinner would be on the table shortly.

Dinner consisted of French fries covered in an onion mixture. It sounds odd but was amazing. We paired it with some Diablo red wine that we’d bought before leaving Uyuni – perfect pairing, though as most of you know, I’m no foodie.  Then it was off to bed.

In the morning, we met at our table in the dining room for breakfast before heading out on the road again. It was a gray and rainy morning and I’m sad to say that the weather didn’t improve much over the course of day 2, but we trucked on and saw a couple of lagoons including a red lagoon full of flamingos as well as the famous Rock Tree which is a rock that has been eroded in a way that the base is very thin in comparison to the full top, making it look like a tree.

The rainy day turned into a rainy evening but we had a blast teaching Fleur and Anne the card game Asshole over snacks and then dinner (and admittedly 3 bottles of red wine).

Something of note: Bolivian wine is not good. We all agree it tastes like grapes mixed with vinegar, though it didn’t stop us from polishing off 2 out of 3 bottles. (Thankfully the first was the other bottle of Diablo we had brought from Uyuni!)

It was off to bed early, as in 8:30pm, as we had a 4:30am wake-up the next morning.

4:30am sounds early but not when you’re in a room with a snorer (it wasn’t Tal, Jonny, J.J. or I) and we had all been wide awake since midnight. By 4:30am we were jumping out of bed to make it to an altitude of 5,000 meters for sun rise.

The ride up the mountain got snowier and snowier the higher we went and the sun began to come up just as we’d reached the highest altitude of the trip. The pink sky, the almost fake-looking beauty of the mountains and the ‘liquid hot magma’ at our feet made for an unforgettable sight.

After even more photo-taking (the adventures of 4 Japanese tourists continues!), we were off to breakfast and a dip in the natural hot springs.

After so much cold weather in South America and having spent the morning up to our ankles in snow, the hot springs felt amazing – especially after Tal and I had to change in the ladies room which smelled like really old and used kitty litter.

Our next stop was Laguna Verde which was nothing short of a spectacular view and reminded me a lot of Banff with the mountain range in the distance and the blueish green of the water. Many, many photos later we were off to the Bolivia – Chile border to drop off Anne and Fleur who would be continuing their travels in Chile, while we headed back to Uyuni to catch the overnight bus to Tapiza.

All in all, amazing, amazing time and we couldn’t have asked for more in terms of photographic opportunities.

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One Response to “The Salar – Uyuni, Bolivia”

  1. Jacquie Sicluna January 30, 2012 at 00:06 #

    I am loving following your journey through your blog! Sounds incredible Kaitlin!! I look forward to the emails I’m getting with your new posts!!! Enjoy every second and don’t stop updating- you are the envy of many people I’m sure (me included!!)

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