Monday, February 28, 2011

I Walked Right in to the Sky

So far in Bolivia, my luck with excursion brochures had not been good. Climbing Mount HP was certainly not easy. The whole brochure for the Jungle Tour was a mean joke. So you can understand my worry when I read the brochure of the 3 day tour of Salar de Uyuni, and it said this word for word: We only work with safe tour operators and we can assure you will not have any problems about drunken drivers, jeeps in bad conditions, or you being stolen during the tour. Me being stolen during the tour?!?!?! What had I signed up for this time???

We decided to splurge and spend the extra money on a tourist bus to Uyuni. The price difference was 120 bols or about $18. It was the best 20 bucks I have ever spent. The contrast between the local bus we took from La Paz to Rurennabaque and the tourist bus was extreme. Read about my bus trip to the jungle here. On the local bus we had big, nearly fully reclining seats. It was clean. It smelled like regularness. We were served dinner and then breakfast. We had movies. We had pillows and blankets. I had a great sleep for being on a bus. The 20 hour ride flew by. This was the way to travel!!! We arrived in Uyuni right on time and ready to start the tour.

I was excited for the tour of Salar de Uyuni. I had seen amazing pictures of the pure white salt desert and the bright blue sky. It was one of the main things I wanted to see in Bolivia. So far Bolivia had left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but after the great tourist bus, I had high expectations for the salt flats.

The salt flats are dry for about 10 months out of the year, and covered in water during the wet season. During the dry season you can get some amazing pictures because of the lack of perspective. With nothing but flat ground and sky as far as you can see, any which way you look, there is nothing to judge the distance of things against. In pictures, you can look like you are standing on top of a wine bottle that appears 10 times the size of you, or you can appear to be squashing an SUV the size of a tiny toy truck with your fingers. Some of the members of our tour had bought some props like little army men, a plastic helicopter and finger puppets in anticipation of the photo opps,

Six of us set off for the full three day tour. We were going to see the salt flats, coloured lagoons, flamingos, and active volcano and beautiful scenery. Our guide was named Waldo and although he spoke almost no English, he was always happy and smiling. When he spoke to us in Spanish, he spoke slowly and clearly so even I could understand. People like that are rare in Bolivia. Our jeep was in good condition, Waldo was not drunk and therefore I had no anxiety that I would be stolen during the tour. Finally, a brochure that didn’t lie to me!!!

Our first stop was the famed salt flat. Only 2 weeks before we had arrived the salt desert was bone dry. Now wet season was in full swing, and the salt was under 6 inches of water, giving it an appearance of sand. We stopped in the middle of the desert, with miles of salt, sky and nothingness for as far as you could see. I rolled up my pants and jumped out of the jeep. It was pretty chilly outside and I expected the water to be ice cold. I was pleasantly surprised when my feet touched the bath like water. The landscape cannot be described in words. The sky was reflected perfectly in the water below, creating a surreal mirror image. The sky seemed endless, as if we were walking into infinity. It was beautiful, and I cannot do it justice to even trying to describe it. You need to go!!

We walked for awhile, watching the clouds change and marvelled at the mirror image reflected in the water. Sticking out above the water were occasional piles of salt, built up like huge ant hills. Of course, I needed to taste it… it looked almost fake; I had to be sure we were really standing in a giant salt desert. I kicked over a pile and picked up a chunk of the white stuff. I brought it to my mouth and stuck out my tongue. Sure, enough it was deliciously salty!

We took a break for lunch and ate on a little dry spot, an island in the middle of the wet salt oasis. My feet and legs were covered in dry salt and my skin was screaming for moisture. Just being around that much salt sucks all of the water right out of you. We stopped in the little town just off of the salt flat, where the miners work harvesting the salt. Entire buildings were made out of salt. I know for sure because I licked the wall, just to make sure. There were tables and chairs made out of salt, as well as statues and decorations. Everything was salt!

After lunch we headed towards a tiny town to spend the night. We drove for awhile and I gazed out the window. The salt flat glowed in the background of the rest of the sand desert. The only vegetation for miles were little tufts of grass that looked like hedgehogs. Other than that, you could see for miles and miles. I felt so small in this vast land all around me. We spent the night in a little share house, with very uncomfortable beds, a third world bathroom and no heat. Luckily, the amazingness of the day was still with me and I didn’t mind much as we drank beer and played cards.

The next day brought all kinds of new wonders. As we were headed to see some lagoons, my gaze hardly left the landscape. Throughout the day we passed through the moon, mars, mountains and vast nothingness. The scenery changed constantly. From a maze of beautifully random rock formations, to bright red soil, to a valley of rocks and craters, to the Andes in the backdrop, to absolutely nothing besides the ground and the sky; it seemed like we were jumping from planet to planet, not driving around rural Bolivia.

We saw some lagoons that changed colours with the light of the afternoon and wild flamingos just hanging out on one foot. We went to a petrified forest which reminded me of Jurassic times. What used to be huge trees had solidified and were eroded by the elements, leaving these oddly shaped rock formations in the middle of the empty dessert. Around every corner I fully expected to see a brontosaurus come charging at me. We spent the night in another camp similar to the previous night, and again I did not mind the shady accommodation.

The last day of the tour we were up before the sun to make it to an active volcano and a natural hot springs. Of course I fell asleep in the jeep. When I awoke, the ground was covered in snow. We really had covered all types of landscape on this tour! We drove to the top of the volcano, an elevation of 5400 meters. Snow breezed by us but I was not cold. You could feel the heat of the volcanoas soon as we got out of the jeep. Steam billowed out of the mouth of the volcano.

The greatest thing about the third world is the lack of safety precautions. In Canada, the mouth of the volcano would have been roped off, so you could look, but not get close enough to fall in. In Bolivia, there are no such ropes. Waldo told us to be careful not to fall in. We would not be the first tourists to tumble into the volcano and die a hot fiery magma death. I loved it. I hate anything that is roped off. I got as close as I dared and tried to look inside the mouth of the volcano. All I got was a face full of steam.

We drove back down to the hot springs and hung out there for awhile. After that we headed back to Uyuni. The drive back was uneventful as I slept most of the way. Me and before dawn don’t get along too well.
Back in Uyuni we had a few hours to kill before we jumped on a bus to Villazon, the Bolivian - Argentinean border town. There was no tourist bus going this way, so we were at the mercy of another local bus. After this amazing trip, I was barely even worried. Bolivia was looking up after all!!!!!

Or so I thought……….
Up next, the adventure of getting the hell out of Bolivia!!!!
Join me as I TRAVEL MY LIFE AWAY!!!!!

1 comment:

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