Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Salar de Uyuni...pretty damn weird

The Salar de Uyuni is just flat out surreal. Im fallllinnnggggggggg

Imagine going to a place where the only colors you see are deep blue and blinding white. A place where it is so bright that you even squint through your sunglasses. Your initial reaction when you step outta the jeep is that this place has to be something like a fresh snowfall because even the slush you are stepping through sounds like snow slush.

But it is salt. Lots of it. Tons of it. Kilometers of it...

Around 10,500 square kms of it, 120kms deep in the central part and at an altitude of 3,653 feet above sea level. That's a lotta salt, baby!

This is a little story about a little jeep adventure I had with five other tourists, a driver, and a cook. We drove to the middle of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and beyond to see some weird shaped rocks, lakes, diverse plants, animals, and terrain that looked more appropriate if it were in a Dali painting.

Our group was a diverse set of folks. We had a tall gringo from the USA, two Germans, a guy from England, and two female vegan slash animal rights slash extremists from the UK that were, well, kinda wacko. Wacko in the nicest sense. Wacko in the sense that the rest of our group got dirty looks when we talked about how much we were all looking forward to going to Argentina and eating some great beef.

I kinda got tricked into signing with one organization. What kinda suckered me into signing up with this tour company was the recruiter`s promise of being the only guy in the jeep because, and I quote "ahhh me-ster james, you are berry lucky to join dis group beee-cuzz a group of five e-glish girlz just signed up andyou can be noombur six in de group." Single guys can only dream about this kinda stuff. I plunked down my dough and was ready to go.

but it was all for not...I got to the jeep the day and was like, "ummmmm, where are 'de girlz'? Damn! Foiled again..." But the group was alright, although kinda quite and a little different.

Ive been workin on the railroad...all the live long day
We started our three day and two night adventure at the railroad cemetery. Uyuni was a big train town back in the day and there were tons of old trains that had been used in the past and were now laid to rest. They were now in the hands of Father Time and Mother Nature. I really enjoyed the train graveyard since I worked at the railroad as an intern and our fam had seen and been on lots of trains during numerous Peters Family Vacations of 19xx. Cool stuff. We were there a good 20 minutes to snap some fotos and see what trains from a begone era looked like.

We then proceeded to the Salar. Talk about weird, baby. This place is so big you can take a nap at the wheel and wake up a little later and still feel like you are in the same place. Its also easy to get lost and disoriented because the blinding white everywhere and the very few reference points. Our first stop was in front of an area where workers are actually harvesting the salt and putting it into neat little salt piles. It felt weird to just be around this much salt. Never before have I see this much of a single table top condiment. We got a few fotos of the Salar and I found a salt mound that was sturdy enough to hold my body weight and snapped a picture.

Next stop was the Isla del Pescado or fish island. They call it the fish island because its shape from above looks strikingly similar to a fish. Pretty neat. The island in the middle of the sea of salt has humongous cactus that can grow over 8 meters tall. Pretty tall. The contrast of such abundant plant life in the middle of this barren sea of salt is pretty striking. We got outta the jeep and walked around while lunch was gettin ready. There were cactus growing nearly everywhere on this island that was roughly the size of two football fields placed side by side. Coolio.

Back in the jeep after lunch. Glad those girls were vegan, that meant more meat for the rest. The group was unusually hungry and wolfed the food down. About 15 minutes after lunch we were drivin along the Salar and had a flat. We hear a POW! and then smell burning rubber...maybe we should have not ate so much for lunch. This flat was something that the driver was pretty used to because changed that flat like clockwork. This guy flew! We prolly throught that this was not his first flat and definitely not his last because we had three more the next two days. Im kinda weird in that I time things, just for the sake of knowing how much time it takes. Ill have you know that our driver improved his flattire changing time every single time. From ten minutes the first time down to less than six minutes. Ya gotta hand it to him on changin tires. Atta boy!

We exited the Salar and stayed the first night of our trip in a salt hotel. Everything in this place was salt. Well, almost everything. The bedsheets were cloth and the bathrooms were tile. Other than that...salt baby. We sat down and had dinner a coupla hours later only to find out that the chef didnt bring any salt or pepper on the trip (serioulsy). Where in the heck do you find salt at in the middle of the dessert!!!? But that was solved when we picked up part of our chair and scraped off a little bit into our soup.

Slept pretty well that night. Not only is salt a good table condiment but I guess it is a pretty good insulator, too. Day two was a long day. We were on the road at 7am to see all sorts of stuff. We drove by some active volcanoes and saw smoke coming from the top. Another really cool place we drove by was lagoons full of pink flamingos.
I dont know how or why these flamingos chose this area but during the high season there are thousands and thousands of these animals. Perhaps they like the mixture of geothermal waters, altituted and plantlife that lives in these waters. Who knows...but the pink flamingo's color were so strikingly beautiful against the bland brown desert terrain. Laguna Colorado was the place where our group had an excellent viewing platform and watched the birds plunk their heads in the water to grab some tasty insect or to just stand there and tuck one foot into their body. Seeing animals in the wild is so much more different than the zoo. I felt like I was the one in the cage. Another really cool place we visited was the Arbol de Piedra or rock tree. This tree is one of the many extremely odd shaped rocks in the valley of rocks. Amazing how rocks can be formed into different shapes from millions of years of sand and wind erosion. We finally arrived around 12 hours after we left. Two more flat tires on our jeep, a broken axle, and then a fix the axle put us back about three hours. I have an idea how to fix flats, but broken axles are something I leave to the pros, like Pa. Our group was lucky enough to be near a sulfer mine that had a guy with a welding machine. One of the drivers in the other group knew how to spot weld so we were back on the road and didnt hafta pull the other jeep.

We all got to the Laguna Colorado National Reserve pretty late and just tried to recover from the 12 hour excursion of endless bumps and weird combination of burning sun and cold wind. The weird thing about the desert is that once the sun gets past a certain point things start to get really really cold really really quickly. Wind dont help either. Towards the end of the day the temp prolly dropped from 90 degrees Fahrenheit to 50 degrees pdq. And it wasnt gettin any warmer until that sun poked its head out again the next day. Good thing we visited in the summer months because the winter temperatures can get down to a chilly 20 below.

ok...ill be back for more tomorrow...also more on the conversations we had with the vegans


Alrighty, back again.

The second night was a cold one. With the wind and altitude (4000 meters plus) it got down to about 25 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Kinda chilly. The wine we drank with dinner kept us warm after our meal. One really cool thing about being at that altitude and being in the middle of nowhere is all the stars you see. You dont really realize how many stars are up there in the sky until you just take a step back and watch the sky for a while.

The dinner conversation was kinda light. We had just been talking to each other in a jeep for 12 hours and didnt feel like repeating the same ol "So...where are you going next" type traveler question. I was semi-annoyed with the group for a while because they criticized my iPod music selection. We had listened to many of the usual group favorites and I decided to play some Ryan Adams (not Bryan Adams) when there were some grumbles from the back because the guy is kinda unknown. I was just glad we were listing to something besides the heavily played Bolivian music we had been listening to since the previous day. The tape player had been workin overtime playing Andean folk music as well as the Spanish version of J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers' hit "Last Kiss." The radio in our jeep had an adapter plug that makes nonstop rocking possible. Ya just connect the radio to your iPods headphone jack with a little cable and you are set. Not only was it nice to hear American music but it also gave the jeep's tape player a rest. But I guess you cant please everybody's musical interest.

Being the person that is always aiming to please, I suggested someone else volunteer their music player for a while. Louisa, Vegan #1, suggested her mp3 player. She selected the music, I plugged it in and we listened. I should have thrown that thing outta the window. The music was a mixture of bad techno and bad pop music. There were a few decent songs mixed in between but both of them were really short songs, no extended mixes. The bad techno reminded me of a bad Gap commercial and the bad pop music reminded of actually being in the Gap. I was trapped in a rolling technotronic Gap-mobile for two freakin hours in the desert...someone, throw me a freakin bone here. Things got a little better when they finally told us that they had Nirvana's Nevermind album. Finally, something!!!!

Now it wasnt the musical selection that made these two girls kinda, well, umm, different, or annoying. And it wasnt their lifestyle. You can be vegan all you want, just dont tell us all about the vegan lifestyle without us asking. And please dont tell us everything about animal rights when we dont ask. Please, dont start a conversation about down sleeping bags by saying "You know how they get those feathers off the animals, dont you!?"

Just me and the liscense plateOne thing I have learned in my travels is that there are a ton of different people out here in the world and that is what makes this trip interesting. Yup, you can have your opinion about things, but just dont go inflicting your views on me when I dont solicit them. Ill respect your choice to not eat meat and you can respect my choice to eat meat. Talking with the girls about anything else was perfectly fine...but when the conversation changed to meat or animal rights it was like small town Iowa preparing for The Storm. The sky becomes dark, cloudy, and ominous, window shutters slam shut, and everybody kinda scurries into the cellar because a tornado was about to rip through town.

The vegans did not like the fact the chef really didnt understand what a vegan was. She prolly confused vegans with vegetarians which is a pretty reasonable because there are prolly not too many vegans roaming around in SA. The best advice I would give them is that if you are gonna have extremely rigid dietary guidelines then you better come ready to cook for yourself.

We were gettin ready to shut it down for the night and some of us were curious. We started to question the vegans as to how far or to what extent can you be a vegan... Suppose the veggies you are eating were hauled into town under the power of a horse? Would you eat the veggie? Suppose the veggie the vegans ate was fertilized with animal manure? Would you eat the veggie? Both examples are animal exploitation, right...

Geezers!the next day we rose around 430am from our beds and were off to the geysers. Geysers in Spanish is pronounced like "geezers" in English. So I expected to see a whole bunch of old people just standin around and began to think "I paid money to see this!" But the geysers were really cool. the cool morning air and the hot steam created massive clouds of sulfer that wreaked of rotten eggs. One geyser shot steam clouds about a hundred feet into the air. Others were as loud as a plane engine on takeoff. Some were boiling water and leavin a mess everywhere. Nearly all of them were pretty impressive. The terraine around the geysers looked something similar to the photos you see of other planets. Alien landscape. Similar to pictures of the Mars landrover. Freakin Loud GeezerWe hung around there for a while to change flat tire number four before heading to the Laguna Verde. The Green Lake is absolutely dead of any life, but it is still really cool to look at. All the natural copper deposits mixed with the water create a greenish effect when wind agitates the lake water. laguna verde

Got a few more pics of that and then we were off to the Bolivia/Chile border where we said goodbye to some our group members as they were on their way to San Pedro de Atacama. I elected to stay on the jeep and enjoy the view before I took the train to Argentina. We passed through the Salvador Dali Desert which was a series of massive rocks in the middle of a sand dune. The Spanish called it that when they were passin through. View from the Jeep, baby

Valle de RocasOur last stop was at the Rock Valley where there are just some massive rocks that have been carved into some really weird shapes from lots of time and lots of wind and sand. pretty cool.

Back in the jeep through more rough terrain before we got onto a smooth highway, smooth by Bolivian standards, before we had one more stop. With the town of Uyuni in sight we ran outta gas...snap! no problem there, we just cut the top of the Coke bottle and used that as a little funnel and poured the rest of the gas that was in our little gas can on top of the roof.

We arrived back into town, safe and sound. Pretty dirty from not showering for three days but in decent spirits. Went back to my hotel and took a quick shower and then went off to Minute Man Pizza. The pizza I ate that night was pretty darn good and prolly the best pizza in SA. This guy, Chris from Boston, married a girl in the States from Uyuni. They moved down here and he opened up a bed in breakfast and a pizza shop. Great food and a great guy. Chris is the type of guy you can have small talk with and feel like you have known him for ever. I liked the place so much I even bought a tshirt from the place.

Well, im goin to Buenos Aires tonight. Have a good one!



Anonymous said...


Where'd you pick up the hat?

Now for what I learned from IPTV, the only thing that can survive in that salty water is an algae. The flamingo has a unique bill that can scoop up the algae from the water and snarf it down.


JP, the elder

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's some amazing landscape! I had now idea that had that kind of stuff down there. Maybe I should have spent part of my two-plus year wandering in South America instead of Europe...Nah, Europe's my thing but I might just have to go South sometime.

Hey, where's the stories about the wacky things the vegan girls said? The Ides of December (if December has Ides) have come and gone!