I had been trying to organize a trip to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats before leaving Bolivia. This trip was kind of on my 'bucket list' for the year. I am still not quite sure how the trip fell together, but it did somehow. On Friday morning at the travel agency, I was told to await a call the next day. So Saturday afternoon rolls around and I am told that I would be leaving at 9:30 Sunday. Okay! I literally knew nothing about the trip plans, except that they fit the rules Rotary had given me and that I would be seeing the famous salt flats.
Jorge brought me to the travel agency at 9:30 am, Sunday morning. He was hesitant to leave me as we still didn't know what was going on, but about 30 minutes after he left I got the full run down of how the trip would work. I left Sucre as the only tourist in a Jeep with a driver and tour guide. We spent all day driving up through Potosí and arrived in the small town of Uyuni by 6:30 that evening to stay the night before the long day ahead. I got dropped off at a five dollar hostal(*cough*prison cell) with shared bathroom and no heat, and I was told to be waiting there tomorrow at 10:30. Okidoki, I thought. I can do this. So I partied the night away with a bottle of Jack and some sexy Aussies! Kidding. Totally kidding. I scoped out the town for the best pizza in my fleece, sweater, and down coat, trying not to look too lonely as I shivered off half the weight I have gained throughout the year. By the time I made it back to my prison cell, the only thing I could think to do was sit on my bed shivering in the hopes of warming it up before crawling under the 5 layers of blankets. I ate a delicious Kit-Kat Bar in the process as well. It was glorious. I didn't manage to heat up my bed at all, but I slept like a rock and was surprisingly warm. The day was hilarious. I was clueless, but it sure was memorable.
By 7:00 the next morning, I was ready to go and headed out for a walk around the town. I would be so full of myself if I wrote that the town was charming and clean and happy. I am pretty sure the only reason it still exists is for the tourists. The town was completely void of life with the exception of dogs. The fog and the railroad track running right through the street made me feel like I was in a motion picture, and the numbness in my toes and fingers is what reminded me that I wasn't in a motion picture. The liveliest parts were the two dogs that attacked me(seriously) and the rotting goat leg on the outskirts of the town. Super awesome! I ate a massive breakfast and met back up with my driver and guide at 10:30 as planned. After a stop at the market, we headed South for a long, gorgeous day.
We were to drive until the town of Hito, or at least I thought it would be a town--a town with a hotel and food and maybe even a fat chance of heating(just keep reading). At noon, we passed through the mining town of San Cristobal--the last town of the day. The scenery was stunning. I was in heaven and took every chance I could to snap a decent photo. The landscape is very mountainous at times, and then very deserty and flat in between. It had snowed days before, and the mountains/volcanoes were speckled with the remnants. This part of the country is famous for its 'lagunas.' We passed Laguna Colorado first at an altitude of around 14,000 feet. It is impressive for its distinct red coloration due to minerals and the flamingos that thrive in its waters. Google it, seriously. After crossing some more mountains we reached Laguna Verde at 16,400 feet. Apparently this laguna/lagoon/lake(not sure exactly what a lagoon is) appears very green, but only when it is wavy. Those were the two main attractions, but there is so much more to SW Bolivia than just those two lagunas. The land is just incredible.
By 5:00 pm we stopped at what I thought would be a quick little checkpoint. We ended up staying the night in a 'village' that consisted of two buildings: one was an inn for tourists and the other was for the police. I was told by Maribel, the guide, that we would head to 'Hito' at 8:30 the next morning. I was shown to my 5-bed room by a young man and I sat there in silence for a bit. It was getting pretty cold already at 16,400 feet, and I did not come prepared for sleeping in those conditions. Thank Goodness I only had to share the room with Maribel, because I was able to steal the blankets from two other beds. After sitting in the cold for 2.5 hours, dinner was sirved. There was a group of Swiss bikers that I got to converse with over dinner. I am certain they are insane as they planned to spend 12 days biking from 'Hito' to Uyuni in the cold and high altitude. They were pleasant to talk with, but we all wrapped things up and I was in bed by 8:30 due to boredom.
I didn't fall asleep until probably 11:30 because I was having troubles breathing properly. I am not sure if this was due to the extreme cold entering my lungs and making me panicky, or if it was the 3 comforters and 6 heavy wool blankets crushing me. It could have been the sensation of my toes going numb even though they were wrapped in socks, wool socks, and a down coat that served as a sleeping bag for my lower half....and yes, they too were under 9 layers of heavy blankets. I woke up at 1:30 and never slept again that night. A boring night. At 8:00 I got out of bed and was literally ready to go as I hadn't changed clothes once the entire trip so far. All I needed to do was wipe my face down with some cold water and brush my teeth. I had to use my drinking water because apparently water freezes there at temperatures of -4º Fahrenheit. :) Fun times.
Finally!, after paying way too much for the stay, we headed out for a ten-minute drive to 'Hito.' Haha...Hito. Ooohhh Hito. 'Hito' consists of one building--immigration for tourists entering from Chile. We were right on the border, sitting all alone in our jeep waiting for the other cars to come rolling in. Maribel and my driver left with their tourgroup while I was left to wait outside for my next Jeep to pick me up. I was given his license plates and his cell number, but there was no hope of cell service. I stood out in the frigid cold hoping for my jeep. Eventually it showed up a half-hour late. I was indifferent to his tardiness as my toes were already numb before we even left the 'hotel' that morning.
Henry was my driver, and I was sharing the jeep this time with a family of three from La Paz, Bolivia, and Vlad from Russia. This time I was heading back to Uyuni, and very excited because I wanted to find a nice hotel with a shower. This was Tuesday morning. The last time I changed clothes and even laid eyes on a shower was Sunday morning, and I wouldn't have a chance to shower until that night! I was lookin' kinda nasty. By the time we made it to Laguna Colorado, I struck up some real conversation with my Jeep partners. I was traveling with a mother and her two adult children. The daughter(36) is currently living in Los Angeles as a health inspector for Nestle's Hot Pockets, and she previously lived 7 years in Nebraska. She has numerous Bolivian friends that go to school at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. I didn't learn much about her 26-year-old brother, but he was the fun one. Mostly I laughed at his adorable Bolivian accent when he tried to speak in English. He was a sweetie. And he had an awesome hat and sunglasses. ;)
At 1:00, we arrived in the charming village of Villa del Mar to eat lunch. There was a wide stream running through a grassy flat between the village full of llamas. After spending 20 minutes walking amongst the llamas and snapping photos we all sat down to the lunch table. At this point I learned that the three Bolivians in my Jeep are very close friends with some of my host family here. Proof of how dang small the world really is. By the time we left Villa del Mar, I had three wicked cool carmates and some great fotos of llamas.
Only a short ride from Villa del Mar, we stopped at the 'Valle de Rocas'(aka Rock Valley). Basically they were just lots of really really big boulders at the base of the mountains that were formed due to erosion and volcanic activity. Nice for climbing had I been given more time. I snapped a couple Kodak Moments and we headed for Uyuni. By 6:30 we were stopped in Uyuni. I got a photo with my 3 Bolivian amigos and we went our separate ways.
After paying for a hotel room with a private shower, I eagerly headed out for a pleasant evening of more pizza and tourists. I was thoroughly enjoying being on my own until I got back to my room and found out the shower was semi-cold. That put a damper on my happiness, but at least my hair looked decent and I was warm enough for a change of clothing. I slept VERY hard that night and was awake and ready for my Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. As no tourist agencies would be open until 7:30ish for purchasing my day-tour of the actual salt flats(Salar), I sat contentedly reading The New Testament in my bedside table for a while. To the surprise of many, I quite enjoyed what I read. "For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." Now who can't appreciate that? I'll return a changed woman. :)
Feeling all wise and refreshed, I bundled up and headed outdoors in search of a tour of the Salar. I was successful in my searching and headed out of Uyuni in another full Jeep by 10:30 that same morning.
As we all crowded into the Jeep, I took toll of all the countries. We had 1 Aussie(Natalie), 1 Hollander(Fokke), 2 Italians and 2 of Spain. I was quite worried for the next hour as not one person spoke. While stopped in Colchani, a very small salt-mining town, I bought an adorable hat which you all will probably believe to be quite hideous, and I saw a giant llama made out of Salar salt. It was here too that both Natalie and Fokke found their voices. We all kind of simultaneously decided to stick together that day without actually saying so. We headed off from Colchani for the Salt Hotel--yes, this is a hotel made of salt blocks from the Salar. Thrilling, right? After touristy photo-taking with Natalie(21) and Fokke(31) and talking about our travels, we headed for the main attraction, Isla Pescado.
On the 45-minute drive to Isla Pescado, I sat in front and broke the silence by getting to know our driver, Waldo. He does the same day-long tour EVERY SINGLE DAY for the last 18 years! Driving across a sea of salt, seeing the same thing every single day for 18 years. I couldn't do it. Thankfully Waldo is willing. When we arrived at the island at 1:00, we were told to look around and be back at base for lunch in 20 minutes. Fokke and I headed off on a mini hiking excursion and spent WAY more than 20 minutes. We hiked to the top of one end of the island and followed the ridge to the other end until a sort of 'plaza.' On the descent, we saw a kind of cave and explored that for a long while. There was kind of a natural bridge of rock over the top of the cave that we both had to climb on and take photos of. Fun times with Fokke(I am guilty of chuckling at his name when Natalie introduced us, but he claimed to be used to it. I am still immature in that respect.). Eventually we climbed back down to base and ate some lunch with the rest of our quiet crew. The highlight of the day was right after lunch when the three of us spent at least one hour taking súper-cheesy photos on the salt.
The huge expanse of salt seems to seep into the sky and you are left without any depth of field which makes for some goofy photo opportunities. The three of us took advantage of this and had some great fun. Go to picasaweb.google.com/hmnelson12 to see photos of me on a giant can of Pringles, Natalie and me standing on Fokke's outstretched hands, and a giant Natalie crushing a mini-Me. We had a great day, and Natalie and I talked the entire way back to Uyuni. Once in Uyuni, we stopped at the famous(or infamous) Uyuni Train Cemetary. It was the subject of great laughter at pizza that evening, but nice to see it just so I can say I have been there.
After piling out of the Jeep, Natalie and Fokke and I met up with a group of Natalie's friends to go for pizza at a remarkable restaurant. Our table included a Canadian couple, two New Zealand guys, and the three of us. It was so nice to sit down in a great warm place to share great stories with great people that I knew I would most likely never see again. I just felt so open and free to laugh until I snorted...and I did just that. It was hysterical hearing about life from so many great different perspectives. We parted ways after a couple amusing hours. They all headed off for a night bus out of Uyuni and I looked forward to a hotel room that I made sure had a hot shower.
The pizza place was great, and I vowed to return the next morning for breakfast. My last morning, a Thursday, I headed out early to buy a 10:00 bus ticket for Sucre and catch a great breakfast to end my wonderful trip. I was thrilled to see pancakes on the menu! I was even more thrilled to get them and not have them be crepes! Real pancakes with apple and banana slices heated in a bath of cinnamon butter. Made My Day. The owner of the restaurant is a middle-aged guy from Boston that fell in love with a Bolivian and moved to Bolivia. He built the restaurant from the ground up. It is his baby. The perfect spot for some tired and hungry tourists that just want a short break from the harsh life of backpacking. A taste of home. I ordered a sandwich for the road and just laughed when he asked me if I wanted it on whole-wheat bread. I haven't heard 'whole wheat' since I got to Bolivia. The sandwich was great on the bus trip, and so was one of the five massive chocolate chip cookies I had him throw in a bag for me. Uyuni was great. It is definitely not easy travel, but I saw some unforgettable things and met some great people. I loved the trip and can't wait to do some real world travel some day--hopefully with showers at least every other day though.
My bus left Uyuni at 10:00 that same morning. My bus partner was a man from Potosí that works in the mines of San Cristobal. He works 14 days in San Cristobal and then buses back to Potosí to spend 7 days of rest with his family. I imagine it is a hard life, but he very humbly claimed that it is very interesting and beautiful work, that it isn't dangerous, and that he enjoys it. Good for him. Just outside of Potosí our tire popped and we had to wait 25 minutes, which didn't bother me as I figured we would be stranded for the night(it seriously wouldn't have surprised me). After a long day of travel, I was back in Sucre at 9:00. All I wanted was my bed and warmth.
A great trip. It makes me feel very proud of myself knowing that I can travel like that and enjoy myself. I have found strength in being alone. I can be happy sitting alone in a room in frigid temperatures at high altitudes in the middle of nowhere with no resources. All you have to do is loosen up and have a willingness to do things you normally wouldn't do. Talk to the locals. I can be happy sitting in a prison cell without a bathroom(yes--frigid temperatures and no resources again). I can be happy eating pizza or searching for bus tickets and tours with no one else around to speak with. I can be happy being sad if that makes sense at all. I have found a way to find good and happiness in every situation. I don't always do so, but I am capable of being happy all the time. Traveling and having the last 9.5 months to be alone with my thoughts has proven this is true. Just be happy. Just be proud of yourself. Just go. Just live.
Great trip. I almost can't wait to step foot in corn fields and roast marshmallows at the bunkhouse and hug my friends and family. Not much time left. Bittersweet.