Pachamama’s Symphony: The Salar de Uyuni
December 16, 2013 | By Mitch & Jewels |
The staggering beauty of the salar could bring you to your knees, bring tears to your eyes, gape your jaw open in awe. Words and photos barely convey the majesty and the grandeur of this place, which rips your heart open and leaves you feeling so raw, so powerless, yet so brilliantly happy.
One Night in Uyuni
It was raining like crazy when we left Potosí, but luckily it chilled out for the four hour bus ride (to the dot) to Uyuni. The bus ride was spectacular – a high altitude semi-arid/arid mountainous environment dotted with a few small houses, farms, and pre-Colombian ruins. But most incredible were the colors of the soil – reds, purples, browns, greens, oranges, streaks of blue and gray. It was truly magnificent; each time I looked out the window it took my breath away. Also, tons of llamas (not sure if wild or domestic) grazed on the side of the road, and there were several llama-crossing signs (alas, we could not get a photo).
We arrived in Uyuni and found a cheap hotel – the Residential Wara del Salar, just a block away from the main tourist plaza. It was cheap (approx. $11 USD) and has a kitchen, which is a rarity in Uyuni! We had heard that you need to bring a lot of snacks for the tour, so we decided that being able to hard-boil eggs would be really useful. Plus, Uyuni restaurants are a bit pricey so we were happier to make our own breakfast than overpay for stale bread and tea!
The town of Uyuni is pretty lame and worth going just to book your tour and get out. Most people arrive and book their tour on one day, stay overnight, then leave the next day. Some people pre-book their tour, take the overnight bus, then leave straight away (although I would personally hate to be tired from an overnight bus on such a gorgeous tour). Some people even take the overnight bus, book a tour, and leave immediately. We decided that staying one night would be worthwhile so we could actually book early in the afternoon for the next day to ensure we would go with the company we wanted.
Booking Our Tour of the Salar de Uyuni
When we got to Uyuni, we booked a Salar tour with Quechua Connection, which is more pricey than some of the other options but really well rated online. (Note: Their website has the wrong email address and their email was down for a few weeks, so we booked the day before. Correct email address linked above.) We ended up paying Bs 900 (approx. $130 USD), including Bs 50 for our transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, for the 3-day, 2-night tour. We could have gotten it elsewhere as low as Bs 700, but we have heard so many stories of bad guides, drunk guides (ie: drivers), hungover guides, etc. that we decided that the reviews made it well worth the extra cost. Our guide, Abel, was INCREDIBLE. Given the stories we have heard from other travelers, we are counting our lucky stars that we had such a wonderful guide.
The stops on the tours are pretty much the same for all companies. Quechua Connections does a few extra stops (a little “island” where you can see a cactus in a cave, watching sunset from the salar, and star-gazing at night). The first day you spend on the salt flat itself and you stay in a salt hotel at night. The second day you are in the desert (this is the outskirts of the Atacama Desert, the driest hot-desert in the world), and get to see loads of flamingoes, then stay in rustic but sufficient accommodations. The third morning, you see geysers and hot springs, then either transfer to Chile or turn around and have a long drive back (apparently with beautiful stops too).
Day 1: Pure Awesome
The first day started by loading the six travellers (us, a young Canadian couple named Olivia and Brendan, and a couple from LA named Tiffany and Howard) into the car with our guide/driver Abel. We thought it would be squished and have heard about cars that are not in great condition, but it turned out to be quite comfortable for our sized group, and Abel kept his car in impeccable condition. Seriously, every night after we were too exhausted for anything else, he would stay awake cleaning and caring for the car.
Abel told us (on prompting) that Quechua Connections is different from many other agencies because it is family-run and all 10 or so guides are either cousins or family friends, and they ask for loyalty in only working with them… which is one of the reasons their reputation is so much better and they can afford to charge more. (Many other agencies effectively hire guides as freelance, and travelers will find themselves in a car with people who booked through various agencies at various prices.)
Also, total surprise: Abel speaks incredible English (as well as apparently bits of several other languages), although he is super humble about it and apparently not even the tour agency realizes how well he speaks it. He is really fun, has a great personality, excellent explanations of things, and you can tell he really loves the landscape and his job. We had been hoping for a guide who wasn’t drunk – and we got a fantastic guide!
Our first stop was the train cemetery, where old trains that used to bring silver to the sea are left to rust and decay. There are elements of the Butch Cassidy story wrapped up in it – I need to read more. The train cemetery was the best playground I could possibly imagine – so much fun!
The second stop was a little town with a bunch of tourist vending places, a “salt museum” (as Abel said, another name for a tourist shop), and several “salt factories.” The salt factories are private operations owned by individuals or families. To farm/mine the salt, they organize squares in the ground in the salt flat, and from each square they scrape the top 2-3 cm into a mound of salt. All the water from the salt proceeds to drip out, so you have a thin layer of water over the ground with a crunchy crusty layer of salt underneath (future salt farming) and mounds of drying salt.
Then they let it all sit in their town in open spaces next to houses, kind of like a garage, for a bit, and then take it inside to the “factory room,” which is a little building made from a mix of mud, regular, and salt bricks. There, the salt goes onto giant ovens where they heat it up while stirring it around to release the non-salt elements (which makes it pop like popcorn). Then, once it has cooked, they bag it into little plastic bags, seal them with fire, and sell them. A guy named Juan did a little demo for the tourists and we bought a small bag of salt.
From there, we drove out to the desert, which felt totally like the road to the playa (the Black Rock Desert, where we go “home” to Burning Man year after year) and gave me familiar excited butterflies in my tummy.
The Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flat, is the largest salt flat in the world and covers some 11,000 km sq. It’s enormous. Apparently in areas, the salt crust is 10m thick, which is huge, particularly considering that they mine the salt 2-3 cm layer at a time. As Abel explained it, these areas used to all be seas, much like and/or connected to Lake Titicaca. As the tectonic plates shifted and the Andes mountains and volcanoes rose up, the water drained or evaporated from all these areas. Here, it evaporated, leaving all of the sea salt over the ground, which over time dried up into the salt flat.
Our first stop in the desert was to visit the aforementioned salt mounds, which was pretty cool, and a stunning entry to the salar. As described, when they make the mounds of salt to dry, all the water drips out so you end up with a couple of centimeters of water on the ground, leaving a really nice reflection for the clouds. Even beneath the water, you can feel the sharp crystalline structure of the salt forming. After you’re in the water, you get a shiny sparkly crystalline salt residue on your shoes, hands, or whatever you put in the water.
The face of the salar itself is reminiscent of Black Rock Desert, but much more dry with a super hard shell of salt. You can see the cracked lines of dryness making very regular hexagonal shapes in the ground. In most areas, it is super dry, but in some areas there are a few centimeters of water over the salt, creating a gigantic gorgeous reflective mirror effect. Apparently we are super lucky in this too… Most of the year it is just 100% dry, and then for the couple of months of the rainy season, it is so wet that they can’t actually drive out onto the flats, and tours go as far as the salt mounds and then have to go around the rest of the salar. But we ended up with absolutely perfect conditions.
The only thing that lives out here are cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen and make themselves little pits and puddles of water. Some of the little pits are quite deep and when you reach in, you can feel how the water is hot and top and cool underneath, and you can pull crystals of salt from the sides.
We couldn’t leave the salar without the requisite perspective photos. The flats are so perfectly flat and so perfectly large that everything seems near and close at once. You have no idea if the mountains are a kilometer away or 100 kilometers away. You can’t see where the sky ends and where the ground begins, and the clouds look like they are so close, yet the sky is so brilliantly expansive. It’s a rare opportunity to play with special effects… sans special effects.
Everywhere you look, in every direction, is the magic of Mother Nature, Pachamama. Abel answered my awe by stating, matter of fact, that this is why Bolivians believe so strongly in Pachamama.
We stopped by two “islands,” or areas of rock lifted up over the salar that actually have plants (cacti) and (rare) animal life. They are truly “islands” when you see them! Fish Island (Isla Incahuasi), so named because it looks like the shape of a fish from a distance, has tons of giant cacti standing at attention. It’s magnificent to hike around and up it, and see how far and wide the salar stretches with this bizarre little island of life in the middle of it.
Apparently many groups with other agencies head to the hotel after Fish Island, but we are way more lucky. Pia Pia Island is similar to Fish Island in general formation, and we stopped to look at one giant cave with a huge cactus growing up into it. A few people in our group saw viscachas, weird rabbit-like animals with long tails that are in the armadillo family.
More (possibly most) exciting was sunset. All Quechua Connections tours include a stop to see sunset, but Abel said he was going to “give us a special present.” He took us to an area with a few centimeters of water on the ground to see the sunset. As we wrote before, it is a rare treat to see the salar in this condition – period.
But the sunset… the sunset over this gigantic mirror was epic. Every direction you looked, the sky was doing something spectacular. The colors, shapes, clouds (which had been incredible all day) make you want to cry, and all you are capable of doing is standing in awe of Pachamama.
After the sun went down, we drove into a thunderstorm that had been brewing in the direction of our lodging. The lightening was shockingly beautiful, constant cracks of it, where you could see it all perfectly. It didn’t actually rain on us, but the ground had several inches of water and it took Abel and a few other cars some time to find the entrance to the town where the lodging is. He mentioned that close to the border of the town, the ground was squishy and you could sink, and he seemed relieved when we got to the town/island. It felt like the car was a boat going over the edge of a glossy, super tranquil lake.
We got to town, checked into our hotel, where the tourist areas are made of salt (walls, bedframes, floors, décor) and we have a 6 person dorm room for our group which was quite comfy. After dinner, we went out to look at the stars at the edge of town, where the moon was bright and we played with long camera exposures and becoming ghosts in them.
Day 2: Flamingos, Vicuñas, Desert, Oh My!
As we were leaving the salt hotel town area, Abel pointed out the house where he was born and raised (to age 6; he now lives in Uyuni) – which is part of the reason he loves this landscape so much and is able to share his passion for it so wonderfully. We saw loads of domestic llamas (their ear tags show who owns them) as well as quinoa plants. Abel explained that there are three ways people here make money: llamas, quinoa, and tourism. The llamas are killed around 3 years old (otherwise their meat is too tough) and are worth about Bs 1,000 each ($145 USD) for meat, fur, etc. The meat is often dried in these buildings that look like ancient ruins with walls but no roofs into charqui (which sounds and is like jerky).
The morning consisted of a super long car ride, punctuated by a passing cargo train, chugging its way across this glorious altiplano landscape.
We also stopped at a garden of rocks that were beautifully worn away by wind and water. It was a really fun place to climb around, take photos, stand in awe of nature (always, always). We also wrote a thank you for Gwen, whose incredible wedding gift has allowed us to take all of the photos we have been posting. (To note, we took approximately 800 photos over this tour, and edited them down to 140 for this blog post, including the gallery at the end. They are too beautiful not to share!)
We stopped for lunch at a lagoon with a ton of flamingoes around, making noise and eating little algae and whatnot; when we walked close to the lagoon edge, water squished black from the earth. At the edge of the lagoon, we saw a pack of wild vicuñas foraging. They are beautiful (aka adorable) and common throughout this landscape, kind of like deer back home – it’s remarkable they find enough to eat, and drink, here. The herds are usually groups of females, often with a single male, and then male stags appear separately in solos or pairs. There were also a few neat gull sand other birds near that first lagoon in this otherwise desolate landscape.
Through the rest of the trip, we saw plenty of other flamingoes at other salty, sometimes toxic lagoons, as well as plenty of vicuñas. Apparently you can eat flamingo meat, but it’s not very tasty (plus now flamingoes have various protections). The flamingo life cycle has some interesting facts. Abel told us that they fly down to the salt flat to lay their eggs in the salar. When the eggs hatch, the babies are all alone and spend a month eating from the egg and learning to fly, and then fly on their own to the lagoons where their parents and other flamingoes are. And, apparently when they are up on the lakes, sometimes the water freezes and their feet get stuck in place. When that happens, they go to sleep right where they are. When the sun warms the ice and it thaws, they wake back up and continue right along! As Abel said: “crazy birds.”
The mountains and volcanoes (both dead and alive) are beautiful. The extinct volcanoes in particular have the most spectacular colors, which come from the different minerals that exploded over the mountain surfaces – oxidized metals, minerals, rocks – browns, blues, greens, reds, whites, silvers, purples – glorious!
We also stopped in the bitter cold windy afternoon to see the rock tree, a pretty spectacular showing of what wind and water can do to carve rocks. Our last stop of the day was the red lagoon, kind of like a toxic red tide, but permanent and lagoon-wide, with the color richer when the winds blow. Here, only little planktony things and flamingoes live.
The surface and edges of the water also have a lot of borax, which is one of the minerals that they mine in the salt flat. It’s a fibrous mineral that is sold to other countries to produce goods like plastics, which are then sold back to Bolivia and other third world countries at a much higher price because engineers don’t stay here (because they can make more money elsewhere). The sad fate of so many countries.
Day 3: The Energy under Us
We had an early night on the second day in pretty basic accommodations, where Abel told us stories and answered questions over dinner, before preparing for a 4:30am wake-up so we could have breakfast, be ready, and leave by 5:30am sharp. We had popped out the previous night to see the stars, and as the sun rose in the morning, it punctuated the feeling of awe of the last few days. In these majestic landscapes, you become wholly aware of how infinitesimally small we are.
The temperature was below freezing over the night, and for the first few hours of the drive, a glittery frost coated the earth. We slept at 4300 meters over sea level, but our drives took us up to 4900 meters – you don’t always realize just how high up you are, or how high the surrounding peaks are!
Our first stop in the morning was to see a crater with tons of geysers, thermal air vents, and bubbling volcanic mud. The whole area smelled of sulfur, and it was pretty amazing to see this one small example of the crazy force and power just beneath the earth’s crust. There was a small sign telling people not to get too close, but it was beyond awesome to wander through and around the pits of the volcanic crater. It felt like we had wandered into one of Dante’s circles.
After that, we went to a natural hot spring, fueled by the thermal heat, out in the open (with a few llamas nearby). There was still frost on the ground nearby, but the pond was beautifully warm and lovely.
It was interesting that at various stops, you would be with a collection of tourists and different groups, but between those few places stops you would not see any other human life (or animal, for that matter) for as far as the eye can see.
We made a brief stop to see the Salvadore Dali rocks, where a series of boulders randomly dot an otherwise sand-desert landscape. Mitch and I had a little high altitude desert dance party, homesick for the playa and with the smells so reminiscent, the dust in our hair, and fantastic music pumping out of Abel’s car. (Shout out to our dearest DJ Sequoia, we played your mix from our wedding in the car and bounced along in the middle of the desert.)
Our last stops were to see the green lagoon (colored by copper sulfate and more borax on the top) and the white lagoon (so named for it’s crystal clear color). Flamingoes dot (or cover) both, and the colors and the landscape are just heartbreakingly beautiful. Overlooking the green lagoon, there is a spot where there are a bunch of little stacks of rocks, a tribute that people leave for Pachamama.
From the lagoons, we drove just a few minutes around a mountain, where we bid a fond farewell to Bolivia, got our emigration stamps, and then climbed onto our bus from the border into Chile.
Bolivia, you have made our hearts sing, and these past few days in the desert have felt like an ode to Mother Earth, Father Sky, God and the Devil, and Pachamama… surely, this is the place that Pachamama made into her symphony!
…and in case you haven’t seen enough, here are more gorgeous photos we just had to post: