Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My Salt Bed

Bolivia has its fair share of strange and beautiful landscapes but the Southwest of the country really takes the cake. Commonly referred to as the Salar de Uyuni this large empty stretch of land can make the average tourist feel like they are on another planet.

The best way to travel through this landscape is to take a 4WD tour for four days so Eduardo and I did just that. We packed ourselves into a beaten up Toyota Landcruiser with two other aussies, an english fireman and a neurotic whinging english girl. Accompanying us was Hugo our driver / tour guide extraordinaire and Sylvia our lovely cook. The tour took us through some incredible landscapes, we were at 4000 metres most of the time so there were no trees, just mountains, volcanoes, huge canyons, deserts, inca ruins and multi coloured lakes. The lakes were amazing, there was an emerald green one, a whitish one, a red one, pink one, turquoise blue and turquoise green. Just to top off the colours were Flamingos - thousands of hot pink dots adrift in a lake the colour of a swimming pool. It was strange to see what I think of as hot climate creatures happily wading about in water that is barely above zero but they seemed to love it. Other animals included thousands of different coloured Llamas, the delicate and bambi like Vicuna which is a wild relative of the Llama and the weird little Vizcacha - a strange cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. Looking like a large rabbit with a long fluffy tail the Vizcacha is famous for being able to survive extreme cold and heat by changing it's metabolism.

Accomodation was an interesting prospect on this tour, for our first two nights we were housed in drafty wooden buildings with no heating and cold showers - we slept in big communal rooms in little metal beds. The second night was so cold that I wore thermals, tracksuit pants, three tops, a jumper, a beanie and then slept in my sleeping bag covered by 4 blankets and cuddling the hostals kitten who tucked himself in and proceeded to deafen me with purrs in my ear.

For our third night the accomodation got even more interesting as we stayed in one of the famous Salt Hotels. Initially disappointing from the outside with regular brown bricks (I had imagined something snow white and crystalline) when we go in we discover walls, tables, chairs and even beds made out of salt bricks. A quick lick of the walls confirms this is true - delicious. But the cozy sleep I had in my salt bed was cut short by a 4.30am start for the highlight of our trip - the Salar. The salar is a flat area of 12 thousand square Ks that is covered in pure white salt. Or as a Swiss tourist exclaimed "it's the size of Switzerland - this fucking thing!" So in the darkness of the early morning we hopped in the jeep and drove out to see for ourselves. Accompanied by a golden full moon slowly sinking over one mountain and the sun slowly rising over the other we were soon gliding over a bed of blinding white that stretched as far as the horizon.

Our first stop that morning was at "Isla Pescada" - Fish Island. This chunk of land rises above the salt plain just like an island at sea. The Island itself is covered in 6 metre tall 1000 year old crazy looking cacti. We climb to the peak of the island and sit surrounded by an endless sea of white salt, ringed by snow capped mountains and volcanoes as the sunrise turns everything pink and gold.

Later we hop in the truck and race the other group travelling with us across the white salt - with no road and no perspective it is impossible to tell how fast we are going but it feels like we are flying. Finally we stop in the middle of the salar where the blinding white stretches to the horizon in every direction. This is the perfect place to do trick photography as the white doesn't give any sense of perspective, we amuse ourselves for hours taking photos sitting in someones hand, floating above each others heads and sitting on top of cups and bottles. The salt beneath our feet cracks and shatters making a sound like broken glass.

Photo-ed out we then sit down on a blanket for a picnic lunch. What do you eat and drink when you are in the middle of the worlds biggest salt plain in the country of Bolivia? Spaghetti napolitana and coca cola of course. By now the sun is really sitting high in the sky and getting brutal, the reflection from all the white leaves me and several others with sunburnt chins and lips.

On our return to Tupiza we find out about the blockades, the roads are blocked to all traffic as a protest and it means we may spend a night in the van or have to walk several Ks to town carrying all our stuff. It's not looking good but our fearless driver Hugo is undeterred, switching off the headlights and barely running the engine he rolls the truck into a field and creeps us slowly cross country dodging the protesters and the blockades. I feel like someone in WW2 in the UK during the blackout as we roll silently into the town accross the local football oval. After half an hour of extreme tension we arrive back in the town to the curious stares of locals who haven't seen any cars all day - hurrah for Hugo!

PS: Want to say a big hello to Linda and Red - glad you are reading!


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