Spectacular Salt Flats

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Earlier this month, I took a trip to Salar de Uyuni with three Bolivian friends.  At a whopping 12,106 square km (3653m above sea level), the Salar is the world`s largest salt flat and contains more than half the world`s supply of lithium.  It is estimated that 20,000 tons of salt are extracted and processed each year, for sale in Bolivia as well as international export.

Lonely Planet describes the twelve hour ($14/£9) bus ride from La Paz as `bone-shaking` and it was no exaggeration.  The final third of the journey was over dirt road which proved to be a rude awakening at 4am.  Picture the roughest aeroplane landing you have ever experienced (sans seatbelt) and then imagine it lasting for four solid hours.  Suffice to say, I emerged bleary-eyed and more than mildly grumpy after two such overnight journeys (especially on the way back when my window was scotch-taped together and rattling incessantly).  The only upside of the turbulent ride was being awake to witness the sunrise, the sky slowly turning pink as our double-decker bus barrelled through the desert.

Uyuni itself is a fairly uninspiring town, with tour agencies, pizzerias and little else.  Just outside the town is an ancient train cemetery, an eerie and desolate place where the wind whips around rusted shells of abandoned trains dating back to the 19th century.

Uyuni's train cemetery

Uyuni’s train cemetery

Train cemetery

Visiting the Salar requires an organized tour, and unfortunately guide books and the internet are rife with horror stories about drunk-drivers, poorly maintained vehicles and accidents, claiming `it is impossible to recommend operators with any confidence`.  Perfecto.  Dubious agencies reputedly squeeze up to seven people into their jeeps – gas canisters, food and rucksacks strapped to the tops of the vehicles – with little regard for either safety or the environment.  Fortunately one of our group works for a travel agency and had a somewhat reliable contact, and I was instructed to stay quiet (and pretend to be half-Bolivian, if anyone asked) as my friends negotiated a private, made-to-measure tour for the four of us at a `national` price.

We set off with our guide and driver, José, and his 9 year old son, also José.  I waited until we were sufficiently far into the wilderness before attempting to make conversation, thus revealing my non-Bolivian identity.  José senior was a man of few words, but a taciturn driver was preferable to a drunk one, and he admirably doubled as a mechanic when our jeep broke down on day two.

It is difficult to describe just how stunning the scenery is, nor do my photos do the landscape justice.  It felt as though we were crossing through different planets, as we sped across the vast white expanse of salt and bounced our way through the desert.  At times bleak and eerie, the desolate desert plains stretched for miles, turning from arid cactus-laden hills to rust red sand.  Volcanoes tower above the sands, some of them active, while Andean peaks as far as Chile are visible in the distance.

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Desert sunset

Desert sunset

Desert sunrise

Desert sunrise

Herds of llama and vicuña (a wild relative of the llama) graze in the brush, scattering as jeeps approach.  As we lurched along, I was lucky to spot two rare rheas – Bolivia`s version of the ostrich – bounding through the dusty plains with their feathered middles fluttering like tutus.  Everyone but the driver was asleep and we were moving too fast for a photo, so it was a surreal moment that I half-wondered if I`d imagined (I was heartened when I later Googled ‘ostriches in Bolivia’).

We stopped at various lagunas, where flocks of flamingoes gather to feed on minerals in icy, rose-coloured water.  After a lunch of llama steaks, we piled back into the jeep to visit surreal rock formations and geysers, spouting clouds of sulphuric-smelling steam from their depths.  José senior broke his silence to make a wry comment that the odd feckless tourist has been known to slip and fall to their death in the geysers while posing for photos.  (I chose to believe him, though that particular Google search came up empty).

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La Laguna Colorada

La Laguna Colorada

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

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Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating and smell revolting)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating but smell revolting)

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Salt hotels have sprung up to accommodate visiting tourists, but we stayed in cheaper, basic accommodation (beds of stone rather than salt) in the middle of the desert.  The weather is extreme in the Salar, switching from burning hot during the day to freezing cold at night.  Breakfast was served at 5am, and we set off on the long and bumpy ride back to the Salar, with a brief mechanical failure and lunch at an island that looked like a pincushion of cactuses.

One week prior to our trip, a group of five Australian tourists and their guide became lost in the Salar for five days before being found safe and sound.  Since returning two weeks ago, two more groups have survived being missing for several days.  Rain obliterates the trails of other vehicles and plays havoc with visibility, and in these vast salt flats, an inexperienced guide can easily become disoriented.  Guides rely upon the distant volcanoes as navigational markers, but when heavy rains strike, there is nothing to be done but come to a standstill and wait.

The salt makes for a blinding surface, akin to driving across an enormous mirror.  It is a breath-taking, brilliant white expanse that seems to be endless.  At some points the surface is slick and smooth, at others there are cone-shaped mounds of extracted salt, and yet further, hexagonal salt tiles spread as far as the eye can see.  We had fun taking some obligatory cliched perspective shots and later watched the Josés demonstrate salt extraction with a hammer, locating cracks in the tiles that conceal deep, salty pools.  After chiselling and banging away, they unearthed glistening mounds of crystallised salt.

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Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

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José & José, extracting salt

José & José, extracting salt

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This post is coming a little late since I`ve been busy with work, travelling to attend FONCRESOL`s three day AGM (where I presented to the five regional offices, causing a predictably disproportionate amount of anxiety).  The meeting took place seven hours away, just outside Cochabamba, a city renowned for its abundance of food (five hearty meals a day) and whose inhabitants possess possibly the greatest name ever: Cochabambinos.

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Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.

Sorata

Sorata

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw3yx

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV
http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episode/david-suzukis-andean-adventure.html

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Midnight meals & wishes under apples

Welcoming New Year with a 1am meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Welcoming the New Year with a 1.00AM meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Having spent eight of the past ten Christmases in a different continent than my immediate family, I was fairly unfazed about the prospect of spending Christmas solita in Bolivia.  I toyed with the idea of travelling, but after some drawn-out confusion about whether I had two days or two weeks of holiday, in the end I accepted an invitation to experience Christmas Paceño-style with a local family.

Traditions vary among families, but generally there is a late meal on Christmas Eve followed by gift-giving.  Households decorate with a tree and usually nativities too.  Christmas trees were adorned with cotton wool for snow, but outside it was hot and sunny in between frequent rainstorms.  The warmer climate added a strange feel to the festivities, not to mention the absence of working in retail for the first time in five years.  It certainly felt like a quieter, surreal Christmas on many levels.

We spun crackly old Latin American records – an eclectic mix of Bolivian Christmas carols, rousing Mexican folk songs and Puerto Rican pop.  Before midnight, we each wrote a wish on a scrap of paper and tucked it underneath a numbered apple, which I was instructed to take home and eat upon waking on Christmas morning.  When the clock chimed midnight on Christmas Eve, prayers were murmured, greetings exchanged and glasses clinked.  At around 12.30am, we finally sat down to eat (I was somewhat relieved I`d snacked beforehand).  The meal included turkey and stuffing, although this is not necessarily standard fare.

On Christmas Day, I enthusiastically sampled buñuelos (enormous deep-fried discs of dough) doused with honey and treacle-like cane sugar and accompanied by hot chocolate.  They were delicious and undoubtedly terrible for one`s cholestrol.  I immediately loved them.

Buñuelos - deep-fried doughy deliciousness

Buñuelos – deep-fried doughy deliciousness

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

Wishes under apples

Wishes under apples

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

More vinyl fun

More vinyl

Fun fact: At some point, Ricky Martin was a member of this rather greasy-looking band

Fun fact: Ricky Martin was once a member of this rather greasy-looking band

New Year`s Eve is customarily celebrated with a family meal (pork to signify prosperity and abundance) which also takes place after midnight.  Following the meal, many people head out to dance and drink the night away.  As it turns out, I found eating a 1am heavy meal of fritanga (spicy pork stew) with potatoes and corn more conducive to sleeping than hitting the clubs and was content to be in bed by 3am – pitifully early by Bolivian standards.

Bemused to see the local markets overflowing with bright red and yellow underwear for sale, I have since discovered that it is common to wear coloured underwear on December 31st – red for love and yellow for wealth.  Who knew…  I suppose I`ll have to wait another year to test that theory.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!  Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013!

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.