We are up early again as usual and on the bus, waving goodbye to Dave, Helen, Walter and Ingrid- a little teary, but some humour injected when the bus lurched and stalled twice before finally getting going! It then died a thousand deaths on the way out of La Paz, growling and stalling six more times on the steep switchback road, until we finally made it to flat road on higher ground. We managed to make it the three hours to Oruro, our lunch stop, then caught the 1530 train for our seven hour journey to the desert town of Uyuni.
The train ride took us through the high Bolivian altiplano region, and during this time all I could think of was T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland' (thank you Mr. Andrews, gr. 12 English Lit.!) The altitude and lack of rain make this area barren except for the occasional scrub brush. There are a few small settlements scattered here and there; it also reminded me of northern Canada, when I have flown into Iqaluit on Baffin island and all you see is tundra, then a cluster of small houses.
We finally reach windblown Uyuni (oo-yoonie)in the dark, and Carly, Shari and I crash out in our crowded little room.
This morning we are picked up by three Toyota Land Cruisers for our four day excursion into the desert Altiplano region. There are six of us per vehicle, including our drivers and two cooks who will take care of us during the trip. We make a quick stop at the local mercado for snacks, batteries, and booze, then head out.
Our first stop is at the Salar de Uyuni, or Salt Lake. This area was a prehistoric lake, and now dried up it is a blinding white salt flat. It's quite disconcerting, because the sensation is that we are driving on a frozen lake, and I kept waiting for the vehicle to skid! It is also quite cool due to the high winds. Locals here mine the salt by hand, shoveling it into piles that are then picked up by truck and taken to the salt 'refinery'- a family -run business with six people, drying about 50kg salt a day. They make about one boliviano per 50 kg of salt- about 15 cents CDN.
We visit the Salt Hotel, built totally of salt blocks and cacti wood. It is just a tourist attraction now-it no longer operates as a hotel because the salt fields were being contaminated by the banos. 'Unboliviable!' as some astute person wrote on the visitor's board.
We also see 'Los Ojos de Salar' or 'Eyes of the Lake', where water from the mountain rivers has run down below the salt flat, melted it through and bubbles up to the surface- resembling an ice fishing hole!
Our lunch stop is Isla del Pescado or 'Island of Fish', a coral island remnant from the prehistoric lake, now covered in huge cacti, one of which is estimated to be over 1200 years old! Our drivers and cooks set up a nice outdoor lunch here of saltenas (meat and potato pastry) and salad, then we explore the island for a bit, marveling at the contrasts here- the white of the salt flats, the coral hues of the island, the green of the cacti all against a clear blue sky.
Eventually we leave the salar, and cross into more desert-like terrain. After about two hours, we arrive at Dorm San Juan where we will stay tonight. Our guide, Carlos, had told us we'd be 'roughing it'...I have learned, that like a 'Bolivian flat' road is likely unpaved and surely bumpy, Bolivian 'roughing it' is a little different also! The dorm is a low cement block building in a cluster of similar buildings in the middle of nowhere...the word 'jail' comes to mind, although there are no bars! lol....
By 1700 it is getting quite cold; we are at 3700m elevation here, and there is no heat- but there is a fireplace in the 'common room' (ie mess hall), and we play cards and drink by firelight until the generator comes on at 1900. Then it's a simple but filling dinner (llama, I think). We convince them to keep the electricity on til 2215, but then it's lights out, and everybody in bed in their sleeping bags and three blankets. Carly, Shari and I are roomies again in our tiny cell-I mean, bedroom; and go to sleep with our flashlights beside us- hopefully no one has to get up to the bano tonight!