Salt, salt and...borax? Last night we returned from our 3-day excursion to Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. We traveled to Uyuni via a 7 hour train ride from Oruro. We had arrived in Oruro from La Paz on Monday and decided to spend the night there before our train ride on Tuesday afternoon. The 4 hour bus ride to Oruro would have been alright, except the bathroom was out of order. I've become accustomed to not drinking liquids of any kind on the morning of a bus ride in Bolivia because they usually don't have a bathroom, and even though they say they will stop, they usually don't. This particular bathroom on our bus was filled with blankets and shoes and all kinds of crap that was piled on the toilet for some reason, so we weren't supposed to use it. Well, I had to empty my bladder since for some reason the altitude makes me have to go every hour, and because they weren't going to stop I went right in there, shoved all the stuff out of the way and used the broken toilet anyway. In my opinion that's what they get for trying to torture us. Of course the guy yelled at me when I came out but I lied and told him I was only using the mirror. Unfortunately Lauren couldn't follow suit or it would be too obvious so she had the joy and pleasure of squatting on the floor in front of the seat and urinating into a plastic bag while I did my best to shelter her with my jacket. Obviously I was laughing the whole time, so I'm sure no one caught on to what was happening. Fun times on Bolivian buses.
Now, I wouldn't exactly call stopping in Oruro a mistake, but there is really nothing to do in that town. Nothing at all. We had managed to find a cheap hostel with a TV so we did what we usually do when we're bored: put on an American movie that's dubbed in Spanish or watch Friends in English and eat a bunch of snacks. Friends and The Big Bang Theory have been the only shows they play in English and given the chance sometimes we veg out. Before catching the train the next day we found the only vegetarian place in town and attempted to have lunch there. The reason it was only an attempt was because when we walked in, the waiter told us there were only 3 things being served for lunch: pasta, lasagna and granola with fruit and yogurt. I ordered the granola because I am sick of pasta and I figured the fruit would provide some nutrients, in which we have been severely lacking since leaving La Paz. The Bolivians aren't too fond of vegetables, or anything healthy for that matter, so we have been relying even more so on snacks and bread than we were before. I'd also like to note that even if I wasn't a vegetarian, the meat down here looks so unappetizing I probably wouldn't eat it anyway. It just sits out in the sun in buckets where the flies can feed on it, not good. But anyways I am not feeling very healthy these days and I find I become grumpy if I can't have vegetables. So Lauren watched as I ate my granola (she doesn't like yogurt) and I watched as the waiter proceeded to serve everyone else in the restaurant a mug of what I assume was tea. Whatever it was, he didn't feel the need to offer it to us. As the restaurant began to fill up with more and more people (which we found curious because there was nothing worth eating on the lunch menu), we began to notice that everyone was eating the same thing: a soup served with a salad and what looked like a quiche of some sort. Whatever it was, it all looked really good, and was definitely not the pasta that we were told was all they had. Apparently we didn't get the memo about the lunch special, and the server didn't exactly fill us in. So I finished my granola and we got out of there, tired of being stared at by everybody because we were the only white people. I suppose it's good for 2 privileged white American girls to experience what I consider to be racism; maybe white people should feel what it's like to be discriminated against, no matter how small the offense, because of a silly thing like skin color. It puts things in perspective. After that attempt to eat healthy food, we basically gave up because no other restaurant served vegetables (we looked). So we resigned ourselves once again to bread and snacks and went to the train station to wait for our train.
I wish I had better things to say about Oruro, but if you are traveling through Bolivia there is absolutely no reason to stop there. You'll most likely just be laughed at and stared at for being white. I can speak positively about the train, however. Maybe it's only because it was a train instead of a bus and I welcome any form of travel with a working bathroom, but the train ride was pleasant and the 7 hours passed quickly enough. They played 3 movies for us, which were all awful as they usually are down here. But we watched them anyway while playing Gin Rumy on our laps. Lauren brought cards down with her and they have saved us many a time from total and complete boredom. We've also mastered the art of playing cards in a moving vehicle sans table, it keeps things interesting. The train took us through some beautiful desert landscapes with mountains all around, and we even passed a large lake full of wild flamingoes and many other bird species. That was really cool and it was my first time seeing flamingoes in the wild, but would not be my last.
We arrived in Uyuni at about 10:30pm and it didn't take us long to find cheap accommodation for the night. We were to meet up with our tour group the next morning at 9:30 to begin our 3-day adventure into the Salar. At 10:45am (they always run late down here) we all piled into the jeep that would practically be our home for the next 3 days and set off to our first stop, the train graveyard right outside Uyuni. Back in its prime Uyuni was a major hub for transporting materials and passengers via train to Chile and Argentina. After a while these trains were no longer needed, and these days the somewhat depressing little town is used for little more than a jumping off point for visits into the Salar de Uyuni. So all the old trains have turned to rust and junk metal outside the city and they now incorporate a visit to the train graveyard on the salt flat tour. Our guide Rafael didn't speak any English but we were able to get the gist of what he was saying. Also there was a Colombian guy in our group named Herman who was traveling with his new girlfriend, a girl named Suzy from New Zealand that he had met in Cusco, so his English had been steadily improving over the last few weeks and he was able to fill us in on any of the info we might have missed. We were promised an English speaking guide for the tour but by now we are pretty used to being lied to about stuff like that. On the bright side it gave us a chance to practice our Spanish so it wasn't so bad.
After a quick trip to all the abandoned trains, we set out for the giant salt flat. Turns out it's quite flat...and salty. The views of the surrounding terrain were really quite spectacular. We stopped first at one of the many 'islands' the Salar has to offer. These islands are just huge rock masses covered in cool cacti and surrounded by nothing but barren desert and salt. We had lunch there and then walked to the top to get a view of our surroundings. It was a bit eerie to see nothing but flat desert for miles and miles in every direction. No shrubs, no smaller rocks, nothing. Just salt. After we left the island we drove straight out into the middle of the Salar and took some pictures. It was definitely the most salt I've ever seen in my life. We played in it a bit and it was very similar to playing in snow but much more painful. There were a couple of salt balls thrown, and Lauren wanted to make a salt angel but I'm pretty sure it would've cut up her back so she ditched the idea. Again, the whole landscape was really cool. Nothing but salt and super distant mountains; I'd never seen anything like it before. We made a couple more stops the first day to various villages and small geographical features before arriving around 4pm to our accommodation for the night. It was a salt hotel. Yes, a hotel that appeared to be built out of salt blocks. There was also a ton of loose salt on the ground, which gave the feeling of being inside a salt igloo. We discovered that salt must be a good insulator because it was below freezing outside and not nearly that cold inside the hotel. We had snack time (my favorite, as usual) with coconut cookies and all the coffee and tea we could want, and then it was group bonding time. Lauren and I had been playing our usual game of Gin Rumy when I figured it would be nice to involve everyone. Along with Suzy and Herman there were 2 other people in our group: Angie, a young lawyer from Costa Rica who didn't speak any English, and Jesus, a quiet guy from Lima who spoke minimal English. That was OK because we were forced to use our Spanish, which is still not as good as we'd like it to be. The fun part was teaching them all how to play the card game Presidents and a******s completely in Spanish. Somehow Lauren succeeded because we managed to play a few rounds, it was fun. After that we had dinner (the food on this trip was nothing special, but at least there were vegetables) and then went off to bed early, as we had to be up at 5:30am for breakfast.
The next day we got to visit a number of lakes full of wild flamingoes. It was so cool to see them somewhere other than in a zoo. They were smaller than the ones usually found in zoos, and I don't know if it was the James', Chilean or Andean Flamingoes that we were seeing. I guess they all live there, according to the website I read, though I couldn't distinguish one species from another. Our guide didn't give us too many details but that's alright, it was nice just to see them. The only other animal we had seen in this vast landscape were the vicuñas, the small cameloid that we were introduced to in Perú. They have extremely warm dense fur but I still don't know how they survive out in such a freezing, barren landscape. Midday we stopped at the Chilean border to use the restroom, so obviously I had to put my foot in Chile. The guard at the gate eyed me warily but didn't say anything. I'm such a rebel, I know :P. After that we drove to the southwestern most corner of Bolivia and entered the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, which was really beautiful. The entire southwestern corner of Bolivia, from north of Uyuni all the way south to the Chilean/Argentinian border, is all salt flats of varying sizes (Salar de Uyuni being the largest), desert, lakes and volcanoes. This whole area is known as the altiplano and is bordered on the western side by the Andes, which we were always in view of. We saw a couple places with 'rock trees,' which are just areas strewn with large volcanic rocks, and many lakes covered in what looked like ice or salt. It was actually borax, a white mineral sometimes found in alkaline salt deposits. We quite possibly saw even more borax than salt, as all these lakes were covered in the stuff. The mountains surrounding the lakes and the edges of the salt flats were a mix of really beautiful colors, from red to yellowish to purple. So cool. Our last stop of the day before arriving at our hotel was a red lake called Laguna Colorada. It is red because of a certain species of algae, and again there were many flamingoes. It was a really beautiful place. We spent the night in a far less insulated hotel (this one wasn't made of salt) and we had the pleasure of sleeping in the princess-themed room. All the blankets were bright pink with various princesses on them. We all found that quite hilarious, and I'm sure it was the boys' favorite room. We all hung out and played more cards before dinner, and then turned in early once again. This time we had to be up at 4:30am for breakfast.
That night and the next morning were absolutely freezing. About 10 degrees below freezing, to be exact. We all slept in our sleeping bags with blankets on top of us, and it sucked getting dressed in the morning. But the thought of the hot springs we would visit that day kept us moving. I, for one, always get excited about hot springs. They never disappoint. We piled into the car after breakfast and headed first to see the geysers. I thought we would only see a couple of them but there was a whole area of probably a square quarter mile that was packed with big, steaming, bubbling geothermal vents. At one place there were people from other groups taking pictures with their hands in the toxic steam...not too brilliant of an idea but anything for a good picture I guess. The smell of sulfur wasn't very strong, which I found curious. After a quick trip to the geysers we continued on to the hot springs. Actually, it was just one fairly small pool and it was occupied by many other groups. So instead of doing that first, we continued a bit further south to finish visiting the rest of the sights on the tour. I was alright with that because it was absolutely freezing outside, so I didn't mind staying in the car a bit longer. We saw a place strewn with more volcanic rocks that was apparently the inspiration for a painting by the famous (Chilean?) painter Salvador Dali. Afterwards we visited another beautiful lake with another volcano in the background, and then it was back in the car for some soaking time in the hot spring. We got about half an hour of lounge time, it was steamy and delightful. After that we stopped for lunch at a beautiful area full of large volcanic rocky debris, and after lunch began the 3 hour drive back to Uyuni. We were almost home free when our guide popped a tire only about 30 minutes out. The roads were kind of rough, as they all are in Bolivia, and he was driving a bit ambitiously. So we all sat helplessly on the side of the road while he retrieved the spare, jacked up the car and changed the tire all on his own. He didn't want our help, which is fair because we probably would've just gotten in his way. He definitely knew what he was doing. So we were back in the car in no time and finally arrived back in Uyuni about 4:30pm. It was a fantastic tour and I would highly recommend doing it if ever in Bolivia, but it was a whole lot of driving and I think we were all grateful to be out of the car.
We checked into a hostel and headed out for some dinner, where I tried ordering about 5 things containing vegetables but the woman just kept shaking her head and indicating that she in fact had no vegetables. Shocker. I grudgingly settled for what Lauren had ordered because it seemed to be all she had: 4 cheese tortellini. More pasta and cheese, just what a healthy body needs. Luckily, though, there were 2 British guys sitting at the next table and seeing as how they were the only other people in the restaurant, I struck up a conversation with them. They ended up joining our table and we all had a lovely time chatting about our travels. They were a great distraction from my mediocre nutrient-lacking meal.
Today Lauren and I are to take a bus to Sucre, about an 8 hour ride. We were going to stop in Potosi because we had read it is the highest city in the world, but a quick Google search soon proved that false. Since that was our main motivation for stopping there (which is a bit sad, I know) we decided that we will continue on to Sucre, a more welcoming city. We are in for yet another long bus ride with no bathroom, so wish us luck. Peace and love to all, see you in Sucre!