Bolivia: Uyuni

Our 4×4 trip started with an exit stamp out of Chile and our entrance into Bolivia.  Everyone except us received a stamp; instead, we got our names written down in an old book and our passports stapled and handed to our driver for safekeeping.  US citizens have to pay a $135 dollar reciprocity fee to Bolivia…which is probably more than we’ll each spend during our stay.  I’m sure this was just another reciprocity fee that financed cigarettes and coca cola for the border patrol for the entire year.  But, the border of Bolivia doesn’t have electricity or the means to accept payments, so we had to wait for Uyuni, our final destination, to pay the ransom.  After that, we loaded up our old Toyota Landcruiser with 6 people, plus our driver, Alfredo, and headed out into the middle of nowhere.

There are no roads through the southernmost region of Bolivia, just tire tracks where the guy before went.

We bumped across the terrain, enjoying the scenery: white lakes, green lakes (different minerals), deserts, a fine set of hot springs in which we got to take another dip and an AMAZING red lake filled with flamingos.

We watched the sunset from the lake and walked slowly up to its edge (the air is so thin at 13,000 ft!) to get as close as possible to feasting flamingos.  It was an impressive day filled with all the variety of landscapes that Bolivia has to offer (the most natural resources of any South American country…yet the poorest, what gives?)

Our hostel for the first night looked more like an abandoned garage from New Mexico.  Adobe walls with sheets covering the windows, corrugated metal roofing held in place by large rocks, beds made from concrete blocks—it wasn’t the most inviting inn we’ve found.

Joshua, smartly, took the covers off one twin, so we doubled our covers and halved the space between us for warmth that night to fend off the well below freezing nighttime temperatures.  We basically looked at each other all night, waiting to fall asleep.  It wasn’t possible to sleep, nor was it as romantic as it sounds.  We had 4 other people in our room making every sort of snort and boop possible.  I counted the minutes passing.  I was fully clothed, so I would be ready to go the minute the sun came up.

Our second day was equally amazing.  I started out by assisting Alfredo in filling the car with gas.

Now keep in mind, there are no gas stations.  So what did he do?  He took a barrel from the roof of the Landcruiser, grabbed a piece of hose, put one end in the tank, sucked until the gas ran down his chin, and stuck the end of the hose into the barrel.  Wow!  Need I say more.

Joshua pushed through the drive even though he was having more problems with the altitude.

We visited more lakes with even more flamingos.  By the end, I was like, “no more flamingos”…didn’t think THAT was possible.

We watched an active volcano spewing smoke.

We passed by the very edge of the incredible Uyuni Salt Flat which is 10,500 square kilometers.  We were blessed to arrive at our hostel for the evening which was entirely constructed from salt: tables, chairs, beds, headboards, couches…everything.

It was really something.  We got our own room and plenty of covers, so we got ready for bed enthusiastically.  Joshua spent hours upon hours reading Game of Thrones which would have probably happened anyways–ADDICTED.  I just laid there wishing myself to sleep.  It didn’t happen, so I was happy to get an early start the next morning.

We all piled into the car for our sunrise over the salt flat.  On the way, we encountered a car stuck in the salt.  We tried pushing with 15 people, but couldn’t move it an inch.

We all just walked away, and left them for dead.  Our driver reassured us that they just needed to wait for some of the water to soak up in the sun and dry out the salt.  Joshua even quipped, “Darwinian fitness” as he walked away.  It’s okay though, they were the guys that bought the 12-packs of beer the night before.  I’m guessing they shared with their driver.  To be honest, we often found cars stopped in need of some repair: a new tire or a jump.  The drivers were great at throwing out whatever tools the person would need and picking them back up the next time we crossed paths.  What we found, is that these guys are racing to see who can be first to the finish.  Luckily, Alfredo, took immaculate care of his car and never once had a breakdown.  He would tap a few things now and then with a wrench before starting up, but he never let us see what was under the hood.  His secret, I guess.

The sunrise over the endless salt flat was remarkable.

The crazy thing is you lose all sense of depth perception because it goes on forever and ever in the same color.  You can take some pretty hilarious pictures knowing this trick…any traveler who has been to Bolivia has one.

Towards the edge of the flats are the 7 square km of salt flats that can be mined and refined for sale.  It’s required to be extracted manually with a hoe and a shovel.

This is one of Bolivia’s great natural resources, and it’s great to see it being preserved.

Our last stop before getting dumped in Uyuni was the train cemetery where old trains go to die.  It’s a strange place for them, but draws quite a crowd.  We couldn’t figure out why Bolivians haven’t scrapped the metal, but seeing the amount of tourists running through old, empty trains—it’s got to bring in more revenue as is.

Finishing up the tour, we were exhausted, dirty (did I say we wore the same clothes for three days without ever changing, even to sleep?) and about to be way poorer.  We still had to pay the MAN to get our passports back.  We found a clean hostel for $8.50, took a hottish shower and had dinner with two great new friends we met along the way, Genevieve and Dan; all while taking in the authenticity and the colors of the Bolivian culture.

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