Uyuni sits in the high desert of Bolivia. This desert is encircled by the Andes where the mountain chain splits and then reconnects. On the other side of the western mountains lies the Atacama desert of Chile. The mean natural feature that draws tens of thousands of tourists here is the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world. The salt flat alone, not including the desert in which it is situated, is roughly the size of the Netherlands.
We booked a 3-day tour to go to the salt flat and see the desert sites through Red Planet for 1200 bolivianos. It was the most expensive tour company, but the most legit and reliable. I was a little hesitant about spending over US $100 for a tour, since we hadn´t spent that much on tours since we left Peru. It was well worth the money, as we were well taken care of and our guides and drivers knew what they were doing.
The first thing we did on this tour was visit the train graveyard on the outskirts of town. Why? The first rail station in Bolivia was built in Uyuni. Why? Uyuni is surrounded by many mines: salt, gold, silver, copper, lithium. Foreign investors, who basically owned these mines, including the Bolivian president at the time (who was Spanish) decided to invest their money together to build the rail in order to transport the products of the mines more efficiently instead of using llamas and mules. It was a big deal for the country back in the early 1900s.
Recently, Bolivia has developed a close relationship with Venezuela because the current Bolivian president, Evo Morales, was close friends to the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. They were both socialistas and believers in creating a United South America. Today, to export goods Bolivia goes through Venezuela without taxes. Free trade. The U.S. government has its eye in Bolivian president Evo Morales because of his close relationship with the late Hugo Chavez.
After checking out the skeletons of these retired trains, we drove to a small town, Colchani, where we learned about mining and processing salt. The salt miners (men) collect the salt from the Salar de Uyuni and bring it to town to be processed indoors (usually by women) where they dry and heat the salt to dehydrate it, then filter and grind this sal de gema (rock salt) and add iodine. Finally it is packaged. Mining salt is really hard on the body. If it can cause so much eroding damage to metals and cars, just imagine what it does to the human body. Our drivers were very meticulous about driving the cars through the salar. If the water is high (during rainy season) they cover the bottom of the cars and the engine with plastic tarp to protect them from salt damage. Even still, their Landcruisers are still replaced about every 5 years.
The final step: packaging the salt
Next, we drove into the famous Salar de Uyuni. The salar is very thin around its edges, so the towns have built roads through these parts to access the salt flat. It is solid in its center. If you don´t find these roads to enter/exit the Salar, you risk sinking into the salty water and destroying your vehicle. The Salar lies over an ancient ¨extinct¨lake. 40,000 years ago it was a massive pre-historic, gaseous lake. The Pacific tectonic plate crashed under the South American plate, pushing up this volcanic and seismically active area into what is now the Andes, creating its high elevations, also causing lots of volcanic explosions encircling the area. The strength of the Andean sun caused the water to evaporate from this prehistoric lake and leave a thick salt crust. This ancient lake still exists deep under the Salar. It is 140m deep.The Salar is solid salt, though.
Piles of salt (sal de gema) for collecting
The relationship between the expansion of frozen water during the freezing nights here and the evaporation of water under the daylight sun leaves behind a hexagonal lattice of salt on the flat. Like a white, flat beehive. The flats are so bright white you have to wear sunglasses. This is where we took our funny perspective photos.
Evolution from a Pringles can
That night we arrived at our hotel. It was made of Salt! The bottom of the building was made of rocks (so that it wouldn´t disintegrate when it rained lol), but above the base of rocks, the rest of the building was made of salt bricks. All the furniture inside was also made of salt! Tables, chairs, beds (obviously not the mattresses)!
Salt hotel room
After dinner, one of our guides gave us an interesting history/cultural lesson about Bolivia. He started by making fun of the early tourists who first came to the Salar de Uyuni with their high expectations from a 3rd world country that didn´t have any comforts from home to offer them. Tourism has grown exponentially in Uyuni and the tourist facilities have improved. The tourism is helping the small towns around the salar, too. Many tourists who go to Peru to do Machu Picchu also swing by Bolivia to see the salt flats. That´s a lot of tourists.
Bolivia is rich with natural resources such as minerals, rainforest, and even OIL! In fact, gasoline prices in Bolivia are cheaper than anywhere else in South America because it has its own oil reserves and one refinery. Why the heck is Bolivia still a 3rd world country then? It has OIL for crying out loud! As previously noted, Bolivia is landlocked, so that´s a problem. Secondly, Bolivia has experienced numerous dictatorships. The last one was during the late 1970s-1980s during the ¨Dirty War¨, aka the U.S. CIA´s Operation Condor. The president (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada) before current President Evo Morales was put into power through the support of the U.S. government. The Bolivian people overthrew and threatened to kill former President Lozada, and he is currently under refuge in the U.S. President Evo Morales was elected in 2007. He was an unlikely candidate because he was a coca farmer, he did not have any higher education, and he had been previously imprisoned. Despite all odds, he has turned this country around.
Evo Morales is a socialist and the majority, especially the indigenous and the farmers, love him. Morales returned Bolivia to the hands of the people, its native people. By law there is no segregation between the classes. Big Cholita dress, or small dress, everyone has the right to go where they want. (Big Cholita dress, or native dress, was considered low class). Morales created a taxation system to fund education and health care for everyone, young and old, when there was no taxation in place before. He has turned Bolivia into a nationalistic country with the goal and efforts of being self-sufficient and sustainable. For example, Bolivia has oil. Oil is power (literally and figuratively). Enough at least to sustain itself. Another example is the mines only hire locals to work. La Paz has been transformed from a dirty poor city to a beautiful, clean, and business-flowing capital city. The question is: HOW did Morales find the money to do any of these things? What is the other side of the story? Where is the hidden corruption? Money doesn´t grow on trees.
Morales was a coca farmer. He is currently the head of the Coca Farmers Association. It´s quite clear where his interests and support lie. He was previously imprisoned for trying to protect the coca farmers during Lozada´s presidency. Bolivia is infamous for its cocaine production (mind you, coca itself is NOT a drug. Coca is a widely used traditional plant and you need kilograms upon kilograms of coca leaves to make 1 gram of cocaine). I can only speculate that perhaps the money funneling into the government to support all of these social works is coming from cocaine. That´s just my guess. I don´t actually know. If this is the case, it raises the question: do the ends justify the means? In my opinion for Bolivia, my first impression is yes. The country and the people are so much better off than before.
Like the other countries I have visited, Bolivia´s political system is modeled after that of the United States. The 2 political parties are the Socialistas and Sin Miedo (the conservative party). Next year is a re-election year and is supposed to be the end of Morales´s 2nd 4-year term. Apparently he has recently succeeded in changing the number of presidential terms, so he can run for presidency again. Will this turn into a dictatorship-like presidency? We´ll see. However, the Sin Miedo campaigns have been on the rise, as the few wealthy people and other working groups (miners and other non-coca farmers) feel like they have been neglected by Morales. It will be an interesting election year.
Back to our desert tour: we woke up on day 2 bright and early to questionable weather conditions that would determine where we could go and what we would see.
A semi-active volcano in the distance
One of the flamingo lagunas
Flamingos up close. Their down feathers underneath their big feathers keep
them insulated and able to live in the freezing conditions of the desert. Their
food is readily available. They eat the pink algae in the mud under the water.
That's what makes them so pink.
Arbol de Piedra (the Rock Tree)
The highest elevation we reached: 4,800 m. Dry gusty wind
and snow. I was freezing and my lungs were hurting
walking around up here!
"The Lost City"
Valle de Piedras (Rock Valley)
Red Planet tours for 3-day trip to Salar de Uyuni and desert
Hostal Piedra Blanca: book in advanced. 40-something bolivianos per night for dorm
Bus from Uyuni to La Paz: Omar bus 100 bolivianos