Epic Journey. Part 7. Salar de Uyuni

4/18  Over-night bus La Paz>Uyuni

So the time came to say hasta luego to La Paz.  I’m already hoping to come back and use it as a jumping off point for exploring the eastern half of the middle of this continent.  Next time with different expectations, and hopefully more Red Cap tours.

At the moment I’m on an EXTREMELY bumpy and swaying bus powering through the darkness on what feels like some rough fucking terrain.  The windows are fogged up, making it impossible to see anything the large moon is lighting up, but I’m pretty sure this driver is taking us straight off-roading through the desert.  JESUS!  The bus pitches to and fro like a ship in high seas and rattles like the “highway” (or whatever we are driving on) is pure rumble strip.  Whelp….only 8 more hours of this to Uyuni….

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bus writing

 

4/19  Uyuni

That was BY FAR the bumpiest bus ride I’ve ever been on!.  I could’ve sworn we were going to tip over or break down every couple minutes.  And to piss me off further, while I was kept up all night despite 2 melatonin pills and a couple beers, the whole rest of the bus slept right through it!  Once the sun came up and I could see where we were, I’m very happy we didn’t break down or tip.  We are in the middle of NO-WHERE.  I would equate the ride to being in a paint mixer thats in the crows nest of a listing boat for 9 hours.

Dear Presidente Evo Morales:

I have an idea.  Before you go and launch another pointless satellite (yes he launched a satellite), how ’bout PAVING THE ROAD TO YOUR COUNTY’S BIGGEST TOURIST ATTRACTION!!!  You’re doing good things for Bolivia, but think how much easier it would be to get money from us white devils if there was a cozy express ride to the salt flats.  It took 11 hours on the shitty road, but I’m guessing if it was paved it would be less than 6. Oh yeah, and your proposal to mine lithium from the salt flats for batteries is a good way to nationalize the mining industry and keep the money for Bolivians, but HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO GET THE BATTERIES ANYWHERE???  Put them on the satellite?

Anyway…

I like Uyuni so far.  Its like a wild west boom town long forgotten.  I’m guess between the mining booms and busts it has a simular origin and destiny as the gold inspired ghosts towns in the US West.  Staying at Hotel Jardines de Uyuni, a bit more expensive than I’ve been paying, but very cozy looking.  I can’t check in for 6 hours (we got in at 7AM), so I guess I’ll wander around eating, drinking coffee and taking snaps as long as I can.

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wild wild west

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uyuni plaza

***

Wow.  Uyuni, Bolivia; the town that time forgot.  I’ve ended up in some sleepy towns in my travels, but honestly surprised that this gateway to a national treasure is this much of a ghost town.  For better or worse there’s usually some ex-pat coffee house or pub in these kinds of places, but in Uyuni doesn’t seem like thats going on.  A handful of crappy pizzerias and tourist shops in the center, but besides that dust, dogs and downtrodden infrastructure.  There’s even a creepy, underused “amusement park” near the center that looks like a relic from another age.  My hotel is nice and cozy.  Fireplaces, sunny courtyard, feels like it would fit in at the Grand Canyon or Taos.  Looking forward to a nightcap by the fire after the sunsets and the chill sets in.  Gonna try this place La Loco for dinner.  Looks like a western saloon.  Hopefully it opens eventually…

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hotel de jardines room

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hotel jardines courtyard

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uyuni track to nowhere

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uyuni dog

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sad playground

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la loco

***

La Loco

This was a surprise.  La Loco serves french cuisine.  And damn fancy french food at that.  Not the rowdy roadhouse I was expecting.  The only other people in the place are a few groups of people speaking french.  It looks and feels like the basement of a bomb shelter, but the service is amazing.  The mesero has on a baseball hat and baggy jeans, but serves with the airs and skill of a maitre d’.  Got llama in a roquefort béchamel and sautéed quinoa.  Damn luxurious.  Its like a post apocalyptic Paris bistro that serves llama for some reason.

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la loco llama roquefort

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la loco bar

***

4/20 Salar de Uyuni

I took the Red Planet tour company because I had heard their food was the best, but turns out they are the best for many reasons.  The food was indeed fine (we would get sad looks from other groups as we took our plates from the truck at lunch), but the amount paid extra ($175 compared to $100ish) was well worth every penny in experience (and probably safety).  Our group was fantastic.  A welcome melding of travelers from the States, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and England.  Mark, Katie, Romane, Emma, Hope, Jessica, Belle, Allison, Leah, Julie and our pimping/informative guide; Rolando. The fact that I retained everyone’s name is something in itself.

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group vs dinosaur

I have to admit to feeling a little bummed during my first moments of the tour.  We hopped into our two 4x4s and stopped a few minutes away at Uyuni’s Train Graveyard.  There were at least a dozen other 4x4s, and dozens upon dozens of tourists from all the groups scampering around the rusting beasts of burden.  From there though, Red Planet’s superior itinerary took over, and for the next couple days overcrowding was never an issue.  Not even close.  Once and a while a Mad Max-ian 4×4 would zoom through the empty landscapes in the distance, but this just added to the feeling of adventure.

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train graveyard

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mad max

Once in the middle of the white nothingness, we hopped out to take it all in.  It is insanely bright, white, and salty for as far as you can see in any direction.  We took our obligatory perspective photos (see above), but since the dry season had begun there was no water above the salt that creates the crazy reflections.  I had heard along the way (can’t confirm if its true) that when asked what the first thing Neil Armstrong wanted to do after getting back from the moon he said he wanted to come here to the Salar.  He saw it from the moon and called it “Earth’s Diamond” as it glistened into the cosmos.  Earth’s Diamond is literally dazzling to take in even from a terrestrial vantage point.  After the fact we all kind of agreed that more time in the flats would’ve been nice, but turns out this was just one of a group of amazing sights in the area.

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earth’s diamond

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middle of salt

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behind the scenes

Next stop after a zooming through the flats was “Island” Incahuasi.  A small peak of land left over from when this was an actual sea which is covered in ancient cactus.  Fucking bizarre!  Just one of many examples of Mother Nature getting cheeky in this quirky landscape.

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cruising

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salt bay

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incahuasi cacti

The first night we stayed in a salt hotel on the outskirts of the flats.  The building, made of blocks of salt, had about 10 rooms with a long corridor in the middle for dinner tables.  As with each night we had tea and soon after a huge dinner.  This night was made especially awesome thanks to the cabinet of booze a cholita was stationed at to sell us libations.  Plus we discovered A POOL TABLE!  Unfortunately I did not do NYC proud and completely sucked, but with Paceñas flowing, music playing and laughter it was a nice social after weeks of solo travel.

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salt hotel

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hotel room made of salt

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pool hall, salar de uyuni

The stars were amazing out there, and as the rest of the group drifted off to sleep, Mark and I cracked a pint of whiskey and had some fun with astral photography.  He had a laser pointer which made things even more exciting for this star photo nerd.  Over talk of f-stops, ISOs and lenses, bromance was born.

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cruz rojo

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devil truck

***

4/21 To the Moon, Mars and Beyond

After brekkie and a nice sunrise over the surrounding salt flats, we pushed onward.  The terrain became more mountainous as we climbed elevation.  When stopping at the last “town” of the trip, we were advised to stock up on booze if we wanted to have a celebration under the stars tonight.  We all heeded this advice.  The rest of the day was a cruise (12 hours or so with a handful of stops and lunch) through some alien worlds.  Parts looked like Utah, parts the Moon, parts other worlds entirely.  Every kilometer the landscape seemed to change completely.  Volcanos, multi-colored lagoons, pink flamingos that eat radioactive bugs, vacunas, geysers and every form of rock formation one could imagine.   To go into detail of the pleasant day would go on for pages.

One thing we did notice through out the day as we ran into other groups, was how much better our experience with Red Planet was than other companies.  Horror stories of dickhead drivers, 10 people smushed into one car, and a general lack of caring about their customers abounded.  Around mid day, we even saw a couple drivers that seemed wasted.  They came over to talk to our driver, and creepily commented about all the “pretty girls in <his> group”.  This is not a place I would want to be driving around with a drunk douchebag at the wheel.

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vacunas

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pink flamingo

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rock tree

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laguna colorada

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geisers

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mars

We stopped for the night at a basic but cozy lodge by a lagoon just as the sun was dipping behind the surrounding mountains.  While all the other groups had stopped hours back, another perk of Red Planet is their exclusive access to spend the night here.  There is a hot spring pool here, and while the other hordes would be stopping here tomorrow, we had it all to ourselves.  Rolando suggested we have dinner, and bring our booze stockpile down there to enjoy the stars.

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second night lodge

So after dinner we grabbed said stockpile, threw on swim gear, and ran across the road in the cold darkness.  We measured the air temp later and it was about -5 F (-21 C), but as soon as we submerged ourselves into the steaming water, the immense beauty of the situation washed over me.  Floating in a pool of hot spring water after a dusty two days drive, with the stars draped out over us in the middle of nowhere, and new friends to enjoy it with.  Sublime.  The stelar display was more breathtaking than any planetarium or CG Imax scene you’ve ever seen.  This evening will go down as a life highlight (even with the later trouble).  On the terrestrial level it was dark, but floating from conversation to conversation in the natural hot tub, drinking Paceñas wine or whiskey, this is the epitome of my “debajo de las estrellas” sentiment.  People always ask me what my tattoo means.  Well this was it.  International exchange of ideas in an unbelievable location, and some ice cold beers.  My only regret is not being able to take pictures, thankfully we have this one (also should be an ad to all dudes out there that Red Planet is the tour company to go with…just saying).

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salar hot springs

 

What followed was a bit of a bummer, but being that nothing terrible happened, it ends up just being a good story and equally eye opening.  I feel like this was 90% drunken weirdness, and 10% danger, but goes to show that one should always be on their guard.  It was dark and confusing, but I’ll try to just stick to the facts as I saw them.

The two drivers we had seen this afternoon wasted came out of nowhere with a box of beer, and started to talk to a couple of the girls who didn’t speak spanish.  Rolando ended up taking over as the girls were a bit creeped out.  I tried to listen in, but the conversation was rapid fire.  Obviously a roundabout dialogue with Rolando trying to talk sense to the two drunk dudes.

Something like:

Drunk Dudes- “Yo bro! Let us party with the chicks in your group!”

Rolando-  “Nah man, we’re just chilling, They don’t want strangers around. Don’t you have to drive at 4AM tomorrow?”

Drunk Dudes-  “Commmmmmeee on!  We’ll be cool we promise!”

Blah, blah, blah.  Eventually it all chilled out and the drunk guys got in but kept to themselves for the most part.  I pretty much forgot they were there and beers resumed.  In the darkness I’m not sure how it amped up a bit, but at some point Mark asked me to hold the flashlight over our stuff and I realized a “police officer” had come to into the situation.  It seemed like the “cop” was busting the drunk guys, but he kept interrogating some of the girls from our group.  He kept saying to them “Hablas espincas?  Hablas espinacas?!”.  I don’t know exactly what he was trying to do, but he was saying “Do you speak spinach?”.  I butted in and told him no one spoke spinach here, and to get the drunk guys out of here.  In the growing hubbub one of the drunk guys in his skivvies came out of the darkness and started asking me where his socks were; adding an dose of absurdity to the situation.

So I has a dude in his underwear asking where his socks are, two wasted drivers getting in my face, and now the “cop” was saying we had to pay a fine for each beer and bottle we had with us; holding up the box the drunk guys had brought insisting it was ours.  The drunk driver guys could barely stand, and the naked guy was just ridiculous, but the cop was a dick.  Eventually some how, the cop and drunk locals walked away into the darkness.  I grabbed one of their unopened beers and was happy to get out of the freezing air and continue our fun night.

Before that could happen lights of a 4×4 appeared heading straight to our lodge.  Someone yelled “They’re going for our stuff!!!”, and instantly it was like “AWWW HELL NO!!!!”.  7 angry women in bikinis and myself stormed through the darkness to protect our shit.  As we arrived at the door Allison and Leah were forcing the dudes out the door (luckily they had gone the lodge for more beer or something right before this happened).  Mark and Rolando had stayed back at the hot spring to check on our stuff, and at the doorway from my view it was becoming a melee with these guys trying to get into the lodge and the girls yelling at them.  Don’t really know why or where it came from, but happy in the face of a shitstorm I had balls.  I got all the ladies inside, they said they’d find the lodge owner, and I slammed the door shut behind me.  Crossed my arms, and stood there barring these guys from entering.  The cop and his drunk friends were berating me in spanish, “Respect the police!!”, “We want your passports!”, “You owe us a fine!” blah blah blah.  I kept telling them we didn’t owe them shit, while trying to retain some semblance of respect for authority to not give them any reason to “arrest” me.  I wasn’t budging.

Sounds pretty tough right?  Well let me draw you a mental picture.  I’m standing there with my hair frozen into a Einstein-esque formation, dripping wet in the below freezing air.  Besides my glasses (reeaaal tough), all I have on is my wet bathing suit which is curled up around my wasted (and rapidly freezing solid) because it doesn’t fit right.  I’m FUCKING FREEZING.  My diamond hard nipples must have been the thing that kept these idiots at bay, afraid I’d gouge their eyes out if they got any closer.

Eventually the owner came out and took over.  I threw on clothes all amped up and ready for a fight but preferring to throw down less naked.  Shortly the owner sorted it, and we watched the guys pull away (scary thought after how drunk they were).  In the end all they got away with was half a pack of smokes (which would’ve been nice after all the adrenaline), my lighter and possibly one of Mark’s socks.  So no harm done.  But what a weird way to end an awesome night.

***

4/22

The next day I got up early to clean up the mess we left at the hot spring before storming the castle, and take some snaps of the sunrise.  I’m pretty pissed I didn’t get to take some shots of the stars last night, but I guess we got a good story out of it.  After an early breakfast we headed out to our last stop together.  As we packed out vehicles it became apparent that Red Planet has their shit down.  Dozens of 4x4s and hordes of travelers began to swarm “our” little hot spring.  As we pulled away from the scene, it was hard not to feel a little smug.

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sunrise post shakedown

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our car

***

The time came all too soon to say goodbye to some of the group.  Mark, Katie, Jessica, Hope, Emma, Julie and I were all heading onward to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile which was nice personally for the camaraderie and the fact that this spur of my trip was relatively spontaneous.  I only found out you could get dropped off at the border a couple days prior to booking my trip.  I was considering this the “dark-side of the moon” for my trip.  Once I committed to the Chile route I wouldn’t have time to backtrack to Lima through Bolivia if the roads near the epicenters of the recent chilean earthquakes were closed.  I figured the gamble was minor, but nice to friends to hang with along the way was a nice bonus at this point in my trip.  We hugged adios to the members of the group heading back to Uyuni and beyond, and got dropped off at the frontera.  Next stop; Chile!

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