Friday, 2 August 2013

Adventure Jeep Tour Across the Bolivian Altiplano: Day One

The White World of the Salar de Uyuni

Another day and another cacophony wakes me at daybreak: strains of an out of tune brass band, the pounding of drums and the startling bangs of fire crackers that ricochet round the street outside our hotel like gunshots. This was the second day in a row that a din had wrenched me from the arms of Morpheus: yesterday had been May Day, a good reason in socialist Bolivia for a major knees up. But it seems that the people of the dust bowl town of Uyuni find any excuse to have a parade – national holidays, saints’ days, strikes… This time it was a long procession of teenage schoolchildren marching behind a garishly decorated statue of what looked like the Virgin Mary, held aloft by poles resting on the shoulders of four boys. I guess there’s no need for an alarm clock in Bolivia

A few hours later we were standing outside our hotel – the Magia de Uyuni – which was decidedly short on the ‘magic’, down one of the dusty side streets of this one horse town, waiting for a jeep to arrive. On most days the wind blows in from the surrounding badlands, coating shops and half finished concrete block buildings in a fine white dust, lending the place an almost ghostly pallor. Cholitas clad in enormous pleated garishly coloured skirts, clashing sweaters and characteristic bowler style hats, hawk their goods in the marketplace, while umpteen stray dogs sleep in the shade of the dusty unpaved streets fringed with rubbish. Few civic buildings grace the skyline of this place, an exception is the reloj (clock tower), and the pace of life is slow - along with the internet, the hotel check-in, the service in the bars…
Uyuni grew up in the late nineteenth century at a major junction of four railways built by the British to export the region’s vast mineral wealth. But the demise of the railways – to which the rusting hulks in the aptly named ‘train cemetery’ on the outskirts of town attest – almost condemned Uyuni to ghost town status. That is, until tourism came along. For this town is the ideal starting point for adventure tours into the nearby vast Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on the planet, and the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, famous for its luridly coloured lakes, spluttering mud pits and stunning pink flamingos. We were among the 60,000 or so international tourists who visit Uyuni each year to take a jeep tour into this remarkable landscape.

We had booked a three-day, two night trip that would take us south through some of the most bizarre and inspiring landscapes on earth, before crossing the border back into Chile. There were four others in our group: a middle aged couple from France and a young Chilean couple and we all fitted remarkably comfortably into our rather battered looking jeep driven by Julio, a quiet man with a broad toothy smile and a shock of black hair barely contained beneath his baseball cap.

With all our luggage and a couple of barrels of fuel safely stowed on the roof rack, our tour kicked off with a visit to the Cementario des Trenes on the outskirts of town. We had already visited this place the day we arrived in Uyuni, walking along the parallel train tracks out of town as the sun slid low in the sky. The shattered shells of abandoned train carriages, barely recognisable rolling stock and old steam engines stare forlornly over an immense dusty plain littered with plastic bags that glared livid white in the low sun angle. Caught on the stunted vegetation and jagged rocks, they had been reduced to shreds by the relentless wind. I recalled how wandering alone amid this wreckage from the past, the wind whistling through the skeletal rusty remains turned almost blood red in the setting sun, made the whole place strangely unnerving. The sudden desire to return quickly to town became overwhelming.

From here we progressed at bumpy, breakneck speed across a dirt road to Colchani, a scruffy frontier type settlement bisected by a railway right on the very edge of the Salar. Here salt most definitely rules. Huge heaps of it awaiting export are piled up everywhere and even the houses are constructed out of neatly cut blocks of it. A colourful array of shops catering to the passing tourist trade line the main street. Here is a last chance to buy Alpaca hats, gloves and scarves, not a bad idea as it is impossible to describe how cold it can get on the altiplano.

Just outside Colchani we saw the salt being recovered from the Ojos de Sal (‘eyes of salt’: pools in the surface of the salt flat). Hundreds of small conical heaps piled up in the sun to dry were lined up like a vast army, their reflections cast in the shallow pools of water surrounding them creating perfect diamonds. Beyond, lay a vast expanse of whiteness gleaming like ice and patterned by a never ending series of hexagonal shapes, formed by the evaporation of the water beneath. Volcán Tunupa, a dormant volcano which gives the salt flat its indigenous name - Salar de Tunupa - could be seen to the north. Aymara legend relates how the volcanoes Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina were giants. Tunupa married Kusku, but he abandoned her for Kusina. Grieving Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son and her tears mixed with milk to form the Salar.


Our jeep sped effortlessly across the crunchy surface of the salt as if it was gliding. Just below the crust, less than a metre thick in places, is a pool of mineral rich brine formed by the evaporation of a prehistoric lake. A dark smudge appeared on the horizon and we were headed straight for it. This was an island, once the top of a volcano, now trapped like an insect in amber in this prehistoric sea. The Isla del Pescado is so-called because during the rainy season the salar is covered by a film of water and the reflection cast by it resembles a fish. Here we stopped for lunch, along with most of the other tour groups, the jeeps lined up on the island’s shoreline as if in a car salesroom!

Regaled with a delicious meal of alpaca steaks, salad and quinoa, we spent a leisurely hour exploring the island, taking the path to the top. This is an environment as strange and bizarre as any you are ever likely to see. A forest of enormous prickly pipe-like cacti, some up to 12 metres in height, cover the island whose rocky slopes tumble down to the petrified sea which appears to lap at its shores in a series of tiny bays. The vast, gleaming salar contrasts with the impossibly blue sky; a series of volcanic peaks in endless shades of smoky-grey recede into the distance. Judging distance here becomes confusing, and the camera can play tricks...

Continuing inland after leaving the salt flat past herds of wild vicuñas and small farming settlements of adobe and thatch where campesinos herd llamas and coax crops of quinoa from the arid, saline soils, we stopped for the night in the settlement of San Juan. Everything at the ‘hotel’ was constructed of salt; it was basic, but comfortable enough and the food was tasty. As the electricity only came on for a few hours each evening, as soon as the lights went out we retired to our beds, with bases built, quite naturally, of blocks of salt!


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