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Uyuni, the Salts Flats and a trip to the Moon

by Robin Esrock

Anyone who decides to visit the deserts of southern Bolivia gets the added bonus of visiting the Moon, Mars, and probably Uranus. Because this is not Earth. Earth does not have dry deserts of salt, bright red mountains, boiling rocks and purple skies. If aliens landed on this hot, hostile landscape, they would assume there is no life of this planet. Then a jeep loaded with tourists would come out of nowhere and drive straight pass them, its occupants too busy taking pictures of the sky to even notice, its driver too busy squinting to see the horizon of the Salar de Uyuni.     

 

La Paz was shutting down for Easter weekend, making it a perfect opportunity to vamos and lose myself in a desert. I did however manage to catch the President, the vortex of a current political storm, emerge from the main church in the Plaza Murillo behind my hotel. Several hundred soldiers lined the street dressed as lampshades, surrounded by several hundred soldiers dressed in the more famous Bolivian death squad attire. Thousands of people hung about, feeding the pigeons and waiting for a glimpse of their fearless leader, who just last week tried unsuccessfully to resign and call an early election. "It?s as if they?re waiting for a rock star," says Gustavo from Brazil, shortly before the conversation shifts to the fate of Michael Jackson.      

 

Getting to Uyuni would involve a full day?s journey - a four-hour bus to Oruro to catch a seven-hour train. The guys at www.greentoadbus.com will get you there. Fortunately I did not share a seat with a neurotic goat, but the neurotic German family was marginally worse. The train station in Oruro was packed with travelers going south. $10 afforded the executive cabin with reclining seats, bad Spanish-dubbed movies and a dry cheese sandwich, all of which made no difference as the train began to float on a crystal clear lake. The tracks are built on a narrow passageway through flat, flooded deserts, creating stunning views and a distinctly boat-like feeling. Snapping an outrageous sunset, lightning streaking in the distance, I glanced up at the TV and saw a man walk past Save On Meats on a cold, wet Hastings St. The Vancouver-shot movie Dreamcatcher, awful as it is, transported me home for a moment, and once again I felt truly lucky to be able to look out at the deep velvet sky outside the window.          

 

Uyuni is an outpost for travelers embarking on the four day journey through the Salar, a vast salt plain covering hundreds of miles to the national parks housing deserts, volcanoes, mineral lakes, flamingos and weird rabbit-like creatures that look like Satan. My hotel was basic, but the food, courtesy of a pizzeria owned by a Boston chap now married to a Boliviano, was outstanding. Waiting outside my hotel for the 44 to pick me up, I panicked when the same neurotic German family that plagued my bus trip joined me outside. Four days in a jeep with these people would rain hard on my sunny disposition. Fortunately they got their own jeep. My Toyota Landcruiser held eight passengers, the driver Criso, a cook, and six passengers: Roland from Paris, Gabriela from Argentina, Phillipe from New Caledonia (a French tropical island in the Pacific) and Herman and Wilna from Bonaire, part of the Netherlands Antilles islands off the coast of Venezuela. The fact that I?d neither heard of New Caledonia (pop, 232 000) or Antilles (pop, 222 000) was a sign that my group would be friendly and interesting, and also I slept too much during Geography class in high school. I was the only English speaker, but the international language proved exactly that. Backpacks, fuel and water loaded on the roof, we carved new roads as we drove into the massive expanse of white desert, heading south to Chile, and into a world so different one would think we?d left the planet.         

 

My photos describe the Salar better than I ever could. Bright, white, big, flat and spooky. A reminder of human fragility - mankind?s folly to think we make a difference when it comes to nature. Up to 16km deep, the salt plain is a dead world, and certainly does its best to kill the jeeps that ferry the awe-struck travelers. You could fall asleep at the wheel for hours and it would make no difference, and to prove it, some tour drivers apparently do. Two hours of driving brought us to the Isla Del Pescado, or Fish Island, which added to the spectacle with giant, erect cacti. Active volcanoes loomed in the distance, the hot sun roasted my calves, and we dined on lamb chops and quinoa. Not bad, this scene.         

 

The wet season drowns portions of the plains in water, and the jeep became a speed boat, slowly making its way to dry ground while the corrosive water slowly killed the transmission. We passed some cyclists, deep in the middle of nowhere, and wondered how they would get through, especially with the miles of water ahead. Seemed like a good idea at the time I?m sure. Finally we hit land, encountering wild vicunas and roads that required serious 44 know-how. Our first day complete, we spent the night in the dusty village of San Juan, roaming amidst llama herds as the sun sank behind the mountains. Rustic accommodations, a spattering of electricity, but Uno, beer, and a DVD courtesy my laptop provided the entertainment. Million Dollar Baby, "this copy property of Warner Bros" flashing across the screen, was a little too serious for the mood.            

 

Day two brought real desert...not the Sahara sand kind, more the Martian rocky kind. It was like having a window seat in the Mars Rover. With not a palm tree in sight, out came the flamingos, thousands of them in their yard-ornament glory. Bright mineral lakes, dead to everything save the algae fodder of flamingos, painted colourful red strokes on the canvas and coral-like rock structures, created by turbulent volcanic activity, provided further spectacular Kodak moments. Advice: Bring film, bring smart cards, bring batteries, you don?t want your camera to stop. The second night was even more basic than the first. Dorms were provided for the dozen jeeps on the trail, two hours of electricity, and beds so hollow you?d think they were really hammocks. Maria, our cook, prepared some spaghetti that turned my stomach to bolognaise, but I?m used to it by now, an integral part of my Bolivian experience, shortly about to end. Venturing out into the freezing night (it gets into the -20C?s in winter), the full moon was like a giant spotlight. I truly felt like I was finally on the world stage.              

 

We awoke at 4am, although "awoke" would imply there was some sleep. A few hours drive delivered sunrise at the geysers, where the earth literally boiled like a kettle, steam erupting meters into the sky through pores around our feet. Driving on, we breakfasted at shallow hot springs before making the final push for the Chilean border. The Salar de Uyuni tours return to Uyuni in four days, but you can get dropped off at the border on the third day and catch a bus to San Pedro, Chile. It was time to bid farewell to Bolivia, two countries down, 22 to go.

 

Chile is the most expensive country in South America, and it shows. Dirt roads became paved, signs became new, buses became smooth. The village of San Pedro has become a hugely popular outpost for travelers, although its dusty streets contain hotels that charge US$120 per night. Without a pool. Moving from Bolivianos to pesos, prices tripled and suddenly I appreciated just how cheap Bolivia really was. Even the popular HIN youth hotel charges US$24 for a single room. But legwork always yields rewards, and I found a friendly little hotel with my own room for US$9. Unfortunately it doesn?t include a plug socket which is why I?m typing these words at the reception desk. Gabriela and Philippe joined me for their last night before heading off to Argentina, and high on caprinia happy hour we got invited to a local party, fires burning under the bright Atacama desert moon. I had been awake for 22 hours when we stumbled back to the hotel, fumbling into sleep, absorbing the magic of the last few days. A whole new country awaits, new adventures, new people, as Modern Gonzo continues south to Santiago.       

 

Robin Esrock is a travel writer and presenter for travel TV show. You can read more of Robin?s take on the world at his website: www.moderngonzo.com. He is a good friend of www.greentoadbus.com, which will take you backpacking to Uyuni and the Salt Flats.

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