The Salar Series: Dust Storms, Dirt Roads, High Altitude Hikes, and Llamas

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It is impossible to write about our Bolivian safari to the extraordinary Salar de Uyuni in a single post.  Indeed, there are the salt flats to discuss, but we saw so much more than simply salt.  We saw craters and geysers, lagoons and llamas, mummies, mountains, lakes, volcanoes, dust devils, cacti, and a train graveyard.  We drove on dirt roads for days, getting lost along the unmarked paths, sleeping in any hostel along the way and eating llama, rice and potatoes for dinner.  We bathed in hot springs, drank Singani on the salt flats, and played chimbo till midnight.  Clearly, there’s too much for a single post, which is why I’m breaking it up into…well as many as it will take to tell the full story.

And so begins the exciting series of posts about one of the world’s most surreal destinations: El Salar de Uyuni.

We began our excursion at the ungodly hour of 5am when a Land Cruiser with a rooftop safari rack pulled up to the house.  Our driver, Gonzalo, fitted our stuff into a giant plastic bag and strapped it to the roofrack covered in a plastic tarp, which seemed like overkill at the time, but I soon discovered the plastic was absolutely necessary in the vast expanse of the dry, windy Bolivian Altiplano.  We were surrounded by dust for the entire four days of the trip, from the moment we began our drive from La Paz to the moment we returned.

It’s about a ten hour drive from La Paz to where we entered El Salar de Uyuni.  We drove eight of those hours the first day, a long drive we broke up with stops at a number of very interesting sites.  About three hours outside La Paz, the paved road ends, giving way to miles upon miles of bumpy dirt highways and trails.  The mountains on the horizon are constantly shrouded in a steady haze and every so often a dust devil whips itself up and crosses the highway in front of you.

Dust Devil Crossing!

FIRST STOP: Huari.  While Gonzalo filled up the tank on the Land Cruiser, the rest of us took the opportunity to stretch our legs and stumbled upon the Huari brewing facility, one of Bolivia’s major beer companies.

Old Ford

That was really all to see in Huari, so we climbed back into the car and continued on to view a church at another town down the road (photos in slideshow).  We didn’t stop there for long, so I’m not counting it as one of the larger stops.

SECOND STOP: Pampa Aullagas.  In 360 BC, Plato wrote a detailed description of Atlantis, a powerful ancient civilization that sank into the ocean in a single day.  His description remains the first known direct mention of Atlantis, a legend that continues to puzzle the world.  Its mysteriousness captivates the imaginations of movie creators and writers while leading explorers on countless missions to uncover “the lost Atlantis.”  In his accounts, Plato describes an island larger than Libya and Asia combined, on which a confederation of ten kingdoms reigned that could navigate the waters to the other islands of the world.  While much of South American antiquity remains undiscovered by modern science, what has been uncovered has led many archaeologists to the theory that South America is the lost island of Atlantis, as described by Plato.

Pampa Aullagas

Sounds like a crazy theory, yes, but there is a wonderful documentary about this theory we watched on a portable DVD player in the car.  Our version was the Spanish translation, so I’m definitely looking to see the English version of “Atlantis in the Andes.”  What does this have to do with our stop at Pampa Aullagas?  Researchers believe that this is the site of one of the ten kingdoms of Atlantis: it matches exactly to Plato’s description of a circular acropolis surrounded by rings of canals that would have been full of water from a nearby lake.  Pampa Aullagas is no longer very close to the nearby Lake Poopo, however there are fossilized lake deposits that prove the lake was much closer to Pampa Aullagas in ancient times.  You can climb the deceivingly long and steep hike to the top of, if you’re a believer, this lost city of Atlantis, or if you’re not a believer, simply a hill in the countryside with a beautiful view.  Be prepared for a challenging hike: at such a high altitude, you get winded very quickly as you climb the stairs to the top, and the strong winds swirling around you suck the breath right out and don’t help with balance.  We had to take frequent breaks, but it was worth the reward at the top: looking out into the Altiplano as far as your eye can possibly see.

Looking back at our climb

And we saw llamas on our way back down!

Back at the town

Back at the town, Gonzalo showed us to a local restaurant that I’m pretty sure only he knew of.  Entering through the gate to what appeared to be someone’s home, we were shown to a room off a courtyard with a couple of tables and chairs, which was where we unknowingly had our first taste of llama meat.  We were so hungry from the climb, that when the plates were put in front of us, no one thought twice about what we were eating and just dug right in.  It was only when we were finished that Gonzalo asked us if we knew what kind of meat we had eaten, adding the disconcerting observation, “do you see any cows around here?”

No…but we had seen some llamas…

Llama Crossing!

THIRD STOP: Meteorite Crater.  Seriously.  Somewhere between Oruro and the salt flats lies the impact of a meteor that hurtled to the earth’s surface from outerspace.  In the flatness of the area, it looks like little more than a dimple in the earth, but up close, the crater is enormous.

Meteorite Crater

A lake has formed at the bottom, its waters rippling under the intense wind of the surrounding area.

Lookout Tower: not very safe

Against better judgment, I climbed the rickety wooden lookout tower and was only convinced that was not a good idea once getting to the top and feeling the wooden frame swaying back and forth in the fierce wind.  I didn’t stay up there for long, just enough to get a nice view of the crater, which still couldn’t fit into the full photo frame even with my wide-angle lens!  The church nearby is supposedly built with the debris from the impact along with some meteorite rock.

FOURTH STOP: Natural mineral water spring.  We had about an hour left before we reached where we were to spend the night when we stopped to top up the tank at a little town.  The town was out of gas and we realized the fuel truck we had been following for a while, but passed a short time earlier, must be headed to the same place we were.  To pass the time, we skeptically followed the signs for a mineral water spring a short way down a dirt road into the mountains and came across a square of cement surrounded by a chain-link fence.  A sign on the gate said Agua Mineral — so we must have found it.  Inside, there was a well full of water bubbling with the gases deep down in the earth.  Against all advice about drinking the water in third world countries, we each dipped our cup into the spring and tasted the water.  Pure, fresh, clean, with a slight bubbly tingle, this was the best mineral water I had ever tasted!  And it was coming from the ground!  We were so blown away by the natural mineral water, we filled an empty two liter bottle with it and sipped it all the way to our final stop: our hostel.

Natural mineral water spring

Adobe Hostel Hut

Our hostel that night was an awesome ecological, archaeological lodge in a village about two hours from El Salar de Uyuni.  A number of oddly shaped adobe huts with straw roofs surrounded a larger community building where meals were served.  Each hut had two rooms, one on either end, each with two beds and a bathroom.  After showing us our rooms, the woman who had met us when we arrived trotted off to begin preparing our dinner, which would take a full two hours, so we took the time to explore the village.

There wasn’t much to see.  A charming church sat slightly down the road, whitewash with a beautiful door made of cactus wood.  As it got darker, we noticed that the hostel was the only place in the village with electricty, and having brought no flashlights on our walk, we made our way back to shelter.

Village Church

Waiting for dinner to be ready, we played chimbo in the community area.  Chimbo is a popular Bolivian card game with lots of rules that you eventually begin to remember by maybe the 10th time you play.  Similar to Rummy, you try to get straights and three-of-a-kinds, however there are multiple rounds of the game in which you are “going for” a specific combination of the two.  It can be a very long game, which was perfect considering we had two hours until dinner.  But it was so long, we had to pause in the middle to eat our meal of llama and quinoa soup followed by llama, rice, and potatoes.  While I had enjoyed the llama at lunch, I was halfway through my meal when I looked up and saw posters of baby llamas all around the room and for some reason, I lost my appetite for meat and just ate the potatoes and rice.

We finished our boisterous game of chimbo before crawling into bed.  Or attempting to crawl into bed.  We brought sleeping bags, but because it gets so cold at night, we also piled the bed blankets on top of us.  But these blankets were like no blankets I had ever seen before.  Made of incredibly thick wool, they must have weighed 50 pounds and they were impossible to lift, impossible to move, and once you finally managed to throw it over you, they were impossible to move underneath.  It was alarming to wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed under the weight of what feels like a refrigerator on top of you.  But at least we were warm!

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