Salty Dogs: An Epic Bolivian Saga

UYUNI SALT FLATS/TUPIZA, BOLIVIA: November 14-18

Leah: I swallowed the $135 Bolivian visa fee for one main reason, and that was to see the mind-bending and perception-distorting salt flats, or Salar de Uyuni, along with the numerous other magical surrounding sites. I had shown Steve pictures months ago when we planning our southerly route and barely contained my excitement throughout Bolivia at the thought of finally seeing  this impressive site. Before leaving Sucre we registered online for a tour and ponied over $120 each for a 3 day excursion, then hopped on an 8-hour bus ride with our friend, Bettina, making our way south to the entrance town of Uyuni. The town itself consists of 20,000 residents, a few wide and dusty cowboy-style streets, a train station and dozens of tour outfitters and overpriced tourist restaurants, the latter of which all boast pizza, pasta, hamburgers and Israeli cuisine. Since Steve and I already had our tour, we waved Bettina off with a French couple so she could secure her own adventure to the salt flats and we grabbed some pizza and tucked in to the Hotel Avenida ($9 for a private room).

The next day dawned crisp and sunny, so we strolled through the market to buy necessary tour provisions such as bright pink toilet paper, fruit, water and other snacks. Back at the hotel we ran into Bettina who asked if we had heard about the blockade. “The what?!” I more or less screamed. Apparently at midnight the night before, the local community who lives within the reserve erected a blockade and refused to let tour groups enter some of the more amazing parts of the park, including the geysers and thermal pools (which are not part of the Salar de Uyuni per se, but a part of the typical 3-day tour). Of course the dispute was all over money—how much the reserve administration was paying (or not paying) to the local communities—but our tour operator had failed to mention this problem. Therefore, off we went to the office to ask what was going on and if we’d receive a partial refund if the third day’s tour offerings would indeed be changed due to a continued blockade. They hemmed and hawed and finally said yes, so with a slight feeling of foreboding we headed off to the dusty 4x4 that held our driver, multiple plastic containers of gas lashed to the roof, food, provisions and four other tour mates, three of whom would be quickly become fast friends.

Agustin, a wild-haired vivacious Spaniard, currently studies abroad in Cordoba, Argentina. On one of his school breaks he took a side trip to Bolivia, where he met the American duo of Megan and Taryn… both of whom lived in San Diego at one point in time (Megan grew up in San Diego and Taryn went to UCSD) and currently call San Francisco home. We quickly bonded over school (Megan was also a Women’s Studies major), crazy Bolivian escapades and love of adventure. Oh, and then there was the chain-smoking German girl, Liza, but more on her later—let’s just say there wasn’t quite the instant connection with her that there was with the others. 

Off we barreled to the salt flats, stopping along the way at the train graveyard (rusted out carriages and engines littered the desert outside Uyuni as dust devils twirled in the distance) and a small strip of a town with requisite tourist kitsch and all manner of items made from salt. Then, it was time for the main event—I about peed myself in anticipation as the ground quickly transformed from a sun-baked dust bowl to a shimmering layer of white that seemed to spread infinitely in every direction. We hopped out to explore the piles of salt waiting to be harvested (and may have licked it just for kicks) before making our way past the old Playa Blanca Hotel (which has thankfully been closed since they had practices that contaminated the salt flats) with its multi-nation flag sentries flapping in the wind. Then, it was just driving into a white abyss with nothing but dazzling skies above and crystalline salt patterns below, our eyes lacking shapes on the horizon to provide any sort of perspective. Other 4x4s in the distance seemed to float above the ground and the whole experience proved surreal in the purest form—I stared out the window hypnotized as we jostled along, elated to finally be here.

We stopped for lunch at Isla Incahuasi , at this point at an elevation of 12,000 feet. This rocky oasis (the remains of an ancient volcano) in the middle of the salt flats remains covered by giant cacti, some of which are over 1,200 years old, in addition to a few llamas and fossil remains.  We hiked to the top, where we sat stunned taking in the 360 degree views (check out this video)—a total head trip. Our brains were trying to process that we were in fact on an island of sorts, yet surrounded by a blinding white expanse of mass in every direction that was neither snow nor water. It’s an experience I’m at a true loss to explain, as I’ve never been in a situation like that and it felt like the most deceptive optical illusion ever to be exploring a surface that seemed to resemble snow or an ice-covered lake in every way conceivable always reminding myself in the back of my head that it was the same stuff I sprinkle on my popcorn.

After a lunch spread on the island prepared by our driver, we made our way in the late afternoon to a patch of white, where we were poured out of the jeep to take the perception bending photos you see to your left that define the Salar de Uyuni. This was everything I had been waiting for and it was frustrating beyond belief that not only did the setting sun cast shadows over us and our props, but none of us could ascertain how to play with our camera settings so that both people and props were in focus. Then, after about thirty minutes we were herded back to the car and I hid tears behind my sunglasses; I thought we would have hours to play on the flats like that, without shadows and time crunches to inhibit our creativity, so I was crushed that none of that was the case.

As Steve held my hand and I sniffled, I tried to channel my newfound zen energy (discovered in Sucre) and remind myself that it was the experience and not the photos that will always be burned in my brain. (Steve: I wasn’t sure what to do…we had assumed there would be plenty of time for these pictures and we thought maybe there was a possibility that we could take more, but it quickly became evident that we were actually saying goodbye to the salt flats for good. Leah had been talking about this for months and in a way it was the sole reason we had bothered with Bolivia. However as we’ve learned through our travels the truly meaningful experiences aren’t always where we expect them.)

We made our way to our evening lodging, a small “hostel” that only runs electricity 2 hours a night, requests payment for showers and consists of floors, walls and bedframes constructed entirely of salt. The drivers carry all food, snacks, water and drinks for the group during the tour and then prepare everything at the hostels at night, so after laughing and noshing away, our group turned in to our salt palace accompanied by the gentle evening sounds of fighting dogs and a snoring European in the room next door. (Steve: okay, this was not cool. Whomever was snoring was snoring loudly AND moaning at the same time. You can insert your own jokes here; we’ve already made them all.)

The second day saw us driving past quinoa fields, skittish vicunas, railroad tracks, belching volcanoes, towering mountains and hour after hour of desert scenery, punctuated by stops to view the vizcachas (a kind-of-cute desert bunny-rat), Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree) and shallow lakes full of native flamingos, their spackled pink plumage adding sparks of color to an already otherworldly landscape.  As the toasty orange rays of afternoon sun accompanied us past the biggest Bolivian flag we’ve ever seen and up to the Lago Colorada, with sinking hearts we soon saw a lowered gate, accompanied by corrugated iron roof sheets, rocks and obstinate locals…the blockade was still in effect. Dozens of tourists and drivers pleaded with the local reps but to no avail; if the government representative from La Paz had been unsuccessful in negotiations, we weren’t holding out hope that a bunch of wind-whipped, REI-clad, disheveled gringos would fare any better.

Unfortunately, our second night’s lodging was 15 minutes past the blockade, along with the Dali Desert, geysers and hot springs—all on the 3rd day’s itinerary. Although it appeared to us that all the assembled jeeps could just band together and blow through the shoddy looking barrier, we were assured that the locals in the town farther down the road were the real threat and not to be messed with (Steve: this was embarrassing. We had heard about a rock-throwing mob of protesters for days only to come upon a single lowered gate. I mean, you could have driven around it seeing as how everyone had 4x4s. Yes, this supposedly wasn’t the actual point of danger but I have a strong feeling that many of the drivers simply didn’t pass so as not to piss off any of their friends in the village.). They apparently wielded rocks and guns and weren’t afraid to use them; in fact, they had (supposedly) already employed the former on an unfortunate vehicle we ran into earlier in the day. Our hearts broken, we then learned that because the German girl needed to get to the Chilean border and it was another eight hours back to Uyuni, we were essentially stuck out there, especially after Ronsal informed us that he couldn’t assure we would receive a refund for the third day if we were able to return anyway (despite what we had been promised).

Steve: This proved to be a turning-point in the whole tour. Leah and I were already a bit disappointed because of the short time allotted for picture-taking at the Salar de Uyuni but now everybody was a bit miffed; Megan, Taryn and Agustin were not impressed with having been kept in the dark by their tour agency and everybody—except for Liza the German—was inclined to return to Uyuni and to receive a partial refund. As it turned out we still had a four hour drive just to get to a hostel/town (a place called Alota which could vie for world's most middle-of-nowhere town) to call the agency. By the time we got there it was dark, late and everyone was tired from driving since seven in the morning (we felt pretty bad for Ronsal and all things said he was quite the champ). Things almost got a bit ugly when we couldn’t agree on what to do since the German chalked everything up to Bolivia being a developing country. As the rest of us saw it, we spent a good chunk of money for a service and we weren’t accorded what we paid for.  As it turned out, Ronsal said that the tour agency figured Leah and I were aware of the risks and therefore not apt to get a refund, and regardless everything was paid for, yadda yadda yadda. We were too hungry and tired at this point so everyone just sort of let it go for the night; after a late dinner we threw in the towel and decided to figure it out in the morning.

I should probably add that during our dinner at the hostel in Alota everyone queued up for a chance to charge their camera batteries on the one outlet and power strip available. Agustin had his laptop, which served valiantly as DJ for our ride, and a few minutes after plugging in his adapter smoke started to fill the room. It appeared that his computer was fine but the charger was probably warped; only time would tell if there was any permanent damage (this little tidbit is called foreshadowing).

Refreshed and sans German--Ronsal arranged for her to join a separate group en route to the Chilean border--we reached a quick consensus that we would spend the third day back at the Salar de Uyuni taking the perception-defying pictures that Leah had so wanted to take. Maybe it was due to the new group dynamic or just a good night's sleep, likely a combination of both, but the air in the car was refreshed (this is actually a poor choice in words since Ronsal was quite gaseous the whole trip). Everyone was enjoying each other's company, conversation flowed and laughs abounded. I think it's safe to speak for the others and say that everyone was truly in the moment; we stopped worrying about refunds and about what we weren't going to be able to see and instead focused simply on having a good time.

After reveling in lakes, llamas, more bunny-rats and overall beautiful desert landscapes, we found ourselves back at the mystical Salar de Uyuni. No longer hindered by time or dissenting opinion, we spent the entire afternoon playing around with our cameras in a sea of white. Horizons and distances melted together as we stepped on shrunken people with our giant boots, whispered secrets in each others' ears, posed on giant condoms (an homage to Leah's efforts in HIV/AIDS/STI prevention with the Peace Corps and most recently with the Girl Scouts peer education group), and gave each other a hand. In a grand finale, we may or may not have shed some inhibitions as well as some clothes...but what happens in the Salar stays in the Salar.

Upon leaving the salt flats and returning to Uyuni we found ourselves with only about an hour before the buses out of town were to leave so we made haste and bought our tickets and sat down for a quick pizza dinner. Not knowing when he´d have another chance, Agustin took the opportunity to copy pictures from Megan and Taryn´s cameras. Megan´s pictures copied with no problems but Taryn´s were another story; as I stealthily foreshadowed, with a useless adapter and a low battery, Agustin´s computer shut down during the middle of the file transfer. Leah then followed suit copying Megan´s photos but when reading Taryn´s SD card all of the day´s photos seemed to have disappeared.

Full of pizza as well as worry about the missing photos we hurried off to catch our bus to Tupiza, a wild west town about seven hours south. The mood was a bit somber as we all wondered what went wrong and Agustin was especially down as he felt personally responsible for what had happened. In reality it was no one´s fault and there was nothing we could do. As cliche as it may sound, in the end I figured that you had to simply say "it is what it is." Maybe some memories are only meant to be stored in the mind and the truly important thing is that we had an amazing time with new old friends--Taryn, Megan and Agustin felt like sisters and brothers that until three days before we didn´t even know existed. This is not to say that I didn´t hold out some hope that the pictures could be recovered...I want them as bad as the next person!

Seeing as how this was to be one of our last bus rides in Bolivia, it was only fitting that it was the bus from hell. First, upon entering the bus we laughed to ourselves as we realized they were playing "The One That I Want" from Grease. However things quickly turned south when we realized that it was on LOOP. This lasted for a while after departure but thankfully I had an iPod within reach to mask the pain (my technology-resistant wife wasn´t so lucky). Next, the entire ride was on bumpy, not-so-paved roads in a bus that was due for retirement. The cabin door to the driver´s area fell off its hinges, the light fixture over my head threatened to fall and impale me at any moment, the tires had to be uncharacteristically changed at regular intervals, and the brakes sounded like someone was using power tools.

However, the piece de resistance was the Bolivian band that boarded the bus at one of our stops. A highly drunk--no, piss drunk--Bolivian band at that. After listening to their slurs and singing for a while silence ensued. I looked down to find a liquid creeping down the center aisle. Spilt beer. The ayudante angrily went back and grabbed their case of beer, chastising them openly. A short while later I looked down to see chunks on the ground. One of the passed-out trumpeteers had vomited all over himself, on his seat and onto the walkway. As Megan and I stared back in disbelief, another member of Sgt. Vomit´s Empty Stomach Club Band let it all out in the middle of the aisle. With our bags in our laps and safely off the ground we waited patiently for our arrival to Tupiza so that we could run away from the bus as fast as our legs could take us. (Leah: although as a final insult, our bag of fruit and snacks was stolen from right above our heads. We NEVER put anything in the overhead section on buses, as it's sure to get nicked. However, we figured a ratty, disintegrating plastic bag with a few mandarin oranges, cough drops and cookies was probably fine for a few hours...wrong. Someone managed to snag it without us noticing-despite us never being asleep-and I'm still bitter. Of course it's our own fault, but a flippin' bag of fruit?! Come on, Bolivia!)

Leah: Our Uyuni adventures complete and the super shoddy bus-ride behind us, Megan, Taryn, Steve and I followed a hostel tout (when it's 2 a.m. you just don't care and we figured on strength in numbers) to the Hotel Cruz and up about 3 flights of stairs, where we threw our packs on the floor and collapsed more or less clothed into bed, not waking till our alarms went off at 10 a.m. Hot showers ensued for all (and some quick laundry in the sink for me); we truly felt like new people washing 3 days' worth of salt flat grime and bus puke down the drain. Hallelujah for the small things in life! We had it in our heads that we would find a post office for the girls to mail some recent acquisitions home, but of course we forgot to take into account the fact that it was Sunday = everything is closed, including the mercado, all stores, businesses and most restaurants. Doh!

We therefore settled for a late lunch in one of the few open restaurants catering to tourists, where we scarfed down some tasty chicken tacos, a hamburger and fresh fruit juice smoothies before walking the girls to their afternoon shuttle which would whisk them away to the Argentine border; Steve and I decided we needed a day to sleep and chill and would leave the following morning instead. While we had originally planned to spend a few days in Tupiza, possibly taking in one of the numerous horseback riding tours on offer through the majestic countryside,  Bolivia had thoroughly kicked our butts by this point and we were essentially over it and ready to get the heck out. After some dinner and a restful snooze, we headed out  to the border ourselves, excited to see what the next country on the itinerary would bring.

CLICK FOR UYUNI PICTURES
CLICK FOR BOLIVIA BUDGET SYNOPSIS

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Anonymous November 29, 2012 at 12:34 PM

If you didn't get the message, I LOVE THESE PHOTOS!!!!!!!!!!
-Alison G, your WoAl

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