Sunday, February 24, 2013

Salar de Uyuni – The World’s Highest Salt Flats

It had been hours since we had seen another jeep. Franklin and the cook Sofia were in the front seats of the six-seater land-cruiser. Otto and I were in the second seat while Leslie and Sara were in the back. Otto was a 23 year old Finnish veteran of Afghanistan and Sara was his girlfriend.

The dirt roads were bad, the mountains were steep, we were well above 3000 meters high and it was raining… hard. For reference, Denver, the “mile-high-city” in the USA is only 1,600 meters above sea level. The car started to fishtail through the mud and the muck, causing my heart to beat a little faster. Leslie, Otto and I were nervous, but Sara seemed to be quite zen-like through the whole experience.
Franklin was quite experienced, having driven for seven years, so I told myself not to worry, we were going to be fine. We started to lose control, sliding towards a cliff, but Franklin steered one way, controlling the sliding jeep and then the other. We got to the top of a crest and stopped. Franklin looking down the muddy path, figuring out his route. Then he popped a couple more coca leaves into his mouth, crossed himself and we were off.
We started a little verse of Bobby McFarin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy.
After a few hours driving through the muck it started to level out, and we got to start taking in the surroundings.
We were on a four-day, three-night trip through the Bolivian Altiplano or high-planes. For reference, Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City” that is famous in American sports for seeing players suffer from altitude sickness is one mile up, or about 1,800m. We were above 3000m the entire trip.
The Lonely Planet talks a bit about altitude sickness, which is not a disease, but problems that are associated with thin-air. There is an extreme lack of oxygen. Altitude sickness is a constant battle in Bolivian, especially for people who live at or near sea-level… meaning us.
But there’s a great reward for those who brave the Altiplano. Salar de Unuyi, Laguna Colorado and some of the most magnificent landscapes on earth.
Each day saw a ton of driving in the jeep, but day one was by far the furthest distance travel and most difficult in terms of sliding around. It wasn’t long though before interesting sites started to appear.
The vegetation was small, meaning that wildlife was easy to spot. Otto had an especially sharp eye for spotting interesting things on the road. He attributed it to Afghanistan. Your eye trains quickly when your life depends on spotting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) on the side of the road.
Not all wildlife was difficult to spot though. Llamas were everywhere. The long-haired variety famous for its wool would wander the countryside, many with brightly colored tassles hanging off the tops of their ears which we assumed were for identifying them for llama herders.
Armadillo-like creatures with hard-shells but a bit of fur were everywhere, but much more difficult to spot. Otto found one though and Franklin said they make guitars out of the shells.
We also spotted a Andean Ostrich, which looked like a slightly smaller ostrich, but still mean enough that you wouldn’t want to get too close.
And of course, the flamingos. If there was water, there was flamingos. Thousands of the creatures were in every lake that appeared on the altiplano.
The other constant companion was coca leaves. Yes, these are the raw ingredients that turn into cocaine. That said, they are used constantly throughout Bolivia. They are considered a natural remedy to alitude sickness and can be consumed either by putting a pack of them in your cheek (don’t chew them) or putting them in hot water and drinking them as a tea.
    Coca leaves were in our cheeks as often as not as soon as we hit 3000 meters. There is no “high”. Effects include:
  1. Apetite suppression
  2. A slight energy boost, more mild than caffeine. We didn’t really feel this.
  3. Reduction in altitude sickness effects
  4. You have to pee a lot.
  5. We also heard that its healthy for you. Vitamins and whatnot
The only travellers I met that didn’t put them in their cheeks were constantly drinking coca tea. The Brits don’t think tea is the solution to everything… but…
Our “group” was actually two jeeps with the other jeep being a driver and five travellers. A Swede, who was also an Afghanistan vet, two Danish girls in their late teens, a Mexican woman on a three week vacation and an Israeli guy. We saw them occassionally throughout the day, but would usually stay in the same hostels at night.
Day two saw the end of massive amounts of driving through the steep terrain and instead saw us begin to see sites. I made a major mistake when I saw a good picture opportunity. I thought I’d get to the top of a rock, but didn’t want to make everyone wait to long so I started running. Usually, this is no problem, but on this day, I immediately regretted it.
I was out of breath by the time I reached the rock and started walking slowly back. The slow walk soon became a trademark of mine.
We reached the next lake, which was probably about half a mile wide, with thousands of flamingoes. Otto, Sarah, Leslie and I got out to walk around, take pictures and check out some old Inca ruins. Unfortunately, I was again walking slow.
On the way to the next lake I began to feel more light-headed. I moved my hand in front of my face and began to get trailers. I would see three hands moving behind the other ones. Then, my head started to throb like a baloon that had been overinflated.
We soon reached the highest point of the trip. 4,900m high geysers. That’s over three miles above sea level. Airplanes pressurize the cabin at 3,800m. Still, it was beautiful. Huge shoots of sulfer-smelling gas shot up out of the rocky ground. There were no trees, as we were well above the treeline. Even small bushes had stopped growing. I could see nothing that lived here naturally. Big chunks of white snow fell all around us. We got out to try and take some pictures.
I tried to take a step towards the geyser but fell to the left and had to scramble to keep my feet under me. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, made it to the geyser, glanced in, peed and returned to the jeep.
“Are we going down now?” I asked. We were, but it would be a long time before we got below Denver. It would be another 24 hours before we got below where planes pressurize.
About 1/100 people suffer from altitude sickness. It’s rare, but can be fatal. Specifically, you can have an artery in your brain burst, so I was a bit nervous when I felt two arteries begin to throb in my forehead. There was nothing I could do about it at this point but put some more coca leaves in my cheeks.
We soon reached Laguna Colorado, the Red Lake, where we were going to stop for the night. It’s called that because the lake is, well, red, although Leslie thought it looked more orange. I made a beeline for the bed though and laid down while Leslie went exploring. I poked my head out a few times, but every time I did I got winded. The air was just too thin. After a few hours though, Leslie came back and I decided I was going to give it a go.
We had to walk about a third of a mile and up a four story rock to get to the viewpoint, but I was going to make it. It was the slowest I’d ever walked and I soon learned a few tricks about moving around in high-altitude. Go slow. Starting and stopping is tough, so keep a steady pace. Think about smooth steps, the less jarring you can walk the better.
After turning a ten minute walk into a half hour walk, including the arduous task of jumping across some stepping-stones in the lake, we made it to the viewpoint. We got some good pictures, but sunset was a no-go as the clouds swept in.
The next day saw us check out some more lakes, but most importantly for me, we went down. One of the cooler sites was the Railroad Graveyard, which was colonial-era Spanish trains that had been abandoned. We ended up in the town of Uyuni, which was well above Denver, but below the cabin-pressurization point. As soon as we reach Uyuni I started to feel better. It wasn’t 100% mind you, but I no longer feared a walk across town. I just took it a bit slow.
The next day saw us head out before the sun was up to the highlight of the trip, Salar de Uyuni, the world’s highest salt flat. The salt flat, was huge, made of salt, and … uh… flat. It looked a bit like a huge flat snowfield.
In actuality, it was layers upon layers of salt. Ten feet of salt followed by a layer of water, then another ten feet of salt, etc. I don’t know how many layers it is, but there’s holes in the salt where the water comes to the surface. These are called eyes.
If the whole thing sounds a bit unstable to you, you would be correct. Our driver told us that in the seven years he had been driving three jeeps had been swallowed up whole by the Salar.
The colors coming off the salar were quite vibrant. The white made everything contrast mightily. Pictures ten minutes apart would be different colors, with a ton of different shades of blues.
We also drove into one of the places where the water had come up above the salt. It was only a few inches, but as a result, you could see reflections of the sky everywhere.
Finally, we had some fun with perspective pictures and we were off.
When we were back at the hostel we made the decision to head to La Paz next. It was the highest city we would go to, but it needed to be done. Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited, but it was necessary if we were going to get across the central portion of South America without heading into Chile (too expensive) or hiking through the Amazon.
We planned on hanging out in the hostel until that night, but they actually kicked us out, so we ended up hanging around the small town of Uyuni for the next few hours before getting on a night bus to La Paz.

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