Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bolivia: The Salares and Uyuni

Crossing into Bolivia was like stepping into the final frontier, both literally and figuratively. Since we are flying home out of La Paz, it marked the last border crossing of our journey. And since we were entering via dirt roads in a barren landscape, it had a middle of nowhere feel to it. Crossing borders always has a bit of an exciting nail-biting anticipation about it. Will someone plant illegal drugs in our bags? Will we get thrown into a dank prison where our Spanish will really improve? One never knows.

Once we were stamped and approved, we hefted our backpacks onto 4x4s for a three day trip through Bolivia`s famed lakes and salares (salt fields) toward Uyuni. This has to be one of most visually stunning sections of our travels, a veritable nature freak show of the most beautiful variety. We gawked over lakes that glowed white, red, and green. We zoomed our lenses on flamingos, hoping for the perfect shot (didn`t happen). And we traversed a landscape ranging from brilliant hues of red rock, to endless patches of fresh snow, to looming volcanoes. Incredible. Fitting that one of the surreal rock landscapes is called Desierto del Dali (yes of Salvador Dali fame). Undoubtedly the altitude played a role in our out-of-body experience, as we reached 5,000 meters (16,400 feet!) at the geyser field, where one bubbling fumarole glowed a devilish red. Belching, gurgling, spitting and hissing, the fumaroles created an awesome landscape fit for Jabba the Hut.

We had been warned that car trouble went hand in hand with enjoying the views. Careening our way over bumpy, gravelly, non-existent roads through the stark landscape, we understood why. Luckily our group of ten travelers was a hardy upbeat bunch. For us, breakdowns meant hack circles, or snowball fights, or whatever else the landscape dictated.

A highlight of the trip was staying in a salt hotel, where virtually everything (beds, tables, chairs, walls) was constructed of salt. The floor was the most incredible, just pristine sparkling grains of salt that made for an exfoliatory experience on bare feet after showering.

On our final day, we rose before dawn to watch the sun rise over the salt flats. Being the rainy season, the flats are under a few inches of water, making the landscape a jaw-dropping mirror-y mirage. Driving along, it`s impossible to discern the skyline from the earth, and distant land masses look like floating islands. Words can`t describe it and pictures don`t do it justice, but suffice to say we`d head back in a heartbeat. Nearing Uyuni, we saw the salt being raked into pyramids for drying and selling. And then we visited the train cemetery, where old steam engines go to sleep and to be photographed in black and white.

Arriving in Uyuni, we experienced our first taste of Bolivian culture. Nearly every woman we saw was dressed in the traditional fashion of two long braids, a bowler hat, apron, and a full skirt. Unlike parts of Peru, where traditional dress is often used as a money-making venture for tourist photos, here it`s simply tradition. We didn`t get nearly as many photos of people as we would have liked because we felt intrusive, but we loved wandering the market where everything from dried llama fetuses to blue jeans were on offer. What with it being Valentine`s day and all, we treated ourselves to some good dark chocolate and decadent t.v. watching. Chocolate kisses to you all as well!

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