Monday, March 14, 2011

La Adventura de Bolivia Pt 3 - Salar at last, Salar at last

The next morning after we left the hotel we made a short trip to a nearby village called San Juan de Rosario and went to a cultural museum that had a number of pre-Columbian artifacts and a mummy that had been found in the altiplano in a funerary tower called a ch' ullpa. Since the climate is dry, a lot more tissue and fabric is preserved than other places. The mummy was buried in a fetal position as the Aymara believe the dead person will be reborn in some other dimension and should be in the appropriate pose.

Chilean Mummy at San Juan de Rosario Museum

We also learned more about how the pre-Columbian religious beliefs have been incorporated into the Catholicism that most Bolivians ostensibly practice. For instance some number of Bolivians (I'm not an expert, so I can't say for sure.) believe in Pachamama and leave offerings to her in bowls called kerus in a ceremony called la Ch'alla. The offerings are ... cooked or smoked, I guess you'd say, not actually burned and the supplicant can wish for success in business, school, love, etc. The day afterwards, the bowl's contents are buried. The offerings usually include things like candies, coca leaves, llama fat, and so forth. In some places they use dried llama fetuses (we saw some for sale in the Witches Market in La Paz). The usual day for making offerings is Tuesday, although there are other days that are more significant holidays. I must confess that I did not entirely follow what I heard and I'm not sure if these holidays are related to Pachamama or some other entity. I seem to recall that one of the more important holidays is when they plant the crops to ensure a good year's harvest.

After we finished up in the museum, we hit the road again on the way to Uyuni. We drove through colorada red earthen fields, which were swollen with water that had come down the night before. Eventually the fields turned into a lake of sorts, near Julaca. I jokingly referred to it as Lago Julaca and Frans came back with "Later it will be Pampas Julaca." It was a little alarming because the road bed was flooded in places and crumbling in places, so we had to go fairly slowly in order to make it through safely.

Driving Through Lago Julaca

Eventually, we got to a larger road and I realized at some point that we'd been on proper (if dirt) roads all day instead of the 4x4 roads we'd been following.

Lllama Crossing

After a while we got to our next stop, the Uyuni train graveyard outside of Uyuni. Just as we got near the place, the skies opened up again and it rained for a while. When we arrived it was still raining a bit, so I got out my Kata rain hood for my camera and rolled out into the drizzle to look around.

Uyuni Train Graveyard

The graveyard is not all that big, not as big as I had expected, anyway. It has some nineteenth century train engines that were given to Bolivia by Chile as part of the settlement of the War of the Pacific, in which Bolivia lost its only access to the sea. Then later Bolivian governments decided that they would scrap the existing trains and replace them with more modern trains. Except that they failed to do the replacement part. Very sad. BTW, there is train service from the Argentinian border in the south to Oruro (via Uyuni), but Oruro is the end of the line. I shot pictures of the cars and engines and bit of scrap lying about for a bit before Noelle let me know that we had to go because we'd misjudged the time and we needed to get to Uyuni proper to get our visas.

Uyuni was a bit of a surprise to me because it is, um, less paved, than I had expected. The recent rains made a bit of a mess of some of the streets, but the main street was paved and dry. The immigration office in Uyuni wasn't open when we arrived, so we got some lunch at a local restaurant in hopes that they would be open when we were done. Which they were, thankfully. The visa process was a little stressful, as it turned out, because while we had all the paperwork needed and more than twice the $270 USD needed for the visa, the officer in charge carefully scrutinized our money for the smallest tear and kept rejecting bills until I started to worry that we would not have enough left to pay for the visa. Fortunately I had a couple of hundred dollar bills that passed muster and our guide Daniel helped convince the officer to take enough of the rest of the money so that we did get the visas. There was a back and forth in Spanish that I didn't entirely follow, but the immigration officer pulled out a drawer filled with US money a couple times that evidently was money that the banks refused to accept. I am not sure why Bolivian banks are so fussy about US dollars, but I guess the moral of the story is if you have to make the land crossing into Bolivia, bring crisp, unfolded, untorn money in an envelope with you or you might have a tough time getting in. (I have heard that people going through the airport at La Paz have had fewer problems, but I don't know for sure myself.)

After the excitement of dealing with immigration, we headed off to the Salar, which I had been looking forward to since I saw Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge episode on the altiplano. We drove through Colchani, where they do final steps of salt processing and manufacture souvenirs out of salt. We were supposed to stop there, but we ended up not going because we were at the Salar too long. But it was completely worth it, as it turns out. We got to the Salar which was really a gigantic lake at this point because the water accumulates on the Salar during the rainy season.

The Salar de Uyuni

I had been told when I booked the trip that traveling across the Salar was not possible during the rainy season because it's not safe to do so. I thought we'd go to the edge and take a few pictures, but when we got there we saw a bunch of people wading out quite a ways. There were also some trucks heading out into the water, but Daniel said they were older vehicles, whose owners didn't care about the damage the salt water might do to their trucks. As it turns out, the water only went up to our calves so we decided to go see how close we could safely get to a pile of salt off in the distance. It took a while but we actually go right next to it. The pile was left over from the previous season, when the workers left because of the rain.

Uyuni Salt Pyramid

They even left some tools behind because who's going to take them way out there.

Uyuni Salt Extraction Tools

We must have walked the better part of a mile. I was surprised that the depth didn't really change, but I guess the Salar is really uniformly flat. After we waded back to the car, Frans (who had stayed behind) informed us that we could drive the truck out on the Salar if we wanted. Boy, did we! I really wanted to be out there around sunset and some of the other tourists said that sunset was in a half hour or so. So, slowly and carefully we drove out into the small inland sea that was the Salar. We probably drove a couple miles before we stopped near a small set of salt pyramids slowly melting into the water. Off in the distance the sun was settling behind some clouds before making its reappearance at sunset. The clouds were also periodically illuminated by lightning as another thunderstorm moved into the area. We got out of the truck and waded around, taking in the fantastic scene with a childlike sense of wonder. I knew that this might be the only chance I might ever get to photograph on the Salar at sunset, so I got my tripod out and set up near some of the pyramids in preparation for the sunset. I took as many pictures as I could before we had to go. It evidently can be dangerous to be out on the Salar after dark because it can be hard to tell the land from the water, so we had to make sure not to be there too late.

Uyuni Sunset

We drove back to Uyuni mostly in silence, stopping in Colchani a couple times because Frans' wife wanted him to bring home some salt. Everyone was closed, so Frans was out of luck. We got dropped off at the hotel where we were to wait a few hours before our train. Frans would come back later in the evening to take us there and make sure we got away safely. We were really tired from our day which felt really long by the time we got to the hotel. We said goodbye to Daniel and thanked him for being our guide on this incredible altiplano experience. We hope to hear from him him again. Noelle gave him her Moo card, but I neglected to get his e-mail address before we parted, so fingers crossed. The hotel had a hot shower and a place to go to the bathroom, so I will give it that. It also had a peculiar odor in the shower (mildew I think, my sense of smell was diminished during our trip through the altiplano). And the bed was hard. Think a slab of wood with a thin sheet of plastic surrounding it hard. But we had a chance to clean up, repack for the train ride, and nap for a bit before we left. We got a call that the train, which supposedly had been delayed, was back on schedule so we had a one o'clock pickup. That's one AM. The train heading northward only runs a few times a week and for whatever reason, run really late at night. Frans came by and packed our stuff up into the Lexus and drove us through the deserted streets of Uyuni to the train station. When the train arrived, a bunch of people got off the train and wanted to get their luggage. Then we could get our luggage loaded, which Frans helped us with. It was a very chaotic scene and we were really grateful for his help. Once our luggage was on board, he helped us find our coach and made sure we got on board and to our seats. We were incredibly grateful for his help as it might have been interesting to do on our own, given our limited Spanish.

Around 1:45 we rolled out of the station on our seven hour journey to Oruro, where we were met by another driver who would get us the rest of the way to La Paz. The train did not have sleeper compartments, but the seats reclined and we were as comfortable as you can can be when you can't actually sleep lying down. I was impressed at how many times the conductors went through cleaning the coaches. The train takes a little longer to get to La Paz than driving, assuming the bus doesn't get stuck, which I guess happens from time to time. However, it's cheaper and more comfortable than the bus, so I think we made the right call.

And that concluded the altiplano portion of our Bolivian adventure. I don't think we will ever forget the amazing things we saw there or the experiences we had, whether wading through the Salar de Uyuni, watching thousands of flamingos feeding in the Laguna Colorada or looking at the myriads of stars in the sky outside the Hotel del Desierto. Frans and Daniel were invaluable in our trip. They got us safely from the frontier to our hotels to our train to the north. They were patient with all our questions about wildlife, the names of places, how one says things in Spanish and so forth. They even let us play our iPods in the truck. I think one of the more surreal experiences for me was driving through the puna desert, listening to "Pistolero" by the band Juno Reactor while looking out at the landscape. They were also great people that we were happy to have met. I personally consider this one of the most amazing trips I have ever had. With a little luck, perhaps someday we will return.

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