Saturday, October 28, 2006

Entering the worlds biggest salt lake - Salar Uyuni

Long legs...
Originally uploaded by Henrik & Barbara.
Uyuni – What the heck is that? You probably wonder, and so did we... Arriving in the city last Sunday we knew that we were going to enter the world’s biggest salt lake, but about the 30.000 flamingos, the blood red lake, the geysers and the huge volcanic rock formations, we had no idea. That was to be discovered in the following days.

Arriving in Uyuni we were immediately surrounded by many of the more than 40 different tour agencies there are to be found in Uyuni. To choose one for our 4-day trip was not an easy thing, but helped by the many advices at the Lonely Planet forum and an excellent ranking system initiated at one of the local bars in Uyuni we came down to Turismo el Desierto. They really deserve to have their name mentioned, since we had an amazing trip with no worries at all. It actually ended up being one of our absolutely highlights for our so far 2 month long trip in SA.

The trip is off road or via bumpy dirt roads, totally 1100 km in four days. A good jeep is therefore essential. One of the common complaints with the tour companies in Uyuni is the state of the jeep. The jeeps have a tendency to be pretty worn out and break down several times during the four days; so it was with a relief that we met our relatively new red jeep.
Everything was loaded, the group, a Brit, a Swede, a Dutch couple and us, was squeezed in together with the cook plus the guide/driver and then the adventure was ready to start.

The four days was very intense with loads of different dreamlike sceneries and great nature-moments and until the last moment of the trip we were caught by surprise by this beauty and variety. To memorize it all is a challenge, having experienced such days. Here is most of what we do remember:

First stop was the train cemetery in the outskirts of Uyuni.
Bolivia has a long history of wealth in minerals and metals and in the1880’es a railroad was built in the Uyuni region to facilitate the transport of the minerals and metals. Steam locomotives were imported from England and it is these 150 year old trains – or rather the left over of them, we now could use as a playground for a few minutes climbing the huge old steam locomotives, getting an insight in the history of the region – because no railroad, no Uyuni, as Uyuni was founded because of the many workers needed for the railroad construction. Many ways interesting, but SO not the highlight of the trip…that came few minutes later, as we entered the magical world of the 12.000 square kilometres of plain salt! The Worlds largest salt lake was one of the most surreal experiences we have had so far. As far as the eye could spot, the ground was sparkling white. The brain kept telling us it was ice or sand. It was simply not believable that this could actually be normal eatable salt! The prove came within minutes when we stopped at the village Colchani where the salt is being treated before it is sold to the rest of the country. The process is 100% manual: After collecting the salt, the locals dry it, mix it with iodine, and in the end pack it for distribution. A simple and cheap process – but of cause they do sell the end product pretty cheap: One kilo of their salt for just 0,50 boliviano (around 0,40

The locals have one other use of the salt. They use it as bricks to build houses, furniture etc. They actually have built hotels where everything from the construction, to the beds, tables and sculptures are made of salt! Pretty amazing, with a sort of magical feel to the white sparkling rooms, but it was way too touristy for us so we skipped a night there. Though we did enjoy a nice “naturally cold” beer (Bolivians exotic way of saying that they don’t have a fridge for their beers) at one of the salt tables finding it all pretty unreal.

Next stop was on the actual salt lake. The salt lake used to be part of a huge lake that covered almost the entire highland of Bolivia. The water in the lake diminished between the five ice ages which has now resulted in the salt lake.
The salt layer is said to be about 10 meters deep today, growing one cm per year due to evaporation processes that transports underground salt deposits up to the surface.

Out of 35 islands in the salt lake, the ‘Isla Inka wasi’ (‘The Inkas home’) is by far the most impressive with its up to 12 meters tall cactuses covering the island. As the cactuses grow 1 cm pr. year, it has been calculated that the oldest cactus on the island is 1200 years old! Standing at the island, looking out, at the stretches of whiteness made you mystified!

After a lunch break at the ‘Isla Inka Wasi’ we went on a “special” tour. Instead of continuing south as most tour groups do, we had our driver convinced that it was a better idea to go to the furthest northern point of the salt lake, where you find the small settlement Coqueza at the foot of the inactive Mars-a-like volcano Tunupa. In that way, we would have an extra day at the salt lake.

Coqueza consist of only 10 families whose main income comes from quinoa and llamas. After having installed at the rather simple chilly rooms we went out to watch the sun go down on the salt lake. Our only company was the flamingos nipping for food only 100 meters away.
The sun set was spectacular. Should you look at the sun setting in one direction, look at the volcano with all its colours, look at the infinity of the salt lake or look at the purple clouds in the last of the four directions; beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
(To be continued).


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