The central plaza in Uyuni is a pedestrian walkway spanning two blocks in the center of town. The roads are dirt or cobblestone pavers and tour agencies and restaurants touting pizza and pasta line most of the plaza. One café blasts gringo music of The Doors, Bob Marley and others while withered backpackers down cerveza’s and exchange travel stories. Enterprising tour operators stand outside the doors and try to herd in recent busloads. Windows of these agencies proudly display testimonials written in virtually every language. More than 20 or 30 tour operators set up shop along the plaza and nearby streets in Uyuni. Horror stories of tourists taking a 3 or 4 day jeep tour where inadequate food and water supplies accommodations on the altiplano are concrete floors and no blankets and vehicles are riddled with mechanical problems — all resulting in a harrowing and unpleasant experience.
Fortunately I stumbled onto the office of Ranking Bolivia SRL on Avenida Potosi just a couple blocks from the main plaza. Here Weirmor Rameos, a well dressed and groomed man in his late 20’s sits behind a desk with a couple computers. The walls of the office are lined with amazing photos of Bolivia’s primary tourists attractions while the floor is covered in salt. A couple tables and chairs made out of 12″ thick salt blocks sit nearby a wall of bookcases with tourist information books in nearly every language.
Weimer explains that up until about 10 months ago the funding for this free service office was provided by an NGO supported with American and European funds through the Bolivian government. But the money ran out and now to support the office they have opened a cafe and bar – Kactus – and revenue from this source supports the operation. Tourists voluntarily complete surveys of tour operators, restaurants and hotels. Armed with his mouse and proficient Microsoft Access database skill-set, Weimor browsed the data of the tour operators giving me numerous ways to view the data. How many American’s gave this operator bad reviews for food, how many Canadians took this tour and how many Israelis enjoyed this tour. Rankings were based on food, accommodations, guide and overall experience. An ambitious project and if they continue hopefully will increase awareness, competition and improve overall service for visitors to this out of the way traveler’s mecca.
I chose Oasis tours for a couple reasons. They had good rankings and the ratings were based on a large number of surveys. Some other operators were ranked higher but the number of completed surveys were low. I ended up in a Toyota Land Cruiser with 3 British guys in the their early-to-mid twenties and two Swiss girls in their mid-twenties. This group of five had met somewhere in Bolivia and have been traveling together for a couple weeks. As the lone “old” guy in the group they quickly divulged how this 40-something moto-traveler fit in and often spoke in what they felt a youthful language. We spent the nights playing UNO for ours until we were all taught a Swiss card game called CAMS.
(l) solid salt blocks taken from the Salar de Uyuni sit waiting to be processed into the Salt you and I are accustomed to. (r) the infamous Salt Hotel where everything is made out of salt – furniture and all.
Sadly, none of the salt processed from the Salar is exported.
I had packed a bagful of snacks, water and a couple of bottles of Bolivian wine. We spent two nights together. The first in a small town called San Pedro where we four guys shared a room and the girls another. Outside Laguna Colorada in a National Park all six of us shared a large dorm style room. In the “jeep” We alternated days of riding in the back with the swiss girls taking the middle seats. Our driver and guide, Domingo, sported a Los Angeles baseball cap and a handful of missing teeth had been on the job for just over three months. Speaking only in Spanish he pointed out the sites and gave us basic information on the geology and geography of the area. Prior to running tours for Oasis, he worked the mines just over the border in Chile where wages are dramatically higher. Many Bolivian men from the altiplano surrounding Uyuni take jobs for 8-9 months and then return to their families in Bolivia for harvesting crops and firewood for the year. Though only 50 years old the harsh years on the altiplano and working the mines painted a picture of a much older man and quite a contrast to the 19 year old girl who accompanied us on the tour as our cook. The two would giggle and tease each other at times but soon all of us in the jeep learned that the pathetic chef would be our nemesis for the three long days we’d be riding the bad roads and enduring the harsh climate of the high altiplano.
On the fringe of the Salar is the Cemmentario de trens where old locomoatives and railraod cars from the 30’s and beyond.
Looks like they just rolled them in here and left them to rust and bake in the altiplano sun.
And to say that there were roads would be taking perhaps extensive liberties in describing the scene. There were tracks, at best. While the Salar itself didn’t provide much a problem for our jeep or any car or motorcycle, it was crossing the second Salar just south of the Uyuni where I realized and was rather thankful I decided to take the journey by “jeep”, instead of on Doc. Not that the terrain was excessively difficult or technical, it was just desolate and with long expanses of sandy desert, sharp pointed and large-sized boulders, wet sand, mud and salt and forks in the trails that only an experienced driver could successfully navigate without getting lost or stranded. The sand would wrack concentration and possibly detract from enjoying the magnificent vistas and the slower speed necessary to travel safely by moto would take an additional two days forcing camping where temperatures could easily fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Not that I’m opposed to this, but with a weak ankle, desire to comfortably enjoy this part of Bolivia and a passion to engage with people of different cultures and upbringings easily swayed my decision to experience Bolivia in yet still another different or unique fashion.
All of my accompanying travelers were equipped with iPods — which not only brought music to my ears but reinforced my confidence in the company and the common stock I still held. Audrey, the Swiss girl who barely spoke English carried small Altec-Lansing InMotion portable stereo speakers for iPods. Meanwhile, our 19 year old cook would play the same warped tape over and over again, singing along until all of us were ready to take numbers to see who’d have the opportunity to toss it out the window. It was time for the InMotion speakers and different music. When our music played, she’d turn hers up louder. Even before this incident her attitude was nasty. The first day she never smiled and only begrudgingly seemed a desire or will to serve us, often just shrugging when questions were presented to her. While the food was good, there was barely enough especially given the healthy appetite of 3 athletic British men. When asked for more, her attitude grew and her head shook. Mike, one of my British compadres tuned to me and sadly revealed that this woman was making the tour a miserable experience.
Domingo, our driver and guide, was quite the contrast. Always smiling and when confronted by the aggressive Swiss girls about the attitude of our cook, he did his best to turn her around. At one point during one of our overnight stops it appeared he might have been somewhat successful. She joked and giggled with me and tried to convince me to help her wash the dishes. She was Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Finally, the Swiss girls reasoned the girl must have a few marbles loose — slightly retarded. Domingo agreed. We’d often complain to other tour groups who shared our accommodation or lunch stops about our lack of food. The other groups would generously pass over their left-overs. We never had left overs.
Soon the music competition stopped and while the food supply didn’t change her attitude improved, only to dip into nasty, angry and unfriendly and the weirdest times. The girl had never been trained. And she obviously didn’t want to be there — other than to play and sing-along to the same tape for 13 times a day. Another Oasis jeep group had a marvelous cook and what appeared to be much better and more voluminous amounts of food. This situation soon turned to be a joke, a rallying cry that bonded our group together as we traversed some of the most desolate and yet diverse terrain I’d ever experienced.
Our journey started in Uyuni and headed to the Salar where we spent most of the day exploring the Salar — including the Salt Hotel — a hotel where everything was made of salt, including beds, chairs, tables and building. Then to the Isla Pescadores – Fish Island — where slope of cacti, some more than 1,000 years old provided a scenic backdrop and stark contrast to the blazing white vastness of the salt flat. Approaching this island and others as we traveled the Salar toyed with our minds and perception. Because the Salar is so flat and large, the curvature of the earth causes the islands to slowly rise out of the horizon — appearing to float in the sky. Even more, the island at once appears to be just minutes away, yet after an hour of driving you realize it’s just as far as it was and hour earlier. Two hours later we are on the island and hiking the cactus field while our imbecile of a cook prepares our lunch.
For the next two days we journeyed overland through the Andean altiplano passing lakes at 15,000 feet, desolate deserts where we wouldn’t see a stitch of vegetation for hours and then through towering edifices of coral, volcanic rock and petrified trees. Dipping into one valley known as the valley of Dali – after surrealist Salvador Dali – we gazed upon an otherwise vacant expanse of dry desert where rocks seemed placed by the painter himself at one end of the valley and then at the other a towering volcano with colors reminiscent of the painted desert in Arizona. A breakfast stop allowed us an opportunity to don our swimming trunks and wade in thermal mineral springs while distant flamingoes grazed for food. Another desert reminded me of California’s great Mojave. Flamingoes grazed nearly every lake we passed where the water comprises of high mineral content and with their necks craned and bills in the water they filter the minerals and spartan plant life that thrives on such. It’s the mineral content that gives them their unique pink color.
At 4am the morning of our third day we wake to journey to 16,000 feet in elevation where geysers sit and bellow sulphur tainted and powerful steam as the sun rises creating a wild moody and dreamlike scene. Then descending and rising again to the Laguna Verde, a strangely turquoise green lake where another huge volcano towers above framing an unreal scene only described as out of this world. Here we’re just an hour or so from the Chilean border where I bid farewell to my fellow British and Swiss travelers. E-mail addresses and hugs are exchanged as they catch a transfer to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Two other travelers whom I met days earlier in Uyuni, Roy and his wife Danielle. join me for the return trip to Uyuni. Roy originally from Texas recently completed his medical doctor internship and soon to enter his own neurological practice, while his wife a Macintosh fanatic and medical illustrator spent our final day cruising through more indescribable landscapes and small villages. Unfortunately at this time we were sans iPod and accompanying speakers and were ordained to listed to that same damn tape at list six more times as we trudged across deserts, through volcanic zones, lava flows, across rivers until finally reaching the tiny town of Alota where we met a more or less major dirt and gravel road that would take us to San Cristobol and then onward back to Uyuni.
It’s important to make note of this road to Uyuni for the fact that is was entirely financed and built by an American company who had built it along with a slew of other infrastructure improvements to gain access to the Chilean border for trucks transporting product and equipment to and from what is the second largest mine in the world — it could also provide me with an alternative route to Chile and the great Atacama desert. Fact is, this road didn’t exist two years ago. Tracking the road from the city of San Cristobol are huge towers bringing high-voltage power to the town and its mines while two major bridges span as many rivers which previously were physically impossible to pass for months during the rainy season. Along the road several signs announce traditional Bolivian villages which also until two years ago were all but isolated from Uyuni and the rest of Bolivia during the lengthy rainy season. But foreign investment not only brought infrastructure improvement but injected needed cash into these towns which now had a viable source of income from a growing tourist trade and 3,500 jobs made available by the mining company. Artisan crafts, new buildings, playgrounds and a completely restored colonial church were among the benefits brought to these towns. While the mine has been in operation for less than two years, a new processing plant has yet to open. The company also built an airstrip to facilitate transporting engineers, executives and government personnel in and out of the area.
Bolivia has joined my list of favorite countries on my journey which include Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia — while I know this is unfair for me and you as every place I’ve traveled surely has earned some special place in my heart. But Bolivia is special. And while less than 10% of Bolivia’s roads are paved and infrastructure is in an uncanny state of disrepair, it’s encouraging to see foreign investment not only take, but also given to a country that has a staggering amount of potential. While I can’t speak to the working conditions in this new mine, but given the effort provided by the company to improve infrastructure, living conditions and culture, I can only hope it serves as an example worldwide to the way to create a balance where humanity and industry can work somewhat in harmony. Though with Bolivia’s current socialist agenda and with its current president aligning himself with such a dysfunctional clan of world leaders including Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro while seizing and nationalizing its gas and perhaps soon its mining operations, just might threaten the future of foreign investment in this great country. And that would be a shame.
– – – – – – – – – – – – There are so many good pictures, I’ve posted the following additional thumbnails- – – – – – – – – – – –
You should really click and see the big versions just to get a feel of this wild terrain I spent three days exploring:
San Cristobol chuch casts its shadows while Ollague Volcano smokes on the horizon.