North, but still south... the fijords of Fuegia

North, but still south... the fijords of Fuegia
North, but still south... the fijords of Fuegia

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bolivia! Big landscapes, endless salt.

So across I went, and once past the passport stamping out of Argentina the only one who seemed to care that I'd just entered a new country was the taxi driver who asked where I wanted to go.  Since there seemed to be no immigration office open, available... or present, I said I wanted to go north the 60kms to Tupiza. And so we did.  And so I became an undocumented alien.  Chock up another bullet point for the resume.

The scenery between the border and north was gorgeous . Once we descended from the higher plains if the puna (high desert) we got into a succession of watered valleys and canyons with hay stacks all glowing in the late day sun. But I have no pictures because the driver regaled me nonstop the whole way, and was very engaging, talking about all of the things that the much hailed president Evo Morales was doing to improve the infrastructure of the country, and improving the living conditions and general prosperity of the largely poor peasant-class country.

Going to Tupiza was the starting point for a tour I wanted to take of the high desert region that basically blends across the tri-country border (Bolivia, Argentina, Chile) and is perhaps best recognized by us at home under the umbrella of the Atacama Desert.  But this was a whole other part of the ecosystem/region than I had been aware of. Notably lacking (well, until a couple months previous when I got clued in) was any awareness on my part that the largest salt flat in the world was close by.  The Salar de Uyuni.  

So this tour was going to make a sort of loop, going for four days through the arid high deserts of southwestern Bolivia, almost touching the borders of Argentina and Chile, then ending up on the salt flats of Uyuni.  Then I would get a transfer-- all of this in Land Cruiser type 4x4s-- back down south across the border to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile... to continue my desert hopping for a bit longer.

It was stunning.  All of it.  So glad I got the intel about Uyuni and that I went.  Wow.

Here's the tour, starting with the climb through the foothills then the mars landscapes of the altiplano then finally the Salar.  We stayed in local villages in houses built specifically for lodging the tour tourists, basic but comfortable. 




We ate some cool food for meals including one of the regional items, sort of like a kind of potato but it's a segmented tuber, called Oca.




That's 4855 meters elevation.  Times 3 for feet... we were high.


Seems that often older women are the llama herders and caretakers, following and sitting with them, I saw one that I didn't hardly recognize as a human, looked like a boulder but then I realized she was sitting down, was multi colored, surrounded by her voluminous skirts and wearing a hat... The woman above is transporting llama hides stacked on the wheelbarrow.


I believe the tassels in the ears are for identification, but they get even more for fun, during a spring festival


Geology, anyone?


There are lagoons up high and they all have different colors depending on the mineral concentrations... This high up the land forms are closed basins and lots of exposed earth so the snow slowly leaches out the minerals from the rocks/soils and they get concentrated in the lakes.  Home to flamingos.  Crazy.







More erosion by the wind, scouring away the soils, sometimes uncovering harder rock, and then scouring that into 'ventifacts' or rocks of crazy shapes created solely by the erosive power of wind blown particles...




The night before finally visiting the Uyuni salt flat we stayed at the Salt Hotel... pretty much built of blocks of salt. The salt layers are actually meters thick in places.  Walls, floor, furniture all of blocks of salt.


And the village here had fields of Quinoa... we had come down in elevation and had arrived into a big Quinoa producing area... not at all lush but good conditions for this crop that does real well in dry conditions.  I'd never seen the actual plants before but I eat it all the time at home... so it was neat to see where those grains come from!  Sad though too, apparently most of the quinoa grown is exported and the local folks' diet has changed to more of the white/processed/packaged foods. Globalization.




Next morning, up and out by 5am to see the sunrise on the salt flat.  Worth every second and more.






Because the flats are so, well, flat, and there is often no perspective, it's become quite 'the thing' to orchestrate and take silly photos and I was finally persuaded to  pose for one, like a genie in a mini liquor bottle:


If you google for uyuni salt flat images I bet you'll come up with some ones like folks walking along the side of a guitar, holding friends in the palms of their hands, etc.  

Then we moved on to Fish Island, truly an island in the salt sea.  Covered with cardon cacti and other plants, quite a sight.  Especially if you left the schlocky tourist area behind, and even more, waited for all the tourists to depart the main overlook at the top... which I was lucky enough to experience.  Had some quiet time and got to see a chinchilla come out of hiding and do a bit of browsing and spacing out, as any proper being does first thing in the morning...



And then after a bit of souvenir shopping at the village on the edge of the Salar (where I saw this very interesting informational poster about how if you get sick in the demonstrated ways you should get help)


It was time to make the onward journey, which for necess finding my supposedly booked transfer back south.  Which did not materialize as promised but I was lucky enough to find a different operator with a free spot, so loaded up in the afternoon and headed out more or less back the way I'd just come, skipping the Salar but hitting lots of familiar scenery


And when we crossed the border, it seemed like the right thing to do to skip any border crossing paperwork awkwardness by NOT walking over to the customs building to present myself.  I just hung around the parking lot in the throng of tourists eating breakfast and waiting to get transferred from their Bolivian transport bus to their Chilean transport bus. All very civilized and easy.  Especially the part about not being physically forced through a person by person checkpoint where my lack of entry stamp/visa would have caused a slight wrinkle. But as it was I left Bolivia ananymously just like if arrived, and then got processed into Chile several miles down the road.  Not clear why there was such a physical gap in border facilities but it worked great for me.  The Chilean customs didn't seem to care where I'd been.  Was kind of fun not to officially exist anywhere for a few days. 

And then it was a few lovely days in San Pedro.  Touristy to be sure, sort of a mini Santa Fe type thing... can see the sweet and deeply rooted prior culture but the upscale boutiques, eateries, tour company offices, and day spa have metastasized up through and around the original village... But it is still charming in its way.

Signed up for a few tours as that's the easiest/cheapest way to see the sights especially as a single traveller without transportation.  What I saw was interesting and neat but I felt like I had been branded by my Uyuni tour, so powerful as my first exposure to this sort of powerful landscape, so I wasn't as moved by my time around San Pedro.  But it was still pretty awesome.



Saw vicuña, the most wild of the four South American camelid cousins (along with llama, alpaca, and guanaco).. In the middle of perhaps the largest collapsed volcanic crater in the world, where I collected black and brown obsidian... Then on to more salt-encrusted vistas 


Including canyons made entirely of salt, and with razor sharp eroding spires


And of course more geology rich landscapes









Plants too!



Then it was time to end my desert adventure and head back to the city.  Bussed then flew back to Buenos Aires, 


where I stayed in a neat loft in the swanky Soho area



Had an amazing multi-course, multi-wine 'grownup girls' lunch out at a swanky hotel with my ship roomie Amelia







And then it was time to head north.  Too sad!  But I was looking forward to being home as well, as it usually goes.  Good to see new things, good to go home.  And so it is.

More adventures await, hope you enjoyed these bits and pieces!

Love and hugs,
:) jos