in the southwest corner of bolivia, there used to be this enormous salt lake. at some point in time, most of the lake dried up and left all sorts of bizarre things behind. huge salt flats, multi colored lakes filled with harsh chemicals, steaming geysers, and a landscape that, due to its altitude, is practically uninhabitable by all but a few living things. almost every description i’ve read of this area call it completely surreal or out of this world.
most tours of the southwest start from a small town called Uyuni. to get there, we took a train from villazon. the train ride sucked. we were seated facing backwards from the direction the train was going, and our window was stuck so we were hot as hell. when we changed seats to a place where we could open the window, buckets of dust poured into the cabin to the point where it was almost impossible to breathe. the bizarre spanish movie in the compartment was being played at a billion decibels. we sat there and counted down the 8 hours till we would finally get to Uyuni.
when we got to Uyuni, it was midnight and it was freezing. Uyuni is at 3,600 meters altitude, so it gets insanely cold there year round. the rooms in Uyuni fill up quick, so we had called ahead to make a reservation. several hotels had been full, but luckily, one had space left. we walked while shivering through the darkness to the hotel, and knocked on the door. after an eternity, a man answered and told us that they were full. WHAT!! we told him over and over that we had called and that we had a reservations, but he didn’t care. i couldn’t believe it. it was midnight and here we were stuck outside with no place to go.
we walked down the street, and tried asking at a hostel that had told us earlier that it was all booked. after thinking a bit, the woman said that she could give us a rom if we were ok with squeezing both of us into a small single bed. we were desperate, and at that point *any* bed sounded good. the next day, after sleeping, we realized that this hostel sucked pretty bad. most of the time they had no running water. yeah, i know this is bolivia and i shouldn’t expect much, but it’s not like we’re in some tinny village in the middle of nowhere. the town has running water, and if the town has it, then the hostel should provide it. instead, they would turn off the water for most of the day, leaving us unable to shower, brush our teeth, and the toilets would be in a hellish state since no one was flushing.
we spent our day wandering round Uyuni and trying to choose a tour company to go with. it was a tough decision. there are over 50 different companies here, and from what i’ve read they all suck for various reasons. almost all of them have a blatant disregard for safety or anything else. on a 4 days tour into the middle of nowhere, they don’t even bring the very minimal amount of first aid. Lots of these companies will cancel a tour in the middle for various reasons and not give people their money back. lots of them lied to their customers. and most disturbing of all, at times when customers have gotten extremely sick due to altitude or anything else, the operators have refused to seek medical attention and instead carry on with the tour.
Uyuni is a very desolate town in the middle of nowhere. all the buildings are drab, grey, and dirty. it’s a place where people pretty much just pass through in order to sign up for a tour. the only interesting part of town is an outdoor market made up of small stalls set up in the middle of town. Here old bolivian ladies sell clothing, fruits, pots and pans, and anything else you might need. we desperately needed to buy some warm clothes since we were told it would be ridiculously cold on the tour. after shopping for clothes and shopping for a tour agency, we finally settled on one called Esmeralda tours. they told us to come back the following day at 9am to pay for our tour and pick up our sleeping bags, and then the tour would start around 11:30.
there was no atm in town, so i had to do a credit card cash advance at the bank in the morning to pay for our tour. of course the bank’s connection was closed, so during the next half hour i frantically tried a few more places till i was finally able to get cash. arriving at the tour office our sleeping bags weren’t there. we sat and waited. and waited. and then waited. time was running out. we only had an hour and a half to buy more clothes, pack our stuff, and eat breakfast. finally, the sleeping bags arrived. we rushed out to go buy clothes, but for some reason, the outdoor market had vanished. uh-oh. if we didn’t find some warm jackets, we would be completely screwed. luckily, we found a store, and bought big puffy jackets for only 10 bucks each. we then rushed to get some food as fast as we could, and breathlessly ran up to the tour agency. of course, the jeep wasn’t there yet. nor were any of the other tourists.
after waiting a while, the rest of the people arrived. the whole thing was a complete mess. we were supposed to go with an australian and two belgians, but our group ended up being made up of completely different people. one of the people in our group had been told that the tour started at *9am* and had been waiting for 3 hours now. no one else in our group had been told that water wouldn’t be provided so no one brought any. actually, one guy was specifically told that water *would* be provided. most of the people hadn’t been warned that it would be cold where we were going, so some of them didn’t bring sleeping bags. nice.
finally, we set out. the jeep was kinda small and a bit cramped, but ok. our first stop was small village that gathered salt from the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats). there they sold all sorts of random little souvenirs made out of salt: candle holders, statues, and even salt shakers. then, we finally dove out on the Salar itself. the salt flats are huge, about 12,000 square kilometers in size. driving through them, you look out and just see white in all directions. not just white, but blindingly white since the sun is reflected off the salt. it is truly an utterly bizarre landscape.
after driving through the white for a while, we stopped the car to walk around on the salt for a while. it almost felt like walking on hardened snow, and the salt made a soft crunching under my feet. When the rainy season starts, this whole area is covered by water, and now there are still some small wet puddles scattered throughout the salt. the harvest the salt, they put it into these small piles so the water soaks out of it. we all ran around snapping pictures like crazy. unfortunately, the color in the photos didn’t turn out too good because it was just so blindingly bright out there.
after a while, we got back in the car and drove on. nothing but white everywhere. there was a faint outline of tire tracks that the driver followed, but other than that there was nothing but white salt and blue sky. eventually, we came to our next stop, a hotel that was made entirely out of salt except for the roof. on the way there i was really excited about seeing it (wow, a whole *building* made of salt?!), but really it wasn’t all that impressive. walking around a bit, we found this crazy hole in the salt filled with water. looking into it, it was so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. why was there this super deep hole in the salt? we never found out since our guide not only didn’t speak english, but usually didn’t even volunteer any information in spanish either. really, he wasn’t a guide at all, just a driver.
when looking at the car, one of us notice that the gas tank on it’s roof, was slowly leaking and there was gas slowly pouring over the car. yikes! the driver rearranged the gas tank so it wouldn’t leak anymore, but the fact t that we were driving around in a jeep covered in gasoline with huge tanks of gasoline on our roof was a bit sketchy.
in our group, other than us, we had 5 people: two older guys (swiss and italian) who we didn’t talk to all that much, two guys a little younger than us who we got along with really well and had lots of fun with (mark from chicago and andrew from calgary), and a german named Tomas. it was about this point in the trip, that i began to realize that Tomas was a bit weird. ok, maybe saying he was a bit weird is an understatement. i was wearing my USSR shirt, and he came up to me and started animatedly talking super fast about how he is so sad that the soviet union fell, and then somehow changed topics of conversation 5 or 6 times to things that really made no sense. all of a sudden he was going on and on about german trucks “yes, it is the color grey! the same grey as the german trucks! you know this color yes? you have seen it, yes?!”. ummmm. what the hell? i did my best to get away from him.
the next stop was the isle of fish. it’s this large chunk of land jutting out of the salt flats. it’s actually quite a bizarre sight, since there is nothing but salt in any directions and then all of a sudden there is this large land mass with tons of cacti on it out in the middle of nowhere. the cacti out here were enormous, some of them up to 10 meters tall meaning that they were about one thousand years old! we hiked around a bit on the “island” and then we got fed lunch which was llama steak. who knew i’d be eating llama all the time now?
it soon became apparent that Tomas was more than just weird. he was absolutely nuts. he walked around talking to himself loudly in german all the time. he would pant like crazy all the time. he often would frantically look back over his shoulder as if he had seen something that wasn’t there. when talking to us, he would switch from english to german and then to spanish and back half a dozen times. he would just all of a sudden grab his head and pull his hair back as if he was freaking out. at one point he was complaining that it was extremely hot. when we said maybe he should take of his huge jacket, he just got all weirded out, and jumped up and walked away and sat down elsewhere. oh, and Tomas had a phobia of Chile, the country. everything he ate, he would scrutinize the package to make sure that it was not made in Chile. “chile is my enemy” he told us.
it’s really hard for me to explain just how crazy he was. this wasn’t just an eccentric or odd person. there was definitely something wrong with him. either he was literally insane, or there was something else. caryn and i started to really worry about Tomas. one of the possible effects of altitude is swelling of the brain, which causes a person to be disoriented and confused, and then eventually kills them. what if this was what was happening to Tomas? what if he really had a life threatening condition? we were really worried. the other people in the car just thought he was nuts and didn’t really care. what to do? we partially thought that maybe the driver should take him back. but that would ruin everyone else’s trip. plus, i’m sure Tomas wouldn’t have agreed… whenever we asked is he was ok, he would just get all weird, and not really answer us. so the only thing to do was to keep going. but it kept nagging us in the back of our heads.. what if the fact that we did nothing ended up killing this guy? ugh. what to do?!
we drove on through the salt. at one point, we stopped at this area where the salt was all cracked from having expanded. it made really interesting patterns in the salt. we started picking up huge slabs of salt and throwing them around at each other. i even got a video of andrew and i running at each other with huge slabs of salt and shattering them against each other.
eventually, we stopped at a tiny village called San Juan for the night. this village was so small, that it had hardly anything there. just a few scattered adobe houses and wandering sheep. i couldn’t help but wonder, why the hell people would ever live here? what do they do in their spare time? i mean, there was literally nothing here.. even Uyuni which was drab and ugly had much more to offer. if you lived here, wouldn’t you just leave?! well, i guess people do just leave… in fact, that’s a huge problem. tons of these small little villages are totally dying out because the children grown up and want to move to the big cities. a whole way of life is disappearing, and at the same time, the cities are getting overloaded with people who don’t know how to adjust to city life.
the 4 of us bought a bottle of rum and a bottle of coke from them only tiny shop that we could find, and walked to a few yards to the outskirts of the village to watch the sunset. it was cool to just hang out and shoot the shit, everyone telling random stories. Mark especially was totally hilarious and had a million funny stories to tell. Eventually, it got way too cold to be outdoors, and we headed back inside.
dinner was really good. there was tasty soup and this stuff called pique macho which is a mix of meats vegetables and sauce piled on top of french fries. it turned out that mark carries tabasco sauce with him when he travels, so we were able to make our food spicy. it’s funny, i’ve always joked about how i should bring hot sauce with me everywhere i go to add a kick to non-spicy foods, and i was surprised to find out that someone would actually do it.
during dinner, Tomas got really nuts. he would repeat bits and pieces of other peoples conversations and then mutter to himself. for instance, someone would say “i drove the red car when i was there” and he’d all of a sudden start muttering “red car! red car! red car!” and then switch to german. it was really freaky. eventually, caryn couldn’t handle it and had to leave the table. soon, all 4 of us were sitting in our room talking about Tomas. Mark and Andrew actually asked to switch to another room so they wouldn’t have to sleep in the same rom as him. they were afraid that he might go completely mad in the middle of the night and attack them. or that they might wake up in the middle of the night to a naked Tomas running around the room. yikes.
the thing is, there were just so many possibilities with him. maybe he was dangerous and crazy? maybe he was just harmless and confused? maybe he had a mental problem and wasn’t taking his pills? maybe he really had altitude sickness and could possibly die? none of us knew what his deal was, but he was really freaking us out. the whole time while we sat there, we could see Tomas pacing back and forth, back and forth in the kitchen alone. he continued to pace for almost an hour.
so here we were, on halloween night, in a village in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with dogs howling outside in the distance, and we are trapped inside a building with a deranged madman. it was literally like the scene of a bad horror movie. in the end, we all worked ourselves up into such a state, that we were afraid to walk down the dark hallways to the bathroom alone. the 4 of us creeped along the hall together with our flashlights. any little noise outside would freak us all out. mark and andrew even jokingly got their knives ready just in case.
eventually we all went to bed. caryn and i had a hell of a time getting any sleep. first off people kept waking up and going to the bathroom over and over waking us up. also, we heard the sounds of possible vomiting in the bathroom followed by Tomas’ distinct nose blowing sound. plus, often times it’s tough to fall asleep at high altitude. and, it was crazy cold. even under hella blankets.
we were woken up at 6:30 in the morning. so tired! we staggered out of bed and had breakfast which consisted of stale bread with jam and tea/coffee. walking into the bathroom, i saw Tomas maniacally shaving with an electric razor, his face just inches from the mirror. at this point i decided for myself that it couldn’t be altitude sickness, the guy was just a freak.
today’s itinerary would take us to 4 or 5 small soda lakes with lots of flamingos. when we got to the first lake, mark and andrew took of running towards it. next thing we know, mark has somehow turned horizontal and has crashed down on the path in a cloud of dust. he ended up tearing the crap out of his hand and hip. of course, our driver didn’t even have a band-aid.
the soda lake was really cool. it was surrounded by a huge ring of white crust, and the lake would vary in different colors depending on the concentrations of chemicals in it. when we got close to the lake, we could see that there were lots of flamingos everywhere. the flamingos walked around and made high pitched whirring sounds. every once in a while you would see one start running and then take off and fly a bit.
after the first soda lake, we went to a few more. we saw TONS of flamingos. i had been really bummed that i hadn’t gotten a chance to see lake Nakuru in kenya where there are lots of flamingos, but now it doesn’t really matter. while we were sitting by on of the lakes, and caryn was helping mark bandage his hand, some people from another tour group came over to us and asked us about Tomas. they had seen him pacing back and forth and acting really erratic earlier. they were worried that maybe he needed help. maybe he needed medical attention? we told them that it was pretty much out of our hands. Tomas didn’t really answer any of our questions, and we really had no control. it was crazy just how much of an effect this one person was having on our trip. even people from other tour groups were being freaked out by him!
after all the soda lakes, we kept driving, continuing to slowly work our way higher and higher in altitude. by the end of the day we will have reached 4,200 meters… really high. the landscape, which was already dry, became even more sparse. the only things growing around here were these tiny little shrubs that often grew in circular patterns on the hills. there were pretty much no animals anywhere to be seen except for small herds of llamas and vicunas (smaller relatives of the llama). the color of the land was also very peculiar. we would see mountains where they would have 3 or 4 different varying colors on them varying from dark to light browns and yellows.
eventually we pulled up near this large rock structure in the middle of nowhere. everything was flat all around it, yet here was this huge thing with strange green and yellow mosses growing on it. it turned out that there were lots of vizchanas living on this rock. a vizchana is this little rodent-like thing which is kind of halfway between a chinchilla and a rabbit. they can grow to be quite large and are super fast with their huge rabbitesque feet. we saw one perched on top of the rock, and later i found a smaller one hiding in a crevice.
after driving for a bit, we came to another area that had weird rock formations. the most famous of these is the “rock tree” which is a rock shaped like a tree. how did this rock get there? what made it shaped liked that? our driver provided no clues…
we continued to drive on. at one point caryn told Mark that his hair looked like it was starting to form dreads. when he reached up to feel his hair, all of a sudden Tomas totally freaked out, grabbed his own hair and made this crazy sound like a wounded dog might make. a totally bizarre whine that didn’t even sound human and his eyes looked like he was all of a sudden totally terrified of something. then he just stopped. the rest of us looked at each other and shook our heads.
our final destination for this day was laguna coloroda, a huge lake filled with red water and tons of borax. we stopped and unloaded our stuff at the “hostel” we would be staying at. the hostel was pretty basic and the toilets smelled like death. well, at least it was in a scenic area. after taking some photos of llamas walking around, we headed out to the lake.
Laguna coloroda is a huge soda lake, and it’s really amazing just how red the water looks. the lake is surrounded by this weird grayish whiteish muck on all sides. most people who come here on a tour climb up to the viewpoint to get a good look at the lake from above, but the 4 of us, being idiots, decided to see how close we could get to the lake. the problem wa that the grayish muck was only solid in certain spots, and more mushy in others. we walked along, hopping from solid spot to solid spot, but as we got closer and closer to the lake, there were less and less solid spots. the consistency of the soft spots was really weird… almost rubbery, so you would feel the ground beneath you kind of bend downwards, but if you moved fairly quickly, you could hop away before the rubbery part snapped. so, we went on like this, jumping from place to place until we came to this river type thing.
the ground bends under your feet pretty far
river through the muck
flamingo print in the muck
we all took flying leaps across the river, and pretty soon, we knew we were screwed. the ground here was even less solid. every few steps the “rubber” beneath our feet would beak and our shoes would sink into the grime. it was absolutely disgusting. yet we were determined, so we kept trying to keep going, jumping all over the place, and progressively getting more and more dirty. finally, we realized it was a lost cause. we could go no further. everything around us was pure sludge. crap! we finally turned back, and trudges back through the sludge back to the hostel in our filthy shoes. all in all, it was actually really fun and pretty damn hysterical. my poor shoes though!!
Mark shows off his shoe
my shoe… disgusting!
we headed back inside and it was hella cold by then. we were at a super high altitude, so as it got darker, the temperature dropped like crazy. we all sat there and tried to keep warm waiting for our dinner to be made. as usual, Tomas was acting crazy. he went on a long rant about the carpentry work of the hostel door. later on, he was writing in his journal, and then just started laughing hysterically for like 3 minutes straight until he finally got up and started pacing back and forth. we finally got our food, and everyone scarfed it down. it tasted good, but really we wanted it mostly cause it was warm. during dinner, Tomas all of a sudden got up, went to the next room, and started yelling at the top of his lungs about how he was so angry about the state of the hostel, and went on to complain about all sorts of other things. the people in the other room, who hadn’t interacted with him yet, had no idea why this weird guy would burst in and start yelling. they told him to please go away and leave them alone.
we kind of felt bad for the guy. i cant even imagine going through life like that. being a complete weirdo, and having everyone around you not wanting to have anything to do with you. we wanted to help the poor guy out… but really, there was nothing we could do. and also, despite feeling sorry for him, he was just so annoying to be around. later on, our driver came in to tell us the plan for the next day, and Tomas started animatedly asking him a billion questions. we just had to leave the room. as we walked out, we saw that everyone in the other tour group was completely silent, trying to overhear what the hell Tomas was talking about. as we passed them, they asked us if we’ve had to deal with this the whole time on our trip, and felt bad for us when we said yes.
that night, caryn had a hell f a time sleeping. she really doesn’t do well with altitude, and we were really high up. to give you an idea, we were at about 4,200 meters… the very top of sierra-at-tahoe is only 2,700 meters. yeah, we were ridiculously high. plus it was hella cold. i think caryn got practically no sleep that night.
we had a lot of ground to cover today so we were woken up at 4:45. it was still dark and no one wanted to get up. we did so anyways, and we all piled into the freezing cold car and put a sleeping bag across our laps to stay warm. the first stop of the day were some geysers. this would be the highest altitude we would hit. a whopping 4,800 meters. the terrain on the way to the geysers was bizarre. on one hand, we were pretty much driving through desert. but, since were so high up, there were snowy peaks right next to us. so bizarre. at one point, we saw these totally strange ice formations. it was this small field… in the middle of nothing ness, where there were tons of small sheets of ice that all stood up vertically. why was there ice just in this little area and nowhere lese? why were the chunks of ice all standing up vertically? so strange. other than Tomas, this was probably the weirdest thing i’ve seen in a long time.
the geysers were pretty cool. there were lots of them, and they were all different. some were just big pools of mud that bubbled and gurgled. others were large liquidy pools emitting steam everywhere. the geysers were loud too, hissing all over. walking around there kind of felt like being in another world (seems like so many things on this tour are otherworldly).. just lots of weird molten and semi-molten ground emitting all sorts of weird gases into the air. in true bolivian style, there were no safety precautions here. back in the US, there would probably be guard rails, or at least something or other keeping you back from the geysers. not here. you could walk right up to them and between them. at one point, i was walking across a very narrow ridge between two gurgling pools, and not realizing how slippery the ground would be, my foot hit the mud and slid sideways, right to the brink… but luckily didn’t fall off the edge. i don’t know what would have happened if i fell into a steaming geyser… nothing good i imagine.
we then drove on. we stopped at some thermal springs for breakfast. the water in some parts was quite warm and we had the option of going in, but all of us decided not to… changing clothes in the freezing cold didn’t sound appealing. we walked around for a bit, and it turned out that in a lot of places, where the water was shallow, it had frozen over. we all started running out onto the ice and sliding around. it was also fun to find spots where the ice was a bit fragile, so with every step you took, the ice would crackle and send cracks outward from your foot. of course, you had to be careful… sometimes the ice was too fragile and your foot would fall through. once again.. such a weird place. here we were walking on *ice* in the freezing cold on a body of water that was *frozen* over in some parts, yet *steaming* in others at the same time… and this bizarre body of water had flamingos walking in it as well.
breakfast consisted of stale bread and coffee. not very exciting. what was exciting was that our driver noticed a gas leak in the rubber hose attached to the stove’s propane tank. normally, this would be a bit of a worry. but our driver just tore up a plastic trash bag, tied it around the hole, and kept cooking. i kept waiting for the whole thing to blow up in a huge fireball, but nothing happened.
soon it was time for our last stop, Laguna Verde (the green lake). we stopped there briefly to take some more snapshots, and then hopped back into the jeep. Mark and Andrew were going to Chile, so the plan was to drop them off at the border which was only a few miles away. so the driver announced that we were heading to Chile… and Tomas went fucking nuts.
you might remember that i mentioned earlier that Tomas said that Chile was “his enemy”. i mean, the guy is so freaked out of Chile, that he turned over each plate and bowl he ate from to see whether it might be “made in chile”. he inspected every package of food to see where it was made from as well. basically, he had some REALLY severe issues about Chile. he started totally screaming and yelling and spinning around wildly in his seat, while everyone tried to reassure him that we were *not* actually going into chile.. just to the border. for the next 25 minutes, Tomas talked to himself super fast in german while wildly staring from side to side. he was absolutely petrified that at any moment, we’d be in Chile.
at the border, we dropped off mark and andrew, said our goodbyes, and then headed back. the rest of the day would be a neverending long drive back to Uyuni. a bit later, we ended up passing laguna coloroda again. WOW. i had never actually really seen the lake from a good angle. when we were right next to it the other day, i could only see a thin stripe of red, since i wasn’t looking down on the lake from above. but from this angle, the lake was one of the most incredible things i’ve ever seen. the water was this crazy shimmery color of red that faded to greens and blues in different sections. it was just so beautiful. the lake also reflected the mountain that was behind it, and there were tons of flamingos walking around on the lake, creating their own tiny little flamingo reflections. all of us just couldn’t stop taking photo after photo of this incredible sight. how often do you see a shimmering red lake!?
after the lake, we continued heading back. it was still another 6 hours to get back to Uyuni, and we were all exhausted. not only was i dead tired, but i was totally filthy from the dust constantly flying into the car, and hot as well. i desperately wanted to get home. meanwhile, caryn was feeling like utter shite. like i said earlier, she doesn’t do well with altitude, and we had ascended a ridiculous amount that day. high altitude makes it difficult to breathe. top that off with huge mouthfuls of dust, and two days worth of lack of sleep, and caryn was really really not doing well. But there was nothing to be done, but to endure the next 5 hours of bumpy driving. *sigh*. it wasn’t till around 7pm when we had reached Uyuni and she started to feel better.
so that’s it. wow, i think this just might be my longest post yet?! heh, i just cant say enough good things about the trip though. absolutely fantastic. it’s just insane how many diverse bizarre things we saw.. bizarre things that you can hardly find anywhere else on the planet, yet here they all were… all next to each other. ginormous areas where the ground is all made up of salt, lakes varying from red to green, tons of flamingoes, steaming geysers, and a landscape that was just unbelievable. all of this i just 2.5 days. the southwest corner of bolivia really is a world of its own.