Doug McLean World Tour 1999-2000
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October 5-9, 2000:
Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
Tuesday, October 17, 2000 in La Paz, Bolivia.
Heading out of La Paz today...going to Santa Cruz...then onwards quickly to Brazil...have to see Luciana in Recife on the 28th! But before that, I'm probably heading to Brasilia to spend the weekend with my good buddy Juliano!
Oct. 5, 2000 (Thur):
Woke early...went to the bus station in Sucre...hopped on my 7am bus with a group of 4 Welsh backpackers (Nigel, Emma, Simon, Kerryanne). They usually say they are English to avoid confusion by saying they are Welsh...but were mighty impressed that I knew how to toast and say ¨Cheers¨ in Welsh...Yakida (SP? ...thanks Emer!). We had a nice ride on the newly opened road Sucre to Potosi. We had to avoid lots of rocks in the road and the driver's helper even had to move some rocks so we could get by...but at least there was no one waiting to throw stones at us. We also had a flat tire...which actually provided a nice opportunity to get out, stretch the legs, and take a couple of pictures of the countryside. All in all, a much more enjoyable trip than my last bus ride.
Arrived in Potosi...then I was supposed to continue on to Uyuni. My new Welsh friends were going to spend a day or two in Potosi...then go on to Uyuni...so we parted company...sad but true that you meet and say goodbye to so many good people while on travels like this. To go to Uyuni, I had to change busses...where I met up with a tour group of 10 people (Germans, Irish, Dutch, and Americans) and 1 guide. The bus company informed us that they thought the road was blockaded between Potosi and Uyuni...but they would have a bus waiting for us on the other side...all we had to do was get our bags and walk through the blockade...uh oh...here we go again!
I ended up sitting next to the guide (who was Peruvian) for the bus-trip. It was nice...we talked Spanish (I even used some of my newly acquired words from my Spanish lessons) the whole way to Uyuni. We were pleased to discover that the road was open...no problems!
Arrived into Uyuni around 6pm...I checked into a hotel and then started to compare tour companies for the 4 day Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) trip. I had compared about 5 companies...when I ran into 2 girls (women...whatever!), Julia and Lisa. They were also talking to tour companies...and I suggested that we work together as a group to try to drive a bargain. They said they also had another guy with they, Uldes from Latvia. So the 4 of us worked on figuring out the best tour to take at the best price.
NOTE: Basically ALL the tours are the same in Uyuni...and run around 60-70 USD. This includes transportation, lodging, and food for 4 days. The main concern is quality of food and quality of the vehicle in these parts...a breakdown really puts you out in the middle of nowhere. Not included are sleeping bags ($5 rented) and hot showers on nights 1 and 3...which were 5 Bolivianos extra if you wanted them.
I had heard that Isla de Pescado was the main attraction...and one tour company had said that they would arrive there the 2nd morning for sunrise...which sounded interesting. We went back to that agency...but the young punk kid was gone playing video games before his office was supposed to be closed...really, no kidding. We talked to a lady in another adjacent tour company office...she seemed to want to work with us. Then, the owner walked in. He seemed to be a good guy...he said that there were some flaws in the other tour company's operation...pointed out what they were...and said he would work with us...and that's what he did...and that is why I now STRONGLY RECOMMEND
TONITO TOURS...an excellent company.
He offered to arrange for us to stay the night on Isla de Pescado (instead of the normal lodging in the small town of San Juan)...he said it would be a basic room and did not try to oversell the option. He also GUARANTEED his vehicle...he said if the vehicle had serious problems, he would refund a percentage of our money...and HE PUT IT IN WRITING. I felt comfortable with him and his business...so we agreed to go in his truck (which holds 6 people)...under the following conditions...which I think are good ideas for anyone traveling to do the Salar de Uyuni Tour:
1. Arrange to spend the 1st night on Isla de Pescada! ABSOLUTELY A MUST DO!
2. 2nd night's lodging at Laguna Colorado should be in the Park Headquarters...not the other bad hotel...insist on it.
3. 3rd day, enjoy the hot springs...the tour driver will tell you they are behind schedule...but if you arrive by 4pm into your town on the 3rd night...it's way too early. Enjoy the hot springs!
I felt that we were now in a good situation...we were paying $70 each for the trip (for this price, he also included sleeping bags for us)...but felt comfortable with the decision and the company (Tonito Tours). NOTE: I told the owner that if we had a bad tour I would tell absolutely every tourist I would meet (which is usually a lot) to NOT use his tour...but also that if I had a good experience I would also tell people. Again, for the record, we ended up having a GREAT TRIP and TONITO Tours ended up being an EXCELLENT company.
OK...so, after our long negotiations...we had a big pizza dinner...talked for awhile. I mentioned to them that I had worked for American Airlines and was traveling in South America for awhile...Lisa (who is a flight attendant for United Airlines) laughed and said that she had heard about me! I questioned her and found out that she had met up with my new Welsh friends in Potosi before she came to Uyuni today. They said they had been on a bus with a guy who worked for AA and was going to Uyuni...small traveling world, eh?!!
Oct. 6, 2000 (Fri):
I woke early (like 5am for some reason) and went to visit the Train Cemetery. It is merely 2km outside of town...it was interesting to see all the old broken-down trains and cars. It is truly a parent's nightmare...lots of sharp, jagged, rusted objects laying around. Also, there is a military base in Uyuni and there was a training grounds near the Train Cemetery...it was interesting.
I headed back to town...bought supplies for the trip (read - Snickers bars, Pringles, and bottled water) and headed to the tour office to catch our truck. The tours almost always consist of a Toyota Landcruiser type vehicle which seats a total of 8 people...in our case, we had a driver, Jubenad and his wife who would be our cook Isabelle. I also met a couple of other travelers who would also be taking the tour with us...Laura and Guillermo. They had just arrived last night and joined the trip. They were great people...and a wonderful couple. Laura and Guillermo had lived together in Buenos Aires for the past 2 years...Laura is Argentinean...while Guillermo is El Salvadorian, but had moved to Australia 15 years ago...met Laura then moved to Argentina for a while...but now, they were taking this trip to Bolivia and Peru just before they both were going to head to Australia to continue their lives together...awwww...how romantic!
While at the tour office, the owner told us that the government was working out an end to the strikes and blockades...and that the country should be free of problems by Monday...with trains running and everything!!! We were excited...but I was a little jaded...and said I'd wait and see after our tour...it certainly wouldn't matter to us in the next 4 days. Lisa, Julia, and Uldis all figured the news would pan out...so they bought tickets on the bus to La Paz for the day of our return from the Salar.
Anyway, we all headed out...Lisa/New York, Julia/New York, Uldis/Riga, Latvia, Laura/Argentina, Guillermo/El Salvador-Australia-Argentina, and myself/Texas...quite the multicultural group!
The Uyuni Salt Flats are just about 30 minutes outside of Uyuni...and are stunning! It is like looking at an enormous lake...but it is all white, flat, salt! At the edge of the flats, we visited a salt manufacturing plant (if you can call it that)...it was a 1 room building that had a huge pile of coarse salt outside that was shoveled into a machine (with a small amount of Iodine for some reason) and was then ground into fine salt and sprayed against the wall. This of course fell into a big pile of fine salt on the not so clean floor...and the guys scooped the fine salt by hand into plastic bags which were sealed over an open flame. It was interesting...but the rusty shovels and the dirty floor makes me wonder if Morton Salt is made any different...I hope so. There was an awesome old truck that stood in stark contrast to the white salt-flat background...needless to say, like good tourists, we started taking lots of pictures.
Next, we went out to where they were ¨Mining¨ the salt...which basically consists of shoveling the flat salt into piles...then into trucks. The large number of salt piles were very interesting...and again...with everything around being white...it is quite an amazing landscape.
Then we continued onwards to the Salt Hotels. They are buildings that are operational hotels that are in the middle of the Salt flats...and are completely constructed of Salt Blocks. The walls, the tables, the chairs, the beds...everything is SALT!!! It is really incredible...would be an awesome place to stay...and only $20USD per night per room...cheap for the USA but expensive for Bolivia...but probably worth it.
We drove for another hour onwards into the salt...endlessly into the salt. Without visible landmarks, save for some other vehicle tracks, our driver just seemed to know exactly where to go. We saw that the salt formed amazing designs on the flat...with parts of it raised up about an inch to form pentagonal designs (usually they had 5 sides)...really cool.
We saw Isla de Pescado in the distance...and figured we'd be there in a few minutes...we were wrong. Distances are very deceiving in the salt flats...once we saw the island...it took us probably 45 minutes to get to it...and we were going very fast on the salt flats in the truck...nothing to hit!
When we finally arrived...we were amazed at the beauty of the island. It is a volcanic island of rocks that emerges above the salt in a dramatic way. Adding to the effect are the tall, vertical cactus plants that cover the island. AMAZING!
We arrived at the Island about 1pm...and other tour groups were finishing with their lunches. Then, ...THEY LEFT. It was great...we knew we were spending the night here...so we had the rest of the day to enjoy the salt flats, the amazing island, and each other. We had a great lunch prepared by Isabelle...and then saw our room! Now, I must admit, I had told everyone to expect BASIC accommodation...cold, without showers, probably horrible, and bathrooms that consisted of hiding behind cactuses...not true. We were all PLEASANTLY SURPRISED when we were shown a lovely room that had a huge window looking out on the salt flats...it was great...and we even had a bathroom...
NOTE: We were surprised because we had low expectations. I want to take a moment to point out that in many cases...people end up happier if they have lowered expectations which are able to be met...than trying to go through life expecting the world on a silver platter...people do it both ways...but I'd prefer to be pleasantly surprised more often than not.
We got used to our new surroundings...and watched the Island spring to life around us. We noticed a couple of small, cute animals that were nearby...they are called Vacate...and look like a cross between a jack-rabbit and a squirrel...really cute creatures. We also were amazed to see the appearance of a baby eagle. This was apparently the pet of the man and his family who were living on the island. The eagle was just a baby...but the size of a large chicken...amazing! We had the opportunity to feed him and have him rest on our arms...or in Lisa's case, on her head!
Talking to our host on the island...we were pleased to learn that he and his family had lived there for 13 years. And, what's more, HE OWNED IT! YES, in Bolivia...if you squat somewhere for more than 2 years, you own it...so this tourist attraction and amazing location was literally owned by this humble gentleman. He also was very happy to have us stay in his lodging (he provided us with mattresses and blankets)...because most tour operators DO NOT SELL this option...it is easier for them to put the tourists in the many hotels in San Juan (2 hours beyond the Island...and outside the Salt Flats...a truly inferior option as we would later learn!). We commenced to wander around the Island...which we had completely to ourselves...as all the other tour groups had left and were going to their Less-than-impressive lodgings in San Juan. He told us that there were about 120 Vizcachas on the island...and one wildcat. He had introduced the wildcat to keep the Vacate numbers in check...but did not want another wildcat on the island for fear that they would mate and destroy the balance...smile...he was managing the delicate ecological balance of his little island. He said he had lived on another of the volcanic islands in the Salt Flats...but it had mice and rats...so he moved to this island, which had none. With the Salt flats completely desolate of any kind of life (except for these islands)...he could control his island because nothing crossed the flats to add species to his island.
This island is truly a postcard...and none of us could help taking massive numbers of pictures. We all had that giddy feeling of having made an incredibly good decision in staying on the Island...and it returned spectacular results to us. The shadows played off the landscape and the cactus as the sun went down...and we were all treated to a wonderful sunset as we watched many of the Vizcachas hop around the island...wow.
Then we retired to our room for dinner. Isabelle outdid herself and served us a scrumptious meal. Someone lit some candles...and we dined on a wonderful soup, chicken cooked over an open fire and the fixings, and of course...SALT!!! We truly felt like we were in heaven...or at least allowed to glimpse a part of it...the island, the dinner, the solitude made us all feel in awe of our location and our good fortune to be here.
It was cold outside...but not unbearable...so I suggested that we all go out and lay down on the salt flat and look at the stars and the half moon. It was a brilliantly clear night and the stars and the moon illuminated the abundance of white salt with an eerie glow. We had taken blankets out and we all laid down, heads together, and looked up in wonder. We ended up telling funny stories, I sang Rawhide and tried to teach them the words, Laura and Guillermo showed us a couple of tango moves, I tried to show them how to Texas Two-Step, Uldis showed us a Latvian Dance, and we all had an amazing evening. One of the cutest moments was that Uldis had made friends with the local young puppy...and the dog followed all of us out onto the flats. Uldis loves animals...and played with the dog continuously...until the dog fell asleep in his arms...guess you had to be there...
We all walked in the moonlight in different directions...just enjoying the salt. Even finding that it changed textures in various places...and crunched differently under our feet. We watched some vehicle lights in the distance as they approached...like a very foreign object...finally the truck arrived (after we watched it for over half an hour)...and then continued onwards...across the expanse of salt...headed towards Uyuni. We all retired into the room...crawled into our sleeping bags...and peered out the huge window at the glowing salt flats until we all drifted off to sleep.
It was truly one of the greatest days of my entire trip...I can't say enough about this day...very special...
Oct. 7, 2000 (Sat):
Woke early...about 5am...and sadly left the island by around 6am...just as the sun was coming up. The other tour groups would be rising later and having breakfast in San Juan later...and leaving by 8am...so we were getting up early to catch-up with them...and to get back ¨On Schedule¨. It took us 2 hours to drive out of the Salt Flats...which is supposed to be 10,000 Square Kilometers in size...Guillermo informed us that this is half the size of El Salvador...lots of salt!
We drove on and talked to our driver...who we had come to realize was very, very competent. He was VERY proud of him tour company and told us the following. Tonito Tours only hires guides/drivers who are over 40 years old (so much for age discrimination)...because often the younger drivers on other tours drink too much and give bad tours. The drivers for Tonito are paid year around whether they do 6 tours a month or 1...and are not allowed to drink while on tour. Also, many other tours have the driver do the cooking...thus freeing up 1 more seat in the vehicle for a passenger...Tonito always has a driver and a cook...and the driver is required to be a mechanic...because auto problems occur out here...and AAA is Far, Far away. We felt much better about our choice of companies...and with our trip.
The 2nd day of the trip was a LOT of driving. We got out of the salt flats and onto rockier, mountainous terrain. We passed the famous Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Rock)...which is a fascinating rock that had been tortured by the wind, rain, and sand and conformed into a tall, graceful rock that is small at the bottom and flares out at the top...looking something like a tree. We drove within view of volcanoes and onwards to some lakes. The lakes are famous for having 3 different kinds of flamingoes. It was lovely...literally hundreds, maybe thousands of PINK flamingoes with an amazing mountainous background...very nice.
We finally got to Laguna Colorado (Red Lake) which is just inside a Bolivian National Park called...Reserva National Eduardo Avaroa...which is very high up in the mountains...about 4600 Meters...very cold...but beautiful. We walked around part of the lake...which also had some flamingoes...and some amazing white-chalk like formations...they looked like icebergs but weren't. I ended up walking on them by myself and watched the sunset...it was nice.
Then...back at the hotel...which was the official hotel of the Park (nicer than the other one...where all the other tours were staying)...we had another great dinner. We sat around and talked...and Uldis broke out his bottle of Latvian alcohol...I of course don't drink...but it was enjoyed by the others...even a small sip that we insisted that our fine upstanding driver and his wife have as well. We ended up talking until late...learning more about each other. Laura and Guillermo had a very romantic tale about how they got to know each other, I told everyone my pathetic tale about how Luciana seduced me at Fun House in Recife, Brazil and ruined my entire trip and my plans to visit Asia (smile...wink...), Uldis told us about Riga (Capital of Latvia) and his work as a Conservator of Paper and Historical Documents, Lisa told a little about being a flight attendant with Pan Am in it's last year (before she went to sleep early...guess she'd had enough Latvian spirits!), and Julia told an amazing story about how she and her Russian husband had hitchhiked from Germany to Israel!
It was another very good night. We all snuggled into our beds and went to sleep...with a very hard, cold wind blowing outside.
Oct. 8, 2000 (Sun):
We were supposed to wake at 4:30am and get going by 5:00...that didn't happen. We woke late around 5:10am...and got out by about 5:40am. This resulted in us not seeing the sunrise at the geysers/mudpots which were called Sol de Manana Geysers (Morning Sun Geysers)...but we weren't really that disappointed...the delay meant that we were once again behind the other tours...generally seeing things without them around. The mud pots were very interesting...amazing algae colors around them trying to survive in the harsh environment. We were able to walk around anywhere we wanted...literally next to the things...it was great. The driver told us that this pass was the highest part of the trip (although we could see mountains towering above us in all directions) and the pass` altitude was 4850 meters...that's 15,912 feet. Some of you may remember that I climbed the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney, in 1999 with my friend John Growbleski...and it is only 14,495 feet (4,419 Meters)! This is why Bolivia is called ¨The Tibet of South America¨. Although...just to bring it into perspective...this height is only about half the height of Mt. Everest!
Then we continued onwards to the hot springs. It was really just a little flow of hot water that was next to a lake...they had dammed it up so it was a small pool about 1 to 2 feet deep. The other tours were there before us...and they were wading in it with just their feet. We arrived...did the same...but when the other tour groups started to get out to go to their trucks for breakfast...we had it all to ourselves! I needed little encouragement (which was provided by Julia and Lisa) to strip down to my skivvies and fully relax in the hot waters...ahhhhh. Well, once the proverbial ice was broken...the rest of my group all stripped down (the guys to underwear...the girls to their bathing suits...darn it!)...and we all relaxed in the water. Isabelle had breakfast made...and we ate our breakfast in the luxury of the hot pool while our jealous fellow travelers ate by their trucks and looked on in bemused jealousy. They all left before us...but we were having such a good time that we decided to stay for awhile...and run the risk of missing the color change at Laguna Verde. It was a splendid morning...and another great moment on the trip.
We finally got out...dried off a little and headed out towards Laguna Verde (Green Lake). At one point we had to get out and walk as our driver 4-wheeled around an old road block that had not been removed. We passed the Piedras de Dali (Rocks of Salvador Dali)...which were neat to see. If you've seen Dali's famous melting watches out in the desert...the large but spread out rocks in the background are here in Bolivia. They are on a hillside...probably 15-20 huge rocks that are all somehow placed a good distance apart from each other...like they were dropped there out of the sky.
We arrived at Laguna Verde after the appointed time...and it was truly Green. The appointed time is sometime around 10am when the lake goes from being brown in the morning to when it changes to a brilliant green due to temperature, wind, ...who knows! Anyway, we missed the color change...due to our leisurely time in the hot springs...cést la vie. NOW, here is a Doug Philosophy...NEVER LEAVE A GOOD PARTY TRYING TO GO TO ANOTHER PARTY HOPING IT WILL BE BETTER...IF YOU ARE ENJOYING YOURSELF, ENJOY YOURSELF AND FORGET ABOUT TRYING TO GO SOMEWHERE ELSE...YOU'LL ALMOST ALWAYS BE DISAPPOINTED. We had a great time in the Aguas Termales (hot waters) and had few regrets about Laguna Colorado. The lake did have a huge mountain on the other side that reflected beautifully in the still waters. We were told that half of that mountain was in Chile...we were in the deep, South-Western part of Bolivia on the border with Chile...which we could see from where we stood.
We drove back...along the same road that passed the Piedras de Dali and the hot springs again. Smile...this time...one of the other tours had stopped and they had jumped in...some naked...smile...good for them! Anyway, we continued back...then took the road on the other side of Laguna Colorado to the Park Exit...which is where we stopped for lunch. I believe it was Lisa...maybe Laura...who walked over the hill to a small valley to go utilize ¨the facilities¨...and discovered a beautiful little wonder.
They returned and reported that there was a very small little valley that had been cut by a small creek...probably 50 meters wide...and 15-20 meters deep...but it was absolutely beautiful. The creek meandered in the little valley, leaving large tufts of beautiful green turf...and what was more was that a group of llamas were grazing down there. It was a majestic setting and we all went there and just watched the amazing llamas in this beautiful natural enclosure. We went to sit on the luxurious green turf and got a painful surprise...the ¨grass¨ was actually little spiky plants...smile. I guess they had developed this natural defense to avoid being eaten to death by the llamas...but it was beautiful. The llamas were eating the grass-spines on the water level where they seemed to be softer and more palatable...it was an amazing thing...we were fascinated. But, alas, we eventually had to leave.
We continued driving...and arrived in La Valle de Piedras (Valley of Rocks). With many amazing rock formations...can't describe it...but it was neat. Also fed some Vizcachas...really cute animals. Like I said, they look like rabbits with long curled tails, but eat sitting up with their hands in a very dainty fashion like squirrels...and I hear they're very tasty! (smile) Speaking of tasty...we also saw lots of little doves flying around...there are a few of this kind in Texas and I've heard them called Rock Doves or Inca Doves...now I know why...they exist down here in the land of rocks and Incas.
We ended up driving into the little town that we would spend the night in around 4pm...too early. If you take this tour, I'd recommend that you spend more time in the hot springs or in the Valley of the Llamas...the town of Alota is nothing to write home about (although that's exactly what I'm doing). There was a small corral full of young llamas...very cute pictures. There was a nice sunset in Alota...about the only redeeming characteristic. We spent the night in a non-noteworthy hotel but all took much needed showers (for 5 bolivianos each of course). Dinner was again very good...Isabelle is golden!
Oct. 9, 2000 (Mon):
Drove out of Alota...drove through new mining town that had been moved by US company due to the minerals under their former homes...enjoying a new more prosperous life now...the US company was building a very modern community for them...nice houses, schools, actual road signs, and built a huge new church for them. It is funny, the children said they were happy with the new houses and schools...but they said that all of their houses lacked furniture due to never having much before.
Continued onwards towards Uyuni...we stopped just outside the city and visited the Train cemetery...then got back to Uyuni...which now looked like a metropolis in comparison to what we have seen recently. Arriving back at the office...I thanked the owner of Tonito Tours...they had delivered what they promised and more! For others who may want to go on the tour, here is their info:
Tonito Tours - Ph (0693) 2819 ph-fax (0693) 2094
We confirmed that the strikes were over now and that travel to La Paz was possible. Tried to buy a ticket for the bus to La Paz...but it was sold out. So I bought a train ticket to Oruro (which Guillermo and Laura were also doing)...Premier Executive Class...gotta have some luxuries in life for less than $9!!! But, the train was to leave at 1:30am tonight...so we all got a very cheap hotel room so we could shower and sleep for a few hours. We went to the bus stop to say goodbye to Lisa, Julia, and Uldis...and due to the madhouse were very pleased that we were taking the train!
Met another traveler...guy from Germany...and we gave him our tour recommendations...including Isla de Pescado and Tonito Tours...trying to pass on the good information to our fellow traveler. I would later learn that my Welsh friends from the Sucre-Potosi bus would learn about my recommendations through this guy...they followed the same path and stayed in Isla del Pescado...and had an awesome time! Small world sometimes.
Laura, Guillermo, and I returned to the hotel...showered and napped...then got up and headed to the train station (across the street). The train was there going to Oruro...we got in our seats...the attendant saw that there was lots of extra room in our Premier Executive Class compartment...and turned the seats in front of us around so they faced us...perfect for us to stretch out our legs and sleep! He gave us pillows and blankets...now, this was luxury! We slept like babies lulled to sleep by the gentle bumping and motion of the train...a perfect way to end a wonderful journey in the Salar de Uyuni!