- The town of Uyuni
- Myths and facts arout the creation of the salar
- An unforgettable sunrise
- Ancient cultures and customs
- Time for crazy pictures
- Anacronistic salt production
- A trapped country
- Bus ordeal in the desert
- Survived and back in civilization
Here the second part of my insane trip to Bolivia. The last time I left you with our arrival in Uyuni, after two days of stunning nature and freezing cold in the Altiplanos.
The town of Uyuni
As I wrote in the last News, Uyuni used to be quite a wealthy town back in the days when Bolivia still possessed the copper mines of the Atacama Desert. Nowadays, the industry shifted and 80% of the 25 000 inhabitants are working in the tourism industry. They even built an airport here (a house with a 200m landing strip) and many tourists come here to visit one of the world´s most incredible natural sites.
The town is located at 3600m and it gets very cold during the night. As our guide Carlos put it: when it gets warmer than 15 degrees he wants the winter back. The difference between Chile and Bolivia are apparent from the moment you set your food outside of the car: people are dressed in their traditional colorful clothes. Children are everywhere and the poverty is tangible. However, Uyuni is one of the wealthiest towns in Bolivia catering to all needs of exhausted travelers like us, I just didn’t have the money to get anything and limited my purchases to potable water.
Myths and facts about the creation of the salar
The Salar de Uyuni. I don’t even know where to start, maybe with some facts. It is 160x140km big, roughly the size of greater London. It is up to 140 metres deep, all pure white salt.
Concerning its creation there are two rivaling theories, so first the Aymara legend, or better the explanation that the inhabitants of this area found 2000 years ago to explain such a unique phenomenon: as I already said, volcanoes were considered holy by the Aymaras and the three major volcanoes surrounding the salar are named and the protagonists of the salar legend.
Tunupa (a 6000m volcano in the north of the salar) was pregnant by Cusco (at the east of the salar). Unfortunately, Tunupa lost he baby and after this Cusco left her with Cucina (also in the east and actually closer geographically to Cusco than Tunupa). Tunupa was so desolated after having lost her child and her husband that she started crying and filled up the entire valley with her tears. The tears dried and built the salar.
Now the actual geological theory: this whole area was once a great ocean. When the volcanoes erupted, the ashes created hills and mountains and the water receded. A big lake was left which dried up due to the heat of the volcanoes. Even today the salar is still growing (while losing its salt density) as every year in January heavy rain turns the salar into a shallow lagoon. The water dissolves the underlying salar and when it dries up it ads around 5cm per year to the existing surface.
An unforgettable sunrise
Carlos offered us two options to visit the salar. Either going there around 9 when the sun is already up (what most people do) or get up at 5, leave at 5.30 and drive there in the dark to see the sunrise. Needless to say, we went for the latter.
Because we were a bit late, Ramiro speeded even more than usually. It was freezing cold in the car and the only thing cheering us up was the 90s trance music Carlos put on. Since it was pitch black outside, you couldn’t really tell what he was driving on. At some point Ramiro just turned off the lights while driving at 120km/h. We were literally driving in the dark without seeing anything. This is the point when we realized that we were on the salar, as there is absolutely nothing which could possibly obstruct the car and the only thing ahead of us was 160km of completely flat salt.
We were heading for the middle of the salar, where a small island stands out of the infinite white. Carlos wanted to take us there before the sun rose and when we arrived it was just surreal: the island is a former underwater volcano. You can see all the corals that used to grew on it and they are perfectly preserved. Moreover, the Atacamensis Pasacuna cactus grows higher than in any other place here thanks to the mineral-rich lava soil. These beautiful cactuses grow 1cm per year and reach a height of up to 10m. Now do the math – exactly, they are up to 1000 years old and have seen the Aymara, Incas, Spanish and now us come and go. Incredible. Also the ones with different drunks are female, while the ones with just one straight trunk are males.
So we stood there on this surreal island and the sun rose from the horizon in the east. In these latitudes the sun rises and sets way quicker than in Europe and within 20 seconds the miracle was over: a dark ocean turned completely red and then whiter than any white I have ever seen. We just stood there and gazed at this wonder and did not bother about the -15 degrees which were turning our hands into ice cubes.
Ancient cultures and customs
After this incredible sun rise we made our way to the top of the island. As you can imagine, the salar did have religious importance for both the Aymara and the Incas. Carlos, amazing as always, took a lot of time to explain the meaning of this hill to us.
First, we visited an arch made of lava. This used to be the crater of the volcano and was used throughout the Aymara and Inca empires to predict the weather. They used to look at the moon through the arch and depending on where they saw it and how the wind was blowing, the priests would determine how the weather would be.
Then on top of the hill was the Pakhara, the stone table where until today the inhabitants of the Coya Suyu (land of fire) come to make sacrifices to the Pacha Mama (god of the earth) twice a year, in June and in August. The latter one is particularly important, as August is the month of the earth. Since the Aymara empire the custom has changed very little. The Spanish could not destroy it, because they did not even reach the middle of the salar. They were only keen on exploiting the mines of this country and as a result this ancient custom survived all the ages.
The locals come here and spread out a variety of donations for Pacha Mama. This includes different meats, herbs (especially the best coca leaves), nuts and different sorts of alcohol. Then they take a lama, blindfold it and make it drink. A kind of priest kills it and takes out the lama´s heart. Once he sees it he is able to tell exactly how the next year and especially the harvest will be. At the end of the ritual, everything, including the lama, is burned.
I find it very interesting that such an ancient, peculiar custom managed to survive until today and that despite all the efforts of the colonizers, Bolivia is still such a traditional country shaped by the Aymara culture with regards to their customs and by the Inca culture with regards to their language, as they all speak Cechua with each other, an Inca dialect.
Time for crazy pictures
Enough culture, time to have some fun! Every single person who has ever been to Uyuni will come home with a very special sort of picture: because this salt desert is so white while lacking the strong reflection of snow or ice, it creates a uniform white surface for cameras. This leads to a distortion of the perspective which can be used (and most definitely is used) by the tourists to shoot some unique pictures.
Carlos was just great. He really enjoyed spending time with us and lied on the salt for around 1.5 hours taking pictures in every single possible formation and with dozens of different objects. The pictures are just amazing, as it looks so artificial but it´s not!
At one point Ramiro took out a small bottle of liquor to make us “balance” on the lid. When I saw it I just couldn’t believe it: it was a Borussia Dortmund bottle, the rival team of the greatest club in Germany – FC Bayern Munich! He couldn’t tell me where he got it from but I had to take a picture to set things straight. I really believe that a Dortmund fan club once came here, as I saw a signed, huge Dortmund flag somewhere else around the salar. I will have to come back and hang up an even bigger Bayern Munich flag!
Anacronistic salt production
So what is the use of the salar? Back in the days cubes of salt were used as a currency in the area, a custom that was only abolished in the colonial times. Nowadays, salt is extracted and produced for cooking. Likewise to other sectors of the economy, this is also regulated by the state and only one small village with around 250 people is allowed to extract the salt.
Carlos knew some people and told us that we could visit not only the flats where they extract it, but also the “factories” where it is purified and packed. So we first went to the plains towards the border of the salar, where each family (around 15-20 members each) owns a territory of salt. For a westerner it was quite shocking to see how they worked: men of all ages, between 15 and 80, with a shovel in their hand lifting the salt from the ground into a truck, 12 hours a day, every day.
I asked Carlos why they do not try to automatize the process or at least use a machine to lift the salt into the truck. He explained that in the eyes of the people in Bolivia it is better to have 10 people working than 5, even if they can do the same amount of labor. I was not convinced at all and when we went to the family factories, where they boil the salt to get rid of all the remaining liquid, we were shocked by what we saw: little children have to work too and are in charge of packing the salt into 1kg plastic bags. He told us that they do this every day and when they have school they work afterwards.
At least one positive thing does exist, namely that the families sell the salt to a cooperative which then distributes most of it across the country and a bit to Peru. This means that they have a safe, steady income and can plan, however, when we calculated how much they earn we were speechless: a 15-20 member family which works all day every day earns around 1500 euros in total, so around 80 euros a month per person.
I mean I understand why the Bolivians are so afraid about any sort of foreign interference after having been exploited for hundreds of years. The problem is that the government does not have any money to provide them with machinery or any modernization. The result is that they have to engage in very hard labor, which starts in the childhood and ends with death. They digged a pit in the village, with a plastic bucket to lift water out of it. Carlos told us that they have to boil it several times and that this is the only potable water they have. Shocking. Bolivia has been the poorest country I have ever visited, poorer than Nepal or even Laos.
A trapped country
The day at the salar provoked many emotions in us. We saw nature at its best, learned about ancient Bolivian culture and witnessed the tragic situation of a country, which is so rich in resources (Bolivia has the biggest lithium reserves in the world, none of them have been used so far though), but simply lacks the infrastructure or means do use them. Evo Morales is a very admired man among the Bolivian people, and he does try to shift attention towards more sustainable investments. However, his anti-Western attitude will not necessarily help Bolivia get out of the bleak situation they are currently in.
Bus ordeal in the desert
All of my group headed on to other places in Bolivia or to Peru. Two of the other group (a woman from Argentina and a quite old Spanish guy) joined me to head back to San Pedro in Chile. The plan was to do half of the 9 hour trip the same day of the salar visit and the rest the next day to arrive early in San Pedro. So yeah, that was the plan.
Back in Uyuni they told us that the agency didn’t have any cars at the moment and offered us to take a 9 hour bus the next day and arrive slightly later in San Pedro. We didn’t really have a choice and went for it. So at 4 am we got up, into the freezing cold and hopped on the bus. Inside it was teeth shattering and I was simply hoping that the people would heat it up with their body heat.
As soon as we left Uyuni and got into the desert the bus stopped, apparently it didn’t have any anti-frost liquid in the diesel. How can a bus leave at 4am and -20 degrees without anti-frost? So we had to wait until the sun rose 4 hours later and until the heat of it would defrost the diesel. This meant 4 long hours in the bus with -20 degrees and this time, not even blankets. To illustrate just how cold it is: I spent 45 minutes thinking whether it was worth taking off my scarf to wrap it around my feet. Then the same decision with my gloves, which I put on the tip of my feet. I never felt so cold in my life, really. And in this freezing cold, a small child next to me offered me his blanket, although I bet he was freezing as well. We shared it and as so often in Bolivia, I was astonished by hot people who have nothing, share the nothing with me, who has everything.
At some point I realized that everyone was leaving the bus, into the dark, cold desert. I didn’t understand but was curious. Thinking that it couldn’t get any colder anyway I headed out and saw that some people had lit a fire with some bushes. That saved my life! I joined them and we stood around this very small, smoky fire for hours until the sun rose, taking turns in getting more bushes to keep it alive, which always meant exposing yourself to the bitter cold of the desert for a minute.
Five hours later another bus finally came and picked all of us up. We arrive at the border around noon and were the only people who had to get through immigration. Guess how long it took? Five hours! After this arduous immigration ordeal at 4000m we had to take another 2 buses with very long waiting times and arrived in San Pedro after 21 (instead of 9) hours on dirt tracks and freezing like we never did before.
Survived and back in civilization
I cannot describe the feeling of my first shower after 5 days. The first time I took of the clothes off that I had been wearing 24/7 for 4 days straight and which really stank. I am now heading back to Santiago where I will get all the comforts we are used to in the western world. These days in Bolivia have changed me, as travelling so often does. It was a constant physical and emotional rollercoaster and I have to admit that I am quite happy to be back and healthy. These are those days where you are simply not allowed to get ill or injured, you have to make it through, otherwise it can get nasty. Alongside with my extreme jungle trek experience in Laos, these were probably the roughest days of my life.
I would like to finish with the words of our guide and friend Carlos, said the morning after the most horrible night of my life: “if you want to see the most incredible natural sites of the world, you will have to pay, and sometimes you cannot pay with money.”
Hasta luego viejos