Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No, I didn't go to Antarctica

Pure salt. Not snow.
Salar de Uyuni is a massive salt flat in Southeast Bolivia. In fact, it is the largest salt flat in the world, at a whopping 12,603 square kilometers (4,000 plus square miles). And of course, it wouldn't be Bolivian unless I mentioned the altitude– the salt flat sits at 3653 meters. In Bolivia, everything is high. It is hard to believe that the salt flats were once underwater considering the high altitude, but it is the truth. 25,000-40,000 years ago this area was called Lake Minchin, but  it evaporated and voila– the salt flats! Actually, there were another couple lakes a few thousand years later and then they also evaporated and now we have the Salar de Uyuni leaving tons, literally tons, of salt deposits. An estimated 18,000-25,000 tons of salt is harvested every year– and the flats contain approximately 10 billion tons of salt! Beneath this salt crust is half the world's supply of lithium. 
The salt is piled like this so the water drains out, then it is
I went on a three day tour of the salt flats and the surrounding views– including a national park and it was absolutely incredible. I am now really aware and self conscious of the words I use to describe sights and attractions since there were two Germans on my tour that loved to mimic Americans. I couldn't say a place was beautiful without the two of them saying– "ohmygod, I love it! I have to call my mom!" Even though they would laugh right now if they read this and saw me using the word incredible to describe it, there is no other way to put it. The salt flats and the surrounding attractions are truly a masterpiece of nature.

So how this tour worked: I had a jeep, a driver, and five other tourists with me. I was so lucky to be in such a fun and energetic group. I think they actually made the experience so much better, regardless of who I was with the sights still would have been unbelievable, but I wouldn't necessarily have had as much fun as I did. We drove 1000 kilometers in three days– across the salt flats and deserts. Somehow, I got shotty the whole time so I had the best views. At night, we slept in frigid temperatures in get this.... salt hotels. Yes, hotels made of salt. Big blocks of salt. Our beds, made of salt (not the mattresses obviously). The tables, made of salt. Benches, made of salt. The floor, made of salt. The toilet... not made of salt. Somehow I failed to take a photo. Probably because my hands were too numb to hold a camera. It was so cold, supposedly it gets to -15 degrees Celcius at night but I don't think it was that cold. Luckily, our beds had three heavy wool blankets, plus a duvet, and our tour agency gave us sleeping bags. With my spandex, three sweaters, hat, gloves, and scarf I was set for the night. There is no heat, or electricity for that matter. The power only comes on for two hours from 7 to 9 during dinner.
I told you, giant cacti.

The first day we drove across the salt flats, stopping at Isla Incahauasi for lunch. This island is covered in giant cacti and coral (remnants from the salt-water lake). The island is surrounded by the salt flats– seeing the giant cacti in contrast with their blinding white surroundings was surreal. They just looked so out of place! When we were eating lunch we all agreed that the quinoa was lacking salt, so one of the Germans just wandered out to what appeared to be a clean and untouched patch of salt and brought some back to the table.

The salt flats are amazing places to take photos because they are so vast and endless– cameras lose all sense of depth. We took some funny group photos– but unfortunately they aren't on my camera. Hopefully at some point they will get emailed to me or I will get them off of facebook. I wish we had taken more photos, but our driver, Garcia, was always in a rush to get going to the next place. I guess that was the only disappointing part of my tour. Garcia wasn't a bad tour guide, he just wasn't good. He simply did his job. I feel like he almost viewed the tour as a race, he was trying to beat the other drivers to our final destination. He wasn't driving too fast– I always felt safe. But he definitely did not like to stop, and because of this I have way less photos than I would like. Well, guess I need to go to the salt flats again, but next time during the rainy season when there is a thin layer of water on the salt, producing a giant natural mirror. Bolivia in November, anyone?
There were also llamas roaming around. They kept getting in
the way of all our photo shoots.

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