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September 27, 2004

Uyuni Salt Lake Circuit

"You will get lost"
"Your car will break down"
"You will freeze to death"

These are just some of the warnings we got from locals when we asked for information about roads in southwestern Bolivia. The most encouraging recommendation we got was to follow an organized tour, which would have meant breathing their dust for 3 days straight, amongst the other disadvantages of touristy guided tours.

We decided to go anyway, after trying to obtain as many maps as we could (they always contradict each other) and stocking up on the local auto repair material of choice: wire.

We started in Uyuni and headed towards the large island on the Uyuni salt lake. This "lake" is an amazing place... it is a usually dry salt lake with a thick, hard crust.

On the shore of the lake, there is a hotel built from salt; we wanted to stay there, but it is part of an organized tour operation out of La Paz and not open to people crazy enough to come here by land on their own. Bummer.

The lake is an amazing sight; it is is blindingly white, and covered with pentagons and hexagons shapes in the crust, occasionally interrupted by more or less faint vehicle tracks. It is also probably the smoothest surface to drive on in the country of Bolivia. It is quite surreal cruising at 50 mph, while trying to follow the existing tracks and using crappy maps and a GPS for assistance.

We headed to one of the islands on the lake, a popular tourist destination. Amazingly, birds made it out there to feed off cacti.

We drove off the lake in the evening, and realized that the pleasant part of the drive was over; we hit the nastiest washboard roads that I have ever driven on. A tour van came towards us, and we stopped for a short chat. They broke 2 leafs of their suspension; which is apparently about average. The warnings came back to mind... did we bring enough wire? Ok, I am only kidding here;  I have had to do some pretty sketchy repairs, but even I don't believe in the practice shown in the picture.  Then again, in emergencies anything helps.

After making a phone call from the world's most bizarre pay phone, we found a wonderful protected campspot with a view of an active volcano located in Chile, the name of which I need to look up at some point.
Sunset and sunrise were, of course, beautiful, and we spent some time investigating a rather curiously structured altiplano plant. It looks like soft moss, but it very hard. Need to look up again what this land coral is called.

The next day brought us past some beautiful, flamingo-infested lakes (yes, that's right, some species of flamingo thrive above 14000ft, in salty lakes. They have a unique system for filtering nasty water for food).

We resorted to eating food we brought with us and experimented with one of the more bizarre types of andean potatos.

Our campsite for the night was fantastic -- we had our own private hot springs right outside the tent. Unfortunately, they were a few degrees colder than body temperature, and it was so cold and windy that the 10 feet from the tent into the water were barely manageable. Yes, I'm a whimp now.

In the morning, Kay made some wonderful Chichikakapoopoo (a concoction the preparation of which we learned from Sharon... something inbetween a soggy omelette with tomatoes and the Colombian breakfast milk and egg soup disk).

We ran into a guy who organizes moutain bike tours in the area and was guiding a french group of adventurers... he gave us some information on climbing the surrounding peaks, but knew nothing about the trail that Ihad noticed on one of them the night before. That, of course, made it an even more interesting destination to explore.

The trail is visible in the picture, but we were not sure how to get to it. Eventually, we found the access point, behind a boulder field beyond laguna celeste.

The trail turned out to be drivable for a while, and then we hit a sand field that was to steep for the whimpy 4 cylinder engine in the jeep. We invariably stalled about half way up. After lots of messing around, letting some air out of the tires did the trick. It was well worth the trouble, as we found out later..

After a while, we came to a fork, and decided to go right first. That led us around the mountain to an area with lots of snow, and eventually the road became impassable. I made a last attempt struing to knock the walls of ice over with the bumper, but soon gave up.

The other fork turned out to be more promising. It led to what appears to be an abandoned sulphur mine, probably the reason for the existence of the road in the first place. We continued to about 19000 ft, at which point what was left of the road was so steep that we were concerned about being able to turn around, so we stopped. Kay stayed in the car, struggling with the cold and the altitude, but hanging in there quite impressively. I continued on foot, and came to within a few hundred feet of the peak (which I think was about 20,000 ft or 6000m). It was an easy scramble to the top, but I decided it was unsafe to do it by myself. Instead I took some pictures, including this one. The view was, of course, absolutely incredible. On the other side of the mountain, it extended into the Atacama desert, and probably all the way to the pacific, except that it was too dusty and hazy in that direction.

Notice that the Jeep is visible in the bottom left corner of this picture, as a tiny but recognizable dot. As cool as google earth is, reality still beats it.

I definitely want to explore this area some more, even though it is probably the least hospitable environment I have been in (well, not counting downtown Las Vegas). Its stark beauty makes up for it. It's about as close to being on mars as you can get on this planet.

Posted by rick at 03:17 AM | Comments (1)