06.04.2009 - 08.04.2009
from san pedro we entered bolivia in 4x4 offroad vehicles, and for the next three days off road we certainly were. ten travellers and two guides piled into two toyotas and off we went into the bolivian wilderness, a place where even dirt roads are a luxury. up from the san pedro desert we climbed, slowly winding our way up the andes, reaching a maximum altitude of around 4,500 meters. at this height life is different: the mere act of walking up a small hill (and sometimes, it seems, the mere thought of walking up a small hill) will leave you winded, while just a few hours under the all-too-near sun will leave you roasted.
the first day of the excursion we spent crossing the border and stopping at a few stunning lagoons and a boiling mud pit reticent of the eternal bog of stench. this day we also made the acquaintance of coca leaves, the traditional bolivian defence against altitude sickness. an estimated 90% of rural bolivians chew these leaves for hours a day to suppress hunger, sustain mental clarity, and avoid fatigue. as we were to learn later at the coca museum in la paz, the leaves are nutritious and are not in themselves deleterious. however, the working conditions they made (and make) possible definitely are. native slaves under the spanish empire worked 40-hour days fueled by coca, and present day miners also rely on the leaves to get them through their long, claustrophobic days.
we arrived at a lonely hostel/hotel the first afternoon around 3, and were free to explore the surrounding area for the rest of the evening, which offered a pleasant gully and miles of shrub-dotted hills. the following day was not so relaxed, though, as we were in transit for about 12 hours. but there were many incredible stops along the way, including lagoons crowded with flamingos, a rock forest and the famous arbol de piedra, and a smallish salt flat. we spent the second night in a hotel constructed primarily of salt, replete with salt-brick beds and a carpet of salt crystals.
the third day was spent entirely on the salar de uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. it is a surreal place. for hours on end we drove across a perfectly flat, perfectly unpopulated expanse of white. not a plant, not a stone could be found. at last, we arrived at a small island inhabited entirely by cacti. here we stopped to walk around a bit and take a few photos under the glaring sun, lost amidst a sea of salt. then it was back into the car for a few more hours of travelling, until we reached the original salt hotel (now a museum) and the salt mountains, the product of salt mining. at last we arrived at the town of uyuni itself, where, thanks to reciprocity laws, we had to purchase bolivian visas. after this we found a bar and watched a football game (we were travelling with an avid liverpool fan) and caught a night bus out of uyuni just as quick as we could, having decided that the dusty town had little more to offer.