Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Salar de Uyuni Part 3: Well Worth Its Salt

You know the children's story about the 3 Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf with hair on his chinny chin chin who tried to huff and puff and blow their houses of straw, sticks and bricks down? In the past, my brother, sister and I would be assigned the roles of the 3 pigs while my dad pretended to relegate us to 3 homeless sausage rolls.

According to parental sources, being the most kiasu kid, I would always be the first to chope the role of the clever piggy who built his house out of wolf-proof bricks. I never wanted to be one of the dumb ones who used straw or sticks! Those roles I kindly left for my siblings to fight over.

If only I had known then about houses built out of salt. Standing strong out on the windswept salt plains, a salt house would have been able to withstand an entire pack of Big Bad Wolves literally wasting their breath on it. And with its pure white walls, studded with sparkling salt crystals, it would have been way prettier than any ol' house of bricks! Of course, that's provided I were a desert-living pig. In Singapore's humid environment, I would have been sun-baked ham in a jiffy.

All tourists on the multi-day desert tour get to spend a night in one of the many salt hotels dotting the edges of the giant white-out known as the Salar de Uyuni. This is also the only chance during the tour to enjoy a good hot shower - at the price of 10 Bolivianos (approx US$2) per person. Arriving at the hotel looking like walking Sphinxes, covered from head to toe in desert dust, we didn't waste time pooling together 5,000 Chilean pesos (the equivalent of 10 Bolivianos) amongst ourselves for 5 hot showers.

The very first salt hotel was built in 1993, right smack in the middle of the salt flat. Lacking proper sewerage treatment facilities, waste had to be collected manually, inevitably causing environmental pollution and leading to the hotel being turned into a salt museum almost a decade later.

The newer salt hotels are built in compliance with environmental regulations... and they are really really really nice to stay in. Compared to the crappy dormitory that we squeezed into the night before (we had deliberately chosen the smallest room in hope that the combined body heat of 5 shivering people would warm it up), the salt hotel felt like the Ritz Carlton or Shangri-La of the desert. In fact, even better. Because you never get the Ritz or Shang to yourself.

I loved being the little pig who lived in the house built of (salt) bricks

The entire hotel, including the floor of our bedroom, was covered in salt. It was fun stomping around and making crunching noises.

Salt furniture

No, that's not a salt dog...

The thick salt walls insulated us from the severely low night temperatures and kept us nice and toasty under the blankets. Better still, the sun rose over the horizon at 5am, breaking the darkness of the night and chasing the cold away for the rest of the day. Without buildings, mountains or foliage to obscure our view of sunrise, we watched as a great burning orange ball of fire literally rose steadily from the ground right before our eyes. Higher and higher and higher.

Waking up with the sun, then lounging around on our bed to snap photos

Morning has broken

Walking along a path of sunshine to breakfast

Pick a seat, pick any seat, it's all yours!

Fresh hot French toast. Which is not a French invention. We checked with the French and they affirmed it.

By 7.30am, the surrounding plains were flooded with strong sunlight. We loaded our bags atop our trusty white Toyota (which never once broke down - a common horror story we heard about the vehicles used for the salt plains tour) and zipped off into the blinding white landscape.

All aboard the white horse!

Located at an elevation of 3,656m above sea level, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. Bigger than Lake Titicaca and measuring 10,582 square kilometres, it is 15.5 times the size of Singapore. Salar de Uyuni used to be part of the enormous pre-historic Lake Michin, which dried out over the years, leaving behind salares. The salt crust measures up to 10m in some places and sits atop a lake of brine measuring up to 20m deep.

In the rainy season, a sheet of water forms over the entire plain, creating a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. Driving over this mirror image is said to be an incredibly surreal experience.

Seeing, touching, feeling, smelling the vast salt crust

That was the scientific explanation for the formation of the Uyuni salt flat. The version told by the Aymara people of Bolivia is by far more interesting and dramatic.

Legend tells of a love triangle between 3 mountains surrounding the area where the salt flat now lies. Tunupa (the lady) and Kusku (well, the man) fell in love and had a child. Kusku then fell in love with Kusuna, and taking Tunupa's child with him, ran away to live with Kusuna. Tunupa begged for the return of her child but to no avail. Her breasts, full of milk, finally overflowed onto the surrounding lands, and mixed with her tears, created the endless salt plains of Uyuni. So dramatic ah!

Got milk? Looks parched to me

The drama-mama love story deserves a star!

So now that we had been enlightened with both fact and legend, we were entitled to run amok on the salt flat!

Our final stop before gunning towards the town of Uyuni was the aforementioned original salt hotel, which now houses a museum. Not that we can vouch that it's a good museum, cos it was closed and looked awfully run down. Still, we hung around and snapped some pictures, while our guide exchanged holas with the other guides who were taking a driving break.

Patio seating outside the museum

Yes, it's really important that you don't pee onto salt walls.... Dan took it upon himself to walk 200m to the nearest 'toilet' - you basically create your own - and was slightly disappointed when the salt didn't turn yellow.

We were rather disappointed at not seeing the Singapore (well, expected lah) and French (how is that possible?!, as Alex exclaimed) flags displayed on the stand. Maybe it's not a bad thing, cos the flags were tattered and torn, and we don't have enough Singaporeans visiting Bolivia on a regular basis to replace our flag!

Our conclusion for the 4-day tour of Salar de Uyuni? It's well worth its salt. But even though there was no trekking and hardly any walking involved, the harsh conditions of the desert wore us down, and it felt a bit like a hardship trip (okay, okay, so maybe I'm a lousy weak softie!)

We were fortunate to have such good company on the trip. Javir, our local guide/cook/driver, had 15 years of experience behind him. Alex was a free spirit, full of fun and spontaneous actions, like running amok on the salt with arms outstretched, pretending to be a plane. Being the most fluent in Spanish, he kindly translated Javir's instructions and stories into English for us throughout the whole trip. Sisters Alice and Therese were sweet and funny, offering us everything from sweets to Bolivian currency (which we didn't have) to toilet paper. Alice, however, had the tendency to sneak up on me just when I was looking for a pee spot amongst the rocks and almost scare the pee outta me by suddenly springing up from behind a rock and yelling "HOLA!!!!!"

Singapore, France and Bolivia - we made a great team!

A girl who was traveling with another tour agency helped us take a group photo and commented that we were having so much fun together, and wished that her group could be like ours. Another French girl related stories about how 2 of her team mates were complaining about everything - the guide ("he doesn't speak English"), the vehicle ("it's so small"), the food, ("it's not local enough"), the photo stops, ("not scenic enough"). One Israeli guy in particular was comparing Bolivia with South-East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam), and griping about how the latter had better and cheaper food. Well only a moron would compare oranges to apples, and high altitude deserts to lush tropical lowlands.

On the final day of the tour, Julio from Tierra Mistica, whom we signed up for the tour with, greeted us at the Bolivia-Chile border with a booming, "HOLA DANNIE! HOLA YI LIN!" and we all set off back towards San Pedro de Atacama cheering "CHAO BOLIVIA! HOLA CHILE! HOLA AGUA CALIENTE! HOLA INTERNET! WOOO HOOOO!"

Back in San Pedro, we wrote a gleaming recommendation for Julio and Tierra Mistica - their first English review - to which Julio dedicated a prime spot on the office wall. So if you are ever in San Pedro, look out for the review by Dannie and Yi Lin from Singapore!

And to all Internet junkies planning to do the trip, remember, as Julio sputtered in laughter at us silly Singaporeans, "EEET EEES BOLEEEEVIAAHH! EEEET EEES DE DESERRRT! NO INTERNET! NO INTERNET!"

But you'll survive anyway.

After all, Dan did.

He missed the Internet so much that he was determined to walk back to Chile to log on!


Zen said...

That's one place highly possible to have a death by salt!

Tracy Su said...

SO COOL! I mean salty...and the post is really cute.

Now I need to catch up on the others...maybe a bit later.

Yi Lin said...

Heh, you gotta be careful on those salt plains - lots of sharp edges sticking up, and the surface is pretty rough. Falling while running would be akin to falling on a road. Dan got a cut or two while turning cartwheels.

The salt is actually mined. Which just involves scraping salt off the surface. We were brought to a salt mine and expecting to see some massive underground structure - and all there was were neat little pyramids of salt that had been collected from the surface!

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