Tuesday, June 12, 2007

El Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

There is a huge patch of salt in southwestern Bolivia, 100km long and 120km wide (70 miles by 80 miles?), the largest salt lake in the world. It was formed like a lot of weird land formations in this area, raised up from the ocean millions and billions and gazillions of years ago. During rainy season it fills with water and looks like a real lake, but in dry season (now) you can see only mile after mile of blinding white salt. You could almost imagine yourself in the middle of North Dakota in the dead of winter with all that flat whiteness. Cesar and I decided to take a tour across the lake in the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, staying in a few isolated "salt hotels" on the way.

We were dropped off the first night at the hotel where we happened to be two of the only four guests---in the middle of the salar (salt lake), no electricity, no light, no running water. The entire building and all its furniture were constructed of bricks of salt, and we kept tasting things just to be sure. Yep, the floor is salty, yep, the wall is salty, yep, the bed is salty. My stomach started churning, maybe I shouldn't be licking all the furniture... With the hotel in the middle of the salar, they have to carry away waste in barrels. The toilets are nothing but seat-covered tubes running to a metal drum in back of the hotel. You flushed by pouring a bucket of water down after your droppings. Believe me, a churning stomach under these conditions is not the most welcome experience.

Salt hotel in sunsetHallway of salt hotel Salt hotel plumbing (tube coming straight from the toilets)
As night approached temperatures in the hotel plummeted. The salt insulated a bit, but not enough to keep out the freezing outside air. The hotel woman started a fire for us in another barrel in the dining area, ahhhh. We spent the rest of the night chatting around this barrel, warming our hands and faces, rotating to our backs and back to our fronts again. When the fire started dying I opened the drum to see what kind of fuel they were using. It looked like it was full of coffee beans. Hmmm. There was a bag next to the fire with more supposedly coffee-beans, so we shovelled in a couple more handfuls. When the woman returned we asked her about the beans, "Beans? Nooo, ha ha ha ha, we burn llama dung!"

The salt hotel, however primitive, was an incredible experience. And the display of stars that night was the most incredible I've ever seen.

The next three days we continued in the Landcruiser with a small group of tourists past volcanoes and colorful lakes stopping to take pics of wading pink flamingos and deserts straight out of a Salvador Dali painting. The nights were freezing, my stomach never stopped churning, but the trip was well worth it.

At 5:30 this morning they took us to a hot spring pool at about 4,500km in freaking-cold altitude surrounded by ice. When we arrived there was a group of 20 bundled tourists dipping their fingers and toes in, shaking their heads and looking at each other. I had slept cold that night and was really looking forward to this bath, and there was no way I was letting the cold scare me away. I had even slept in my bikini in anticipation of this moment. Being a hot spring veteran in Japan (as I like to think of myself, ho ho) I knew it would be all right as soon as I was in the water. I stripped out of my hat, scarf, gloves, winter coat, clothes etc. and jumped in as quickly as possible. People thought I was nuts. Some people even applauded. Eventually a few more brave souls joined me and convinced the others that it was really nice. All they needed was for sometime to break the ice, literally.

Freezing outside, toasty warm inside

I crossed the border into northern Chile today. Prices are shocking compared to Bolivia but showers are hot and I feel like I'm in civilization again. I'll try to put up pics soon, but the internet connection is still slow here...

Thanks everyone for your birthday messages!


Anonymous said...

I guess I have to keep up my habit of being ichiban commentor. Love the blog. Good for you...first one in the hot springs! Never, ever knew about a salt hotel, only the ice one. Take care, and try not to lick so many things...ha.


Moe: said...

Licking the walls of salt? Well, that's one way to drink tequila. Hope they had a lime tree out back. ;-)

Shannen said...


Thanks for being ichiban again! The hot spring was really nice, and there have been many more since, yippee! Luckily not as cold as that day. I promise to stop licking everything, hee hee.


Oooh tequila would've been nice at the salt hotel! Next time I'll be sure to bring lime and a nice big bottle!