Salar de Uyuni: The Saltiest Place on Earth

When planning our South American adventure, there were four things we knew we actually wanted to do: Coffee farms in Colombia, Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. We already did the first three, but now was time for our tour of the salt flats in Bolivia; the largest salt flats in the world.

The Salar de Uyuni is perhaps one of the strangest places I have and perhaps will ever be. I can not think of any better way to describe it to you than a “desert of salt”. Actually, I think it will be easier to show you than tell you. Check out our photos!

Here is an itinerary of our tour:

Day 1: Left at 9AM with La Torre Tours/Hostel, drove until 6PM, saw rock formations north of Tupiza, llamas, vicunas, chinchillas, a 300 year old ghost town, lagos, a few flamingos and stayed in a little remote village called Quetena Chico in a very basic, but nice hostal. Went up about 1000m, entered the national park, Reserva Edward Avaroa
Day 2: less driving, saw a few more lakes, had the option to go to thermal baths, laguna blanco and laguna verde which changes colors, saw border crossing to chile, steam vents, arrived at next basic hostel in Huaylljara, then went to laguna colorada
Day 3: Arbol de piedra (translated: rock tree), 4 small lakes, more flamingos, Ollague Volcano, Salar de Chiguana, Salt hotel on outskirts of Salar de Uyuni
Day 4: Sun rise in salt flats, Isla del pescado (translated: fish island) looks like a fish, 30 bolivianos to climb, photos locos, hotel de sal, ojos de sal, harvesting salt in colchani, then the flowers of Uyuni and train graveyard.

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Tupiza: Bolivia’s Wild West

Sleepy, sunny Tupiza, Bolivia was our next stop in Bolivia and the town from which we decided to begin our Bolivian salt flat tour. But, before we started the tour, we were excited to explore what many have described as Bolivia’s version of the American southwest. While we did encounter red rock mountains, canyons, and a desert environment, Tupiza was still distinctly different from what I remember of the southwest. For starters, Tupiza is actually still in the Andes Mountains and has an elevation near 3,000 meters. This made for interesting mountain biking & hiking – I guess a month walking around at altitude did not do much for our physical condition.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourselves as we got lost mountain biking on what seemed like the only road out of town. Once we found the path, after asking 3 different people for directions, we ended up in a little canyon where we practiced bouldering before barreling back down the mountain into town. We also enjoyed hiking to the top of Cerro Cruz, which was topped with a giant white cross, hence the name, and is a great spot to survey the town and surrounding area. Looking in the opposite direction of town, we discovered Elephant Hill (see below).

In the end, Tupiza did turn out to be a bit like the American southwest and was a fun place to get outdoors, but the town itself was quite uninspiring. Perhaps this is why most travelers only spend a night in town, either as a quick stopover before crossing into Argentina by way of Villazon or for just enough time to book a trip to one of Bolivia’s highlights- the Salar de Uyuni.

 

Encountering the Devil in Potosi Silver Mines

Located on the side of a mountain, Potosi, Bolivia is a mining town with an interesting history. Once one of the largest, wealthiest, and highest cities in the world, Potosi now only holds the last of those titles as well as the honor of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. The success of the city was all because of the abundance of minerals that were in the appropriately named Cerro Rico (translated: Rich Hill) that shadows the city of Potosi.
Many years ago, Spaniards came to the area to extract the chunks of pure silver from the mountain. Over time, obviously, the quality, size, and amount of the silver began to decrease. Today, miners work long hard days, in grueling and treacherous conditions to earn just barely enough to get by. Their secret: coca leaves. According to the locals, coca leaves help with the altitude (over 4,060 meters), strengthen the body, and relieve hunger. They chew the leaves throughout the day while working in the mines and many do not even bring a lunch to work, only coca leaves.
However, the coca leaves can not save the miners from all the dangers of working in the mines. Cerro Rico also has another name that translates to: “the mountain that eats men alive.” The mountain received this name because of all the lives it has taken over the years. Though no official records have been kept, it it said that about 8 million people have died from the accidents in the mines or from a disease where dust fills your lungs called silicosis.
Despite the dangers of the mines, tourists now pay to experience a few hours in the mines.
Anna and I also chose to tour the mines. Since we were staying in a hostel called the Koala Den, we booked our tour through the highly rated Koala Tours. After giving us appropriate mining clothes, a headlamp, and taking us to buy gifts for the workers, the ex-miner tour guides took us on a two-hour tour inside one of the mines. As we walked, crawled, ducked, and climbed our way through the mines, our guide told us some of the history of the mine and introduced us to some of the miners. One of the miners that we met was 22 years old and had been working in the mines since he was nine years old. This reminded me of the Devil’s Miner documentary we watched in Sucre. At one point, we also got to experience a dynamite explosion as our guide stopped us so we could back up to a safe area. As we explored the different levels of the mine, each one hotter than the last, it also became dustier and harder to breathe.
Overall, it was a very eye-opening experience about how easy my life actually is. Here I am, touring about South America after working at a desk for only one year, and one of the tourist attractions is the difficulty of another human being’s job. I so blessed and thankful for the life I have been given.
After giving our mining clothes back, we went back and showered. The dust in my hair allowed it to stick straight up. Needless to say, the shower felt really good, but I still smelled like the mines for several days after. But I am not complaining. My life is easy.
Besides the mines, another thing we found interesting in Potosi is the Casa de Moneda. The huge building takes up a full block and used to be a Spanish royal mint where the Bolivian government made money to use or send to other countries. Potosi was the perfect place to make silver coins during its golden, or should I say silver, age. If this sort of thing interests, this museum is highly recommended.

 

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Sucre: White City of Bolivia

Capitol building on the square

Capitol building on the square

Sucre, aka the White City and another of Bolivia´s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is where Adam and I decided to rest from our travels and improve our Spanish with a few lessons. The city is known to have a myriad of Spanish language schools, and after checking out a few (or 7), we decided on Latinoamericana for group lessons. In our first week, we also took part in a game of wally ball. Affectionately known as wally, it is basically volleyball with the use of walls and feet, and is a popular sport in Bolivia. We also took advantage of the free salsa lessons offered at the school, which were really great, but let`s just say we need a bit more practice before we enter any dance competitions.

In addition to these cultural events offered by many schools, we found that many bars & restaurants offer activities like free dance lessons, game nights, and show movies pertaining to Bolivian culture, which we were able to partake in as well (Recommended: The Devil´s Miner– a documentary about Bolivian mining culture in Potosi).

The bell that signaled the first cry for independence in Bolivia

The bell that signaled the first cry for independence in Bolivia

More than hosting cultural events, the city of Sucre has a rich cultural heritage and is famous for its lovely, white, colonial architecture, and also for its significance in Bolivian independence. Part of its history pertains not only to Bolivia, but to all of South America, as Sucre was where the first cry for independence was heard in all of South America. Interestingly though, Bolivia was the last country to actually gain its independence from Spain. When it finally did, Sucre was the named the official capital in the country`s constitution and remains, part capital today. While citizens of the city will say that Sucre is the only capital of Bolivia, only the judiciary offices remain, while the legislative, executive, and other government agencies have moved to La Paz. We learned all of this information courtesy of a friendly, Bolivian diplomat we met on the street one day.

The meat section of best Central Market

The meat section of best Central Market

In Sucre, we also found delicious Bolivian foods, and an amazing central market, which was a few blocks from our hostel. Here we found great chorizo, one of the city’s specialties, as well as extremely fresh fruits and veggies, chocolate covered quinoa, and other goodies. Sucre is also known for its chocolate, and there are many stores near the main plaza selling their wares, but our favorite was Chocolates Para Ti. We were also lucky enough to be less than a block away from a restaurant which served excellent aji de fideo (spicy noodles) for 5 Bolivianos (approximately 85 cents) a bowl everyday. I can say we were not the only ones ordering more than one bowl each time we visited!

All in all, we ended up enjoying about three and a half weeks in Sucre, learning history, experiencing the colonial architecture, indulging in a number of the delicious, Bolivian culinary creations, and mejorando (translation: improving) our Spanish. The city has been one of the highlights of our trip thus far, and we are looking forward to returning again someday.

Central plaza (Plaza 25 de Mayo)

Central plaza (Plaza 25 de Mayo)

La Recoleta viewpoint

La Recoleta viewpoint

Aji de Fideo - One of our favorite Bolivian meals

Aji de Fideo – One of our favorite Bolivian meals

Rurrenabaque: Bolivia’s Jungle & Pampas

Have you ever wanted to visit the jungle? How about the Amazon? Now, what if I were to tell you that one of the most bio-diverse spots in the world is in Bolivia’s Amazon basin?
Madidi National Park has been one of my favorite spots on my trip through South America so far. Whether you like seeing wild animals or surveying unique landscapes, the rainforest in Bolivia has it all.

Rurrenabaque

Rurrenabaque, or Rurre to the locals, is a short, 1-hour plane ride away or a thrilling 20 hour bus ride from La Paz. Naturally, Anna and I opted for the cheaper overnight bus ride, which we later found out goes down part of Death Road. Thankfully though, it was not the North Yungus Road that you see in all the pictures. That part is mostly for crazies on bike tours now.

As soon as we got to Rurrenabaque, we immediately started sweating. Rurre is a hot and humid, but pretty relaxed little jungle town. To avoid the heat of the day, most people that live there come out at night. There are also many tourist agencies trying to reel in tourists. What makes it difficult is that there are about 20 different travel agencies, and most of them are on the same street. Since the tours leave in the morning, and we arrived about midday, we were forced to find a hostel and book a tour for the next day.

Navigating the Jungle (Tours)

Most tour agencies offer two types of tours from Rurrenabaque: the jungle in Parque National Madidi and the pampas. Each one is very different from the other. The jungle is lots of hiking in hopes of seeing wild animals and learning about jungle plants, while the pampas is a few boat rides up and down the river where you are guaranteed to see animals. About 80% of the tourists that visit this area choose to go to the pampas because you will see more animals.
When choosing a tour agency, we wanted to find one that offered a combined (jungle and pampas) tour. Once we found that, we confirmed that we would have an indigenous guide and sleep in ecolodges. Though they are not the least expensive, Bala Tours had a 5 day, 4 night combined tour that met our other requirements as well.

My number one tip to you is to chose a tour agency that uses indigenous guides and an ecolodge. Not all travel agencies respect the wildlife.

Later, we found out that mostly all the tours are essentially the same, except for the level of accommodation and food. For the most part, they take you to the same places, but some respect the ecosystem more than others. There is a pretty big range in accommodation through. Bala and Mashaquipe supposedly have the nicest ecolodges, but for the more adventurous, Mogli Tours allows you to trek in the jungle and build your own shelter every night. Maybe next time, we will try one of Mogli`s more rugged tours. The first night, we went to the ATM to pull out enough money to pay for the tour and the national park entrance fees which are not included in the price of the tour.

Jungle Tour

The next morning, we went to the Bala Tours office at 8:00 AM where we met our guide, Nelson. He lead us down to the river where we boarded a long boat made of a single tree trunk that took us across the river to pay the entrance fee which is not included in the tour.

IMG_1537After that, we took a two hour boat ride up the Beni river. Along the way, our guide pointed out a few animals and told us a little bit about the park. At the top of one of the ridges, Nelson pointed out what looked like a U-shaped hole. He said that formation was called Bala (translated: bullet in Spanish) Mountain because it looks like someone shot a bullet through the top of the mountain. DSCI0089 (3)A little further down was the entrance to Madidi National Park, which was where the river burst through the mountains between two ridges. On the right side of the entrance, the locals say that you can see the face of Jesus Christ. Nelson also told us about a controversial dam that the government wants to build at the entrance of the park to sell power to Brazil and other countries. The problem with this is that it will flood the entire area of the national park we were in. Whoever is supporting this project, probably has never been here to witness the beauty of this unique jungle environment. Once we got to the ranger station just on the other side of the entrance, we were able to see the damage from the El Niño (major downpour of rain that occurs about every ten years). It was incredible to see how high the water rises!

DSCI0091 (3)A little further up the Beni river, we turned onto the Tuichi river where most of the tour agencies` lodges are located. At the ranger station, you can see a 3D map of the whole park and where each companies lodge is located. Before we got to Bala Tours`ecolodge, our guide, Nelson, confirmed that most of the tours are the same, except for the level of accommodation. He said that Bala Tours and Mashaquipe have the best ecolodges and food, but he does not work for Mashaquipe because they have bad practices. We also found out that it is not uncommon for guides to work for multiple agencies; Nelson mostly works for Chalalan, but will occasionally help Bala and others in the high season.

DSC02211As soon as we arrived at our jungle home, we ate lunch (almuerzo), and went on what seemed like a short 4-hour hike, searching for animals and learning about different plants and their uses. Nelson was able to show us wild pigs, squirrel and howler monkeys, army ants, leaf cutter ants, many types of birds, as well as a few interesting plants including a ginger flower, a garlic tree, a poisonous tree, a red tree, and “walking” trees.IMG_1493 Once we returned, dinner was already cooking. We had a short time to relax before dinner was served, so I rested in the provided hammocks. All meals are served buffet-style, so I was able to eat enough food after our long hike.

IMG_1502The next morning, we took our wooden boat up river to where the macaws nest. We disembarked and walked to a giant sandstone wall were we could see dozens of gorgeous red, blue, and green macaws flying overhead. For a different view, we climbed to the top to get closer. Along the way, we saw one skiddish squirrel monkey hunting for food. DSC02236The macaws were really peaceful and pretty, and there was a spectacular overview of the jungle from on top of the ridge. On the way back to the lodge, we saw a few capybara, the largest rodent in the world, drinking on the edge of the river. Our next activity, after lunch, was fishing in the river. Nelson and the boat driver took Anna and I up river, past the macaws nesting area. We tried a few places, but eventually docked on a shallow sandbar in the middle of the river. DSC02245We rolled up our pants and walked through the river to find on open space to fish. For fishing poles, we used a short branch with fishing line wrapped around it and beef chunks for bait. Casting was fun because we had to swing it above our head and throw it like a lasso. Unfortunately, after 3 spots and a couple hours of fishing, we still had not caught anything. During fishing, I received most of my bug bits. I counted later that night: 51 on one leg and 23 on the other.

My number two tip is to bring long white clothes to help deter biting insects. The night before we left I bought a white long sleeve shirt because we heard mosquitos do not like white or bright colors. I think it worked because most off the bites were on my legs, not my upper body.

After dinner, we went right back out to the little lagoon near our ecolodge and went looking for caiman eyes. Caiman are the alligators of South America and they have highly reflective eyes. The easiest way to spot them at night is if you shine a flashlight on the water, you will be able to see their two eyes staring back at you. That night, we gazed at the stars and the Milkey Way Galaxy. The number of stars, planets, shooting stars, and the vividness of our galaxy in the jungle was incredible. The following day, after our night of star watching, we took a one hour boat ride down river and back to Rurrenabaque. Nelson was a very knowledgeable guide and I would highly recommend him. Thanks Nelson!

Pampas

The next stop on our combined tour was the pampas. From Rurre, we took a three hour van ride on a bumpy, very dusty road. At some points we could not see more than 4 feet in front of the car, yet the driver still raced down the dirt track. When we finally arrived, thank you God, we met our guide, Alex, who escorted us to our room. There were a few other groups already there so we did not have the same privacy as we did in the jungle portion. This is when Alex told us that 80% the tourists go on pampas tours because you see more animals, but I thought the jungle tour was well worth it if you like hiking and nature.

The pampas, our guide explained, is a river where all the animals come to drink water because the surrounding area is dry, especially in the dry season when the river is the only source of water in the area. He compared the pampas to a savanna in Africa. DSC02266A tour of the pampas included several trips up or down the river on a boat similar to the one we used in the jungle, except without a roof. Each time we took a boat ride, we went to a different spot to see different animals. No matter where we went though, we always saw many caiman, which are South America’s non-aggressive version of an alligator.

Here is a list of all the animals we saw in the pampas (check out the BOLD ones):

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Red Collared Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Crested Caracara, Blue & Yellow Macaws, Amazon Kingfisher, Lesser Kiskadee, Red-capped Cardinals, Brazilian Porcupine, Emerald Tree Boa, Brown Capuchin, Black Howler Monkeys, DSCI0254 (3)Squirrel Monkeys, Black Headed Night Monkey, South American Coati, Bolivian Pink River Dolphins, IMG_1543Capybara (largest rodent in the world), Red Bellied Piranha, White Piranha, Catfish, Sardine, Jabiru, Wood Stork, Spoonbill, Darter Duck, Cormorant, Fasciated Tiger Heron, Stiated Heron, Cocoi Heron, Snowy Egret, Sun Bittern, Orinoco Goose, Hoatzin, Black Caiman,DSCI0145 (3) Spectacled Caiman, Vermillion Flycatcher,  a lizard, a frog, and a few jungle cats (aka house cats that lived in the jungle ecolodges).

Perhaps the most interesting animal we spotted though was the Great Potoo. Alex said that if you are really big into bird watching and can take a picture of this bird, it will be the picture of your life. This is because it has such exaggerated features: large eyes and tiny beak. There is also a haunting myth that goes along with its call.

Legend has it a hunter, by the name of Potoo, went out hunting for a jaguar in the forest. After he did not return for a while, the hunter’s wife, Woohoo, went out looking for him, but did not find him so she laid down in some bushes to go to sleep. The hunter heard what he thought was a jaguar rustling in the bushes and shot an arrow at it. He did not hear anything else. After an unsuccessful  hunting excursion, he returned to to village, but could not find his wife. The hunter searched for days, but could not find his wife. His sorrow eventually turned him into the bird we now call a Great Potoo and every night his call is heard searching for his wife… woohoohoohoohoo. woohoohoohoohoo.

After going out to look for caiman eyes at night, we went looking for anacondas the next morning. Alex gave us some white rubber boots and took us to a field down river. The field was swampy and the boots were no longer white after the first step. We searched for anacondas for about an hour before we saw other people arrive. One of those groups was Mashaquipe Tours.

My number three tip is do NOT go with anyone that guarantees that you will see an anaconda (aka Mashaquipe Tours).

Alex said that some companies, like Mashaquipe, guarantee that you will see an anaconda because the guides bring one along with them. One of the guides carries a baby anaconda in his backpack and while the rest of the group is looking somewhere else, the guide unzips his backpack and places the anaconda in the marsh. After the tourists take their pictures and start to head back, the guide picks the snake back up and puts it in his backpack again. I WATCHED ALL OF THIS HAPPEN. An anacondas bones can be very brittle and if not handled with extreme care, their bones come apart and the anaconda dies a slow and ugly death that may take about a year. This is why this is a bad practice, and besides, if I wanted to see a captured anaconda, I could go to the zoo where they are treated with respect.

In total, we did about 6 river trips where we watched a sunset, fished for piranhas, tried to swim with pink river dolphins, and went in search of anacondas and other wildlife. Our pampas tour made us feel very pompous because we were chauffeured around on a boat for 3 days and barely had to do anything. The pampas was much more relaxed than our jungle experience. Overall, if I had to chose just one, I would pick the pampas, but if time and money allows, I would like to do both again because they are both very unique experiences.DSCI0268 (3)

Bala Tours ran a very smooth 5 day, 4 night combined tour for us. They provided excellent guides that I would recommend to anyone. Alex in particular was extremely knowledgeable and you could tell that he loved his job. Thanks buddy!

Last, but not least, my fourth tip is to bring a camera with at least a 20x zoom or binoculars for those with photographic memories.