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Altitude Sick in the Salar del Uyuni

BOLIVIA | Monday, 23 February 2009 | Views [5565] | Comments [3]

Once we got to San Pedro de Atacama we started looking for a company for our 3 day trip of the Salar del Uyuni. We ended up at the tourist information center reading reviews on the different companies. Most of the reviews involved the drivers starting drinking at 7:30 in the morning, there not being enough food, and the vehicles breaking down up to 25 times a day... then there was our shining star Estrella del Sur, they got nothing but good reviews. We booked our trip with them.

Our excursion began at 8:00 the next morning. We took a bus until the border crossing and ate breakfast on the Bolivian side. The Bolivian order station is the best one I`ve seen so far. It was a half completed mud brick shack with a burned out buss off to the side. When one of our female companions asked where the bathroom was the border patrol pointed to the bus. It was the only potential privacy for miles.

Once on the Bolivian side we changed vehicles to Land Cruisers and began our journey up. And we traveled up, and up, and up. Our first sight were 2 high alpine salt lakes full of flamingos. The lakes were quite large, but very shallow, and no flamingo was ever in water above their knee. The first lake was Lago blanco, and the second one was named Lago Verde. If I understood our guide correctly there is an abundance of minerals (I think I heard cobalt and arsenic mentioned) that oxidize under ultraviolet radiation and the lake actually changes color. When we arrived it was in the process, and the water was at first a pond-ish green, but when we drove up to the top the lake had transformed to a lagoon blue green. It was spectacular.

Next stop on our journey up was a hot springs. The pool itself was small, but the water was perfectly warm and the sun was out. Keep in mind this is not the nice Hawaiian tanning sun, but the high elevation, tropic, burn-you-up-in-no-time sun. I got burned and people saw Nick naked while he was changing behind a shed. I somehow managed to take off my boxers without taking off my boardshorts.

Once agian we traveled up, and up, and up until we finally reached the high poiint (in elevation) of the trip, the gysers. They weren`t really gysers but rather bubbling pools of mud uniquely colored bright blue! The guide warned us not to get to close because of the gases, but I didn`t listen. The wind was blowing most of the gases away and I could look right down the tubes into these bubbling blue mud baths. The steam even left blue residue on some of the walls. My colorblindness actually acted beneficially for once as the muc appeared a bright blue... I suppose in actuality it was a grey-blue. Between the fumes and the elevation, a staggering 5000 meters or 16,500 ft, i got pretty dizzy.

After the mud baths we started our descent across the alpine plains, which resembled the atacama desert. There was nbo life except for the spiky grass growing in the lee of some of the rocks... oh yeah, there were vicuñas! vicuñas are the only american camel species (the others being llamas, alpacas, and guanaco) that haven`t been domesticated. they look like spindly llamas and somhow manage to survivie in a place with only small spiky garass patches, and slatwater lakes... unbelievable.

The landscape was breathtaking. vast valleys wurrounded by gigantic mountains and volcanoes. I had to stoip and wonder just how high these mountains were as we were already at 15000 ft or so. You could see where the brown monotony was broken by a land slide, and the resulting destruction left a yellow stream of rocksdwon the gullies and canyons. They were the only rivers in this desolate region.

We slowely worked our way down to our hostel. The reader can only imagine how strange it is to find a hostel with full service staff in the middle of nowhere. This hostle can actually hold the claim to being in the middle of nowhere, it is a 6 hour 4 wheel drive across high alpine desert to get anywhere! And even that town is San Pedro with a staggering 9,000 residents or so.

We dropped off our luggage and drove to the nearby Lago Colorada, which is the largest alpine salt lake in the world! It`s over 60 kilometers in doameter, and has iceburgs of salt. There is a continual white mist blown off the water that is not made of water but of salt! We stayed and walked a bit around the lake where I managed to work my way to a small island where I found a dead pink flamingo. Using my CSI skills I determined that the unfortuinate animal had tripped over its long legs and snapped its fragile neck upon impact. The head under the body legs a-tangle position of the corpse confirmed my hypothesis. I tried to kiss it better without luck.

Hot dogs seemed to dominate the cuisine of the day and we ate an abundance at both lunch and dinner. Dinner was a gourmet hotdog and french fry cassarole served with Bolivias finest vino tinto. A large helping of this culinary masterpiece and 7 glasses of that fine vintage reserve satiated me before bed.

To anyone who has not been altitude sick before i can only offer this advice: don´t let it happen. i am willing to admit that I spent most of my second day altitude sick, but I will also defent myself by stating that it was exacerbated by poor judgement and a mild case of insomnia. I should have slep on the floor... I don`t know what I was thinking. The bed was miserable, and i didn`t get a wink of sleep all night. The 7 glasses of wine may ahve been a bad choice. these 2 factors combined with the fact that I was at high elevation (4200 meters) made for a very sick boy the next day. Spent most of the day sleeping.

Out of the 3 days the second day was the least interesting... not to say it wasn`t interesting. We first visited a forest of wind eroded rocks that would have made great bouldering had I not been feeling like I was having the worst hangover of my life. We visited several more lakes and had luch zat another one of those places that feels like it shouldn`t exist becuase of its isolation. I didn`t eat the potato dish they were serving, but slept in the cruiser. My stomach wouldn`t have been able to hold anything down anyway. We drove for the next 3 hours straight and I somehow managed to end up in the back of the cruiser without any room for my legs and no hope of sleeping, every time I places my head anywhere near the window a bump decided to move the vehicle, sending my head into the glass.

We finally arrived in a town for the night. I don`t quite remember the name, but It was very small. I still have trouble believing that these places actually exist, they are SO isolated and have almost zero resources... I immediatly passed out on the floor and got the night of rest I had needed all day.

I woke up the next day feeling refreshed, and with the exception of a minor headache, back to normal. The third day of the trip was the highlight of the journey, the actual salt flats. We woke up and 5:00 in the morning and got quickly underway to watch the sunrise over the salt flats, it was spectacular. The salt flats have to be one of the few places that meets the definition of unique, and I would be willing to wager that there is not another place like ti in the world. The flats in their entirety appear to be totally flat, and one has the impression of driving across a vast white ocean. I also had to wonder just where all this salt came from, not just the huge area (something like 20,000 sqkm)but it reaches depths of 120 meters! That´s a lot of salt.

Somewhere in the middle of this sea is an earthly protrusion that they call cactus island. It even appears to be correctly named, for the appearance of land in the middle of the salty void does in fact resemble an island, and it doesn`t take much stretch of the imagination to picture yourself at sail in a ship, and one is even tempted to shout "land ho!" when the island is sighted in the distance. The island is totally covered in cactus, and the scientific part of my mind has to wonder which came first, the island or the salt ocean, and if the salt ocean came first then how did the cactus get there?

After breakfasting on pancake dulce-de-leche sandwiches we began to take use of our surroundings to take pictures. Because the salt desert is totally white, and the horizon is so far away, 2 dimensional images (such as photographs) ahve nothing to give away scale, and you can take pictures that would normally only be possible with programs such as photoshop. The only limit is your imagination. You can give the appearance of being small enough to be held in somebodys hand, or stand on top of a giant orange, or even be falling out of somebody´s nose. We passed over an hour before we had exhausted our imaginations.

We next drove to another part of the salt flats that was broken by small pools of water. Apparently there is water just below the surface over the flat`s entirety, but in some places the surface is actually broken by small holes, some of which have no apparent bottom. While not unbelievably exciting in themselves, the holes provide an opportunity for treasure hunting! The water is super saturated with salt, and under the right conditions the salt falls out of solution slowely enough to form crystals!

We continued on our journey across the ocean of white and stopped at a salt hotel. I beleive it was the original salt hotel, and nearly everything in the hotel is made of salt. The walls are salt bricks with salt mortar, and the floor is one solid salt pour. There are salt carvings or llamas, and Bolivian mythological characters, salt tables and chairs, and salt beds. They have mattresses, and the floors in the rooms are covered in llama pelt carpets. One thing the salt fettished builders overlooked was the fact that salt absorbs odors. Over years of people staying overnight, most any fluid known to man has been spilled on the salt, and salt has a remarkable quality of absorbing odors. The whole place has a unique musk. The hotel is no longer open for overnight visits.

Nearly the entire third day was slat themed. between the salt flats, slat hotels, and we even saw salt collectors that processed it and used it for cooking and leather tanning, and then we visited a train graveyard. I would call it the low point of the journey, because you go from a totally unique location with sights and curiosities that I have never even dreamed of, and then we went to a trash filled train dump. After Chile stole the coastline of Bolivia there was a much smaller need for tains and train transport, and they just clumped all the old steam engines in a junkyard outside the town of Uyuni. On the brighter side, our guide had a special lunch of llama meat and locally grown quinoa made for us.

And in the town of Uyuni is where we ended out tour and officially entered Bolivia. The price for US citizens is steep: 135 US$. naturally the only ATM in town was broken, so we had to use a bank that charged us a 7$ tax to withdraw our money. The entry fee hurt the budget. Uyuni marks the beginning of our first true south american experiences. I believe I have mentioned that Chile and Argentina ahve a very first world feel to them, but Bolivia has nothing of the sort. Everything about Bolivia is different. The dress, the cuisine, and even the style of spanish they speak. Both Chile and Argentina have very distinct dialects, but Bolivia is very slow and clear and very easy to understand. They are smack dab in the middle of all these accents though, and they deal with lots of tourists who speak atrocious spanish, so they pretty much understand any form of bad spanish that is spoken to them. Not one of them speaks a lick of English though.

Uyuni is nothing more than a stopping point for tourists looking to do the Uyuni tour, so we head out the next day towards Tupiza!

Tags: altitude sickness, salt, uyuni



Wonderful story Cory.....

  Mom Feb 27, 2009 8:18 AM


it all sounds like some sort of weird, delusion (or should it be illusion) to me today. I'm still hungry from the last one. I'm anxiously awaiting the pictures. Teresa

ps we're having superb warm weather, 70-75, no wind, lovely, but I truly miss the pretty white snow!

  Teresa Mar 3, 2009 3:15 AM


Dear Laina, Nick and Cory
Cory...before I forget...thanks for writing. You have a gift of putting your words together in a very picturesque sort of way. I could really "see" what you were talking about.
Also, Cory, remember you have an open invitation to come to"the lots" in Idaho and visit with Lainas big family.
As I was reading about the salt flats it reminded me of the salt flats in Utah. Have you ever seen those?
You are eating all sorts of different meats. What happens when it tastes horrible...do you eat it anyway?
What exactly does allitude sickness feel like?...just like a bad hangover. it there a fever?
Thanks for taking the time to write so much and so well. You will be glad you have this wonderful diary.
Love, Aunt Pat

  Aunt Pat Mar 8, 2009 1:09 AM

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