Friday, July 16, 2010

Uyuni, Part 2: Gettin´ High

No drugs were involved in the adventure that inspired this post. We just went to very high altitudes.

Day two of the Uyuni Salt Flat tour: we were done with the salt flats, and on to the other strange geology of the area. We got to see lots of mountains on the drive, which were deceptively small-looking, considering that they reached a minimum of about 15,000 feet, and up to over 18,000 feet. The trick was that we were looking at them from an altitude of 12,000 to 14,000 feet. Being out of breath all the time helped us remember that these are, in fact, high mountains.

Some of the mountains had interesting colors on them. The guide kept saying that the colors were due to minerals, but that the mountains were not geologically active (except one or two), but I have the feeling that he meant that they weren´t puffing smoke. I think they are active on a geologic timescale, or they wouldn´t be the pretty colors they were.

Along the way, there were some very interesting rock formations, including the Tree of Stone:

This day was mostly driving from lagoon to lagoon. I believe this one is Laguna Hedionda:

These lagunas were famous for their flamingos, which put up with cold temperatures. It´s the dry season now, though, so there weren´t a lot of flamingos, but there were still a few:

Laguna Colorado was where we spent the third night. It was extremely cold, being at 14,000 feet, but it had a great view and a pretty sunset:

The bottom of that sign says altitude 4278 meters, which is just over 14,000 feet. Cozy place for a night´s stay. Should I mention that the hotels here don´t have heating?

There were vicuñas there, too, which are the wild relative of the alpaca. Anna got pretty close, and they didn´t run - we were joking that the people running the hotel we were at had put out vicuña food, since it didn´t look like there was anything else to eat out there.

We had a great dinner that night, with a surprise bottle of wine. Alcohol at these altitudes meant that one bottle for four people (the fifth didn´t drink) was more than enough.

I forgot to mention in the last post that our abandoned hotel the first night made for good stargazing. We decided that we needed to go out again at Laguna Colorada, since we were up even higher in elevation, so we could see even more stars. Had I mentioned that it was cold, though? Yup.

The stars were absolutely incredible from up there. We saw southern stars that we´re not used to, of course, including the southern cross, Centaurus, and the Magellenic Clouds peeking over the horizon. The Milky Way was unbelievable - the dark dust lanes were so distinct. Anyway, enough geeking. It was also very cold, so we didn´t stay out long. Anna was a champ, joining us both nights, even though she hadn´t started off an astronomy geek.

The next morning, we got up early (about 5:30) in the cold (did I mention that it was cold?) to see the geysers doing their thing. The geysers are at just over 5000 meters, which means we were over 16,500 feet. We certainly felt it. But they were neat looking:

Our next stop was a hot spring that had a hot-tub area for the hundreds of tourists it saw in a day. Jeff, Anna, and Michael were crazy enough to go in (Michael not pictured):

While the rest of us with sense (Shahar, Albarosa, and me) stayed bundled and just put our feet in:

We also stopped by another laguna, Laguna Verde:

And then, we were on our way back, with a couple more stops planned. We stopped in the "city of rocks" for lunch, which is a huge rock formation of eroded lava rocks. Someday, I´d love to go backpacking there - it was incredible. There was a little town nearby that had the tail of a small plane on top of one of the rocks, where someone had crash landed in the snow a few years ago. Apparently, everyone survived, or so said our guide.

We were also supposed to stop in an "authentic pueblo" and at a "train cemetary," where old trains are left to rust, on our way back. The car, however, had other ideas. As we were driving along a long, flat stretch, it looked like we hit a water balloon, and then dirty water was raining down on the windshield. As it turned out, the radiator pump (or something of the sort - I know very little about cars) had blown, probably because it had been filled with water, not with radiator fluid. The great thing about being a tourist on a heavily-touristed area in a country with a cooperative culture is that all the other cars that passed us stopped to help. They crammed us in one by one to bring us back to Uyuni, leaving our poor guide and cook to sort out the car trouble. Jeff and I got to ride together, and ended up in the front seat of an old Suburban-style vehicle. The group was a Bolivian family out for a tour of the salt flats, but of course, the locals don´t go with the gringo tourism agencies. So our older car was decorated with little charms including bowler hats (the ladies here wear them a lot), pan pipes, and even a fake US $100 bill. It was a big car, but it was a big family, too, so we were rather squeezed. But at least we weren´t stuck on the side of the road! On our way home, we saw two other newer Land Rovers, like the one we had been riding in, broken down - so cheers to old Suburbans.

When we got back to the little town of Uyuni, we were actually pretty happy to see the place. It´s not much, but it has interesting statues:

It also has a train station, and a train that goes north, but leaves at midnight. The road out of Uyuni heading north is apparently pretty awful, so we caught the train instead. We even splurged on first class seats, which cost 101 bolivianos, equivalent to just over US $14. It was worth it - we could almost lay flat, except for putting our feet up. The train took us to Oruro, where we then caught a bus to La Paz, and that is where we are now. Jeff gets to explain that part, though.

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