One of the greatest parts of my experience in Bolivia, which is now, sadly, drawing to a close, was our three-day trip to Potosi, the southernmost region of Bolivia.
On Thursday, we met early in the morning to leave on a bus for the town of Oruro, located in the southern departamento (the Bolivian equivalent of a state; the country has nine) of the same name. Oruro itself was unseasonably hot when we arrived around noon, and people walked through the dusty, spacious streets wearing sweaters and jackets, obviously unprepared for this change in weather. From Oruro, we caught a train, which took us eight hours further south, into the departamento of Potosi to the town of Uyuni. I try to approach life with a persistently stupid kind of positive attitude, but that train ride was decidedly rough. Due to the lack of atmosphere, the Andean sun is merciless, and while Bolivians seem to be perfectly happy to ride in a boiling train car with all windows closed (due to dust?) for eight hours, I have to say that I don’t share their sentiments.
All whining aside, we were very glad to get to Uyuni when we did. The town was like something out of the old west. Built on the long-defunct silver and tin mining industry, Uyuni is sustained by tourism, and most businesses are something tourist-related: souvenir shops, tour companies, etc. After a night at the comfortable Toñito hotel, we set out in an aging Toyota Land Cruiser in what was to be a three-day circuit of the very southern-most part of Bolivia, almost to the Argentinean and Chilean borders. With our guide and driver, Don Ismael, and our cook, we set out first to a site just outside Uyuni: the Train Cemetery, a resting place for the trains that used to transport minerals from Uyuni back into the heart of Bolivia.
After the train cemetery, we drove to the southern edge of Uyuni, the ground changing from a dry, hard brown to a faint beige as its salt content steadily increased. After a brief visit to the Salt Museum and a salt-processing company, we set out into the blinding whiteness of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. Words cannot describe the beauty and strangeness of this landscape. The whiteness stretched on to the horizon in all directions, ruining all perspective. The Wikipedia page for the Salar is interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni.
Around the middle of the day, we stopped at Incahuasi, an cactus-covered rocky “island” that rises out of the Salar. The place was beautiful, but CRAWLING with tourists. It’s very hard to appreciate the majesty of a place such as the Salar while there is a fifty-five-year-old American woman with a fanny-pack talking loudly about how quaint everything is and how that stupid guy at the hotel brought her cream instead of half-and-half with her room service AGAIN. I find almost all tourists extremely grating. If you hadn’t determined that.
A brief aside on that point: There is a fundamental difference between a tourist and a traveler, and it comes down to mentality. A tourist is someone who goes to a different part of the world with the idea that that part of the world and its people should and will change themselves to meet his/her needs. Money is the justification for this demand. A traveler is someone who travels to a different part of the world and expects not be met with change, but to be changed by that experience. But, I digress.
Anyhow, the day consisted of much shenanigans on the Salar, and later, staying spending the night in a small town nestled into the cleft of mountain behind fields of quinoa. A VERY small town. This town had two families in it. The night was quiet, the stars were brilliant, and we awaited the next day.
…Stay tuned for more on Mark’s journey to Potosi. Coming soon!