I had heard that there were many travellers who went by plane from far away places like Japan or Korea to see Uyuni, one of the seven wonders in the world. Then we thought why not to dedicate time to travel by car? We started in La Paz and we spent about 25 hours (return trip by night time) to get to Uyuni, and another 5 hours or so in a 4×4 to see and feel the places nearby. Though it was not that simple to sleep more than four hours in the seat-bed that you get in the bus, it was a great experience to enjoy precious landscapes, enjoy the people and the region where Quinoa was born !
Upon arrival in Uyuni, at 3650 m.a.s.l., we met Filomeno, who was our general guide. When he realised that I couldn’t go that high, to the places that they had included in the plan (coloured lagoons, geysers, etc. higher than 5,000 m.a.s.l.), ‘we got single’ and Constanza had the trip above 5,000 and I had the one, at 3650.
Finally we were in Uyuni, 110 sq. km. shared between Oruro and Potosí, quite close to the Bolivian border with Chile and Argentina. In the past (1890) Uyuni was important because of being the central point for mining and exporting of tin and silver to the USA and to Europe. Metals are gone, mining is gone and the only reminders of the whole story that you can see are the railways and the train cemetery.
Uyuni became relevant again because of the ‘salar’, biggest salt desert in the world and one of the biggest lithium deposits in the globe. In 1890 the government (and very rich people, of course!) used foreign debt to exploit and export these minerals. This was at the time that the key investors where in London: the Antofagasta – Bolivia Railway Company, built with French, British and American money..
Uyuni is a small town with 20,000 inhabitants who live mainly from tourism and from selling cheap salt exploited in Colchani.
The train cemetery – the end of the line
In 1940 the mining industries collapsed and the trains practically disappeared. Few kilometres from Uyuni yo find the train cemetery. Except from the noise brought by tourists, all you see are steel skeletons embraced by silence, wind and rust.
It was very strange to visit a one street town, few hundred inhabitants, and the only salt-making facility using salt from the Salar. The facilities are owned by all salt workers. They collect salt from the Salar and leave it to dry in the sun. Then it is transported to Colchani to be processed: after cooked, the workers add iodine and then pack it and sell it in Bolivia and Brazil.
It was interesting to see the new handicraft businesses and a few houses and hotels built by using salt blocks.
After crossing the Salar, it was great to arrive to Jirira, close to the Thunupa volcano. Jirira is a small town, with only one store and a few small hotels. The salt sea, the soft colours of the volcano, llamas, vicunas, flamingos, the church, the piled stones and the quinoa plots, define a unique place. During the afternoon of the first day I tried to climb the volcano, but the reality was that when I reached 4,500 m.a.s.l. or so, oxygen did not get into my lungs. After 1 hour climbing, I was tired and decided to go back.
Early in the morning of the 2nd day I walked like 45 minutes away from Jirira, going into the Salar. The feeling was quite strange. Though I could see the volcano and the town becoming smaller and smaller, when I watched the Salar, it was as if I had not moved at all! It was also special the feeling that I had walked a total of 6 km or more on the hexagons drawn by salt on a completely flat and salty surface.
Early in the morning Filomeno picked me up in his car. I spent the 2nd day of my tour with two Bolivians and two Koreans. Though it was interesting to see how Asian people are interested in Uyuni, my best conversations were with Filomeno, our guide. He told me some of the mythological stories about the times where volcanoes could walk and talk. All volcanoes were male, except for Thunupa, who was female, got pregnant and gave birth to a little volcano whose father was unknown. The male volcanoes got into a terrible fight over who was the father. They snatched the young volcano from her and hid him in a far plain called Colchani. The gods decided volcanoes would stay still like stone. After listening to this decision, Thunupa began to cry milky tears that flooded the plain and formed the Salar.
We were in the Fish Island, the hilly and rocky piece of land placed in the centre of the Salar. It has a touristic centre and the small hill is planted with giant (more than 10 m. high) cacti, more than 1200 years old. Watching the cacti we had the lunch that was cooked by Filomeno’s wife.