Travel Writing Adwards Entry
By Penelope Whitson
It looks just like snow. Stretching out in a manner both beautiful and intimidating, the Bolivian salt flats, all 10 billion tons of the white stuff, are unbelievably bright, giving you salt blindness if you stare for too long.
I haven’t given much thought to where salt comes from before – but soon I’m standing on a little pile of it, as more piles are raked up beside me, to be shovelled on to a truck and taken off to be processed. It occurs to me, as we climb up these piles to have our photos taken, that this is not helpful to those who just did the raking.
When I imagined this trip, I’d thought of our jeep being alone as it drove across the flats, but this romantic image turns out to be mostly incorrect. The salt flats are a huge tourist attraction, and on the first day, at least, there are several jeeps speeding along, each full of tourists, or “travelers”, as we all no doubt prefer to think of ourselves. However, the feeling of being very small and alone persists, as does the feeling of not wanting to get left behind. Although, the chances of that are very small indeed, given we are at least six to a jeep and each jeep is allocated their own driver – who will no doubt be given a hard word if they lose one of their money-spinning charges.
Driving across the salt flats, much to my surprise, does not become repetitive, but it is still a relief to get to our next stop, La Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) because, as usual, I need a toilet.
Fish Island is an uprising of coral surrounded by a sea of salt, covered in very old cacti. As with the salt flats, it’s all rather surreal and everyone is taking photos. I watch a German girl in a bikini pretend to hug a cactus for a photo. Unsurprisingly, she does not escape unscathed.
Despite the fact that it is winter, it is now extremely hot. It was much colder this morning, and it will get very cold tonight but, for the moment, all the occupants of the jeeps are stripping off and the café on the island is doing a roaring trade in beer as we wait for our drivers to cook us lunch.
We and several other jeeploads stop for the night at a hotel made almost completely out of salt. The fact that this includes the tables and chairs is useful at dinner. The atmosphere does feel a trifle sticky – nothing actually tangible but the air is not as clear as it is outside. Small children come and sing and play instruments during dinner – and then we have to give them money. Considering that I didn’t enjoy it, I am reluctant to do so, but I give in – so as not to look mean.
Day two sees us exchanging the salt flats for desert and a lake in order to see the flamingos – which are not standing on one leg. Another long-held belief dashed. But there are so many of them, just standing around being flamingos that it doesn’t matter. They and the llamas that are milling about can be watched for quite some time – although inevitably someone asks what the difference between llamas, vicunas and alpacas is and a debate ensues.
We visit some tombs. Apparently they are hundreds of years old. The doctor we have in our jeep looks at the skeletons and mutters ‘I don’t think so’. Still, they are fascinating to look at, or would be more so if I didn’t desperately need to use a toilet. Again. This is what is going to be the most memorable part of this trip for me. I deeply regret leaving my She-wee at home.
Night two we spend in a little village, where we quickly sniff out the one place that sells beer. It seems the drivers are onto a similar thing as they become quite raucous in another room. Given that we have a 3.30am start the next day they seem to have no qualms about staying up rather late. Strangely enough, we are not wakened at 3.30. At 5am we are told that our driver, Oscar, needs more sleep.
We finally leave at 9am. Oscar is hungover, has a black eye and two of our tires have been let down in the night. We are unsure if this is a joke or some sort of feud between the jeep drivers – hence the black eye. Oscar does not explain.
Eventually we get back on the road, only a few hours behind schedule and drive to see some lakes. I practise the art of peeing behind rocks.
We stop to admire the geysers. Being from New Zealand, we are not that impressed with these small offerings, but the hole in the ground spilling out with some what appears to be steam is fascinating and we throw many things into it, watching them fly all over the place – our best attempt is a flat tire. If this was another country there’d be a fence and signs and we’d be unable to do this at all – it’s probably a health and safety issue. We enjoy ourselves immensely.
The highlight of day three is the hot spring. Three days of not washing and we’re all a bit in need of cleanliness. Sadly, the late start means we only get half an hour so too soon we have to clamber out and try dry off with our travel towels that never quite cover enough.
The rest of day three is spent mostly in the jeep as we make the six-hour journey back to Uyuni, playing car games and swigging whisky (it’s still cold). One genuine flat tire later we finally trundle into town and I appreciate the toilet at the local llama pizzeria.