We started from Uyuni township in Bolivia and the first day was spent on the salt lake. By the end of the day we had only just left the huge salt lake to stop for the night in a small township called San Pedrito de Quemez. We slept this night at 4,200 meters.
Driving on the Salt Lake of Uyuni
The Colchani Salt Factories
As our tour started, we stopped first at the salt factories in the tiny community of Colchani. Here we learned that the people working there earned next to nothing. Everything was done by hand as it was too expensive to introduce machines, each 1kg bag of salt earning $0.50 Bolivianos, and 50kgs of salt earning $8 Bolivianos.
Scooping the crushed salt into bags by hand.
Where we were shown the process of bagging the salt, six families were working. That was only one of many different brands that were made from the same salt, with a total of 150 families working in this township of salt factories. The family that allowed us to see them working earned more money from the tourists, who gave them a token gift for the short tour, than from the salt.
Sealing the bags with a "hot stick"
One of the things about the salt here in Bolivia is that every bag of salt needs to have YODA added to it. This prevents a terrible disease that can cause total exhaustion and exploded (extremely large) lymph glands. The YODA is very expensive, costing $50 USD per kilogram, and is mixed into the piles of salt before bagging. All throughout Bolivia people are careful to purchase only "sal yodada" because of this disease. Before this process, many people in Bolivia were very sick due to the lack of YODA.
The lady that explained everything to us.
Outside were dozens of vending tables sporting various types of creations from the hard salt before it is crushed. Even some of the nearby houses were created with large blocks of the hardened salt as it is taken from the salt lake. One such house, a museum, sported many different creations of salt inside, and in an adjacent house there were tables and chairs created out of salt. All very solid, and very salty too.
Tables full of salt products for sale.
The salt structures and building of the Salt Museum.
Piles of Salt Everywhere
Almost half a dozen other jeeps were parked around the factories along with ours, and as we moved out onto the salt lake, coming to the place where it was harvested, so too did the other jeeps arrive with us. These "montones de sal" or "mountains of salt" are created by scraping the surface of the salt lake with special tools mostly made by hand, building up a pile of loose salt that can later be dried and used for bagging.
The tools of the trade and some of the mountains they have created.
Each job is done by hand, often by only one person working all through the day every day. Their cars are old and worn out, partly by the corrosive effects of the salt and partly due to the poor wages they earn meaning that maintenance is a luxury and very rarely done. Only when something breaks do they try to fix it, and even then it is done in the cheapest way possible.
A man working next to his old car at yet another pile of salt.
As we moved on, one of the jeeps allowed their tourists to climb onto the roof and ride along there. Our driver told us that there had already been some serious accidents because of this behaviour and would not allow us to do the same. In fact Wilson turned out to be not only careful but also a very good and fair driver who made our entire tour very enjoyable.
Some of the guys in another tour riding the roof of their jeep.
Hotel de Sal
Driving for some time we finally reach the famous Hotel made of Salt. Just by hearing about it I had some interesting concepts of what it would look like, most of them similar to the recent James Bond film with a hotel made only of ice. It was not anything like this however, and resembled something much more common and normal, being built using salt blocks using an adobe construction.
The eating area for the Hotel of Salt.
With a salt floor, salt walls, and a wooden roof, the hotel did not provide lot of warmth, and at night the salt lake gets very cold. Some people on another tour who had stayed there the night told us of how cold it had been overnight, their words hinting at a lack of warmth while they slept. The hotel is "free" to visit, as long as you buy something from their shop. I bought some salted chips and chocolate.
We were not the only ones that were visiting the hotel today.
Nearby the hotel I discover a super-deep hold in the salt, filled with water. It seemed like a good idea to get my photo taken with my arm down it, but after removing my arm from the water I realised just how much salt had dissolved in the water. Within moments there was a while film of salt forming all along my arm. Where I had touched my t-shirt was great sweeps of white salt, and after a while the salt had dried up and powdered off me.
The deep hole that I sunk my entire arm into for a photo (you can see nothing in the photo which is why it is not shown).
Hexagon Patterns in the Salt
When we had left the hotel and continued onward on this huge plain of salt, we came to a section where the salt had crystalised in huge blocks in the form of a six-sided hexagon. A friend of mine had told me that the only real way to remove big chunks of salt was to cut them out following the edge of these hexagons, although our driver, Wilson, told us that they had used axes to cut out the square blocks that were used to form the hotel of salt.
Showing the size of the hexagonal crystals on the salt lake.
It was fascinating to see these hexagonal patterns in the salt leading off into the distance as far as we could see. The sheer size of this mammoth lake of salt was amazing. It was so long that we spent most of the day driving over it, unable to see more than the distant mountain ranges that seemed smaller than our thumbs. In any direction that we looked there seemed to be no end to the size and grandeur of this place, the white and the patterns continued for what seemed like eternity until they fell out of sight past the curving horizon.
Looking over the salt patterns to the distant mountains around the edge.
While we were driving along, we saw four or five cyclists riding out along the salt lake. Two were riding alone, in the middle of nothing, while there was another group who had stopped for a rest together. The entire tour that we did is on public property and anybody with a decent knowledge of the area and the desire can do the tour in their own vehicle, or even a bicycle if they want.
One of the lone cyclists riding out on the lake.
Isla del Pescado (Fish Island)
Our next destination was the "Isla del Pescado" where we stopped to enjoy lunch, and all the more because it was already close to 3.00pm. This island is so named because of its appearance of a fish when looking at it from a distance. Like all of the islands that exist within this lake of salt, Fish Island was covered in a cactus known as Cardones.
Fish Island is a very popular place for tourists and travellers.
The Cardon cactus plant is tall an very spiky, and as I learned the hard way, you should not rub your hand along the spikes to asses how spike they are. This results in dozens of little spike ends breaking off and remaining in your hand until you can remove them all again – one by one. This cactus plant also produces a very solid and durable wood which had been utilized well all around the island.
In addition to being used for signs, cactus wood was used for rubbish bins, doors and even some buildings.
While waiting for our lunch to be cooked, we paid our "Island Entry Fee" and then wandered around the 20 minute look that covered the entire island. Dozens of other vehicles had stopped here for lunch also, clogging the trails we were walking with dozens of other tourists all eager to see the island and snap dozens of photos.
Looking out over the salt lake from the top of Fish Island.
By the time that we had returned to our jeep, Wilson had prepared a very nice lunch of a salad and llama meat. The meat was very similar to all other meats with very little change in the taste. As a group, when we had finished lunch, we left Wilson to clean up and pack the jeep and wandered out onto the salt to play and take photos.
Our group eating lunch at a salt table (Clockwise from front: Jan and Sophie, Jasmine, Anna, Micah (wrong I think), and Rebecca).
Playing visual tricks with the salt.
Enjoying the games we can play on the salt.
The salt lake was not always smooth and flat.
Trying to perform a headstand, I fell over backwards twice. Photos are really kind sometimes.
Walking on Water – Salty Water
Wilson drove out to pick us up and we continued on our way in the late afternoon. Just before we left the Salar and started driving along the edge of it, there was a section of salt covered in water, and Wilson stopped the jeep. At first, when getting out we stepped carefully on the small ridges of high salt. Here the water would not wet our shoes or feet.
Looking back at the waves that our jeep made through the waters.
However, after a little experimentation we discovered that we could walk anywhere we liked, even though the water looked deep, as our feet were suspended at the water’s surface by crystals of salt that had formed throughout every pool. Each pool was marked by the high and dry edges of its hexagon, with faults along some of them that allowed the water to flow between the pools.
Proving that we could walk on the water.
The sun was rapidly setting so after numerous photos and sufficient time to play with the large crystals of salt, we all climbed back into the jeep and continued on our way. This would be the last time that we would be driving over the salt lake of Uyuni, although the rest of our journey would take us alongside the lake to our destination.
The ridges of salt formed around the hexagonal crystals of salt.
Leaving the salt lake late in the day.
Cueva del Diablo (The Devil’s Cave)
One of the items on our itinerary was to visit the "Cave of the Devil" however when we finally arrived at the cave at 5.30pm it was already closed. Jan, a Belgium man who had read a lot about each place that we were about to visit informs us that there was not a lot that we missed from the cave, although it would have been nice to have seen it.
The Devil’s Cave that we did not see because it was closed.
As we continued on our way, Wilson managed to get our jeep stuck in the dirt. In the end, we all climbed out of the 4wd and pushed until it was free of the hole that had grabbed it so tight, jumping back in for the final leg of our day.
While the guys pushed our jeep out of the bog, I made sure we had some photos of the event (and then joined in helping them).
Driving along we saw many vicuÃ±as, a small and light llama, protected by Bolivian law. Our landscape turned from a burnt yellow to a dull grey as the sun sunk over the now nearby hills.
One of the many VicuÃ±as that we saw along the way.
San Pedro de Qemaz
Finally, in the dark, we reach our destination of San Pedro de Quemaz, a small town that now derives its name from when it was killed and burned during the Chile-Bolivian war. The ruins still remain on the higher ground, while the rebuilt township was started on the plains below. These days, Chilean doctors and specialists come over the border to visit and work in this township from time to time, clearly showing the changes in attitude that has occurred over the years.
The road to San Pedro de Quemaz.
We all enjoy an early dinner which we have all eaten by 9pm, and with the altitude of 4,200 meters (close to 14,000 meters), our tiredness is strong enough that we all find a comfortable bed and fall asleep before 9.30pm. Our day had been very full, even though by the end of the day we were all burnt to a crisp, but loved it.
The sun sets before we make it to our destination of San Pedro.