Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bolivia by the Numbers and Our Trip to Salar de Uyuni

¡Bienvenidos de San Pedro de Atacama! Yesterday we arrived in Chile in the small desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. First, a brief budgetary update. As you know, we entered Bolivia on August 24 wih $321, mainly to pay our $270 in entrance fees to the Bolivian migration authorities. Other than that, our only major expense was our trip to Salar de Uyuni, and things in Bolivia were generally very affordable. We left the country yesterday, completing our 39 day stay. We withdrew a total of $1731, and left the country with about $86 in US money, Bolivianos, and Chilean pesos. Our total spend was thus $1966, across 39 days yields a daily spend of $50.41. Keep in mind that really means we spent much closer to $40 a day had we not had to pay the entrance fee, although we did talk our way out of the exit fee - more to come on that later.

Our trip to the Salar began with a 4 hour bus ride from Potosí to Uyuni, as you know we had a few transportation issues and ended up not being able to leave for a few days, but finally on Saturday we escaped and got to Uyuni that afternoon. Uyuni is a very small town, mainly focused on tourism and salt production. The biggest attraction aside from Salar tours is the Uyuni clock tower, yet the clock didn't work. Anyways, we found a hotel right next to our tour agency and checked in. Since we had booked the tour with an agent in La Paz, we called her partner in Uyuni who said that she would be in her office in half an hour. Lucky for us her office was right next to the hotel so half an hour later we go wait outside her office. Then we wait some more. After about an hour has passed I call her to see what's going on and she informs me that she won't be coming to her office and to just show up the next morning at 9:00 AM. Not exactly a good way to start our tour, but we are used to rolling with the punches and wander around the city buying some supplies for the trip and exchanging some of our Bolivianos. We actually had a little trouble exchanging Bolivianos into Chilean pesos as the first two casas de cambio didn't have any pesos. We finally found one that did and the rate was slightly better than we saw online so it was like we got free money!

The next morning we went to our tour agency, Sol de Mañana, at 9:00 AM and the tour agent wasn't even there. Around 9:45 I called her and she said she would be there in five minutes. Finally she showed up around 10:15. Needless to say we were not thrilled about this. Not to worry, we asked her a few questions, most specifically if we would need any money to buy optional things. We already knew we needed 180 Bolivianos for national park entrances, but we wanted to know if there were any other things we would need money for, optional trips, etc. to which she said no (a complete lie). Then we went to the immigration office to get stamped out of Bolivia, interestingly he post-dated the stamp so it has the correct date on it. He then asked for a 15 Boliviano "fee" to leave the country. We talked our way out of paying it, basically by saying we would pay at the border, knowing that he was trying to cheat us and we would probably just walk across the border without any trouble. We meet our driver/tour guide, Mario, as well as the two of the other travelers in our jeep. We head out to the train graveyard first where one of the trains was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and has the bulletholes to prove it.

After the train graveyard we stopped at a different hotel to pick up two other tourists who had started a four day tour before us. We then drove to a salt factory where they grind up salt and mix it with iodine by hand. This salt is then bagged and sold for 15 Bolivianos for 50 kilos, less than 2¢ per pound for you Americans.

They also build their homes and structures out of salt bricks extracted from the ground.

We took a lot of pictures in the salt flats, it really is extremely flat and almost like being on another planet.

We then visited the Isla del Pescado, or fish island, which has some cactuses which are over 1000 years old.

We also fixed a flat tire and tasted some of the salt from the ground.

We headed to our refugio, a very basic hotel made of salt, where we would spend the night.

Next to the refugio there is a small mountain with some caves that cost 15 Bolivianos to go visit (something that Edith, the tour agent at Sol de Mañana swore would be free). Oddly enough we were originally told at the refugio it would be 10 Bolivianos to go into the caves but somehow the price went up during the walk over. We decided not to do the cave tour and hike up the mountain. We had some amazing views, and the Salar is amazingly flat, no wonder they test GPS satellites on it. Additionally, at the refugio, hot showers were available for 10 Bolivianos, something our tour agent again neglected to mention. We actually were expecting not to be able to shower at all, but the other four in our group had been told the showers would be free, so they were quite unhappy about the situation. Anyway, we watched the sunset, ate dinner and got to bed early.

The next day we left the salar and saw some really amazing landscapes. We also crossed over the train tracks that still carry the occasional train to Chile.

We went to a mirror lake and saw three different types of flamingos. Some of the flamingos have black feathers and black legs, as well as the pink flamingo everyone is familiar with. We visited some very interesting rock formations including a tree of stone caused by wind-powered sandblasting and got too see a few rabbit-like animals called vizcachas.

That afternoon we went to the Laguna Colorada, a lake that is red in color. The redness is caused by algae in the water that activates in the wind. Luckily the wind was quite strong and the lake was very red.

There were also some vicuñas near the road which are a sort of wild llama/horse and are a protected species (so we couldn't have them for dinner).

The last morning we woke up very early and headed to an area with a lot of underground activity. Sulfur was bubbling up from underground, there were numerous steam vents, and Sarah almost blew into the air from a geyser. It was like Yellowstone without the fences. Our guide informed us that we shouldn't get too close as tourists have fallen in and burned themselves.

After the geysers we drove to a hot spring and finally got to take a nice warm bath, oddly enough, the lake next to the hot spring was frozen over. Then we went to the Laguna Verde, or green lake, however the algae that make the lake green are also activated by wind, and since there was no wind, the lake was not green. For some reason all the tours go here in the morning when there is no wind, normally it is windy at night, so only the lucky few get to see this lake when it is actually green. At this point we were about an hour from the border with Chile and our driver dropped us off at the Bolivian checkpoint. We just walked past the checkpoint and got into the van at was waiting at the other side for us. Thus, we avoided the 15 Boliviano fee which some of the other tourists in our van ended up paying. The van took us to San Pedro de Atacama where we went through Chilean border formalities, and then we found a hostel.

Prices in Chile are significantly higher than in Bolivia, our dorm beds here are 5600 pesos a night, about $12 US per person. This afternoon we are going sandboarding, and then tomorrow we head on to La Serena!

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