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Monday, 21 July 2014

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: The Largest Salt Flats in the World!

After leaving the hospital in Uyuni and getting some sleep Leo (driver), Ely (tour guide) and I made a late start to the Salt Flats. Uyuni was in a blockade with all transportation workers on strike and blocking all roads in and out of the city (I forgot to write about this in my last post). There were reports of any cars trying to get in or out of the city and getting smashed by rocks. The dirt towards the Salt Flats was the only way.

Uyuni would be the dirtiest city I have seen. All roads are dirt through the city and there were piles of garbage everywhere, especially piled up in the desert on the way out. We arrived at one last little town before the salt flats where the only gas/petrol station refused to sell fuel due to the blockade... We still had one more large jerrycan on the roof.

We were now on the salt flats! Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest at over 10,000 square kilometers (for the mathematically challenged imagine a square with each side being 100km in length). The salt flats also are about 3,700m above sea level. The salt flats and large salt lakes in this part of the world were caused when two continental plates smashed together (which also created the Andes with over 100 mountains above 6,000m) causing what was part of the ocean to be elevated thousands of metres above ground. Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain anywhere from 40% to 80% of the world's lithium reserves. Although Bolivia is regarded as the poorest country in South America the people are strongly opposed to lithium mining of Salar de Uyuni, very little is currently extracted and all foreign companies were booted 20 years ago... It also contains over 10 Billion tonnes of salt.



Our first stop was the Salt Museum where absolutely everything (building, tables, chairs, etc) are made from salt. Leo and Ely prepared our breakfast while I explored the outside and inside. There is a massive Dakar Rally salt statue here, although the Dakar rally ran through Chile, Argentina and Bolivia it never made it to the salt flats... the cost of the museum is any purchase from the gist shop. In my case this was a toblerone.












After breakfast I kicked a ball around with two little kids while Leo and Ely cleaned up.





Next on the list was a long drive across the salt flats for lunch eventually stopping at a mountain island in the middle of the salt flats.

The island was full of cacti and had a few little routes to explore. Leo and Eli were preparing our lunch while I explored the island.

The Imperial Inka Flag

Leo working hard making my lunch
On the Island

The Bolivian flag with top a little rabbit in front below.



That little speck is a car!


Even llamas live here


The kitchen
After lunch I helped pack up before we took off in the car again to a much bigger mountain which had an actual town on it. We drove through the town and up high on the mountain. We parked and did a short hike where I saw 800 year old remains in a cave (I will leave those photos out). They were killed by the Inkas in pre Columbus times.

Leo & Ely

Me admiring the salt flats

A long way down!

Now it was time for the fun part! Finding a spot in the middle of no where to take some salt flat photos.

But First it was time to look at flamingos.

I put my big lens in for this shot
 Now for the funny photos. I already had some practice in Argentina and Ely had a scrap book of other ideas. Unfortunately for Leo he would be on the receiving end of these photos.





This actually became my Bolivian drink of choice a week later

Toy time

Leo fighting back

I jumped too high

It was now time to head back to Uyuni. First we found a hole in the salt to fill up some bottles with water. The water is full of nutrients and Bolivians have been using it for health benefits for hundreds of years.

On the way back we stopped in at the salt museum again. Ely made a call to the hospital. That is when we received the news that Dylan had died 30 minutes before the town of Potosi, still 1.5 hours from the intended destination of Sucre. This was terrible news and a tragic end to beautiful trip.

Ely contacted the owners/managers of the tour company. The plan was for them to go to Potosi the next morning. I said that I wanted to go to but first we had to get back to Tupiza via Uyuni which meant going through the blockades.

We saw the first blockade so turned down a different route with them chasing only to have a second blockade run out in front of us holding sticks and massive rocks. This probably would have normally scared the absolute shit out of me but my mind was elsewhere. Ely told them what happened while they were yelling at us and holding rocks in a throwing position. They understood... they are human. 3 of them hopped in and squished next to me. They told us which way to go and got us through the blockade that we tried to avoid.

We were driving again and I thought we made it... Only to be met by a massive blockade with 100 cars. Our car became completely surrounded. Leo locked all of the doors and I avoided eye contact with the people holding rocks outside my window (about 30-50 people surrounding the car). Ely was crying and did all of the explaining. Many still didn't want to let us through but it looks like the majority felt sorry for what had happened. We drove to the front of the blockade and one of the big trucks made enough room for us to squeeze through... If Ely wasn't there then we would have had no chance on getting through.

On the way stopped for a toilet break a.k.a. the nearest ditch. Ely fainted walking back to the car. Leo and I carried her back to the car and gave her water then laid her seat right back so she could sleep the rest of the way back to Tupiza. Uyuni to Tupiza is about 4 hours on the highway (dirt road).

The tour company I used was one of the 2 big ones in Tupiza, both of the main one's are attached to hostels. the hostel was completely booked out that night so I stayed in a guest room at the owner's house/mansion (some Bolivians do have money). We awoke at 4am to make our (the father and son owners, Ely and I) journey from Tupiza to Potosi, this time in a Mercedes. We arrived at the hospital at 8am but Michael & Harry along with Dylan's body were taken to La Paz by police escort around 8pm the night before... we were too late.

One line from the death certificate is something that I will never forget, "Edema de Pulmon (causado por Mal de Altura)". This translates to Pulmonary Oedema (caused by Altitude Sickness).

I can't imagine what the feeling must have been like for Harry and Michael, especially in a foreign country that doesn't speak your language and is completely different to Australia.

Lessons Learnt:
The Bolivian Salt Flats are very impressive.
Altitude Sickness can be very serious and people need to know about it.
Take full advantage of your life while you can.

P.S.
Before going on high altitude adventures (especially Bolivia and Nepal) google High Altitude Induced Pulmonary Oedema/Edema (UK/US) & High Altitude Induced Cerebral Oedema/Edema. Knowing the symptoms and remedies for these two types of altitude sickness could safe your life or the life of a friend. Dylan clearly showed all 4 signs of High Altitude Induced Pulmonary Oedema but none of us knew anything about the signs or remedies.

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