Day 18 - Uyuni to Atulcha (Salt Flats)
We started early to withdrawal US$ at the ATM and paid the Red Planet Salt Flat Tour at 7:30am when the office opened. Our tour started at 11:00.
Having arrived late the previous night, we had a quick walk around the small town centre, before breakfast at our hotel. Karen noted the picture of the hotel entrance on the Internet was very different to the actual. The original hotel built a long time ago is joined by a long courtyard to the more modern one with the rooms.
On our morning walk we noticed a lot of dogs roaming the streets and also a lot of Toyota Land Cruiser. Later we learnt that 80% of the work in this town is tourism related. Not sure how this relates to the number of high number of roaming dogs.
Around the town we saw evidence of the 2015 Dakar Rally, when the motorcycles only passed through in January for 2 days. This was just after Pat was here. In 2016 there is a week of activity, as all classes of trucks, cars, buggies and motorcycle will include the salt flats.
We loaded into V8 Land Cruiser with Beema (driver and cook) and Carlos (the local English speaking guide) and headed off on our personal tour. There were two others tours, being 3 days from Red Planet that we crossed paths and spent the night at same hotel outside Atulcha, and also met at most viewing sites. There was a mixture of French, Americans, Australians, Germans and Dutch.
On the outskirts of Uyuni, we visited the train graveyard, full of old steam locomotives from the mining boom days, and watched as the tourists streamed in to get photos on, under, beside and inside the rusting wrecks. Apparently in summer, there can be up to 70 Toyota Land Cruiser parked here.
The salt flats were amazing in both size, and isolation. We had a huge lunch at the town of Colchani, where we had lunch and saw how the salt and iodine are mixed and packaged for sale as a local business to provide income from sales and tourism.
Next we headed west to a now unused salt block hotel where there was a large Dakar Rally salt statue built for 2014 race. The salt flats are a visually important section of the race as it looks great in the helicopter shots. In Jan there is usually water covering some of the flats, and the vehicles race thru it.
From there we headed over the salt for another 50km (at 100km/hr) into a location to get to a spot where the sky and salt horizon blended together. It was here that the crazy photos from star jumps to tricking the perspective with a small dinosaur in the foreground and human 30 meters back to look the same size. Carlos the guide showed us many ways to trick the camera and took many photos for us.
Next stop was the cactus island (Isle Inchausi) which we climbed with a lot of puffing as it was a 90m climb to 3743m altitude. It was interesting to see 1000yr old cactus and were given an explanation of the religious and festive events held on the island in August to make two Lama offerings to Mother Earth (Pachumama). Although Bolivia is 80% Catholic (thanks to 300yrs of Spanish colonialism), they still combine their local beliefs, customs and rituals.
Next stop was to observe how the salt blocks were cut for use in building construction. We also watch a good sunset.
The road at the edge of the salt flats was very rutted and the driver showed his skill to get us to the Hostel Kachi Huasi at Atulcha which was made of salt blocks and thatched roof and was our shelter for the night. Once you got over everything was made of salt blocks, we settled in for a good dinner and shared travel stories with some of the 3 day tour people. We slept well and recharged our phones with the new power, which is an initiative by the current president to put electricity and schooling into local communities. The temp outside was towards zero and thanks to the block insulation we didn't feel the cold.