Bolivia: Salteñas and Salt Flats
Part I: La Paz
Exploring a City in the Clouds
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Bolivia for the first time. Picture this: as the plane descended into La Paz, one could see a city nestled in a valley in the windows of the plane. As one of the highest cities I had visited (approximately 3600 meters or almost 12,000 feet above sea level!), I took it slow. The hills did not make it easy. La Paz is a city of urban beauty and diversity – one can see a church from the 16th or 17th century mixed with 20th and 21st century buildings, with people from the Bolivian highlands and jungle occupying the same space. After landing, my taxi whisked me away to the Valley of the Moon, a series of geological formations, 10 kilometers outside of La Paz to avoid a demonstration happening in the center of the city. I honestly felt like I was in another world; rocky spires rose above me as I immersed myself in this new planet. Only the sounds of cars honking at the end of the 45-minute trail took me back to reality.
The rest of my first day in Bolivia included a tour of the San Francisco Church in the center of the city and a visit to the famous Witches Market in La Paz. Market stalls were filled with traditional talisman and materials for the payment to Mother Earth, or the Pachamama, instead of potions and spells that one would expect from witches associated with Halloween and in movies. Definitely need to rethink my notions about the role of witches in Bolivian lore and society!
After walking to the cable car station for a (very long) five blocks uphill, I rode the cable car from the central station to Jach’a Qhathu, a station on one of the hilltops (3 bolivianos/50 cents each way!). It was such a stark reminder of how extensive and beautiful the city was! One could see houses clinging to the hillsides and skyscrapers nestled in the with Mt. Illimani rising in the background.
Part II: The Salt Flats of Uyuni
A White Desert and Flamingoes
This whirlwind trip included a one-day tour of Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Even though it seemed like these flats were in the middle of nowhere (10 hours by bus or an hour-long flight from La Paz), the Solares de Uyuni attracts probably thousands of tourists visit every year, and after this trip, I can see why. There is something magical about standing in the middle of a white desert that never seemed to end. After visiting the train cemetery (a couple of old trains from the 19th century when Uyuni was a hub that connected Bolivian silver mines to the world – so much fun to explore and climb on!) outside of Uyuni proper, our land cruiser took off into the white desert. It was hard to believe that we were walking on salt! It felt crunchy, but completely solid. Mountains that bordered the salt flats seemed close, but it was an hour-long drive to get there! Naturally, encounters with larger-than-life dinosaurs were included in the trip to Uyuni.
We stopped for lunch at the base of a volcano, accompanied by flamingoes and herds of alpacas and llamas. How weird is it to see these kinds of animals in such an extreme environment? Another highlight was hiking to the top of Cactus Island; an island filled with cactus in the middle of this sea of salt. From the top, I could see surrounding mountains that looked really close but were far away in reality. It was like I was in another world. The day ended with a side-trip to the salt hotel, with accompanying llamas made out of salt. Watching the sunset felt like something you only saw in movies. Overall, a magical day.
While I traveled around Bolivia as a foreigner largely exploring touristy sites, like any trip, things went wrong. On the positive side, I experienced how people went out of their way to help a stranger. On the last day of my tour, I left my backpack in my tour agency’s office, and when I went to collect it, the office was closed! Naturally imagining what would happen if I did not collect my backpack in time, I wandered to the shop next door, asking the owner if he knew where the owner of the agency was, or at least how I could be put into contact with someone who had a key. His wife came out with her (very large) contact book and began to scan through, looking for the golden name. When she was not able to find it, she took me by the hand and led me to another open Internet café, leaving me there while she physically attempted to track down an associate. I called the cell phone number on my email after accessing it and found that the señora was already with her, and that she would be back at the agency to open it. I am convinced that the señora had a special talent or skill. After that, we went out for coffee, exchanging thoughts and opinions about the role of Bolivia in the world and politics. Alone, this situation would have not been solvable, and I could have easily missed my transport back to La Paz, amidst losing my contact lenses and other basic necessities. That’s one thing that I love about traveling – it reminds you that the world is filled with kind people and not a scary place.
Bolivia be warned – I am already planning my trip back!