Cum Planum Salis

Sunday, July 14

We continued along the highway to Uyuni, a dusty little town near the Uyuni Salt Flats.  Apparently the ex-mayor is in prison for corruption; they are getting tons of income from tourists and salt mining, but seem to have little to show for it in terms of infrastructure.  Typical.  (You’ve heard the stories about lithium in Bolivia, with a huge proven reserve under the salt flats.  They are doing their best to figure out how to get it out of the ground and into phone batteries, but it will probably be a decade before they succeed.)  

We walked through the Sunday Market in Uyuni.  It was a real market, not a tourist market, where the people in the villages surrounding the Salar Uyuni come to buy Star Wars t-shirts for their kids, or plastic spatulas.

The Bolivian lady stitching on the hem was in some other part of the downtown area, which is entirely tour agencies and souvenir shops.  I haven’t been here long, but I’m thinking, they really do dress in that national costume, with the hats and the shawls and stuff.  Answer:  it’s cold. As soon as the sun goes down, or you step into the shadow of a building, it’s below freezing.  The salt water puddles are frozen, in the mountains, Fahrenheit speakers take note.  So you have a lot of fabric around you, and it might as well be cheerful and bright.

We visited the Train Cemetery, a place with hundreds of rusted old freight train cars and engines, these days mostly used as graffiti surfaces and climbing objects for kids.  When industrial decay is artistic in its own right, you shouldn’t put graffiti on it.  Graffiti is like medicine: first of all, do no harm. Leave the campground better than you found it.  Dan Savage used that metaphor about sex.  (There aren’t any metaphors not about sex.) Climbing kids, of course, improve everything, even the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Then we drove out of town, and out onto the salt flats for sunset.  On the way, I asked the guide how deep the salt was.  He said there was 10cm of salt, then a layer of brine, and then more salt, and more brine, down hundreds of meters.  After we parked, we did see a hole under the truck with water beneath.  The interesting thing though was that the driver decided that one of the tires was flat (didn’t look that bad to me) and went about changing it.  We were worried that the jack would concentrate so much weight on the salt that it would break through.  But no problem, it worked just fine.  We had peanuts, potato chips, and wine, and took pictures.  Tourist vans dotted the horizon.

The sun set, and we headed to the hotel.

Ray reacted badly to something, perhaps the peanuts or wine or just the altitude, but got immediately into bed when we arrived.  I went and had the hotel dinner, which had a really nice masaco, a Bolivian croquette of some sort made out of plantain.  I also braved fish, which was from Lake Titicaca, which isn’t that far upstream from Uyuni.  Titicaca, Poopo, and Salar Uyuni are all the same watershed.  Uyuni is the last stop.

Monday, July 15

Ray decided his headache was more likely from reading in a moving vehicle; he felt much better in the morning.  We checked out (sad! the hotel was very nice) and headed back out onto the salt flats.  We crossed them, going to a village beneath a beautiful but inactive volcano, visiting a little museum of old artifacts, and a quirky sculpture garden.  After a short lunch in the middle of the salt flats, we went to Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered island, and climbed to the top for great views over the salt playa.  Ray took a photo of a cactus that he later found on a post card.

Lately I read an article, probably British, decrying the tendency of tourists to take the same photo over and over for Instagram.  Whatever.  It isn’t that everyone wants to take the Instagram photo, it’s that it’s the only view left.  There is only one angle from which you can now photograph the pyramids at Giza, that does not reveal that they are surrounded by a grimy Cairo slum, thrown up as Egypt attempts to manage 90 million people when they had a world empire with 1% that many.  As it applies to Uyuni, there is only one photo they encourage: sunset over the salt flats.  All other images reveal the horrific devouring of a world treasure: premium mediocre hotels at the north edge of the flat, clay and concrete metastasizing mining shanty towns surrounding them, housing desperately poor workers as the salt flats are dug up using every giant machine that China has to offer.  The mining is done, starting from the south.  A few traditional mines, with picks and trucks, also near Uyuní.  It was the town industry, after all.  There will be a great Instagram moment when the two meet: luxury hotels overlooking a pit.

In the middle of the flat, one may find stretches of untrammeled surface, and not see the edges on account of the round earth. The flats are 11,000 square kilometers in size.  That’s 20 times bigger than the playa at Burning Man. 

There is one Nat Geo shot of Uyuni that you have to work for.  It happens every year a few times, after the rains have come.  During the rainy season, the salt flats can be covered by as much as 50 mm of water, which evaporates at the rate of 6 mm per day.  The really great images of Salar Uyuni, the ones that don’t look like the hard packed overflow parking lot in a ski area at the beginning of spring, happen at the instant when God’s Zamboni has scraped off all the tire marks.  We are not here to post that photo.  Eclipse chasers miss all the Rainy Season shots — the thundering waterfalls, the mating flamingoes.

After our drive across the salt flat, our guide checked us into La Petite Porte.  This hotel would have been OK except that it was designed during the hotel design era when bathrooms were reconceptualized as performance spaces.  (Rooms 3 and 4 were, anyway.  Peering into the other rooms, which were open and unoccupied, it seemed that more normal western privacy sensibility prevailed.  We really do want a video camera between our behavior and the people spying on it.)

We went around the block for dinner to Tika, where the hit was charque, a big pile of strips of dried llama, over a base of hominy with one of the 200 varieties of potatoes on the side.