Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 37, December 4th, 2002
Big Salt, Disco Lakes, Eurotrash and dot.bo
Photos: Altiplano Gallery I and Altiplano Gallery II (Return of the Altiplano)




See You in Uyuni

Uyuni is the unwashed (sorry travellers’) capital of Bolivia and my, is it a strange place. But let’s kick off with the case for the prosecution. If it’s overcast the town resembles one of Stalin's nastier gulags, except with salt, not snow, this being a salt desert. The roads are all four lane highways, which is sort of incongruous in a place that can be traversed in ten minutes, and where none of the buildings can manage more than a second story. Moreover, in every case but one, three minutes out of town any road dribbles out into the desert. Everwhere sells pizza and pancakes and the place is crawling with Australians, Germans, Israelis, etc, who in a touching show of international harmony are loudly congratulating themselves on having found this wacky, off the beaten track place. Look around you, you stupid tw-ts.

Sounds awful, eh? Well, it can be. And if you’re hanging around the plaza just after the train has arrived, listening to 60 or 70 people making excatly the same picayune observations in English as a second language, it is. The only sign that something might be a little odd is the large numbers of French people, all of whom seem to have really strange haircuts and beards. I know many travellers like to experiment with hair, both facial and cranial. But, with the beards esepcially, they all seem to wind up looking like extras from ‘Deliverance’. The French, to their credit seem to take their personal topiary rather more seriously. I mean, their beards still look stupid and everything, but in a rather more trimmed, stylish way. Anyway, we digress: I only mention the French as they seem drawn to rather, weird Baudelerian stuff, but more on them later.

It’s status as South America’s premier traveller logjam aside, Uyuni does have another face. Everyone says that it feels otherworldly and it really, really does. It sits on the east side of the Salar de Uyuni, a 12,000 sq km salt pan that is the largest trace of the vast inland sea that once covered southern Bolivia. Although the salt pan proper, which is as white as snow, starts 15 kilometres from the town the reflected glare results in a very peculiar ambient light and feel. I don’t know if there is a ‘Uyuni school’ of paintersbut given that artists tend to flock to places with peculiar light, there really ought to be.

The town’s other great claim to peculiarity is a few kilometres south. There, at the edge of the desert is a train graveyard where dozens of dead locomtives ranging from steam engines to modern diesels have been dumped in the sand and left to rust. Basically it’s just a junkyard, but the light, the dessication and the trains give the whole place a very Mad Max feel. It’s a great place to go and take pretensious photos.

Uyuni’s ‘enjoys’ the level of tourism it does for one reason. It is next to Bolivia’s Grand Canyon – the salt plains, the high desert and the coloured lakes. To see these, unless you happen to have hired a 4x4, you pretty much have to take a tour from Uyuni. But that’s OK, as you get six to a big 4x4 anyway. And we’d already met up with a very pleasant Dutch Couple called Willem (who had an enthusiam for smoking which, these days, strikes me as very admirable) and Nooreen. Moreover, they had a pair of English friends (Chris and Kati) which gave us an agreeable enough group and meant we didn’t have to make friends with anyone with facial piercings and really amazing ironic T shirts.

Salted Away

From Uyuni, you head out into the Salar, which rapidly becomes a blinding white, utterly flat expanse. It is so white that, without sunglasses you would probably go snowblind; a la skiing, you also need to remember to sunblock the underside of your chin, nose etc. There’s a bit of salt mining, but, mainly it is just big and white and very level and looks like Antarica, though it is agreeably warm. You are warned not to go too far from the landrover as it is very easy to get lost. I imagine that, if you did, you would almost certainly die. The preternaturally bright light produces mirages everyhwere and the volcanoes around the salar seem to float like islands in the air. False lakes appear all over the shop - it can look like you’re surrounded by water - and the light also massively foreshortens distance. A research station that looks ten minutes walk away is half an hour’s drive... still, on the plus side, if you did die in the salar, your body would be almost certainly be miraculously preserved in the salt, rather like human ham, for the funeral.

The salar also has islands, presumably from when it was a sea. The most famous is the isla de Pescado (It’s shaped like a fish) and it is chiefly reknowned for it’s cactuses, which are some of the slowest growing in the world. Nonetheless, these cacti have been at it for millenia and all this (admittedly rather retarded) growth has resulted in an island covered with huge xerophytic flora that look like furry johnsons. After getting our fill of phallic cacti, we stayed at a (only moderately shockingly) primitive hotel on the edge of the Salar. Again, very peculiar, as there is a beach, but one where the tide has gone out forever. (Yes, I know that’s everyone’s favourite dried up lake cliche)

Disco lakes

The second day and it just gets weirder. As you leave the salar, it looks like you’re heading back into the rather drab secnery of the Altiplano but then it goes all surreal again. It’s mainly above 4000m and largely bone dry: in fact, it is part of the driest desert in the world and, and in some places it never ever rains. Beneath purple volcanoes sit lakes stained the weirdest colours – blue, green and white - by minerals and algae. You’d think nothing would live here but, in fact, the lakes are full of flamingos, standing obligingly (and cheesily) on one leg, resulting in a scene that is half Salvador Dali, half Frinton on sea.

Much of the pleasure, though is in the drive. Wind carved rocks dot the desert and Bolivia’s (largely untapped) mineral wealth stains whole mountain ranges the most unnatural shades. It really is the most remarkable landscape I have ever seen and like nothing else in the world. Bolivia’s southern deserts would be a terrific place to film a science fiction flick, a rock video or, if you wanted to create something truly sui generis, a porno movie. Speaking of which, did you know that Seven Years in Tibet was filmed in the Argentinian Andes? Nice to see Hollywood’s much ballyhooed comittment for the Tibettan cause doesn’t even extend to going to the Himalayas.

We ended the day at Laguna Colorado, the red lake. Again, how cool was this? When people say bodies of water are ‘red’ (for example, the Colorado river) what they usually mean is sort of muddy brown. But this is the real deal, as red as blood from a distance and the colour of tomato soup close up. Beautiful is probably the wrong word for something that looks a bit like an abbatoir floor, but it’s certainly pretty casual. Speaking of red, one word of advice, don’t ever drink at this altitude (4900m). We’d bought a few bottles of red wine along and, after two glasses, I was babooned and had to go to bed in a mud brick bedroom which was only two degrees warmer than the ambient temperature of -8C.

We went to a couple more extremely stylish lakes (minty green) and discotastic mirror effect, though, in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words. You could listen to me bang on about the surreal interplay of sky, water and rock or you could just look at the pictures on the top of this page...it’s probably more rewarding than my prattle. Anyhow, after all thi high altitude finery we were at the Chilean border. And here, our little group rejoined the travelling hordes. Interestingly, I have to say here that the Brits in South America are generally a fairly nice bunch. By traveller standards South America is a little expensive and so most travelling British tend to be public school types, who, doubtless inspired by HRH Will’s gap year, have decided to hit the gringo trail. A lot of them may be silly little rich kids, but at least their manners are usually OK.


But the some of the European equivalents of sloanes are the worst people in the world. On the bus, we were sitting next to two French blokes who were both ugly (one very) and deeply in love with themselves and an Aussie girl. Jane asked the bus driver a question and five seconds into his reply, the alpha French bloke heard something that interested him, cut in, placing himself between the driver and Jane and loudly hijacked the conversation, occasionally making eyes at himself in the mirror. Being English, we were both too shocked to do anything. But, when, ten minutes later, Jane spoke to the driver again and was, this time elbowed out by his Australian friend, I stepped in and told her that, in most places (such as the UK and Australia), it was considered really very rude to cut someone off in mid conversation. Her reaction (utter shock) suggested she’d never been told off before, the poor little spoilt bitch. In fairness, though, she did apologise rather awkwardly later, so I guess there’s hope for her. Not so her Gallic chum: if you cut him in half, you’d find TOSSER written through him like a stick of Brigton Rock.

It is interesting, actually, that many travellers are a little bit like students, in that they think that the world should love them just for being who they are – that is, a bit crazee, a bit alternative, and interesting just for being away from home. Of course, both groups are wrong, except with students, this self obsessesion a bit more forgivable. After all, what’s cute at 19 is rather less so at 29. The other side of this is the dazzling self love, the all consuming autocrush, that many develop the second they take a year out. I just don’t get it; I genuinely do not believe that leaving my job for a year has made me more wonderful. Still, it would certainly explain why so few people travel in couples: when you love yourself that much, there’s not a lot left for anyone else.

A dot.bo-bble?

Still, on a lighter note, after nearly three weeks in Bolivia, I finally noticed that the Bolivian interent suffix is .bo. As soon as I can find a Bolivian ISP, I shall be registering www.ivegot.bo You never know, if the travelling community worked on its collective sense of humour (but not its hygeine) it could prove remarkably popular as an email address. Meanwhile, until rhymer@ivegot.bo is up and running, I’ll be on the usual adress.