Wednesday, July 30, 2008

High and dry

I can hardly believe that my 6 1/2 month adventure outside the US is almost coming to a close. For a final hurrah, Natalie and I decided to take a two-week whirlwind tour of Bolivia and Peru. We´re covering a lot of ground for two weeks. I didn´t realize until we got on the road that even though Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America, it´s still the size of Spain and France put together. I thought the nine hour busrides through the Sinai were long, but this trip so far has been dominated by 15-hour tours.

Despite the amount of time we´ve spent on the road thus far, the places we´ve seen more than validate the cramped buses and dusty trains. Our first stop in Bolivia was Uyuni, land of salt flats. We signed up for a two-day tour which would include one night of sleeping in a `salt hotel´. I was a bit skeptical. Two whole days of looking at...salt? I thought it might get a bit old after awhile, but two days turned out to be perfect.

We set out around noon with a lovely Irish couple and two French girls. The air was cold and thin. Bolivia´s highest peak is over 21,000 feet, but the entire country has a high altitude, which we had spent a day or two adjusting to. It didn´t take long for us to get out of the tiny town and into the land of wide open spaces, of which Bolivia is not in short supply. The open dirt and sagebrush soon gave way to a wide, white sea that stretched on for miles and was peppered with tiny black islands. The salt was so white that it reflected light like water, and the islands appeared to be floating. The sky was so blue it hurt to look at it, and the sun beat down harshly on the salt that had cracked into millions of honeycombed puzzle pieces.

We spent the day riding over the salt, stopping to explore an island and a salt-processing factory. As dusk was approaching, our 4x4 set a course for one of the large mountains bordering the edge of the salt flat. As we got closer, we could see that the top had blown off the largest mountain, leaving bright streaming rays of rose and sun-colored stone. Yes, we were going to sleep at the foot of a volcano. Luckily we were told the volcano was very, very dormant. At the base of the volcano was a tiny village, surrounded by marsh grass, small ponds, lichen, and...what...flamingos!? At the edge of the salt desert in Bolivia, there are flamingos. I´m not sure why they are there, but they must feed on the lichen that grow on the salt and volcanic earth. We passed our pink-plumed welcoming committee and arrived at our hotel. I am using the word `hotel´quite loosely here, but the food that our tour guide made us was delicious, and the company was highly entertaining.

The next day we explored more salt formations and made it back into town to catch our overnight bus to La Paz. The bus was definitely an adventure, but our hostel and La Paz are wonderful. We´ve spent the last two days exploring museums, the witches´market (where one can buy llama fetuses to bury beneath a house and ward off evil demons), and beautiful squares and churches. I could definitely spend a few more days here, but I´m excited about the prospects that lie ahead. Machu Pichu and more adventures await.