The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

I remember, what seems like a lifetime ago, when we were saving and planning for this trip reading the blogs of people traveling South America and getting inspiration for our travels. Some places, in photo after photo, were so spectacular they became a must visit on my list of places to see, and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself. The Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia, was one of those places. Set at an elevation around 3,600 meters (almost 12,000 feet), the salar (salt flats) is the largest in the world. Thousands of years ago the area was covered by a giant lake, which dried up and left a huge expanse of flat salt stretching for miles. It is truly an otherworldly landscape, with nothing but flat whiteness for as far as the eye can see, distorting the size and appearance of anything in the distance.

During the wet season, the hard salt crusted surface becomes inundated with water and only but the very brave try to drive it. In the dry season, however, the water recedes leaving a hard crusty surface that is perfectly drivable. There are still places where the crust is thin, and we’ve heard horror stories of vehicles breaking through the salt and getting stuck. Luckily, there are 4×4 tours who make the drive out there daily, leaving black tracks leading out into nothingness all over the salar that you can follow in order to minimize the risk of breaking through.

 The salt from the salar is high in lithium (in fact the salar contains between 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves which doesn’t bode well for the future preservation of the salt flats) and is collected by locals. The salt is literally scraped off the surface and piled into mounds to be collected later.

They’ve also made use of the salt for building hotels, built entirely of salt blocks and salt mortar which can be found around the edges of the salar. The first place to greet us as we headed onto the salar was one such salt hotel. The hotel is built with blocks of salt cut out of the salar. Inside the hotel even the tables and benches were made of salt. The colorful flags from all over the world out front of the hotel make a great contrast with the blue sky and the never ending expanse of white.

The center of the salar contains a few “islands” which are the remains of ancient volcanos that were submerged millions of years ago when the salar was a giant lake. These islands were our destination when we set out to visit the salar. As we started driving into the salar, everything was very disorientating. The mile after mile of flat whiteness makes it a very surreal landscape. Tiny objects appeared and disappeared on the horizon, as the 4×4 tours criss crossed our view. Driving 100 kilometers an hour it felt like we weren’t even moving at all, as the white scenery never changed. The salt itself was really cool to see. In some places the salt has dried into hexagon like shapes, while in other places the crust was rougher and not as flat.

 

The first island we came to was Isla Inca Wasi or Isla del Pescado, which is the standard tourist stop. After a quick stop to check it out and try to use the bathroom, we headed out to another near by island Isla Pescador (not to be confused with Isla Pescado 🙂 ) to set up camp for the night. The islands are another weird landscape in the weird landscape of the salar. The islands are composed of fossilized coral and are covered in cacti. The islands also offer good campsite and protection from the wind as well as great views of the salar.

 

We set up camp on the “beach” of the island and were treated to an amazing sunset. We’ve camped in some pretty spectacular places on this 4 year long trip, but as we watched the beautiful colors of sunset fade into a pitch black sky with more stars then you can imagine we realized that this was one of the more magical of our camp spots. Because of the elevation on the salar it gets below freezing at night, which deters a lot of people from camping out there. After the 5 days we spent in the southwest district of Bolivia, it didn’t feel all that bad to us and the experience of staying the night out here was worth it.

 

Because of the huge expanse of flat white salt in the salar, there is no depth perception for photos. Over the years we’ve seen all manner of creative photos that people have taken. Not to be left out, we couldn’t resist having our own little photo shoot. We had meant to pick up some creative props before heading into the salar, but the town of Uyuni isn’t exactly shopping central, so we had to make due with what we had. The following day we spent the better part of the morning setting up and taking photos. We started with a group photo.

Then we started to get silly. Lacey had to show of her muscles and weight lifting skills.

We have been carrying around two mugs from Cafe Con Leche, the cafe owned by Luis’ mom, Tamara, since we left on the trip intending to take photos of them in exotic locations. We had already lost one mug after a tragic collision with a concrete floor, so we figured now would be a good time to bust out the remaining mug.

It seems that somewhere along our time together, Lacey has managed to get Luis in the palm of her hand and this picture proves it.

 At some point in the afternoon, we managed to get lost in a forrest of wine. Not a bad place to get lost I guess 🙂

Luis decided to relax and take a break for a while. I managed to catch him in this pose, which he likes to call “a man and his machine.” It’s not often I can actually snag a photo of Luis and I’m pretty proud of this one.

 

I know, you’re probably getting sick of these silly photos, so I’ll only put a few more. I guess we got a little more carried away than I even realized.

It is so nice when you arrive in a place you have seen in photos and find that it is even more spectacular than you could have believed. The Salar de Uyuni was that way for us. For any die hards who can’t get enough of the silly photos heres the rest. We really had a blast taking them.

 

 

 

 

Guest post: “Time is Honey” or “How Much Time do I Need to Drive the PanAmerican”

This post was written by our friends Brianna and Logan of PanamNotes.com. The post is part of our series of guest posts by fellow overlanders and travelers. Enjoy.

“25,000 miles . . . That’s not so far, certainly we could make it to Ushuaia in five months, nine months at a leisurely pace.” This is what we told ourselves back home, staring at the maps laid out on the kitchen table. Maps should have a warning like side view mirrors, this country is larger than it appears.

The PanAmNotes Rig doing its thing

Realizing this didn’t take long.  We spent hours ogling the trip reports of past PanAm journeys. We craved the surf in central America, offroading in Bolivia, and mountain climbing in Peru. We recognized the necessity of driving to a place, rather than through it. Before even shifting the truck out of park we decided nine months wasn’t going to cut it. We were still in the process of saving money and dug deeper shooting for 12 months.
We hit Mexico at our planned 12 month pace. Driving aggressively, averaging too many hours in the truck each day, we watched the country fly past. We spent over a month in Mexico and while we look back fondly on it, we know we missed damn near all of it with our exhaustive schedule.  After Mexico, we seemed to downshift a little bit more with each country, lingering longer, absorbing more, and living better.

Brianna "downshifting" to the proper speed

We maxed out our three month visas in Peru and had to admit it was a major part of the reason this country topped the list of our favorites. Peru had become familiar, a culture we could grasp, foreign not at all.  It was here we made yet another extension to the journey. The logistics behind the decision were still forthcoming.  Financially we were in the same spot as our previous January end date.  We didn’t have the money but we had a plan.  Living slowly makes life more affordable. Rather than arriving in town after an eight hour drive and embarking upon the executive two day see-it-all affair, you can spend a week or two wandering around soaking it all in. With less driving the gas costs diminish and the need for luxury and convenience become unnecessary.

We have found a happy middle ground in between the overstuffed tour bus takers and the long term apartment leasers (SprinterLife we’re looking at you). We stick around long enough to meet folks, hear the local gossip, and engage in arguments over the best brand of mate (without a doubt, it’s Amanda).

There seems to be a growing popularity of speedy efficiency among travelers, especially Americans. If I have a week I can see a country, if I have a month I can see a continent, if I have three months, I can see the world!

Driving the PanAm is a malleable journey, it can be whatever you want it to be. Whether you’re seeking immersion, volunteering to better other lives, or just looking for a period of introspective extroversion, there’s just nothing fast about it.

Logan peak baggin'

Monkey Sanctuary in Ecuador

While visiting Baños we heard of a monkey sanctuary in the nearby town of Puyo. Now there is something you should know about Luis; he loves monkeys. He has always wanted a pet monkey, so monkey sanctuary is a must visit for us.

The sanctuary is actually in the outskirts of Puyo, and as it turns out there is other rehabilitating wildlife there not just monkeys. The sanctuary consists of a few acres of fenced in property where most monkeys can roam freely. There are a few very large cages for some of the monkeys that are less socialized and more likely to hurt human visitors or other monkeys. The place is run by Fundacion los Monos, Selva y Vida and they keep funded by donations and from the entrance fees to the sanctuary. There are several volunteers from all nationalities living in the premises, which is kinda cool until you find out there are very few spots on the premises (including the house) that don’t have monkey dung and urine.

The place is awesome! Most of the monkeys are curious and super friendly. In fact Lacey had a female cling on to her for most of our tour of the facility and the only way to get her off was offering her food.

Lacey's adopted "daughter" Paola, she loved Lacey!
Sweet Paola

We opted to do the self guided tour of the facility and whilst walking by a creek we picked up another friend! A river otter that fancied itself a puppy dog. As soon as the otter saw us he swam to shore, ran up to us and started “barking” non-stop and rubbing up on our feet. It was awesome! He followed us for most of the walk around the place “barking” most of the way. Due to his incessant barking and true to our cheesy nature we named the otter Sir Barks a Lot (I know we are cheesemeisters).

Our faithful wanna be canine companion: Sir Barks a Lot
Sir Barks a Lot rubbing up on Luis' foot

A stroll through the woods with a monkey and a river otter from Lost World Expedition on Vimeo.

 

It was a great experience. We were visited by all the different monkeys at the sanctuary and Luis even had a Coatimundi and a spider monkey jump on his lap. Amazing day! Enjoy the photos

Luis Attacked by Piranhas in Ecuador!

Well, the truth is he was attacked by one piranha, while fishing for piranha and it was a tiny (maybe 5 inch) piranha… but the title is a lot cooler, no?

So the story goes as follows: We spent a week in Reserva Cuyabeno a National Park that is part of the Ecuadorian Amazon (more about this wonderful place in another post). On one of our daily canoe day trips we went fishing, not for food, but for the tourist practice of fishing for piranha (the Amazon’s Deadliest Catch?). Touristy, but fun.

Armed with “fishing poles” (sticks with a mono line and a rusty hook) and some raw beef, we find a good spot and start casting. It doesn’t take long for us to start bringing in piranha. They are ruthless eaters and a feeding frenzy ensues.  [flickr id=”6538032905″ thumbnail=”medium_640″ overlay=”true” size=”medium_640″ group=”” align=”center”]Luis catches one…

[flickr id=”6538033823″ thumbnail=”medium_640″ overlay=”true” size=”medium_640″ group=”” align=”center”]And proceeds to unhook, this is a catch and release fishery after all…

[flickr id=”6538034823″ thumbnail=”medium_640″ overlay=”true” size=”medium_640″ group=”” align=”center”]

[flickr id=”6538035613″ thumbnail=”medium_640″ overlay=”true” size=”medium_640″ group=”” align=”center”]The problem comes when Luis attempts to place the tiny piranha on his hand in order to allow Lacey a good view for a photo… piranhas are quick and vicious and have razor sharp teeth… This tiny fellow proceeds to bounce of Luis’ hand an take a chunk off his thumb!!!

[flickr id=”6538036193″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”medium_640″ group=”” align=”center”]

Lesson learned. Don’t mess with piranhas, no matter how small 🙂 Our guide brought up the good side of the event: “Can we keep the photos, so that we can show other tourists exactly what not to do?” Yes ladies and gentlemen, Luis took one for the team so that others could learn from his mistakes (as usual).

 

A party in Machachi, Ecuador

While working at Secret Garden Cotopaxi (SGC) we where a bit isolated from civilization. No internet, no landline, a single cell phone with one bar of reception and no people (other than guests and a couple of employees). That is one reason we were quite happy to be invited to a party in Machachi.

The city/town of Machachi is the nearest population to SGC (a 45 minute drive), it is also the home to some of Secret Garden’s employees including the main transport man and general Mensch: Don Arturo. Don Arturo invited us to a shindig at his house and insisted we attend, we accepted and even changed our departure date from SGC for this event.

The night of the event we donned our best party clothes (very slim pickins’) and crammed into the LandCruiser for the 45 minute drive to Machachi. When we arrived at Arturo’s the party was already hopping, there was a large party tent in the backyard and a DJ set up inside the house. Arturo received us with great big hugs and a small gift commemorating his sons first communion (apparently the party had two-fold meaning; in honor of the communion of his son and a house warming party, we were informed of neither until we arrived at the party).

We were quickly shuffled into the house and sat on the dining room table, where we quickly received our dinner which included a wonderful chicken soup and as a main plate a big juicy BBQ’d Cuy (Guinea pig). Let me (Luis) take a minute to say that even though I am extremely open minded about food and you could even say I am adventurous about eating (bugs do not bother me and offal is always a treat), but Cuy is definitely not my cup o’ tea. I have tried it on 4 different occasions, cooked 3 different ways and no go. Surprisingly enough Lacey, the timid eater who a few years ago did not like beets, enjoys the tiny rodent! Well, enough sidenotes… [flickr id=”6523194743″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]

While enjoying our dinner we where sort of the center of attention because we were next to the dance floor and the only ones at the dinner table and the only ones with big fat Cuy on their plate… every one else was enjoying chicken while standing or at party chairs spread around the house. It was awkward, but we lived. Before I even finished my dinner an older (than me) lady grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor… now to some reading this that may mean little, but folks who know me realize that for me to dance there usually is a blue moon and lots of alcohol involved. It was quite enjoyable and very awkward. I did not do much dancing, just a few songs, but Lacey definitely shuffled for a while. [flickr id=”6523196461″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]

We did discover one interesting thing about drinking alcoholic beverages in this region. Nobody at the party had a drink in their hand, but several people had bottles and a small glass on their hands. They go around and when they feel you need a drink they pour you one and you must drink it (as a straight gulp) in front of them. Let me tell you, being the oddity at a party does not pay over here (unless you like a never-ending parade of shots). Within 20 minutes I had probably had 10 shots of random alcoholic treats… whisky, rum, moonshine, and best of all an Ecuadorian spirit called Zhumir (ethilic alcohol with artificial flavorings horrible stuff). Arturo’s dad was particularly fond of us and delivered shots every few minutes! How could I say no? [flickr id=”6523195451″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”] [flickr id=”6523195293″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]

It was a wonderful evening that we will never forget. Gracias Don Arturo.