Don’t know what it is about Argentina. But it’s one of those countries I find appealing. And yet, I’ve never been there.
That’s about to change.
I always thought the first place in Argentina I’d visit would be Buenos Aires. ( Now there’s another city long on my travel radar). I still intend to get there. But for now, looks like the first place in Argentina I will set foot in is a city named Salta. The province of Salta is in the northwestern part of Argentina and it borders Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay. From what I hear, it’s very touristic, but it also has a lot of charm and fantastic nightlife.
Next month, I will travel from Calama, Chile, to Salta, by bus – 10 to 11 hours – reaching altitudes over the Andes Mountains of more than 17,000 feet above sea level. Break out the oxygen tank now! I think 16,000 feet was the highest I’ve so far been and that happened in Bolivia recently. Anyway, planning, planning, planning. Buses don’t run every day between the two cities, so I might have to leave for Salta with one bus company and return to Calama with another. I have a five-day weekend – is there even such a thing? – coming up, so I will take advantage of the long weekend.
I am also planning to get back to couchsurfing. It’s a great way to meet locals and other travelers. I look forward to that.
My trip to Salta is in mid-November. But these cross-border trips, regardless of the distance, sometimes take time. Planning, planning, planning.
Out of breath, we reached the top of Incahuasi. It wasn’t a very steep climb to the island’s peak, but the light-on-oxygen altitude made flatland lungs work harder.
Like a darkly dressed sentinel standing conspicuously in a seemingly endless expanse of snow, Incahuasi juts toward the sky, watching over one of Earth’s most breathtaking beauties – the mystical Salar de Uyuni. At more than 11,000 feet above sea level, Incahuasi – which in the Quechua language of the ancient Incas means “Inca House” – is but one of several islands in the middle of the Uyuni salt flats, the largest salt lake in the world. Not many outside of Bolivia realize that the Uyuni salt flats is actually a lake, because it’s dry for much of the year. Under that sea of salt, however, rivers run year-round and in places bubble to the surface, creating circular patterns in the otherwise smooth terrain.
Bolivia's beautiful mountains
But come summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the Uyuni salt flats is under water, rendering Incahuasi unreachable by the fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles that otherwise normally speed along the blindingly white-as-snow salt bed. Even submerged – perhaps more so because of the mirror-like effect the water creates – Uyuni takes your breath away. Any air I had left from that climb up Incahuasi was knocked right out of me by the stunning landscape before me. At the top of the island, I found a spot away from the other mesmerized tourists and sat to catch my breath. But instead, if only for a brief moment, I unwittingly held my breath as I caught my first glimpse of Uyuni from this amazing vantage point on Incahuasi.
Happy to have made it to the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia
Dear reader, I don’t care what your religious views are, and I certainly don’t try to impose whatever views I have on you, but let’s talk spirituality for a brief moment. This piece of Bolivia that encompasses Uyuni has been touched by the hand of a God – but if you prefer – some powerful – and perhaps playful – force. This salt lake, nearby lagoons, mountains, volcanic geysers, rock formations and deserts were not formed by accident. Someone or some thing more powerful than man did this. I sat on a rock contemplating the thought that force that created the Earth, stuck around this area of Bolivia for a nice stretch molding and creating what we see today in this part of Bolivia: a lagoon with waters so richly red it looks like the blood of thousands has been drained in it; other vivid-colored lagoons with three species of countless pink flamingos; mountains and volcanoes that humble us mere humans; mind-boggling layers and formations of ice and snow on high plain desert sands; liquefied lava-gurgling volcanic geysers belching big puffs of steam across a vast expanse; exotic and whimsical wildlife found nowhere else on Earth or in few other places. If you are not transported to some spiritual place in your brain while contemplating all that is Uyuni, you can’t possibly be alive.
yeah....really happy 🙂
Before I sat on that rocky island covered with coral and cacti some more than 900 years old, I had the privilege to stand in the middle of the salt flats and absorb its wonders from its very midst. The skies were overcast, unusual for this time of year I was told, but it gave Uyuni an even more wondrous ambiance.
With fellow English teachers – American Zac and Chilean Angello – and Spanish couple Alonso and Maria Alba, we set out to discover Uyuni with our Bolivian guide David. We signed up in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, with a tour agency, Atacama Mistica – also operating as Tierra Mistica – after consulting with several other tour agencies. Mistica seemed the most knowledgeable and trustworthy. With the exception of a couple of glitches – a mix up with the return bus to San Pedro at the border, and a previously undisclosed $10 charge for hot showers at the hostel – we were extremely pleased with Mistica. But we were especially pleased with our guide, David, who kept things running smoothly and yet didn’t make the tour feel as if it were some sort of marathon and that we were on a time schedule.
One view from Incahuasi
We opted for the 4-day tour, departing on Friday morning and returning to San Pedro on Monday. The total cost of the tour was $160. That included three meals a day, lodging, and transportation. It did not include fees to Bolivia’s national parks, about $20. We had considered the option of traveling to the city of Uyuni on our own – by bus – then perhaps hiring someone in that city to take us to points of interest. But in the end, the tour emerged as the better, more sensible option.
At 8 a.m., we were met at Mistica’s office and were driven in a van to the Chilean customs and border control office in San Pedro. Then another 40-minutes later we reached the Chile-Bolivia border. As I expected, things ran much smoother on the Chilean side of the border. On the Bolivian side, confusion and corruption reigned. All largely because the Bolivian border control officers are corrupt and looking to shake down tourists for cash with bogus demands for random fees.
Inside the salt hostel. Yes, it's made of salt and salt covers every inch of the floor
When we tried to re-enter Chile from Bolivia, for instance, one of the Bolivian guards tried to get Angello and the Spanish couple to pay an extra $15,000 Chilean pesos ($30) each when it was clear that they did not need to pay anything. He then pulled the two Americans in the group aside – Zac and I – and led us to a backroom – a kitchen – where he stated that all our documents were in order and there was no problem. One thing was missing, as he plainly put it: money for his own pockets. Without batting an eye, he asked if we had any money for him. He wanted us to give him money – out of sight of the others in line waiting to be processed out of Bolivia. I told him we had paid all the necessary fees and we weren’t going to pay any more money. When he again asked, in a much firmer tone I refused. He got the message. He said okay, hurriedly returned our passports – he was so nervous that he mistakenly handed me Zac’s passport after looking at the pictures in the two passports. I took it and simply handed it to Zac. The Bolivian border cop the sent Zac and I on our way. He, however, returned to the growing line of people and continued to insist that the Spaniards and Angello pay some inexplicably obscure fee. That demand was resolved after they, too, held firm against paying anything beyond what Bolivian laws state and our tour company intervened. Lesson learned: Hold firm, just say no to corruption!
El Arbol de Piedra - The Stone Tree - in Bolivia's Altiplano - high desert
Despite the corrupt Bolivian border cop; a two-day bout with food poisoning or some other virus; a bit of trouble breathing at almost 16,000 feet above sea level (5,000 meters); freezing temperatures; hardly a good night’s sleep; four days without a hot shower and two with no shower at all; and punishing wind and desert conditions, Bolivia was incredibly magical and even worth enduring the hoops to get there. (By the way, my fellow Americans, instead of paying $135 for a 5-year visa to enter Bolivia, opt for the cheaper 3-day visa worth $40 – unless, of course, you plan multiple exits and entries or longer stays in Bolivia).
For nature lovers, I highly recommend Bolivia. It’s the most inexpensive country in South America and certainly one of the cheapest in the world. The overwhelmingly indigenous population isn’t exactly warm and friendly to outsiders, and they even look upon strangers with a wary eye, but once engaged they are friendly enough.
The air temperature was at least at the freezing point but the water felt like summer!
SENSE OF DANGER: Bolivia's boiling and steaming volcanic geysers
UYUNI CAMERA TRICKS: I appear shrunken and on top of the Coca Cola bottle by just placing the bottle closer to the camera and me stepping back and posing
DESERT FOX: Snapped photos of this desert dweller near the Chile-Bolivia border
ICE ON SAND: What's left of a snowstorm in the high desert of Bolivia. I'm at nearly 16,000 feet above sea level here. Bad idea running up this slope.
The Andes Mountains in Bolivia
One way to go across Uyuni salt flats
Uyuni plays optical tricks. Now I look bigger than the mountains
Flags from several countries near the first salt hotel in Uyuni, now a museum. But where's the Stars & Stripes?
Zac and Angello doing a great job of keeping a low profile at the Bolivian border crossing
The first time I saw the Salar de Uyuni, I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, with a fractured right arm. I was 16-years-old, tall and skinny with a big afro – I looked like a pencil with a big eraser. Wouldn’t have taken much to snap a bone in my stick-figure body, and indeed it didn’t take much effort when my childhood friend Dickey pulled my arm right out of the socket at the elbow.
We were walking home from school and we spotted a cigarette lighter on the ground. It was one of those cheap plastic ones that come in a variety of bright transparent colors. With its transparency, the fuel inside was visible. This particular lighter was orange and judging from the amount of fuel, it was brand new.
Deep in conversation, Dickey and I walked along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, toward home. The conversation came to an abrupt end when we spotted the lighter. Our reaction? He looked at me, I looked at him and without a word, we both made a mad dash for the lighter.
Dickey was not as fleet-footed as me. He was beefy bordering on fat, but he could move fast when pushed. On this particular day, he wasn’t as fast as I was. I got to the lighter about a second ahead of him and snatched it up, scraping my knuckles against the concrete pavement – ouch! He only managed to grabbed my fist clutching the cigarette lighter. He tried to pry my fist open to grab the lighter, which was sticking out a bit. Had I had it solidly in hand, maybe he would have backed off. Instead, he continued to pry the lighter out of my hand, but I did not budge. Our struggle for the lighter became a full on wrestling match in the middle of Flatbush Avenue – and you would think some adult would intervene? – people instead just walked by as if nothing.
Summer months bring rain to the Salar de Uyuni
Then it happened. Dickey yanked on my extended arm so hard that it popped right out of the socket at the elbow. All I heard was a snap, crackle then a pop! I dropped the lighter in anguish.
I never had experienced such pain. Dickey and I walked the rest of the way home, he with the lighter in his pocket, me clutching my arm. The next day my arm was so swollen at the elbow, my mother took me to the doctor. The doctor at first determined that the arm was not broken. I could still move my fingers. He sent me home with an order to ice it. Then the next day my doctor’s office called to say the X-Ray had revealed a fracture and that I needed to return to see the doctor. That day I left my doctor’s office in a cast that extended from my wrist to my armpit. Nice going Dickey!
Okay, the truth is both Dickey and I were both at fault. We were two dumb teenagers horsing around. And when that happens, sometimes someone gets hurt – boys will be boys, you know. He did feel bad about it. And every chance I got, I reminded him that he owed me big time! He didn’t fall for that. We went on being friends, as if nothing.
In some strange way, I have Dickey to thank. Had it not been for that fractured arm, I never would have landed in the doctor’s office with the Nat Geo subscription. There on the table in the waiting room, there were several month’s worth of Nat Geo magazines. I picked one up and started to thumb through it and there it was – the Salar de Uyuni – or in English – the Uyuni Salt Flats. I thought, where in the world was this place and how could I get there – like soon?! Like most images in Nat Geo, the photographs were absolutely stunning. I then read the text: Bolivia.
Uyuni has since been embedded in my head. This desert where instead of salt the land is an expanse of blindingly white salt – often under inches of water that reflect sky and mountains during the rainy summer seasons – has crept into my dreams. I have long wished to visit Uyuni, and every time I have met someone lucky enough to have visited, I peppered them with questions. And now, living in Calama, Chile, a few hours away from Uyuni, I think my decades-old dream to visit is near. Or so I hope.
Salar de Uyuni during winter months. Water gone.
I am determined to visit Uyuni, but tit-for-tat global politics may have something else to say about that.
I EXPLAIN: The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, hates the United States. As if to drive that point home, he has aligned himself with avowed enemies of the United States. He has also used Venezuela’s oil riches to influence other countries in the region, one of which is Bolivia.
The president of Bolivia walks in lock-step with the president of Venezuela. When Venezuela is mad at the United States, Morales feels the need to show his loyalty to Chavez by, frankly, doing something stupid. That stupid thing – which amounts to shooting himself in the foot and hurting the Bolivian people – was to make it more difficult for U.S. tourists to visit Bolivia. Morales imposed a $135 visa requirement on U.S. citizens, placed strict limits on how long they could stay in Bolivia, and imposed other rules that work like a charm to turn away Americans. It’s not that Morales wants Americans to stay away – au contraire – he wants Americans to continue to visit and pay a “reciprocal” visa fee, about the same amount that Bolivians are required to pay to gain a visa to enter the U.S.
Only problem with Morales tit-for-tat approach is Bolivia – the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the world – needs those millions of tourists dollars it once got from visitors from the United States. There was a time when 1 in 5 visitors to Bolivia was from the United States. Since the new requirements that number has dropped. Some Americans don’t mind paying the fee – frankly, some who are backpackers on a budget can’t afford it – but what makes Bolivia even more a country to be avoided are some of the other roadblocks Morales has put up, aimed at just sticking it to the United States.
As I started researching what is required to enter Bolivia as a U.S. citizen, I literally got a headache. I mean, for instance, must bring a photograph of a certain size with a red background only? If the background of the photo is anything other than red expect to be turned away and sent back across the border or on the next plane. For a country and a people badly in need of tourism dollars, how stupid is that? Politics.
Now, I believe in reciprocity. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and others have such laws in place. These laws state we charge your citizens what you charge our citizens to enter your country. But in some of these countries, Chile for instance, you pay nothing if you cross the border by land. In other words, low-budget backpackers are not hit with a large fee. When I crossed the border from Peru into Chile, I paid nothing.
And some countries only require the fee, not that you jump through hoops, as Bolivia does. Foolish, if you ask me.
So, I must make sure that all my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed as I make my way to the Bolivian border in coming weeks. I am taking no chances. I will be marching down to the Bolivian Consulate in Calama, Chile, to inquire exactly what they need from me. Would be a shame to come this far and only come as close to Uyuni as that National Geographic Magazine spread my dear old friend Dickey unwittingly led me to.