Our Bolivia Adventure: Back to El Salar
Guest Blog by Lili Mahlab
We woke up at 5:30, had breakfast by 6:00, and were in our jeep in the predawn hours of the morning.
Finally, as we entered into the salt flats, we had an appreciation for this incredibly vast expanse that gave way to miles and miles of salt.
It took over an hour driving a distance of 120 kilometers for us to get to our first stop, the Cueva Chinquini.
A few millennia ago, the area was completely flooded. Active volcanoes in the area would spew lava which would tumble into the cold waters thus creating the formations that we see today. The cave was recently discovered 5 years ago by a man that the locals thought was crazy. That said, his discovery has become a major tourist attraction.
Later on, we learned how to harvest salt using pick axes and shovels. What is incredible is that the layers of salt go down as far as nearly 400 feet.
There are actually 11 layers of salt, each between 6 – 30 feet in depth with perhaps 10 billion tons of salt – the largest deposit of salt in the entire world.
Towards the late morning, we ended up in Tahua, a village in the salt flats, where we met some of the women of the Tahua Mother’s Club. This is a group of 12 women who profit from their woven goods to help support the families.
On that particular day, a number of regional girls’ basketball teams were in Tahua competing. Since the Mother’s Club was across the street from the school, we spent some time watching the girls compete while their families cheered them on.
After spending some time with the Tahua mothers, we gave the school principal many of the school supplies we brought along with us. We then headed over to the somewhat quirky Museo Chantani. The museum is the creation of Don (means Señor) Santos, who scoured the mountainside to collect hundreds of artifacts, including a thousand year old mummy.
Initially, all the locals thought he was crazy. However, over a period of time, he collected an impressive array of antiquities, which are displayed alongside his own unique rock carvings. He charges a modest amount and even invites visitors to join his wife as they herd their llamas to the pastureland on the edge of the salt flats.
We capped off the afternoon by having a picnic lunch in the pasture alongside the llamas. By that time, the weather had warmed up considerably and we were able to shed our jackets albeit we wore a couple of lighter layers.
After lunch, we reentered the salt flats and headed over to Isla Incahuasi (also known as Isla del Pescado), one of the more popular “floating islands” (there are roughly 50 volcanos that protrude above the salt flats).
Located more or less in the heart of the salt flats some 50 miles west of Colchani, this beautiful island is covered in giant cacti and is surrounded by miles and miles of hexagonal shaped salt plates.
The island was filled with tourists – the majority who seemed to be backpackers under the age of 30.
Picnic tables were lined up all along the edge of the island. In the distance, para-sailors were pulled along by jeeps across the flats.
The round trip hike to the top of the island took about an hour and the views at the top were breathtaking, certainly worth a visit.
We made a few smaller stops before heading back to another salt flat hotel, the Cristal Samana, perhaps a bit cozier than the Palacio de Sal, with a wonderful fireplace and living room just outside our door.
That night, the hotel was fully booked with a very large group from Japan who were all taking a 140 day tour around the world on the “Peace” boat. Despite the language barrier, we were able to share stories and photos of what we had all seen that day on the Salt Flats.