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21-26 Dec 2013. At the end of the second day of our overland journey through the High Desert and altiplano of Bolivia we were delivered to a hotel sitting on the edge of the great Salar de Uyuni (salt of Uyuni).

The hotel stands alone about 20 km outside of the town. It is made almost entirely of bricks of salt. Even some of the furniture is made of salt. It has two long wings stretching off on either side from the reception area. The rooms face the back. Facing towards the salt flats, are many small seating nooks with big windows, including a nook with hammocks. Through the windows is a view of salt going on forever, and at the edge, by chance, a herd of foraging vicuñas. It is a luxurious hotel, warm, spacious, comfortable, attractive, and certainly unique. The only thing we didn’t like was the salt floor – kinda gritty underfoot.

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The Salar de Uyuni, part of the altiplano, or high plain, is one of the biggest salt flats in the world. It is 3600 metres (almost 12,000 ft) above sea level and covers an area of 10,500 sq km. It is bigger than some countries. In the centre the salt is 110 metres deep. That’s a huge amount of salt. Unfathomable really. There are about 72 islands in this ‘lake’ of salt, and about 20 communities along its ‘shores’.

We awoke to a downpour. It didn’t look good. Driving to one of the islands in the centre would be impossible if there was too much water on the salt. We set out anyway, and I think with the help of the radiophone Wilson established that the centre of the Salar was dry. This proved to be the case. We drove through a thin skim of water. The further we drove into the centre the drier it became. After the early morning downpour it was dry and sunny all day. The sun is fierce there, being reflected off the blinding white salt at that thin-air altitude. It is quite amazing. Salt as far as the eye can see, with the hazy mountains in the distance forming a rim around it.

We drove to the island of Incahuasi, located more or less in the middle. It is covered in astonishing cacti that grow only one centimeter per year. Some of the taller ones are nine hundred or a thousand years old.

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On the island we climbed to the top. Finally we had adjusted to the altitude enough to actually tackle climbing a hill! We met some wonderful Aussies and a Peruvian woman (married to one of the Aussies) on the way down, had a long conversation, ran into them again later in town, and ended up having dinner with them. But back to the salt flats: once again Juan and Wilson pulled an excellent lunch from the back of the Landcruiser. We ate on the island. These people, on the other hand, preferred to eat out in the middle of the ‘lake’.

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Sometimes I feel like a child, and Don is a hero and takes care of me.

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And sometimes I get mad and Don just better take care :)

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At the edge of the Salar, even close to the end of the day, there was still water on the salt.

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Mounds of salt awaiting harvesting.

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Since Best day ever! had been our declaration at the end of each day of this tour, we finished it with Mejor tour en todo tiempo! I think my Spanish was good enough for Wilson to understand what I meant: best tour ever! We thanked them warmly and said our goodbyes as they left us at our hotel in Uyuni with enough time to check-in, leave our bags, and go explore the local market. It was our first encounter with the bowler-hatted women of Bolivia.

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We have observed in many countries that the men, for the most part, have given up on traditional dress, but that the women have not. I could make some guesses as to why this would be so, but since I’m not an anthropologist, they would only be guesses. And I don’t think it’s going to last more than another generation or two. More and more we see the young women in regular western clothes. But for now the women of Bolivia are the same as the women in most countries we’ve been to. Most of them still wear some version of the traditional dress of their area, and hats have a lot to say about where you’re from.

Apparently in the 1920’s there was a shipment of bowler hats from London to Bolivia for the British railway workers. The hats proved to be too small, or the wrong colour, or something or other, so they were tarted up a bit with tassels and marketed to women. It was not the upper class women however who took the bait. The women who embraced this new fashion were the Aymara and Quechua women who had recently migrated to the big city of La Paz. From there the fashion spread among both the Quechua and Aymara women of Bolivia and southern Peru, and, so I’ve read on the Internet where we know everything is true, as far north as the indigenous women of Ecuador. Either way it is lovely for me to be able to google “bowler hats in Bolivia” and get some answers. I remember when I last visited these parts, before the Internet existed, I was greatly intrigued and puzzled by it all. Why are they wearing bowler hats? It was so incongruous. I thought it was strange. And absurd. Now I find it delightful. Flat shoes, alpaca leg warmers, full flowing skirts, a blouse and sweater, a wide thick shawl, and a bowler hat. Why not?! It takes a lot of practice, and a special elegance to balance a bowler hat on the top of your head.

There’s a quite modern and comfortable bus the goes from Uyuni to La Paz. We thought of taking it until we discovered it travels overnight on unpaved roads. That sounded just a bit too uncomfortable, and we wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, so we flew to La Paz, took a taxi to the bus station and boarded a bus for Copacabana.

At the bus station

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From the front seat of the bus waiting to leave La Paz. A long conversation on her cell phone.

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My city is changing.

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Copacabana, the original Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, is a small resort town frequented by both the people of La Paz and foreign tourists. No doubt the people of La Paz come here for vacations by the water, and because it has great spiritual significance for Bolivia. Many Bolivians make a pilgrimage to Copacabana. The tourists come to see the famous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, and to maybe take a hike on Isla del Sol. But they come mainly because it is a convenient stop on the way south from the Sacred Valley of Peru, with its grand Inca ruins, to the Bolivian altiplano and the “don’t-miss” Salar de Uyuni. We arrived in Copacabana two days before Christmas and checked into the freezing-hell-hole hotel with its lack of heat and erratic power supply, but that’s a story that’s already been told. Copacabana itself is a lively and interesting town, especially on Christmas Day.

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On Christmas day there’s chaos around the church. People decorate their cars and bring them to the church to be blessed by the “dark” Virgin of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. She is said to be a miracle worker who saved some fishermen from a storm on the lake way back when. The priest blesses the cars with beer, and firecrackers are let off. The beer and firecrackers hark back to the original sacred practices of the indigenous people of the region and their worship of Pachamama, the Earth Goddess. Thus we have an example of the perfect blend of indigenous sacred practice and Roman Catholicism that is seen throughout Latin America. It’s a madhouse, an endless traffic jam, a complete zoo, a street party.

Everyone is dressed in their finest clothes. I was drawn by this woman’s beautiful shawl and photographed her as she walked towards us. As she neared my “Muy bonita!” (very beautiful!) brought a huge smile.

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And the cars are dressed in flowers, Christmas decorations and party hats

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Look what I got for Christmas

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Next blog post: We did go for a hike on Isla del Sol, the sacred birthplace of the Incas, and then travelled by bus to Puno, Peru for more explorations on Lake Titicaca.

If you’re intrigued enough to want to know more about the Virgin of Copacabana, and cars with hats, check out this excellent article on Donna Yates’ blog. And if you want to read more about the history and fashion of bowler hats in Bolivia there’s an very good article here.






© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2014.