Sleeping On Salt: Bolivia's Salt Hotel

Our room at the Salt Hotel
 On the third night of our Lipez-Uyuni tour we arrived at our salt hotel, an inn made primarily of salt on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.  The hotel was basic with walls of salt, beds made of blocks of salt, tables of salt and chairs of salt.  When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls to verify that they were indeed made of salt. 

The lodge, the Atulcha, had basic rooms with shared bathrooms and salt tables lined up in the communal area for the set course dinner that all guests would share.

Outside, it was cold with stong winds blowing off the Salar -- a flat cold area 19 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah -- such that we had to turn our back to the Salar and look at the run down small village that is supported by tourists staying at the salt lodge.

Dinner that night was quinoa soup, roast llama and potatoes.  We shared our meal with a retired Geman man who was riding his bike around the Salar, stopping at various salt hotels (I believe that there are 7 or 8 of them).  After dinner we took hot showers before all the lights went out at 8:00 pm.  Nestled into our fairly comfortable beds atop salt blocks, I read my book with my miner's headlamp then drifted off to sleep. 

The dining area


Bolivia's Stone Tree: Sandblasting As An Art Form

The Stone Tree in Southwestern Bolivia
We gotten up early to get a head start on reaching the Salar de Uyuni that night, only to get a flat tire on our Land Cruiser within 45 minutes.  The wind blew unrelentlessly across the southwestern Bolivian aliplano and we all got out of the vehicle while our driver changed out the tire.  I braved the strong wind and took a short walk to find a place to urinate.  With winds this strong, a few calculations were required to ensure that I stayed dry during my nature call.

After a successful bathroom break I returned and our driver had finished changing the tire, so we all piled into the car and resumed driving.  Within an hour we arrived near some windswept stone sculptures on the edge of the desert.  We slowed down and plowed through deeper sand and stopped near a lone tent and two bicycles leaning against a large rock.  I guessed that whoever this was had tried a few different spots to avoid the wind until they finally settled on this one.  A French couple bounded out and greeted us.

We chatted with them for a bit and asked about their trip.  He was going from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska and she was visiting him for a few months and they'd been slogging through the desert sand for the last month.  We gave them some of our candy bars and the man wrote a message and email address on paper and asked that I email it to his friend, which I did two days later.

We wished them well and started driving and within a minute saw an immense stone structure and our driver said "Arbol de Piedra -- Stone Tree."  We got out an marveled at its size, its dimensions and the apparent nature of how it was formed: natural sandblasting.  It sat in the open where winds could shape it from all directions.  It was about 30 feet high and made of solid rock.  I wondered why it was so top-heavy; surely it would have been just as easy to sandblast a bottom-heavy pyramid type structure? 

We stopped for a few pictures and continued our journey.  While there were plenty of interesting sights along the way, we wanted to reach the Salar by sunset.


Swimming With Blind Pink River Dolphins

Jumping in with blind pink river dolphins
Deep within the Bolivian Amazon, the four of us peered over the sides of our dugout canoe, trying to decide if we should take the leap into the deep brown waters of the Yacuma River.  We wanted to swim with river dolphins but the piranha-filled, zero visibility water and the 10-foot long caimans eyeing us from the nearby shore kept us from jumping in.  “It’s Okay,” said our guide Wilber, sensing our reticence, “the piranha are too small to hurt you and the caimans are scared of the dolphins.”  Our kids weren’t going in unless Mom and Dad went first but we were clearly unsure ourselves.  We’d been to a few swimming spots along the river but each time we found a reason not to get in and this would probably be our last opportunity.

Wilber rhythmically banged his open palm on the outside hull of the canoe to attract more dolphins.  We had seen their pointy, toothy snouts rise out of the water as they surfaced high enough to expel water from their blow holes.  The chance to swim with dolphins in the wild and not in some over-sized Florida swimming pool kept us from backing out.  “Well,” said my wife, “We’re either going to do this or were not,” and she jumped in and disappeared into the muddy brown water.  My son followed his mother and in a few seconds both were floating and grinning, relieved to not be feeling any nibbles from hungry piranha. The curious dolphins swam circles around them and nudged a basketball to my son. After taking a few photographs of them I jumped in.  When I surfaced I was relieved to count the same number of caimans on the opposite river bank.  Our daughter was still in the boat.  She loves dolphins but she hates swimming in water where she can’t see the bottom.  After about five minutes of reassurance and cajoling, she reluctantly eased into the water.  While our son threw the basketball for the dolphins to retrieve, my daughter and I hung on the sides of the boat.  I felt a nibble around my armpit but did my best to keep this information from her.  Just as we were getting confident, there was a splash from a big tail and she screamed “What was that!” and quickly threw her arms around me.  One of the dolphins, apparently in a playful mood, had made a big splash with its tail and extinguished her budding confidence.  It was as if this river dolphin, with a brain 40% larger than a human’s, sensed her anxiety and was singling her out for teasing.

Flipper of the Amazon
For kids missing a lot of school, ours were getting quite an education on the flora and fauna of the Amazon basin.  The stars of our afternoon outing, the river dolphins, were the science lesson of the day.  These creatures were relatives of ocean-going dolphins but these river dwellers were very different.  Fifteen million years ago sea levels retreated and sealed them off from the ocean and they were forced to adapt to their new environment or face extinction.

Like us, they were faced with adjusting to a new environment here in South America.  As they evolved, they gained some things necessary for survival and they lost some things that weren’t essential.  They gained long, pointed snouts to reach through branches to find river crabs and they developed unfused vertebrae to allow them to make sharper turns through underwater tree roots.  They lost their dorsal fins to make navigating tight spots easier, they lost their eyesight because it was useless in the muddy water and their complexion turned pink due to a lack of sunlight penetrating the dark water.

Chasing the basketball
After about 10 minutes, the dolphins were suddenly gone and we climbed back in the boat.  Wilber fired up the outboard motor and we sped back to our lodge, savoring both the breeze from the boat and another great day along Bolivia's Yacuma River.


Attack Of The Bolivian Squirrel Monkeys

Bolivian Squirrel Monkey
We sped through the chocolaty brown waters of Bolivia’s Yacuma River, the breeze giving us respite from the moist and muggy Amazon air.  We’d seen a lot in one morning – capybaras, caimans, river turtles, river dolphins – and we settled in for a 45 minute ride back to our lodge for some lunch and a nap in a hammock.  Wilbur steered us swiftly in the 20-foot long dugout canoe and then slowed us down, killed the engine and we slowly drifted towards the far bank.  We were tiny white specks in a tri-color landscape of green trees, blue sky and brown water in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon.

With no breeze we started sweating and we wondered what Wilbur was up to.  Suddenly, the branches of the largest tree from the approaching bank started moving and shaking.  A closer look revealed that the tree was filled with about two dozen small Bolivian squirrel monkeys and they were coming our way as our boat now drifted under the branches.  The monkeys let their weight bring the branches down to the boat and one boarded near the bow.

Squirrel monkeys live in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America in the canopy layer.  They have short fur, olive colored shoulders and yellowish-orange coloring on their backs and extremities.  The grow to about 25 to 35 centimeters and their brain mass to body mass ratio is a remarkable 1:17, the largest brain, proportionately, of all the primates.  To put this in perspective, you have about a 1:35 ratio.

Our kids were by now anxious and I calmly told them “Don’t move.  All they want are the oranges.” My voice was fatherly and authoritarian, laced with a hint of nervousness.  I envisioned a worst case scenario of the kids being bitten by the monkeys and having to make the long 5 hour trek back to the closest town.   By now, eight of them were on our boat looking for food.  My wife was snapping photos and videos and one jumped in her lap.  My son moved to the edge of his seat and another monkey jumped on the spot he vacated.

They quickly grabbed the oranges and peels from the bottom of the canoe and started leaving and we were relieved that everyone was safe and no one had been bitten.  While I had sweated and worried about the kids safety, I felt that my wife -- who had filmed almost the entire episode -- was more concerned about missing any footage of the event.
Searching for our oranges