Saturday the 26th of April 2003 – Day 67
Again we got up at 7.30am for 8.00am breakfast. We visited the Uyuni Salt Flats, Pescado Isalnd, the salt hotel and the graveyard of trains. This was the hightlight of the trip.
The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s largest salt lake, was created forty thousand years ago as a flat bed into which the salty mineral residue drained from the mountains.
Today, the remnants of the ancient lake are two smaller lakes (or two enormous salt plains, depending on the season). The Salar de Uyuni, with over twelve thousand square kilometers, is one of the largest salt flats in the world; during the wet season it appears as a mirror lake that can be traversed not by boats but by four wheel vehicles– it is only six to twenty inches deep. We visited the Salt hotel . Nearby we visited the village of Colchani sitting virtually alone atop billions of tons of easily accessible salt deposits.
With the thickness of the salt layers up to six meters deep there is plenty of raw material for commercial purposes. This little settlement extracts and processes nearly 20,000 tons of salt each year, most of which is marketed for human consumption.
Despite the vast salt resources, the operations in Colchani are essentially primitive. Workers chop and shovel and the salt by hand from the flats onto lumbering old dumptrucks which haul it to the processing plants town.
BTW, the flats are even better under water beacase of the reflection. We arrived in Uyuni at 16.00 hours. We visited the graveyard of trains before finding a hostel. Very small town with maybe 500 inhabitants. Tipped the driver-cook 5 US. He was a real coca leaf addict. The dried coca leaf, a sacred South American plant used by locals for several thousand years, was first processed into cocaine in a German laboratory in 1860. Everybody here chews it and the driver made us chew to combat altitude. It had no real negative effect unless chewd along with ash from another plant. It is very cheap here. Five Boliviars will give up a pound bag. It is chewed for about four hours at the side of the mouth and replaced with new leaves after four. Most of the shops sell the leaf. The plant is commonly grown in peasant kitchen gardens and its leaves are used to make tea, cakes, and natural medicines, and are used in ritual fortune-telling. Coca leaves are also used as part of the local economy, and can be traded to buy potatoes and other staples, she said. All the tea I have drank here has been coca leaf tea. The US government is putting terrible pressure on the government here to get rid of the cultivation, which is a crime as its so engrained in the local culture. For more information please check out this interesting site with a good background on the problem. Also this is good .
In the Andes, the indigenous peoples have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for millennia. They traditionally carried a woven pouch called a chuspa or huallqui in which they kept a day’s supply of coca leaves, along with a small amount of ilucta or uipta, which is made from pulverized unslaked lime or from the ashes of the quinoa plant. A tiny quantity of ilucta is ingested with the coca leaves; it softens their astringent flavor and activates the alkaloids.
The practice of chewing coca was most likely originally a simple matter of survival. The coca leaf contained many essential nutrients in addition to its more well-known mood-altering alkaloid. It is rich in protein and vitamins, and it grows in regions where other food sources are scarce. The perceived boost in energy and strength provided by the cocaine in coca leaves was also very functional in an area where oxygen is scarce and extensive walking is essential. The coca plant was so central to the worldview of the Yunga and Aymara tribes of South America that distance was often measured in units called cocada, which signified the number of mouthfuls of coca that one would chew while walking from one point to another. In fact, the word “coca” itself most likely originally simply meant “plant.”
Coca was also a vital part of the religious cosmology of the Andean tribes in the pre-Inca period as well as throughout the Inca empire. Coca was historically employed as an offering to the Sun, or to produce smoke at the great sacrifices; and the priests, it was believed, must chew it during the performance of religious ceremonies, otherwise the gods would not be propitiated. Coca is still held in superstitious veneration among the Peruvians, and is believed by the miners of Cerro de Pasco to soften the veins of ore, if masticated and thrown upon them.
The activity of chewing coca is called chacchar or acullicar. Doing so usually causes users to feel a tingling and numbing sensation in their mouths, similar to receiving Novocain during a dental procedure. Even today, chewing coca leaves is a common sight in indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in places like the mountains of Bolivia, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is as much a part of the national culture as wine is to France or Guinness is to Ireland. Small bags of coca leaves are often sold in local markets. Commercially manufactured coca teas are also availible in most stores and supermarkets.
The parmacologically active ingredient of coca is the alkaloid cocaine which is found in the amount of about 0.2% in fresh leaves.
Booked into a a hostel (twin room with en suite toilet) for 30 B. I shared the room with Rob. The hostel was called the Marith. The town is my first taste of Bolivia and is very different from Chile and Argentina. the women here wear traditional dress which is very different. They have long pigtails and bowler hats. I walked to to Diana tours to book my bus trip to Potosi. It is a seven hour journey and costs 15P on bad roads (but I hear it is scenic).