And now, for the main event. Copacabana and La Paz were both lovely surprises, but the thing that put Bolivia on the “Go” list was… a big, flat plain of salt!
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the remnant of one or more prehistoric lakes and has an “extraordinary flatness” according to Wikipedia, with its elevation varying less than one meter in altitude over its entire expanse. Apparently its so flat that it’s used to calibrate the altimeters of satellites passing overhead.
But first, let me recount how we got here. We left La Paz on a fairly sketchy bus for Oruro, a city in the middle of the Altiplano that claims the title of “Folklore Capital of Bolivia.” Its archaeological museum has a better collection of traditional masks and costumes than even the one in La Paz and its Carnival in February is said to be one of the most impressive in South America.
From there we took an awful, bumpy, bone-shattering train ride to the horrible desert town of Uyuni. We were trapped on the train with a large tour group of loud, fidgety college kids, some of whom spent the entire seven hours taking selfies. Uyuni was once an important rail station, but now exists to support the travel agencies sending tourists out into the Salar. We spent two nights there, but had we been able to finalize our tour arrangements online it would have been preferable to spend an extra night in pleasant Oruro instead.
Anyway, on to the tour!
The first step, of course, is waiting for your ride. We signed up with Uyuni White & Green as our tour agency, but as has been the case throughout South America the travel agencies tend to consolidate with other operators and we ended up on a tour run by Salty Desert Adventures instead. (Which was fine; they were well rated on TripAdvisor.) Our guide, Jose Luis, was friendly and helpful but didn’t speak a word of English. This wasn’t unanticipated. At least I could understand the basics and Lea’s Spanish keeps getting better.
The first location we visited was the “train graveyard” just south of Uyuni – a scattering of old engines, freight cars, and the occasional passenger car left in the desert to rust and be graffitied. This is exactly the kind of photo opportunity I love and would have been fantastic if the trains weren’t crawling with tourists using them as adult monkey-bars. I had to walk pretty far from the crowd to enjoy the trains in peace, but there were a lot of trains and a lot of desert to go around.
Next on the itinerary was a short tour of a place where the salt was processed for commercial use. (Fun fact: Bolivia exports no salt, except what tourists take with them.) Basically it was just a room where the crystals were toasted, broken down, sifted, or whatever it is they do… I don’t know, man, it was all in Spanish!
There were big crystals to make Lea swoon and about a dozen shops to buy souvenirs. What surprised me was that this was our only shopping opportunity for the remainder of the tour. After this, we were truly in the Wild.
The Wild wasn’t far away. A short drive brought us to our first photo stop on the Salar. Other tour groups were still around, but the herd was starting to spread out. The first stop wasn’t completely dry, either – there were springs where gas and water bubbled up from beneath the desert. Mainly it was useful as a place for us wannabe photographers to check light levels and test exposure times before heading out into the Unbearable Whiteness. Another quick stop for lunch, then we were on our own in the vastness of the Salar.
That’s when Lea grew to ten times her normal height and tried to stomp me.
Silliness aside, the beauty of the place is mind-bending. Yeah, sure, the Andes are majestic and such, especially around Machu Picchu, but the Salar is so alien that it hurts your brain just to look at it. There’s nothing but white all the way to a horizon so blurred by mirages that the mountains appear to float in the air.
After drinking in the beauty for an hour or more, we drove on to Incahuasi Island, a rocky outcrop in the salt flat where a forest of cacti hang on for dear life. Beyond that (after half an hour of trying to get our jeep to start) we got to watch the sunset before moving on to our first lodge, a hotel made entirely of salt.
A hotel made of salt sounds cool. The salt bricks do in fact provide really good insulation against the frigid night air on the Altiplano. What no one thought to mention, though, was that the floor was nothing but salt-sand. Aside from two narrow beds and a stone block that served as a nightstand, there was literally nowhere to set anything down in our room. We ended up piling everything we pulled out of our backpacks on top of our backpacks and playing “the floor is lava” as we tucked in for the night.
This was less than pleasant. Had we been staying in a campground on the beach with warm air all around and tiki bars really close by, it would have been a different matter.
The salt hotel was in the little village of San Juan, which is also home to the Kawsay Wasy Necropolis. This wasn’t included in any of the tours we looked at, but we asked if we could make a side trip and our guide arranged it. Therefore, while everyone else was snug in bed, Lea and I got up with the sun and rode to the edge of town to engage in our cemetery-haunting hobby.
This particular cemetery is unique in that the inhabitants used natural stone towers to act as tombs for their dead. The remains have been left in situ and can be viewed through a small “window” in each of the Necropolis’s burial chambers.
After that and breakfast, our gang took off in our jeep for even more wonders of the desert. Specifically, alkaline lakes full of flamingos. Also (not in the lakes) wind-eroded rocks.
And an active volcano! Our first stop was at a baño and snack bar with a fantastic view of several volcanoes in the area, one of which was actively smoking.
The first lake we stopped at was a very interesting shade of pink. The second was an algae-covered green with a saline froth along the shore and, in place of seaweed washed up on the sand, a rind of salt-encrusted flamingo feathers. Flamingos were everywhere. Back in the Galapagos we spent quite a bit of time stalking the handful of flamingos we saw, always waiting for that perfect shot where one of the birds would pull their head out of the water for the briefest of instants. If we’d known what was coming, we wouldn’t have bothered. If Hitchcock had wanted to make a sequel to The Birds starring flamingos, he could have filmed it here.
Then there were the rocks.
Plenty of rocks, in interesting shapes, but like the trains on Day One they were crawling with tour groups. Taking a photo of this particular formation without someone posing in front was nigh impossible. But I did it!
I’m going to mention right here that at this point in our excursion, neither Lea nor I were feeling very well. Without going into the gruesome details online, suffice it to say that both of us were feeling the mileage weighing on us in different ways. It wasn’t altitude sickness per se, those headaches and feelings of light-headedness you get when you suddenly find yourself thousands of meters higher than you were. We’d been at high elevation ever since Cusco, but the fact is that we’d both been pushing our bodies beyond their usual limits, hauling backpacks and ourselves up and down mountains in the rarified Andean atmosphere (with its accompanying lack of oxygen) and were both paying the price.
We ached for sea level. We longed for beach chairs under a cabana. We wanted heat, dammit, enough air to breathe, some decent adult beverages, and life without an alarm clock once in a while.
The wind on the plateau steadily picked up all day. The sky was cloudless, but the sun wasn’t enough to fight what eventually became a full-on gale by the time we got to our final vista: Laguna Colorada.
What that gorgeous, unearthly image doesn’t show is the tropical-storm force winds picking up thousands of needle-sharp volcanic sand grains and blowing them right in my face every time I turned west. As windy as it was, Lea overheard one guide comment that often it was even worse. We took our photos then decided to enjoy the view from the safety of Jose Luis’s enclosed 4×4.
That night we stayed in a hostel that only ran their generator from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Skylights warmed the building during the day, though, and at least it had a floor! It was quite an improvement, even if we had to use headlamps and flashlights to brush our teeth and pack.
Up before sunrise. The wind had died down overnight. The first lake we passed had frozen over. We got up that early for the best views of the geysers. (“Not geysers,” says Lea. “Mudpots.”) They’re more active in the morning and the steam is better seen in the early sunlight. The last time Lea and I were taking photos of geysers, it was in Iceland in January 2015. This was warmer than that, at least, and we didn’t have to worry about ice on the ground. Lea, though, made sure to inform me that when walking around mudpots like these, the ground could theoretically open up under us at any time. (Email subscribers click here for video of our potential bubbly demise.)
If you gotta go…
After the geysers, the group went to a hot spring bath. Lea and I did not partake, not wanting to add wet clothes to our backpacks. The last stop for us was Laguna Verde, another salt lake which wasn’t as verde as normal because there wasn’t enough wind to kick up all the algae. Still, more great views of volcanoes:
And that was it for us. The rest of the group had one or two more stops to make on their way back to Uyuni, but Lea and I had chosen this as our exit point from Bolivia into Chile. For a nominal fee our guide helped us across the border and gave us tickets for a bus to take us into San Pedro de Atacama, Uyuni’s sister tourist town on the other side of the mountains.
We longed for warmer air. We longed for thicker air. We wanted to be someplace flat. We dreamed of getting back to the coast. We imagined the sound of waves and the feel of a humid sea breeze.
We waited for two hours in a cramped, stuffy van just to get our turn at the inspection station at the border into Chile. As for the beach? That, my friends, is another story.
Here’s our route through Bolivia. As you can see, we barely touched the country and kept entirely to the upper Andean plateau. Should we return, and I have to say we probably will, it’ll be to visit the green areas on the map – and Oruro one more time.
P.P.S. Jared’s Book Corner
There’s not a lot of Bolivian literature available in English translation. However, there is American Visa, a gripping crime novel from the mid-1990s about a down-on-his-luck Bolivian teacher who will do whatever it takes to escape his native country and get to the United States. Check out my full review on Goodreads.