Salar de Uyuni: the largest salt flats in the world

Day 1: July 6, 2010
Woke up at 8am, took a great hot shower, packed my bags and went out looking for a tour agency for my salar trip. As I was packing my bags, a couple of ladies working for the hostal which also doubled as a travel agency hassled me trying to sell me their tour. All was very nice, except that I wasn’t going to hand them a $100 before having researched my other options. Not like I did a great job but still…
I entered the first agency that I came across and handed them the money after some hard core bargaining. What they offered was great and they seemed like a respectable company but I wanted a lower price. All companies out there offered the same thing at a slightly different price and this is exactly what I told the guy. ‘Give me a discount or I am walking out of here!’ I bit harsh and certainly not the exact words I used but the message that was transmitted. I told a lie saying the other company offered the trip for Bs500 (he charged Bs600). We went back and forth a bit and settled on Bs560 including the transfer ticket to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. All in all a very good deal.
I then ran to the immigration office to get my exit stamp, and when they requested a Bs15 fee I had to run back to the ATM near the hostal to get money out. Back at the immigration office I paid the fee and the officer assured me I could get back in the country on the same visa. Great news! Hope it holds.
I then headed to a nearby Internet café, trying not to look around at other travel agency or listening to their offers hoping I had made a good deal. I sent Mario a quick e-mail as promised and bought a few bits and pieces I would need for the 3-day trip that was coming. I was advised to get some snacks, water, gloves and sun glasses. The glasses were an excellent purchase as I didn’t take them off all day and they saved my sorry as* from having to squint all day. Mario insisted I bought a pair and I resisted saying I never wore sun glasses and I felt uncomfortable doing so. I am glad he insisted.
Immigration procedures, correspondence, and shopping were done. Now all I had to do is take my bags to the office of the agency and wait. I had breakfast under the warm morning sun as I did so.
Soon the driver came to pick me up and helped me carry my bags a couple of blocks down the street, where the 4×4 was parked. Imagine my surprise when I was told my travel buddies for the next three days were five guys. I was even more taken aback when it turned out they were all French and friends traveling together on top of that. Oh joy! I had specifically asked about the group at the tour agency (Mario’s recommendation) and the guy had said that there were people from France, Italy, Germany, and England. ‘Are they all travelling together?’ I had asked and he had assured me that they weren’t. Luckily, the guys turned out to be real nice – very considerate and helpful – and we had a blast together.
Our first stop was the Train Cementery – a deserted area just outside Uyuni, piled up with rusting trains that were once used to transport minerals. Took a few quick photos before we went back to town to pick up our cook for the next few days. We then hit the road towards the salt flats.
Our first stop was the Montones de Sal (Salt Mountains). Our guide Carlos explained something but I was too busy marveling at the view to hear what he was saying. Very bad of me. We ran around, taking photos, before we gathered for departure.
Next stop was a place called ‘Ojitos’ or the ‘Eyes of the Salar’ which was a small area covered in bubbling water. It looked hot but we couldn’t be further from the truth. It was simply a place where air came out from underground rivers. Funky shapes and colors!
Our next stop was a small community just on the edge of the salar. We went around, shopping or just checking out the merchandise (they guys bought some hats, gloves, ponchos all hand-woven of alpaca wool and I got a doll and a pair of salt dice for Mario. Thought it would be a nice addition to his new backgammon board) while we waited to enter the salt flat. Once we hit the road we drove through the flat whiteness for a while before we stopped for lunch and a set of ‘funny pictures’. While Aleja (our cook was preparing lunch inside the salt hotel (that was now officially a museum but still illegally used as a hotel) we went out picking our brains for fun things to do. The guys I was traveling with sort of went to one side doing their thing and I decided to check on out guide who was taking photos of two girls. I figure we could be useful to each other and I asked them whether they wanted to take some photos together. They agreed and we got down to business. Unfortunately, we didn’t do anything too original. As a matter of fact we only took a couple of classic shots that were somewhat boring. Oh well, better that way then no photos at all. I got frustrated because this was the place to be with friends and take your time acting on creative ideas.
We had a great, rich lunch of llama steak, quinoa, salad and Coke, followed by fresh bananas and a crunchy chocolate desert. Yum!
On the go again, we made our way deep into the salar in search of salt crystals. We stopped at a few small cracks into the solid salts that were full of water. They were absolutely hidden from the eye unless you knew what you were looking for or where to look for it. We all kneeled looking at the perfectly shaped cubic crystals thinking we were not allowed to do much more than that. That’s when Juan, our driver, stuck his hand into the water, trying to crush a crystal. Before I knew it all the guys were sticking their hand into the water, breaking salt crystals off. They were perfect, some small, others bigger, while Alex’s crystal was huge and beautiful. The other Alex shared his catch with me but before I thought about it I threw mine out. How silly of me! As soon as we all got back into the car I regretted my decision. It would have been great to have it as a memory or give it to someone as a present.
Our next stop was an island (the salar was once the oceans bottom), home to hundreds of ancient cactuses. When I say ancient I mean hundreds and hundreds of years old (some as old as 12-13 centuries) reaching a height of 12-13m (1cm per year). The coral that was once alive (and kicking!) but having died a long time ago it now looked like a little more than common rock. As a matter of fact you had to look real close to notice anything at all. Thank God for the guide!
We climbed all the way to the top from where we could enjoy a 360º of the endless salt flats in all they blinding glory as well as the gigantic, fluffy (only appearing so!) cactu plants. Carlos told us how the ancient inhabitants of these lands used to traverse the flats along with their cargo loaded llamas. I mused about means of transportation. A journey that took, weeks, maybe months back then, only take two days in the 21st century. A curious fact – the lamas wore sunglasses (the salt reflects the sunlight like nothing you have ever seen before and it spreads for miles and miles) made of black wool and they also wore little leather shoes to protect their hooves from the rough, cutting salt. Cute!
Lots of goofing around later we finally made our way back to the trucks where we inquired about the semi-final World Cup game. Holland was playing Uruguay and they were even just before we started the climb, 25mins before the end of the game. When we came back Holland had beat the last remaining Latin American country at World Cup 2010. Damn! Who am I supposed to cheer up for now?! Life goes on.
We drove through the salt flats, enjoying the view, until we reached an area where salt bricks were stored. It was our last stop before we stopped for the night and we took some more ‘funny pictures’ before we head to the hotel. I asked the French guys to take a photo of me but they were helpless. I gave up after I tried two of them. ‘This is why we didn’t want to show you our photos from earlier today’ they said. ‘We suck at it!’ they added. Earlier when I had shown them the rather boring funny photos I had taken, they had just said ‘Classic..!’ in French which I had interpreted as a negative, as a criticism referring to the lack of creativity. I spent the next couple of hours thinking they had no right to such comments since they hadn’t exactly helped me and I had done the best I could with what I had. I’d held a grudge against them. But when they admitted to their weak photo taking skills and moreover have asked me to take photos of them and have really enjoyed it I realized how silly I had been in my assumptions. It was really I who was having a problem with my photos, not them. We only got really comfortable with each other later that day when it was too late for photos as we were out of the flats. I’ll save all the ideas for next time…
I asked Carlos, our guide to do it instead, since he was really good at it. Speaking of taking funny photos, Salar de Uynuni classic, it is harder than I thought. I tried taking photos earlier that day, and although I managed to do it, it took a while. The sun was setting when we left.
Soon the white, sparkly salar was behind us and we were surrounded by nothing but brown dust. We reached the hotel (a salt one again but this time legal I assume since it was outside of the salar) and soon fell in love with it. The floors are salt, the walls are built with salt bricks, the tables and the chairs are carved out of salt blocks, and so are the beds. Great! Just like an ice bar, it is a unique experience. Let’s just hope we are as warm as we are fascinated by it.
Soon after we arrived, the fire in the big common hall was lit, and tea and cookies were served to us. Soon after it was dinner time and we started with a delicious, rich, potato soup. That was followed by a typical Bolivian dish of fries, meat, sausages, boiled egg, onions, and peppers all mixed together to a thick stew like thing. Absolutely delicious. Then we had my favorite canned peaches for desert. All this served in proper ceramic china, metal cutlery and glasses. Don’t forget we are in the middle of nowhere and there is nothing but salt and dust for miles around us. I never expected anything like this when I signed up for this. A three-course home-cooked meal?! Served to me in proper china and cutlery?! In a cool salt hotel? Doesn’t get much better than that.
The lights (supplied by a gas generator) would be turned off at 9pm (having been turned on at 7pm soon after we arrived) and Carlos rushed us to take showers. The shower here was hot and the one tomorrow night would be barely warm he had said thus showering tonight was a better option. I ran into the room to get my stuff and hung around waiting for Alex to get out. They were switching the lights off in ten minutes so I rushed, and rushed before I was left in complete darkness. Of course, that didn’t happen but anyway.
I joined the rest who had got together with a group of noisy English girls and were playing games. I tried to join but the girls seemed to be playing their own thing completely ignoring everything else around them and I soon gave up on the whole thing. I got my computer instead and decided to catch up on my writing that I had completely abandoned in the last couple of weeks since we had left the boat.
It is now 22.30pm and the owners’ son (who is helplessly charming and confident in a very mature way) had just warned us that there shouldn’t be any more noise after 11pm. Since I am almost done with this post I would soon go to bed. Speaking of bed, I have been put in a room with three guys (Cristian, a Peruvian tour guide, an Australian tourist, whose with Cristian, and Carlos, our guide). All that because they wouldn’t let me sleep alone in a room. A blessing or a curse…soon to find out.
Que sueñen con los angelitos!
Day 2: July 7, 2010
After a wild night on the salt for most of my group members we were woken up at 7.30am for our second sparkling day. The guys had some trouble getting out of bed having partied until the early hours of the morning and one guy in particular felt extra bad (spent most of the day, lounging in the jeep). We had breakfast served to us and I was surprised by how light it was at as early as 7.30am (usually sun went up at 8am but that’s probably because they are one hour ahead in Argentina; still sun had barely come out on the horizon when we were sailing the Chilean canals – Bolivia and Chile run on the same time). Another great meal (scrambled eggs with peppers, onions, and parsley, toast, jam, dulce de leche (but of course!), juice, tea, coffee, and cocoa. Yummy-yum!
We loaded the bags and hit the dusty road again. There was a lot to do and just one day to do it. Our first stop was spontaneous and improvised, inspired by the stunning view on our way to the mirador to the most important local active volcano. We just couldn’t resist it. We knew it was pretty but we didn’t realise how truly magnificent it was until we turned around and saw the mountain peaks we have been weaving our way through from a higher point and in all they rocky, colorful, misty glory. It looked more like a Mars landscape than something from this planet. Wow! No camera could capture the beauty. Stunning.
Five minutes later we made our first official stop for the day. A rocky area, boasting funky shapes, unusual plants (the carrot smelling bush/chair like plant that I first saw in Ushuaia; didn’t know it grew in such hot, dusty, dry climates) and the glorious view of the smoky volcano. We listened to our guide’s explanation and dispersed to explore the area on our own. I took photos of other people as I normally do. The idea being I will look at them later or showing them to friends and family reminiscing of the places I had visited. ‘This is where I stood!’ I would say pointing to the stranger perched on a steep rock. With a little imagination you would see me standing on that rock. The joys of solo traveling.
On the road again it was time for some lagoons. The first one was very pretty but I don’t remember its name. It perfectly reflected the surrounding mountains, like a mirror, and boasted a few pink flamingos, some ugly, grey baby flamingos as well as some rather vain seagulls (or something of the like) who just posed. It was impressive and I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a better camera or at least a bigger screen. In such cases you better look carefully and soak as much as you can and simply forget about the photos. Carlos, however, took a great photo of me. Wow! We slowly walked back to the truck where Victor, another French guy I was sharing the jeep with, was sitting on a rock, washing his feet. ‘What happened?’ I asked. They told me he had walked on what appeared hard ice covering the lagoon and it had broken, resulting in Victor getting knee deep in flamingo poo. He-he! To use Lonely Planet lingo – ‘extra curious and inobedient have fallen through’.
There were a few more lagoons further down the road, more flamingos and lovely colors. We stopped to have lunch at one of them. The other lagoons were sort of bright green, milky, bright green surrounded by what looked like ice but was actual mineral deposits. Stunning really.
After another hearty lunch (miraculously cooked in 15mins) we got back on the truck and headed to our next natural miracle. It took a while since everything that day was quite a way apart (2h in between attractions) but we were heartily entertained by stopping at various improvised locations. The second one being a red desert accompanied by a rainbow colored two peak mountain in the back. Mars – is the single word that describes the scenery the best. It was red and rocky and sandy and immense. The red stretched as far as they eye could see. We were surrounded.
Alex, one of the French guys I was travelling with performed his little trick (it seemed to have become a habit) which consisted of taking his clothes off and running across the desert while being filmed by his buddies. It was a good laugh. The first time he had done it, nobody knew about it because they had stayed behind at the top of the cactus hill from the day before and nobody had seen anything. He took it to a whole new level this time. We all could see. Brave. Crazy. Silly. If it were anybody else I would probably think it was plain stupid and sneer at it. But the guys have proven to be really good-natured, humorous boys and I laughed and clapped along with everybody else. What else did you expect from a bunch of 20 year olds on summer break?
Back on the road we headed for a rock desert. A bunch of huge rocks, in funky shapes somehow just appeared in the middle of the red, sandy desert. It turned out that they were ‘placed’ there by the surrounding, erupting volcanoes. Funny I didn’t see any in the close proximity. Imagine the size of the eruptions if the rocks ended up miles away from the volcanoes. The area was famous for this rock that looked like a tree, hence the name Arbol de piedra or Stone tree. We busied ourselves climbing other rocks and jumping on top of them while Carlos took cool photos. ‘Naked Running Alex’ very kindly helped me get up and down the rock. How well mannered.
Our last stop for the day was a natural wonder candidate or Laguna Colorada. It is this massive lagoon colored bright red. Carlos explained it was due to the algae and the microorganism. Another very good, very expensive camera location that I didn’t have the means to fully capture. Still I had a blast taking pictures of the lamas who were casually munching on the green, regular looking algae in the fresh water puddles, formed around the red lagoon. I was so happy to see them as we were approaching that I didn’t waste any time getting out of the truck as soon as we stopped and running down the rocky hill to get a closer look at them. They of course wore their typical colorful ribbons and I was ecstatic. At first I was more than surprised the animals let us to get so close to them and seemed absolutely undisturbed. But then I remembered lamas here were a domestic animal, just like sheep are in many countries and this explained their relaxed behavior. How cool and unusual. What is a most exotic animal to me is merely a sheep to a Bolivian. They colorful decoration was also far from romantic. It is simply used by the owners to mark their stock. ‘So they don’t do it to make them look pretty?’ I asked Carlos in a rather disappointed tone. I took a lot of photos of this single lama and its nearby munching buddy. Mine was particularly wonderful since it was double colored both in white and brown. How cool is that?! As we were leaving I noticed the tens of tens more casually napping on the hill, near a little stone house. Bolivian ‘sheep’ rock! Looking forward to seeing more.
Speaking of animals, let’s not forget to mention the numerous vicuñas (a lama like animal, but a lot less furry and far more elegant) running wild around us as we passed through the flats. Their wool is the most precious of the whole lama family since it is hard to get and is particularly fine. We also saw the Andine fox which was also totally relaxed around us looking for some food. I have said it before and I will say it again ‘I love wildlife!’ and I think it makes a trip so much better.
A few kilometers outside the lagoon was our hotel for the night. Nice but nothing compared to our sand castle from the night before. Speaking of castles and before I continue with the story I have to throw in a few words about the Bolivian military establishments. I was surprised to find out that they looked like mud castles (literally) built by children than official military quarters. I found the little towers (just like in old times) particularly amusing with their tilted walls and baby flags on top. Next thing you know, little kid soldiers with wood swords and guns come running out shooting each other with paint. No wonder Bolivia lost three important wars in the past.
Back at the hotel we got settled. This time I shared a room with all five French guys. While we waited for tea and later dinner we tried to keep ourselves warm as it was particularly cold in the hallway. Even with the wood stove on and the hall full of people and steaming food we could see our breath. That night Aleja had cooked some delicious lasagna for us and two young girls (daughters of the owners most probably) entertained us with some songs and drum beating. Amusing. While we waited for dinner we also chatted to some Brazilian girls who invited us to visit their capital Brazilia and stay at their houses only five minutes after they had met us. Brazilians for you. That night they also kept us awake for a while, singing and drumming their bottoms off. That is also Brazilians for you. They had even brought a flag with them that proudly hung on the outside of their dorm door.
Soon after dinner we all went to bed. A Belgian girl got me a hot water bottled and our driver Juan filled it up for me while I was talking to the other Belgian girl about cold feet. Apparently she had had the same problem until she had met a lady who had advised her to channel her thoughts to her feet instead of keeping them in her head. I just realized how ridiculous this sounds. What I am trying to say is that one should try to feel his body more, be closer to the Earth than simply looked in his head. In any case I understood it and I will try it but until then there is always my lovely hot water bottle. I also borrowed Jean Marco’s poncho and put it underneath all the other blankets. He had let me wear it all that night anyway. I was so grateful as it kept me super warm. I was worried I would be cold that night since everybody had repeatedly pointed out how cold that hotel was. Luckily I was super warm, part because of my bottle (that stayed warm until the morning), and part because of the few layers of warm blankets.
The cold wasn’t a problem but sea-sickness was. I woke up in the middle of the night with a rather strong headache. I immediately knew what it was. We were at 5000m above sea level. I have no idea at what time I had woken up but until 5.30am (get up time) I couldn’t fall back asleep. In the morning I found out that two of the guys had also felt sick. One of them had even vomited. Damn! We all felt like sh*t in the morning and the hot water bottle Belgian girl saved the day once again by giving us some altitude sickness pills. For the rest of that day we felt fine but the headache was there. The previous morning I had woken up with a mild headache but I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought it was due to the lack of sleep.
Day 3: July 8, 2010
Last day of our salty adventure. We got waken up by Juan at 5.30am as previously agreed. It was pitch black and I improvised with brushing my teeth and going to the bathroom. Tricky business! The loaded the trucks and left within 15mins of our getting up. It was dark and Juan drove by habit or instinct or God knows what. All that rush was to do with geysers. We had to get there before it got light and warm in order to see the steam coming out of the ground. We got there and we saw it. It was freezing cold, unsuitable for photos, unless you had a decent camera, we were sick and couldn’t be bothered to stay out for too long. After a quick look we ran back to the truck and watched the steam from the warmth of the jeep.
Our next stop was a thermal, hot spring. It was also out breakfast location. We had pancakes, cereal, and fruit before we jumped into the hot water. Well some jumped others just dipped. The guys all went in, but unfortunately I couldn’t and I just settled for sitting on the edge with my feet dipped into the 40º volcanic water. Yummy! We were all so grateful for the warmth after the -10º temperatures of the morning. It didn’t last long though. Carlos came rushing us out as we had to go and make the bus that was taking us to Chile. Five French guys and I (our truck) were all going to Atacama, while our buddies from the other truck were going back to Uyuni. We made the border, which was basically a shack in the middle of the desert. I didn’t understand what all the rush was about since we had to sit around in the cold wind waiting for the bus to pick us up. Eventually it came and we made our way to Chile on the international Mercosur road, spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Pretty cool!
The Atacama adventures are to follow…


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