The Otherworldly Salar de Uyuni

It’s not possible to justly describe the Salt Flats.

The whole three day trip is like stepping into another world. The scenery is the most amazing and quirkiest landscape you’ve ever seen, with a strong feeling of endlessness. My jaw was dropped the whole time and my eyes wide open to the surreal surroundings.

If the Amazon was like a Dr. Seuss book then the Salt Flats are a Salvador Dali painting.

The tour is referred to as the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), but they are really just part one of this odyssey. The entire trip starts out with the worst overnight bus ride of your life from La Paz to Uyuni. At first the bus seems good enough – plush seats, an actually edible dinner with tv shows – and then it all goes downhill. Whoever designed these seats utterly failed at spacing; the seat in front of me actually reclined so much it was on top of my legs, and since the woman behind me asked me to move mine up a bit I’m assuming the same happened to her. That isn’t the worst part though, that award goes to the roads. Bumpy doesn’t even begin to cover it. The unpaved road feels like a constantly running massage chair set to uncomfortable. Somehow I managed to fall asleep enough to completely miss the fact that our bus got a flat tire and we were stopped for an hour while they fixed it. Maybe this is the hour I actually slept. (A few days after my trip a bus traveling from Uyuni to La Paz ran off the road, killing 10 people. They really should use some of the profit from these Salt Flat tours to improve this road.)

When we arrived in Uyuni I was picked up by my tour company and taken to meet up with the car and people that would be my constant companions over the next few days. Each group of 6 travels around in a 4×4 with a driver, who is also in charge of food and at least a little information on where you are each stop. I definitely have opinions on choosing a company and how this system works, but I’ll save that for another post. This one is about the incredible nature we saw.

Day 1 was all about the Salt Flats. When you google “Salt Flats” the images that come up are what we saw the first day. After a quick stop at a train cemetery, where they let tourists run around on rusting old trains like kids on a playground, we were whisked across endless off-white land to a few locations. First, a town where we could buy souveniers. Of course. This is a tourist excursion after all. Second was a salt hotel – a building made entirely out of blocks carved from salt – where we had our first mediocre lunch. Then it was off to the Isla Incahuasi. Time for the surrealism.

The Salt Flats were formed from several prehistoric lakes, so this “island” was originally under water. It is actually coral and is covered by gigantic cacti. It was so strange to be walking around on dried up coral rocks surrounded by incredibly sharp cacti that were easily twice my height. They grow at 1 cm a year; given how large they are, these things are seriously old. Surrounding the island is patterned white land that seems to go on for miles until some mountains in the far distance. After we climbed around for a bit we ran out to take some pictures on the Salt Flats. Our final stop of the day was to do the same, in the perspectiveless expanse. This is where people typically play with their pictures, using toy dinosaurs to look like they are being chased or standing far enough behind each other to look like they’re holding a tiny person. Our group was unfortunately not very creative, or at least didn’t have the proper encouragement, so I don’t have any of these pictures. Also since it was dry we weren’t lucky enough to have the mirror effect that happens in the wet season. But still, it was a sight to see, and I have some good pictures of me at least to document being there.

Driving around the Salt Flats was the most fascinating part of the day to me. There are tons of jeeps going every which way, but none of them appears to be driving. It looks more like the ground underneath is moving and the car is just on top of it. When you see these cars zooming around in the distance it’s like miniature toy cars that are being played with by invisible giant hands. It sort of messes with your mind.

Day 2 was entirely different. The whiteness was over and replaced by tan. We were in desert. From this point out, the scenery looks more like Mars than Earth. We started in another train cemetery, then traversed bumpy desert in search of odd rock formations, often created by petrified lava from the surrounding volcanoes. We played around on towering cliffs before venturing into the land of the wild flamingos. Lagoons were the theme of the day and we saw them in a variety of colors, from reflective blue to solid red. All of them seemed to host these flamingos. It’s so crazy to see these birds living their lives in this insane wonderland. We saw more wildlife from culpeo – the closest comparison I can think of is a fox – to vizcacha – sort of rabbit-looking things – as we passed by multicolored mountains and through a cavernous “road.”

This night was freezing. The first night was cold, but it didn’t even compare to the second night. We bundled up in all our layers as we huddled around our rum and tea concoction, playing cards underneath the sparse lightbulbs. At least dinner this night included a bottle of wine for an extra warming boost. The food did improve since the first lunch by the way, but nothing really worth writing about. We called it a night early since we had to be at breakfast at 5:00 am. To keep warm overnight, we slept in all our layers, in sleeping bags underneath multiple blankets, with a bottle of boiling water in each of our beds.

We woke up to -15 degrees celsius (5 degrees farenheit). We shivered in our car ride the entire way to our first stop, and the reason we were up so early, and it was so worth it. We arrived at the geysers just before sunrise. The heat of the geysers was an amazing contrast to the cold air, and we wandered around surrounded by white smoke as the sun rose over the mountains. It was, again, otherworldly. Next was the hot springs. Getting into a bathing suit in negative degrees is one of the harder things I’ve had to do, but I was rewarded for this effort once I got into the body-temperature-degree water. The water thawed me, and by the time I got out the sun had risen and I was no longer cold. It was entirely worth the extra 6 Bs (less than a dollar).

The rest of this day was spent driving past some more surreal desert – actually called the Valle de Dalí (Dali Valley, or Salvador Dali Desert) – and seeing one final lagoon – Laguna Verde – before we crossed the border into Chile and our adventure ended.

The border crossing was a bit hectic and hilarious. Three of us were continuing on to Chile and three were going back to Uyuni; an 8 hour drive across bumpy desert, I did not envy them. We rushed through the tiniest immigration office to get our exit stamps, hugged everyone goodbye, and jumped into a van that drove across the border. We knew we were in Chile when we were on smooth paved roads. A surprisingly long 20 minute drive and we were at immigration again for our entry stamps. Another country down. Leaving Bolivia by this three day adventure was definitely my most unique border crossing.

I’m sure this will come as no surprise to anyone, but I entirely recommend going to Salar de Uyuni if you have the chance. How many more words can I use to describe it and still not be sure I have accurately portrayed it? Surreal, incredible, otherworldly, amazing, quirky, endless, Mars, Salvador Dali – I hope these have at least painted a picture similar to what I experienced.

 

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