The Uyuni Salt Flats

Most of you have probably never heard of the Uyuni Salt Flats, but they are a pretty popular tourist attraction when you actually get to Bolivia. There is something like a couple million tons of salt in a huge expanse of the Bolivian desert (even though it’s at an altitude of like 15,000 feet). I had booked a four day tour of the salt flats, along with the really weird geographic features of the region (like smoldering volcanoes and green, blue, blood red, and yellow lakes) and after a 12 hour bus ride, me and 7 other people were bouncing around Bolivia, seeing what we could see.

Day 1:

Well, after a pretty uncomfortable bus ride from La Paz, I made it to Uyuni at about 5AM. I had had a heater right under my feet (of all places), which made it impossible to move my legs and really hot, despite the fact that everyone else froze. I met some New Zealanders and two girls from Israel (but originally from Russia). I already had my trip booked when I arrived but as it turned out, the bus wouldn’t take me to my hotel since it was too far so I hung out with the Russian girls in a different tourist agency while I waited for my agency to open. I took a shower for 5 Bolivianos and got some breakfast, and when my agency finally opened I found out that the hotel I was to be going to wasn’t worth the trip and that I could leave from the agency. I took a nap on the couch and waited and waited and finally, we took off in a rickety old Toyota truck about two hours late. I was talking to a girl there and she said she took the same jeep the day prior on a one-day excursion and as they were driving in the salt flats, she heard a thump and the back left tire went rolling off into the distance. The driver stopped and chased after in, but couldn’t find the nuts that had fallen off, so he took one off of each of the other tires. I went outside and looked. Sure enough, each tire was missing at least one bolt.

So once on the road, we checked out where they process the salt (which is a small time operation, to say the least) and then took off in the vast white expanse. Periodically, the driver would stop and make sure all the tires were still on. And he ignored our questions about “that burning smell”.

The flats are pretty incredible. It looks like snow for miles and miles in every direction and the landscape is dotted with little mounds of salt that the Bolivians create to make it easier to load them up into the trucks.

Periodically, you see little two-inch deep lakes of crystal clear water (I think, albeit probably pretty toxic) which some kid attributed to the fact that water is underneath all the salt flats. Eventually, we made it to La Isla de la Pescadora, which is unique in that it’s a dirt hilly island filled with cacti and caves, right in the middle of the salt flat. To say that it looked out of place is an understatement. We explored it for a while and had lunch and then continued on. We were shortly joined by a Japanese guy who (from what we gathered from the Japanese girl in our group who was talking to him) had been riding a bike all the way from Alaska, down to the bottom of America. So that meant he had gone all the way down the US, Mexico, Central America and much of South America and we just happened to see him riding away on his bike in the middle of one of the most desolate parts of the world for quite a distance. Pretty crazy, eh?

So after another few hours of driving, we made it to a quaint little town where we were to stay the night. The town was dirt poor, mud and salt buildings (yeah, they make salt bricks and construct buildings with them – and we had actually stopped at a hotel made completely of salt earlier that day), with dirt roads and all. There were llamas grazing in the distance and after watching them for a while, I joined another tour group in the dining room (if you want to call it that). I had heard the English accents and knew there would be beer present so I went in and asked if everyone had been to the pool with the waterslide, yet. One guy, Simon, caught right on and said he hadn’t yet, but I was going to have to make a decision between drinking and swimming because beer wasn’t allowed at the pool. His girlfriend got excited because she wanted to go swimming, but eventually realized we were joking around. Anyways, we all had a great time chatting, went and saw the sunset and then called it a night.

Day 2:

We got up early, had breakfast and then continued our trek. We were traveling in dirt now, as the salt flats had ended and we eventually made our way to an active volcano. It was snorting a bit of smoke from the top and from what I gathered, although it could erupt at any time, it hadn’t for a long, long time. We explored the rock formations for a while then continued on. We drove for a long time after that. I was the only one with a Discman, so I had the luxury of listening to music and dozing off while the countryside zoomed past us. It was quite interesting, with multicolored and lakes (filled with flamingos) and mountains (yeah, the mountains were made up of quite a mixture of colors), wild llamas and vicunas roaming around the hills and little houses made of mud.

We eventually came to a strange formation of rocks with these strange little animals that lived in them. They looked like rabbits but had long tails and, although I’m not sure what they ate, seemed curious and agile enough. We then took off to see the “Arbol de Piedra” (tree of stone), which was pretty cool. It looks like a tree but is just an eroded rock. From there, we went to some military station where we paid 35 Bolivianos and then continued on to a really small town where we were to spend another night.

This place didn’t have the luxuries of a store with beer or a flushing toilet (you had to pour water from a big tub into the bowl and change the water by gravity) and we played some card games, had dinner and stayed up chatting.

It turns out that our guide was trying to weasel out of a deal he had made with a girl to take her back a day early (which the agency had promised before her leaving) and she didn’t speak very good Spanish, so I stepped in to get it squared away. I don’t know if you have ever argued with someone in a different language, but it isn’t easy. It’s strange learning another language while living in another country because you don’t really notice that you are getting better at speaking…it just kind of comes out with less effort. Eventually, we got everything as sorted as we could (he refused to write down a time table for her because he would then be a “slave to hours”) and we were all pretty frustrated. This tour was turning out to be a pretty dodgy experience, which bad food, unreliable transportation, a guide that was in a hurry and never told us anything about the stuff we were seeing and was pretty obnoxious to boot. No worries though. We eventually got to bed.

Day 3:

In the morning, we got up really early and took off to see the sunrise. We ended up only being able to watch it from a really bumpy jeep while hauling ass to the hot springs. I think the altitude was really getting to me because I felt really ill, but the sights were pretty cool just the same.

We stopped at a place where the steam boils out of the ground. Bubbling mud and the overwhelming stench of sulfur made a walk around the site pretty interesting. From there, we continued on to the hot springs where natural puddles of water range from warm to boiling hot and some people put on their swimming trunks and jumped in the natural spas. My buddies and I settled for just dipping our feet in and chatting (as it was still freezing cold and didn’t want to freeze to death after getting out), and after breakfast we continued no to the Chilean border to drop some of the people in our group off. I said goodbye to my buddies in the other group (the group I wished I had been in, since my group was pretty lame) and then we took off into the countryside leaving them behind. They were to take a bus to Chile and continue on from there, whereas we still had a day left in our tour.

Our guide then took us on a “shortcut” through the dustiest part of the countryside yet and we eventually arrived at another small town. I took the opportunity to go out and play basketball with the local kids and was pretty quickly assaulted for some candies. The kids in the countryside don’t ask for money like the kids in the city. Instead, they want candy – something I can totally understand.

After a pretty fun night of playing cards and eating dinner, we hit the sack.

Day 4:

This day was nothing really special – just driving. We drove and drove, eventually seeing the famous Rocks of El Salvador Dali (I think), who was an artist who put all these rocks on the side of some hill. We continued on (and on and on) and came to a town called San Christobal, where we snapped a photo of the church before continuing. After another long while, we got to the train cemetery of Uyuni, where they dump all the trains that have had their day. It was pretty cool to walk around and through the trains and see these massive machines that were probably incredible in their day, but now were left to rot in the desert.

Five more minutes drive and we were in Uyuni, which was like a ghost town, but with people – with old and dilapidated and half finished buildings and deserted streets (although it did have quite a number of roads, unlike most of the one-road towns we saw).

We got our filthy bags off the top of the jeep, bid our guide farewell (without a tip, as I was completely dissatisfied with the quality of his work…his name was Nestor, if you ever do this and want to enjoy your trip – meaning: avoid him), and I booked myself into a hotel and got a warm shower. I spent the rest of the night on the Internet and wandering around Uyuni chatting with people from the trip. My train was to leave at 2:30 in the morning, so after dinner, and trying to call home (which got accidentally connected to Japan – “Mushi Mushi?”), I took a nap before heading to the train station. At 2:00AM, there is was no one around and the I had a hard time getting out of the hotel as the front gates had been locked. I eventually got someone up though and walked across the street to the train station.

The proceeding train ride was in last class, with about 100 people in a car that should have only had 20, and was one of the most suffocating, claustrophobic and miserable experiences of my trip so far (although the last half was incredible after I paid for an upgrade and switched cars for the last few hours of the trip to the Argentinean border). But…that is another post in itself, so in the mean time, enjoy the pictures and expect another post from Argentina soon!

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