Salar Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

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I was awoken to the sun glinting through our bus window in the wee hours of the morning. It had been a rather fitful sleep, huddling together on the freezing cold bus, drifting in and out of the elusive world of slumber. The road was suddenly a mess of jarring bumps and as I looked out the window I noticed that we were no longer even on a real road; we were on a path through the desert floor. The bumps were from the sand having frozen and hardened in place. The Bolivian desert is a cold and cruel place come sunset, as we would soon find out on our three day tour through this incredible place. We bumped along, savouring the slight warmth the sun was passing through our windows as our breath misted in front of our faces.

I scraped the window so I could see our surroundings- sand and more sand. Nothing but desolate sand. After a while we entered the tiny town that is Uyuni and pulled up to the bus station. As promised, a man was waiting for us, holding a sign with my name on it and he whisked us away. In broken English he explained that the tour would leave at 10:30am, so we had just enough time to grab breakfast at a cafe across the street. We ordered a small breakfast but only really cared about getting our hands on the hot tea to defrost them. None of the buildings in Uyuni had heating even though it was freezing, so we sat shivering in the cafe, along with a hoard of other travellers, all bundled up, rubbing our hands together as we waited for our tea.

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Wearing every piece of Alpaca I had just to ward off the frostbite on the frigid bus.

We had read that you were unable to get a bus from Atacama, Chile (where the tour ended) to Salta, Argentina, on the day we needed, and so we opted to just return on the last day to Uyuni. Unfortunately we were misinformed, as you can in fact get from Atacama to Salta every day of the week. But, not knowing this, we made the arrangements with our driver to return to Uyuni on the last day.  We left our large bags at the tour office and brought with us only a small bag to get us through three nights. Basically it was stuffed with all of the warm clothing we owned, water and some snacks. All food was provided on the tour but I never go anywhere with out snacks, lest the evil known as Hanger should strike it’s vicious claws into me.  We met our travel mates, a couple from Germany and another couple from Switzerland and the six of us piled into our four by four vehicle with our guide Freddy who spoke only Spanish. We opted for the much cheaper price by selecting the Spanish tour – looking back I would definitely have taken the tour in English, so I could have understood more clearly the history and explanations of much of what we were seeing. That being said, if our tour was in English and our guide was as bad as Freddy, it would not have been worth the extra money. He never spoke a word until we neared our next stop and then, in a low monotone voice, would explain the site with minimal words. Freddy was a driver and a cook, not a guide. I recommend trying to find a tour company that offers a great guide if you do this tour so you get good explanations and not the bare minimum. This is one of those excursions I would do again (in English with a better guide!) in a heart beat upon returning to Bolivia, it’s just that phenomenal.

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It was a short drive to our first stop, the train cemetery. The train transport system was established in the later 1800’s by a partnership between Bolivia and the British to transport mined minerals from Bolivia to the Pacific ocean for further transport. The transport system was often sabotaged by indigenous people as they saw it as a threat to local life, what with mining being so destructive of the land. By the 1940’s the mining industry collapsed and thus the transport system was abandoned and we are left with the fascinating train cemetery. It was eerie to walk among the bones of old rusting trains from the early 1900’s. It seems so odd that such beastly machines would just be left to rot the slow death of metal under the desert sun. The train cemetery basically becomes an adult playground  for the tour groups, as all of us began climbing within and on top of anything we so desired. Perhaps slightly dangerous, but I’ve had my tetanus shot so I wasn’t much worried! But most of all, it made for a remarkable backdrop, the long sandy desert floor, with the mountains perched behind the trains.

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An old woman with lines etched from the desert sun in her face smiles as she sells her wares in the market.

We rushed back to the vehicle, thankful to get inside and escape the biting winds that tore across the desert and managed to claw their way beneath all our layers. We drove about a half hour onwards to a tiny little town where a small market was aimed at people coming through on the Salt Flats tour. They sold all sorts of wonderful textiles and clothing, and of course – the signature dinosaurs and Godzilla’s. I spotted an elephant with red eyes. I figured the dinosaur and Godzilla bad been done so many times it was cliche, why not mix it up? And with that, we left the market with a little grey elephant in our hands.

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From here we began the cruise into the Salt flats, and began to see the salty white sea and endless expanse of white hexagonal crust formations. The salt flats is actually a dried up prehistoric lake that now spans a mammoth 11,000 square km.  It sits at the impressive altitude of 3700m, so this adventure is not for the light hearted, and you should adjust to the altitude before tackling it.  Because there is no drainage in this area, all the water from the mountains would collect into this lake, which had extremely high salinity levels. After it dried up, the massive salt crust was left and underneath, the worlds largest lithium reserves are held- up to 70% of worlds lithium is thought to be under this crust. We stopped at an active spot and were able to see some mineral activity on the salt flats. There were small pools (watch your step!) that were bubbling, some furiously, some slowly. We took a few photos, and were on our way again, further and deeper into the salt flats. Our driver took us to a perfect spot, with no one anywhere for miles around so we could take the famous perspective pictures.

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I had only received my new camera the day before (thanks a million for bringing it down for me, Seb!) and had only turned it on for the first time that morning in the vehicle. I cursed myself for not having played around with it and learned some of the functions- it was my first SLR camera after all and I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to use it. I couldn’t seem to figure out the focus for two objects at different distances and so just gave up and we used other cameras to snatch our photos. In hindsight, I really should have googled how to take proper perspective photos, but we still had a blast playing around and thinking of fun scenarios and ideas. The elephant turned out to be a big hit with our group and we all took turns using it. The photo shoot is that bonding activity that really brings your group together, and we all really connected after that. How could you not after barely escaping a rabid elephant chasing you through the Bolivian desert together!?

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Behind the scenes!

We finished up with an epic group shot of the elephant chasing us down and then we carried on, cruising through the salt flats for another hour before reaching our lunch stop. The thing about the salt flats tour is that you spend the majority of three days in a vehicle driving, but you’re driving through the most breathtaking scenery. You can’t help but stare out your window and try your best not to blink lest you should miss the spectacle before you.

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We stopped for lunch at one of the salt hotels – a building constructed almost entirely from salt blocks. I guess it’s Bolivia’s version of an igloo! There was a neat salt statue for the Dakar Race (a 9,000km rally raid through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina) as 2014 was the first year the Dakar came through the country. A salt platform had been erected and had flags from all over the world stuck into it, including our dearest own, Canada!  The hotel was fascinating, all constructed out of salt, and would have to be rebuilt each year when the rains came and washed it away. We sat down to a delicious lunch made by Freddy and hit the road again, ready for more eye candy. Our next stop was Isla de Pescado, an ‘island’ completely covered in cacti. We got to take our time here, exploring the little trails and hiking to the top where we were offered a spectacular view all around us. It really was quite surreal to be driving through the salt flats. Just us and our driver, cruising at high speeds on what looks like ice or snow because it’s so white and flat, but is actually salt, that yummy stuff we add to our food to give it flavour! How strange to be driving on an endless sea of salt bordered in the far distance by mountains.

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Seb, having a reflective moment with the salt flats!

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After the island we had a two hour drive to get to our first camp, a salt hotel in a tiny little village. On our drive there, the sun began setting and we pulled over to assist another vehicle that had broken down. This poor crew ended up breaking down probably 30 times over their three day tour! Luckily there are loads of drivers out on tours so they always had assistance. It sure made me thankful for our reliable vehicle and driver! The hotel was basic (what else could it be, it’s made of salt!). The tables were made of salt and even the stands that our mattresses sat atop were made of salt! I was relieved to find that I had FOUR wonderfully thick wool blankets on my bed. I added my sleeping bag to the mix and knew I would be cozy. In fact, I didn’t need the sleeping bag and it ended up being a waste of $10. If you do the tour, skip renting the sleeping bag, the hotels give you plenty of blankets to keep you warm- and you can trust me on that, because I am always cold! We sat down to dinner and afterwards, exhausted, all crawled under our 20 pounds of blankets and snuggled in for the night. We got up around 7am, had breakfast, and tried not to fight over the hot water and who got the last of it, as it was so bloody cold all we could think of was getting some hot tea into our bodies to help warm them from the inside.

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Freddy letting some air out of the tires.

On day two our landscape changed drastically. We came to an old lava field that had mountains on all sides in the distance. The views were magnificent. We were let out of the car like eager dogs to the dog park and bolted for the lava field. Okay, I may have bolted because I had a terribly full bladder. I found a rock in the distance away from the others and relieved myself. I noticed quite a lot of toilet paper around and our guide joked that this was an ‘ancient mayan toilet’. Feeling relieved, I began to explore my surroundings. The colours here were brilliant and dramatic. The reds popped, lending a martian like feel to the rocky barren lands. Strange bulbous tufts of greenery exploded from the ground here and there, looking like something from the ocean. Bizarre Bolivia indeed!

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We moved on after much exploring to make our way to our first laguna. I was ecstatic to see that two flamingoes were sifting through the shallow waters with their beaks in search of food. I was worried we wouldn’t see any, as I had read that they would mostly have migrated by now. We all excitedly ran towards the laguna and started snapping pictures, zooming in, trying to get a closer look. They had the entire lagoon to themselves to just sift and eat. It was so peaceful to just sit and watch these creatures in their natural habitat. The lake was calm and beautiful, the mountains surrounding it stood in the distance like ever watchful parents.

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We said goodbye and made our way towards to the next lagoon where we would stop for lunch. Imagine our surprise when we showed up and saw hundreds of flamingos in the laguna! We all squealed with delight. This laguna made was even more striking as it was teeming with so many squeaking flamingos! We set up for lunch outside and just gazed at the flamingos while we ate. I cant think of a more unique and wondrous view to enjoy while one eats! After we ate, I wandered over towards the laguna edge, sat down and simply watched the pink birds and marvelled once again at my life- that I was here, in this mystical place, enjoying this view.

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We began to make our way to a third lagoon, and passed by a strangely colourful mountain on the way, a phenomenal formation caused by the mineral deposits, leaving a kaleidoscope of colour on the face of the mountain, like a painters pallet that had been dipped in water, the colours all running into each other.  We next passed by large rocks that looked as if they were had been thrown in the middle of the desert by the hand of some giant. They were in fact old lava formations that were being slowly eroded by wind and sand over time. We eventually reached the last laguna, the red laguna, where we were treated to the bizarre sight of a laguna with pink water! Again, those darn minerals – Bolivia is quite the mineral rich country! Pink flamingos added another element as they blended in with the pink water they were standing in. 

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We drove a little further down to get a view from another angle and from here we watched the sunset. It wasn’t one of those memorable sunsets however, and I wandered off to see what else I could find, and lucky me, I stumbled upon a large heard of llamas! Yay! One in particular caught my eye and I had a little photo shoot with him, while he remained totally unimpressed by me. The moment the sun went down the laguna became a very cold place and we all raced back to the vehicle hoping to get warm. It was now only a short drive to our next camp, which they promised us would be very cold as we were at quite a high altitude now (4300m). There was no little village here, just a building for the hotel. You really felt in the middle of absolute nowhere, and with the plummeting temperatures, it was a little scary to think about! The cars were ran throughout much of the night, otherwise they wouldn’t start the next morning (ah, just like home!). I immediately checked my bed and was happy to feel the four extra thick blankets again. This night felt twice as cold as the last however, so I was a tad concerned. But with all six of us in the room, I hoped we would produce a little more heat to go around.

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Errrmerrgherrdd llerrmerrrs

We all gathered in the dining area, eagerly awaiting the hot water as if we hadn’t seen water in days. They had a small stove in the room and lit it with cactus wood, since that was the only wood to be found for hundreds of miles in this strange place. Soon the room warmed up and I was lucky enough to score a seat right in front of the stove. After dinner, our mates busted out the card game Uno. I hadn’t seen or played that game since I was 15!  Being a childhood favourite of mine, it was needless to say that I was pumped! I had to be refreshed on the many rules, and they added a couple rules of their own to make the game a little more ruthless and adult friendly. We played round after unforgiving round while we drank hot tea and nibbled on cold pieces of snickers, a sweet treat compliments of Stephan. By 9pm we were all exhausted from the big day and got in line to brush our teeth and crawl beneath the heavy blankets.

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Thankfully they did their job well and kept us toasty all through the night. 5am came too soon as it always does and we reluctantly left the warmth of our cocoons to pack up and grab a cold breakfast. Again, none of us cared for the food, but simply wanted the hot water. By 6:30 we were on the road and heading out for our last day in  Salar Uyuni and we were up to an early start so we could catch the sunrise in the geyser fields. We were on a race against the clock as we were slightly late leaving, but we made it just in time thanks to Freddy’s ruthless driving.

They geyser field was surreal. It truly felt like I had stepped out of the vehicle and onto some new volatile planet. The sun was still barely hiding behind the mountains behind us, staining those opposite of them bright red.  The ground around us was grey in the pre dawn light and huge plumes of sulphuric mist blasted from strange sunken holes all over.  Murky grey water boiled and bubbled in the holes- some of them were so hot and active, the grey mineral filled water came blasting out in violent spurts, sounding like an angry giant strangling, hissing and spitting. I walked carefully among the solid pieces of land in between the gaping holes, getting the stinky sulphur mist blown occasionally right in my face, making me gag and dash away to elude any more. The sun finally began show his majestic face peering from behind the mountains, transforming the ashen landscape into a red martian planet.

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The light illuminated the plumes of smoke and cast eerie shadows on the ground. It was so surreal and beautiful, so strange and alien. I was awestruck. If it hadn’t been for the bitter cold, I could have lingered here forever. But as always on this tour, ever more awaited us and it was time to move. We loaded up into the vehicle, thankful for the heat after the the biting cold of predawn. My fingers were nearly frozen from being exposed to take pictures in the crisp morning.

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We drove for about half an hour and came to the thermal pool which was packed with people. We decided to push on to our last site, the green laguna, and hit the thermal pools on the way back, when there were less people there.  We drove on for another hour and the scenery morphed into the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. This was more so what I pictured Chile to look like, which is understandable since we were mere kilometers from the border. Peak after peak, the mountains stood tall and rust red with snow streaked tops.  Yellow tufts of vegetation dotted the base of the mountains and large boulders were strewn along the flats. The colours were otherworldly. The rust red, so vibrant, contrasted starkly by a glaringly blue sky and the golden grass tufts. An occasional white puff of cloud dotted the sky, adding another bright colour contrast. We drove for miles past these captivating vistas and the same thoughts kept running through my head: “I cant believe how beautiful this is! I cant believe I am seeing something this stunning!”.

Soon we came upon the green laguna which is only green when he wind blows (which seems like ALWAYS!). When it’s calm the laguna reflects the surrounding mountains and their colours. It was a spectacular scene to end our journey West. The massive volcano stood looming over the large green lake at its base while to the left lay a vast expanse of white salt and brown earth with snow capped mountains seated in the distance. And to the right, the majestic maroon mountains we drove past earlier. The cold wind blew ferociously at 4300m above sea level. It screamed past you, biting at your exposed flesh. Pictures were taken quickly to save fingers. It seemed the further west we went the colder it got.

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We savoured the sights and hopped back in the vehicle thankful to be out of the cold. We headed back towards the thermal pools, the promise of steamy hot water was an enticing lure. *Side note- quinoa doesn’t need water to grow – according to our guide Freddy – which is why you see so many crops of it in the DESERT! Also, a pink flamingo just flew past the vehicle window, landing in a stream next to a herd of sheep. Just sayin’.* The thermal pools look like something from a fairy tail. I was once again in disbelief. Large soft pebbly hills behind us sheltered it from the biting wind and the sun beat down savagely, trying to best the cold wind, helping keep the icy cool temperatures from this altitude at bay just a little. Regardless, it was still freezing and took courage to strip down my four layers of clothes and throw on my bikini. But it was absolutely worth it.

It was a natural pool, with a pebbly bottom and slimy rock walls on all sides, heated by volcanic activity, but lacking in that odorous sulphur stink, thankfully. A tiny shack sat behind it for people to change in. We shared the pool with maybe only 10 other people which was nice considering it was not that large. I made fast friends with some local Bolivian girls from La Paz who told me it was their dream to live in Canada, which warmed my heart!  I complimented one on her “vote for Pedro” hat and she gave me a huge hug, ecstatic that I knew the movie, telling me that many Bolivian’s had no knowledge of Napoleon Dynamite (what a shame!), which rather upset her.

Sitting in the 40 degree water was a dream after three icy cold days, being bundled up in layer upon layer of warm clothing. And the view. It was dream like. Like a painting from some mystical fable. A huge lake spread out before us with soaring mountains and volcanoes on all sides. Golden vegetation dotted the ground and Guanacos (a deer like llama creature) calmly nibbled at it by the lake side. Birds of all sorts flew and fluttered around and an adorable scraggly white puppy pranced around happily. It was definitely one those “moments”. Bliss.

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When I was editing this picture, I was going to crop it, to bring the Guanacos closer, however I noticed that would have have cut out the lovely coke bottle floating in the water. Aesthetically this would have been a good idea, however that would have taken away my reason to rant again about the omnipotent presence of Coca Cola in Latin America. I wrote about it before in my post on Belize (check it out HERE!) and it is just as ever present in South America as in Central. I never knew how far reaching Coca Cola truly was until I began these travels. It’s shocking. It’s appalling. And it’s downright terrifying. I can be in the middle of the desert in Bolivia, hundreds of miles from civilization, in absolute picturesque natural beauty, and then the ugly, audacious plastic face of Coca Cola rears its head and destroys that beauty, destroys nature. It’s not just about the garbage it produces that seems to find its way into the most remote and beautiful areas of nature, but about the damage it does to those who consume it. It has found its way to become a staple in the diet of indigenous peoples who were exceptionally healthy before Coca Cola forced its way into their world. I could go on forever about it, because you see examples of this every day on my travels, but I’ll leave it at that, and will leave the picture uncropped as a stark reminder of the dangerous and disruptive effects of a massively unhealthy and powerful corporation finding it’s way into every crook and cranny of our earth, polluting it and it’s people.Rant not over. 

It was hard to get out (and a little chilly!), but I felt rejuvenated and it was time to keep moving. We drove a few more hours through the endlessly mesmerizing Bolivian scenery until we reached a tiny town where we stopped for lunch. A few small children shyly peaked around the door to where we were eating and we engaged them with ’hola’s’ and funny faces and they slowly came closer. We decided we no longer had any use for Freddy the Elephant and offered it to one of the children and told him to share. They were thrilled with their new toy! I couldn’t get over how adorable one was, all bundled up in a thick, grey angry birds sweater, long cream coloured alpaca socks over his trousers and those chubby, bright rosy cheeks so common of Bolivian children, and his dark eyes just visible under his dirty knit toque. We waved goodbye to him from the jeep windows as we drove off and he waved back awkwardly with his one hand as if waving was something he had just learned that very day, while clutching the elephant in the other hand.

A woman in traditional dress sat across the main road on the slanting ground sifting through quinoa, her work for the day, while a group of llamas grazed nearby the stream she sat next to. We were off again, belly full and hearts too, of little Bolivian boy’s smiles.  We drove an hour or two for our last real stop: massive rock formations from ancient lava that has been worn away over the years. The rock was filled with bubbles from the quick cooling of the lava in the cold temperatures of the air. Essentially it was an adult playground and we all took off to climb on the formations, the popped bubbles being the perfect foot and hand holds for climbing – even for the most amateur of climbers it was quite easy! It was a great way to stretch our legs, admire the landscape and breath in the fresh cool air. In the distance we could see miles and miles of incredible rock formations caused by volcanic activity. Huge jagged pillars stretched as fas as the eye could see and made a wall, the formations ending suddenly a short distance from the base of the mountains.

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Stole this one from Seb’s camera – desert selfie!

Freddy ushered us back in for the final stretch home to Uyuni. We made our way onto a semblance of a road, the first we’d seen in days. We made a quick pit stop in San Cirstobel for apples and ice cream and then pushed on. The landscape tamed considerably as we left the salt flats and became reminiscent of Arizona. More green shrubs, more llamas, rolling hills and mountains far off as silhouettes in the distance. We are driving that last stretch now as I write and reflect on what a wondrous experience these last three days have been. I had no idea what I was in for when I signed up for the three day tour, which I think made it all the better having no expectations. My knowledge of the salt flats extended no further than the perspective pictures I saw online, I’m embarrassed to admit. And yet that was but one tiny insignificant (albeit very fun) part of these last three days. Bolivia is spectacular. Enchanting. Surprising. And full of awe inspiring landscapes that take your breath away over and over again.

Bolivia is also poor. It’s cold. It’s rough around the edges. It’s hard. But my God it’s startlingly beautiful and by far my favourite country I’ve been to and I’ve had but a small sampling of all it has to offer. I can’t wait to come back again someday and see what other hidden secrets this country has hidden in her folds.

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3 thoughts on “Salar Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

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