The wind was howling through the drafty room. The single 15-watt light bulb dangling from the ceiling by its wire had been turned off an hour ago. There was no heat. We were at 15,000 feet and I was freezing even under the weight of four thick blankets. Every muscle in my body was shivering and would not stop. My head was pounding from the elevation. I sat up gasping for air desperate for oxygen. I prayed that I would make it through the night.
The Uyuni Salt Flats Tour
Just the day before, Trin and I sat in an SUV with three other tourists shooting across a white expanse of salt, an area of 4,000 sq miles, so big it can be seen from space. What was once the bottom of an ocean now rests at 12,000 feet above sea level with salt a few meters thick. It forms a crust over a brine pool rich in lithium. In fact, it contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium store. This was Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on Earth.
The morning started with a visit to the train cemetery, an area three kilometers outside of the town of Uyuni where old abandoned trains sit rusting. Our driver, Johnny, told us that this was a 45-minute stop, but that he had to quickly go back to town to pick up some additional stuff needed for the three-day tour.
“I don’t like that,” Toni said, as we watched the tail-end of the Land Cruiser disappear in a cloud of dust. I agreed with her sentiment. Everything we owned was in that vehicle and Johnny could easily take anything, or worse, not return and leave us stranded.
For Toni and her friend Kim, both from Germany, the concern is a bit more real. Just a week before, some thieves stole their secondary backpacks at the Santiago bus station in Chile. It was a method that we’ve read about: a lady surreptitiously splashes something onto the victim’s hair and pretends to help clean out the mess. While the victim is distracted, an accomplice divests the victim of his/her bag.
Johnny did return, more than an hour later. We piled back into the SUV and I could have sworn that my tote bag looked like it was gone through though nothing was missing.
WHITE WITH NO END
After a lunch stop at a former salt hotel that used to be operated within the salt flat, we drove where there was no road, a flat white plane of salt all around us. We headed toward mountains in the far distance, but the mountains seemed to never move as if we were on a massive white treadmill. Johnny played Billie Jean on the stereo. It was a dreamlike experience.
JUMPING OUT OF KETCHUP
We stopped somewhere in the middle of the expanse, above us was a perfectly blue sky. Without the engine noise, it was quiet. There was no wind sounds as there was nothing for the wind to rustle, no animals, no sounds of civilization. The silence was as absolute as the darkness was complete in the caves of Torotoro.
The salt under our feet had the appearance of ice, tiny bubbles, and shiny crystals joined together in a never-ending crystallized design. My mind played tricks on me, making me think that I was walking on a thin layer of ice that could break anytime. The salt was not cold, but it did soak through our clothing leaving white blotches on contact when we got down to the ground to take low-angle pictures.
There are only so many pictures one can take of vast whiteness. So we did what everyone else does when touring the salt flats: we took forced perspective shots with little toy dinosaurs or whatever other props we had. It is irresistible as the white backdrop is perfect for them so we had fun goofing around. Then Johnny took a video of us with a ketchup bottle.
A MIRRORED SUNSET
Near sunset, Johnny positioned the SUV at a dry vantage point where we would wait for the sun to set. We could see in the distance that there were areas with some water on them. We wanted to see the sunset from that perspective. The water surface creates an amazing effect where the salt flat turns into a large mirror. I’m not sure if he was hesitant to drive through the water, or if he didn’t care, or if he was simply being dispassionate, but we unanimously wanted to go the water area. In the end, he complied. He put the vehicle in 4WD and we fishtailed our way through the watery plane.
The water resting on the salt surface was no more than a few inches deep but the salt became like slush making it difficult for the vehicles to drive through. It was a fun ride. We watched with amusement as another vehicle got stuck. The passengers took off their shoes and pushed the SUV out. Their vehicle took off and they chased after it.
The sunset and the colors, and the mirror effect were mesmerizing. We took sunset pictures, silhouette pictures, and reflection pictures. Pretty soon, darkness descended upon us, and with it came the cold. We jumped back into the warmth of the Land Cruiser and we drove off to the accommodations for the night.
HOTEL MADE OF SALT
We stopped at the edge of the salt flat and parked by a tiny hotel made out of salt. The walls were salt bricks, the floor loose salt. The bed platform was salt bricks and the headboard a decoration made of salt on the wall. The tables and chairs in the dining room were also made of salt. It was chilly but not too cold at 12,000 feet. The three heavy alpaca blankets were enough to keep us cozy for the night.
The second day of our tour took us through miles of desert. Throughout most of this tour, there were no roads. We simply followed the tire tracks in front of us. Through wider valleys, tire tracks are side by side across the entire valley floor.
Our caravan consisted of our SUV, another with a group of guys from Canada, Netherlands and Australia, and another with French folks. At each stop, our group intermixed with the group of guys. The French group would always go off on their own and never really interacted with any of us. All three groups stayed fairly close driving through the desert and stopped at the same places. Then the guys’ SUV began to overheat. We waited while they refilled the radiator with water a few times.
This is not a desert in which to have an accident. Toni and Kim told us about an accident they passed on their way to Uyuni the day before. The driver was hurt and got stuck in his vehicle. He had to wait for someone to drive 45 minutes to the nearest help and then wait for an ambulance to arrive.
TOY CARS IN THE DESERT
The three vehicles normally remain within sight of each other. Sometimes we cross the valley on one side and we could see them in the distance on the other side. They look like a little toy car with a cloud of dust chasing after them.
Along the way, we stopped at railroad tracks and gazed into Chile, tried to balance on the tracks, took a group picture and then put a few Bolivians on the track when a tiny railcar passed. Only one edge was flattened, but the two people inside waved happily as they flew by.
We stopped at odd rock formations and gazed at the colors of the mountains, many of them capped with snow.
During one stop we sat and watched a volcano’s pluming smoke. As we stood around on the rocks next to a tiny store, the proprietor started playing “Staying Alive” on the large speakers. This seemed to put everyone in a mood. Canadians, Brazilians, Germans, and a host of other nations all began to dance. I guess it’s true what they say, music brings the world together. We all understand the language of music.
DESERT OASIS WITH FLAMINGOS
We continued driving through dry, arid desert, mostly sand with a bit of vegetation here and there. We crossed over another pass and we were presented with an odd sight: a lagoon filled with pink flamingos. It was so random it was amazing. There we stopped for lunch, sitting in the dust as we ate to the chatter of the flamingos.
We made one more long stop, we weren’t sure why or where Johnny went as he disappeared for a bit. When he came back he had a big box of Skittles. Snacks for us, or so we thought. When he wasn’t looking, we snuck a look inside the box and found it was a case of beer which mysteriously disappeared by the next morning. When we confronted him about driving while hungover and falling asleep behind the wheel he told us he was tired because he did not sleep well the night before. Yeah, sure.
As the sun was setting we reached Laguna Colorado, a red lake. It rests at 15,000 feet and its red color is caused by the presence of red algae that the flamingos love to eat. The same red algae give the flamingos their pink hue. The wind was so cold we snapped only a few pictures then jumped back in our vehicles to the escape the cold.
We stopped to pay a park fee of 150 Bolivianos (approx. $22) each. I’m not sure what this fee is used for. There is no evidence of any money being spent on the park itself. No roads, no signs, no fences, absolutely nothing. There’s nothing being done to preserve any of it. It is basically a free-for-all, go wherever you want and do whatever you want. We got the impression again and again that if Bolivia could extract a fee from tourists, they will do so wherever they can. They don’t really seem to care if the tourists have a good time or are safe. The exception to this are the guides in Torotoro.
A MISERABLE NIGHT
Soon we arrived at our hostel and grabbed our bags as quickly as we could. The howling wind was biting right through our clothes. The building only provided a windbreak but with no heat inside we were still cold. Sitting around the table we kept putting on more clothing, even the Canadian at this point put on his alpaca poncho and was feeling cold.
That night was torturously cold, much worse than our cold night on the edge of the Telica Volcano in Nicaragua. So far it was the worst night in South America for me. I was freezing and could barely breathe due to the high altitude.
In an effort to generate some warmth I went to the bathroom walking quickly there and back moving around as much as I could, drank some more water and took some elevation sickness medication. We had a tiny single bed. Trin tried to keep me warm and eventually, I stopped shivering and focused on trying to breathe deeply. About an hour later the elevation medication eased my headache and eventually, I drifted to sleep.
Three hours later the alarm woke us signaling we had five minutes to prepare for breakfast and pack our bags. It was an early start to catch a sunrise. My prayer to make it through the night was answered. There was no way I was going to undress in this cold, neither was Trin. So we had little to do but wash our faces, brush our teeth and rezip our bags.
DEATH BY GEYSER
Off we went to an even higher elevation in order to watch the sunrise through the smoke of geysers shooting from the ground all around us. Again there were really no official roads, but tracks that we followed across the crust. In some places, there were geysers on both sides of us.
No guard rails or warning signs exist. The only warning was Jonny asking us to be careful not to fall into a geyser as a tourist died last year after falling into one of them. Bolivia is all about personal responsibility. Well, at least it is about the personal responsibility of the person who gets hurt. If I dig a hole and you fall in, here it is your fault for falling in.
I placed my hand in the steam exhaust of one of the geysers. It was like the steam from a kettle. It shot straight into the air sounding like water from a fire hose.
HEADING INTO CHILE
The Uyuni Salt Flats tour ends at the Bolivian border. Tourists could either ride all the way back to Uyuni or cross over to Chile. This tourist couple was definitely going to Chile.
We gathered all our belongings and stood at the back of a line to wait in the freezing wind to get our Bolivian exit stamp. There was no wind barrier leading up to the tiny little shack that housed three border guards. Inside there was only enough room for a couple of tourists at a time. They charged everyone 15 Bolivianos for the exit stamp. It would be nice to spend some of the proceeds of the exit stamp on a wind barrier for tourist, but I don’t think they care about things like that.
I had hoped that this tour would give our time in Bolivia a grand finale, but I think it left a rather salty taste in my mouth. It wasn’t as spectacular as I thought it would be. The bright side is that now we are in Chile, and it only took a couple of days here to restore my wanderlust that Bolivia was slowly stealing from me.