I arrive in Uyuni late in the evening and curse myself for thinking I’d be fine with just a hoodie. That’ll teach me for packing my down jacket at the very bottom of my backpack and then checking it. I shiver from the cold as I wait for my luggage – the airport is not heated. I step outside to get a cab as the wind rips through my bones; it’s a rude adjustment from the 30-degree weather I left in Santa Cruz. I eventually check into Hostal La Magia de Uyuni and I’m thankful that they have heating – even if it does not turn on until 8:00 p.m. It’s off the main strip, which means it’s very quiet at night, but nothing is very far in Uyuni. You can walk to the end of the town in any direction in about 18 minutes.
Uyuni is a small, dusty town that has its roots in mining and quinoa farming. It’s original population of 18,000 has almost doubled as a result of tourism. People from all over Bolivia have come to settle in Uyuni to start up small businesses such as tour agencies, hostels, restaurants and shops.
Early the next day, I make my way to the office of Red Rock Expeditions in Uyuni to hire a guide and driver to take me into the salt flats. They have 3-day expeditions that run daily so I’m in luck! There are five of us on this expedition: 1 Canadian (me), 2 Brits, 1 Kiwi, and 1 Irishman.
Preparing for the Expedition
We start to help load up the Toyota land cruiser with necessities like food, water and sleeping bags. We also have to pack things like gas and tools as there are no petrol stations or mechanics if the car breaks down. We are asked to bring only the bare essentials for safety reasons – all our personal gear will be wrapped in a tarp and loaded on the roof of the SUV and there is a risk that it will roll over if there is too much weight on top. It seems that every adventure I have had in Bolivia starts with me helping to load up a mode of transportation – clearly I need to start putting “traveling in a five start fashion” on my bucket list.
This expedition is not for the faint of heart. We will be traveling many miles on dusty and bumpy terrain. Notice how I didn’t used the word “roads” – there are none in the salt flats or the deserts. Occasionally you can try and line up with the tracks of a previous vehicle, but this is nearly impossible while driving through sand. Those with motion sickness should definitely bring their medications – more than once I felt my stomach jump to my throat as the land cruiser plunged into a deep ditch in the desert. Pair that with reaching altitudes betwee 5,000 meters (about 16,404 feet) and 6,000 meters – approximately 19,700 feet (if you choose to hike the Licancanbur Volcanoe as I stupidly did), and it can be a rough go if you’re not prepared.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
The first stop is only a few minutes outside of Uyuni to visit a train graveyard. This is the site of several old, rusty locomotives dating back to 1889. These trains were purchased from England and the first to be used in Bolivia. They were used to carry minerals like silver and copper from the local mines. This is also the side of one of the trains that was robbed and shot up by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There is a lot of rumours out there about the final days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It is said that the town of San Vincente (about a two hour drive from Uyuni) is the grave and final resting place of Butch Cassidy after he was gun down by the Bolivian army.
The next stop is the small village of Colcachi where we visit a family-run salt factory. Families pay the Bolivian government a 5% tax in exchange for extracting salt from the salt flats. The village consists of a dozen of small buildings made from salt bricks. The buildings are small and do not look inviting. However, they are built to withstand the landscape with its harsh winds and plummeting temperatures. The salt is collected during the rainy season and brought to the salt “factory. The family builds a fire during the night to dry out the salt (as it’s too hot during the day to do so) and burn off some of the residual minerals like sulfur. It is then put through a wood machine to crush it and then it is hand-bagged in order to be sold. Although the salt flats can supply most of humanity’s salt needs, it isn’t exported and is solely used by Bolivia.
The Salt Flats
We continue our drive out to the salt flats, which are about 11,000 square kilometers and also where you can find 50-70% of the world’s known lithium reserves. It is unbelievable to think that this was once part of the Pacific Ocean until a shift in tectonic plates created this landscape.
I’m not sure what the opposite of claustrophobia is, but the Salar is it. The salt creates raised, crusty hexagon patterns and the flatness of the horizon goes on for miles. There is nothing here but silence. There is no life – no trees, no grass, not even a shrub. There are no sounds of birds. It is an expansive of void – desolate, barren and otherworldly. The sky is such a rich blue and devoid of clouds that you’d think someone painted it for the tourists. Although it’s cold (about 10-degrees), the sun shines brightly and reflects onto my skin from the salty terrain.
The salt flats are also known as a site to take incredible perspective photos. I’ve taken some ridiculous photos like doing tree pose on a My Little Pony as well as kickboxing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. You should also know that I’m only about 8 feet behind the tiny figurines but we appear the same size.
In the random middle of the salt flats, there are a number of flags from around the world that tourists have brought and planted here. If I had known, I would have brought one to add to the already three Canadian flags flapping proudly in the wind. My only disappointment was that someone had singed the flag “Jason wuz here”. If I ever find you Jason, I’ll be sure to lecture on what pride of country is and how your country’s flag shouldn’t be defaced and disrespected. (Also? You signed the flag with your full name and city of origin. This won’t be a difficult task).
As we continue our drive through the desolate landscape and the air continues to get thinner and progressively more challenging to breeze, Incahuyasi rises out of nowhere. It is also known as “cactus island” as it is covered in cacti that are over 1,000 years old and almost 12 meters tall. It is the first sign of life I have seen in 7 hours as there are rabbits, mice, birds and scorpions that live on this “island” and live off the cacti fruit. You can climb up to the top of the island for some glorious 360 views of the salt flats and you will likely start feeling the effects of altitude sickness here. This short hike of what is probably only a few flights of stairs will feel a little torturous as you struggle for breath.
Entry onto this island (and use of its bathroom) will cost you about $6 CDN. I can say in retrospect that this will probably be the best bathroom that you will find outside of the hostels (it even has toilet paper – which the hostels don’t). I say this with full confidence after having to use one bathroom later on in the trip which was basically a hole in the ground and you needed to fill a bucket up with water from a barrel outside the door to pour down the hole to “flush it”. No amount of hand sanitizer will make you feel okay about this.
We stop the land cruiser in the middle of the salt flats to take in the sunset. As the egg-yolk ball of fire falls to the horizon, so does the temperature. It is time for down jackets, mittens, scarves and hats. I am thankful that I’ve chosen to wear thermal leggings and wool socks during the day. After sunset, we quickly hop into the land cruiser and make our way to the hostel which is about an hour away. It’s about 8:30 p.m. when we arrive at the hostel. I wasn’t sure what I expected but it was quite nice – clean and comfortable, even though it does not have heating and only has electricity for about three hours. We settle in for hot coffee and tea and some biscuits while we wait for dinner. After dinner we take quick showers (because the hot water is turned off at 10:00 p.m.) and get ready for bed. We are four to a room and we joke with the Irishman that we consider him an honorary girl because of his long hair and so it’s ok if he bunks with us girls. Because of the altitude, we sleep with the door open a fraction to let what little air is available flow into the room.
Jesus it’s cold in the hostel – I can see my own breath. It’s hard enough to get up at 5:30 a.m. but it’s just mean to make me leave the warmth of my sleeping bag into what feels like -10-degrees. Bleary-eyed, we get up and change into warm clothes as quickly as possible. We wear our mittens during breakfast and although we are served a hot breakfast of toast and eggs (which I didn’t eat – thank you Rurrenabaque for that fond salmonella memory), it gets cold within minutes.
.Llamas, Alpacas, Vicunas!
As we continue our drive through the salt flats and the desert, we start to see a bit more life: birds, ostriches (didn’t expect to see these outside of Africa) and llamas! We ask our driver to pull over near a pasture that is chock full of llamas, alpacas and vicunas grazing. I walk through the pasture to take photos and of course, some of the llamas are more elegantly dressed that I am with their necklaces, earrings and bright pink and yellow ribbons. Our driver informs me that traditionally, farmers adorn some of their llamas with ribbons and necklaces as an offering to Mother Earth. The earrings they wear serve as a means of identification as which llama belongs to which farmer.
They are strange looking creatures with their long necks, camelid eyes and beautiful long lashes. There is, however, one llama that is not pleased by my presence and begins making angry llama noises at me. In the most soothing tone possible, I tell him that he is a very angry llama and should work on that. This is a mistake. The llama starts following me in the pasture and I’m about 99% sure it wants to either spit on me or kick me. Or both. I have been kicked by an alpaca about 10 years ago but I was damned it I was going to be spit on. Thankfully the llama was distracted and I was able to make a quick getaway back to the land cruiser.
We have a long driving day with many stops ahead of us – our day will span approximately 17 hours. Throughout our drive, the landscape changes every hour. From mountains to volcanoes to coral (because this area used to be part of the Pacific Ocean) to geysers to red stocks that remind me of the Grand Canyon.
We stop off at various places for short hikes and also for longer hikes up volcanoes. We have truly gone to the very edges of Bolivia as just on the other side of Licancabur Volcano is the Chilean border. A few miles later, we are close enough to walk to the Chilean and Argentinian borders.
The landscape does mess with your mind with the many mirages. Mountains that seem to float on air or reflect onto the landscape and block views of other lagoons or vehicles.
Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaro
We also drive throught the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaro (cost of $30) to see the red and green lagoons. At the red lagoon (so named because the water looks blood red from the phytoplankton), we see hundreds of flamingoes snacking on the phytoplankton.
The rest of the day featured the Arboles de Piedra (rock formations that look like trees), the Salvador Dali desert (so-called because of the rock formations dotting the landscape that evoke his paintings), more colourful lagunas and flamingoes, and sulfurous geysers that make you say either “ewww. Who just did that?! Get out of the car!” or “evacaute the building, there’s gas leak!”. We arrive at our next hostel around 10:00 p.m. and cap off the evening soaking our dusty, tired muscles in natural hot springs that reach 39-degrees and observe the milky way shining brightly in the sky. Without any kind of light pollution, the Bolivian salt flats and desert are some of the best places to stargaze, whether or not you’re an astronomy aficionado.