We woke up bright and early this morning because Lynn had told our last minute laundry team that we would like to pick it up at 8 a.m. thinking that we would be leaving early for our salt flats tour when in reality we didn’t need to be at the office until 10:30 a.m. Lynn’s bad. We also didn’t fare so well because Uyuni has started kicking off their Carnival activities which includes a marching band walking around the city until the wee hours of the morning. Maybe we’d catch some shut eye in the car today.
At 8 a.m. we left our hostel and entered the streets of what we are lovingly (complete sarcasm there) calling “post-apocalyptic Uyuni.” We call it as such because the majority of the town seems to have been haphazardly built from the elements of the surrounding landscape and remnants of various industrial components including the art installations. It doesn’t help that the air is filled with dust and flying trash.
We used the 2.5 hours to run a number of errands which included retrieving our laundry, eating breakfast, buying snacks and water for our trip, eating second breakfast (tea and a tiny bowl of cereal at the hostel was not going to cut it), and getting money out of the ATM. At 10:30 we were at Red Planet’s office ready to begin our tour.
We would have two cars with 11 tourists, 1 guide, Lucio, and 2 drivers. Our car consisted of Lucio, a Danish couple, Anders and Ana, and a Welch woman, Leanne who we got along with swimmingly. Our big bags were placed on the top of the Toyota Land Cruisers under tarp and once again strapped down with a long engine belt while the 7 of us, and our day bags, crammed into the 3 rows. The two of us were placed in the rear row with 3 day bags which would prove to be a big of a pain to get in and out of over the course of the day. It also didn’t help that out knees were hitting the seat in front of us either.
Our first stop for the day took us 15 minutes outside Uyuni along trash-covered (seriously, piles and piles of trash) railroad tracks to an old train graveyard. When the English and other foreign businesses started investing in Bolivia’s mining industry in the 1880s, they also built rail lines to help with transportation. This is what remains of that time, a bunch of old rusted-out cars bedazzled with graffiti and outfitted with new weld points that allow tourists to climb aboard for their best selfies. Doug did some scaling while Lynn looked on and laughed at how all the tourists look like ants climbing in and out of the trail of cars. The two of us both agreed, though, that the trash did not add to the appeal.
Back in the car we were on our way to the beginning of Salar de Uyuni, the Uyuni Salt Flats, which we thought would be the highlight of the 3-day trip. On the way we had our first vicuna siting, a protected wild animal within the Andes that looks like a llama-deer hybrid and known for its very, very soft fur. We were soon in the small town of Colchani, the entrance to the salt flats, along with the hundred other tourists seen at the train graveyard, but before we could go anywhere it was time for lunch. While the crew set up our picnic the group patiently wandered the various tourist stalls set up in town. We got pretty bored real quickly since everything that is sold here is the same thing you can find in La Paz, Cusco, and the rest of South America and instead spend our time admiring the salt hotel room that we would be having lunch in. The beds, walls, tables, and stools were all made with bricks of salt and sealed with salt mortar. It was quite fascinating though they seem to cheat every now and then with the addition of concrete and wood.
After lunch we were taken on a tour of a family-run salt factory where 5 or so people set about drying salt collected from the flats, adding iodine, then hand-sealing in plastic bags to sell. The small bag goes for 1 boliviano, equivalent to US$0.14, a steal but this business certainly does not make this family rich.
Lucio then gave us another 30 minutes to buy supplies and the two of us started to see a pattern of wasted time that we were not appreciating. “Ah well,” we said as we paced up and down the one street in Colchani watching time tick away.
With everyone once again gathered it was now onto (literally) the salt flats, as Jose, our driver, started proceeding to the never ending flat landscape ahead of us. In no time we were standing on brown-tinged salt next to mounds ready to be harvested, taking it all in. Lynn asked Doug, ‘Is this what you expected?” His response was an unsure, “I guess.”
Luckily the day was not over and we had a ton more salt to see. We drove a bit further stopping to take some pictures with a remaining Dakar salt statue and some tourists flags before there were some words exchanged between Margo, a French tourist, and Lucio. It seems Margo really wanted to drive across the salt flats and didn’t understand why we weren’t doing it. Lucio was attempting to explain something about not being able to go over the rainwater that is at the end but got flustered and eventually gave in saying he’d call the office and his boss to see if it was a possibility. The rest of us were just along for the ride.
While Lucio was figuring things out the drivers continued on into the salt flats eventually stopping in the middle of nowhere. It would be here that we would take the infamous/silly perspective photos for about 1.5 hours, about 1.25 hours longer than Doug and Lynn wanted. But, it did give Lucio time to figure out that we could drive across the salt flats (Yay!) and find new accommodations for us. He also insisted on helping us with our silly photos when he was done. But, Doug said, at this point, with the bright blue sky and bright white never ending salt that this is exactly what he was expecting so horray!
We were back in the car, heading across the flats, every so often seeing crosses and monuments of to the side of the car tracks which made us ask Lucio about them. Well, the stories behind these many, many structures are sad ones. Families will have run out of gas and been forced to walk, eventually succumbing to hydration, and with the number of cars on the endless plain, there had been many accidents, some fatal.
We eventually reached the rainwater that Lucio had warned us about. Jose drove a ways into the ankle deep water before stopping and all of us took off our shoes then hopped out for some more photos. Lucio and our two drivers had another idea in mind. They decided to drive on ahead and asked us to take our time taking photos and walking to meet them. It was evident real soon that this was payback for what Margo made him do, drive through the salt flats. Don’t get us wrong, the views were beautiful: mirage-modified mountains and water reflections, but the bunches of salt on your bare feet felt like walking on broken seashells. And we ended up doing that for 30 minutes before reaching Lucio and the cars again. It was very unpleasant, so thanks, Margo.
Thankfully our next stop was at our new accommodation, a basic salt hotel at the end of the salt flats in the small town of Atulcha at 3086 meters. We unloaded the car, set up our room, and while dinner was being prepared hiked up the nearby mountain to enjoy a stunning view overlooking Atulcha, the remains of former Atulcha, lots of cacti, and the expanse of the salt flats as the sun set.
When we returned were greeted with tea followed by a less than stellar dinner. Both were accompanied by a few attempts to shower, but learning that the hot water heaters were not yet on, then require more than 1 hour to warm up. Oh well, maybe we can shower in the morning.
Daily Walking Mileage: 7
- Vicunas are so protected that if you kill one, you are sure to go to jail for 5 years and I don’t think anyone wants to go to Bolivian jail. Also their wool, which tends to only been trimmed below the neck, is the most prized of all the Andean mammals going for multiple thousands for a single sweater.
- The colors of the Bolivian flag have specific meanings. Red is for blood, yellow is for minerals, and green is for ecosystem.
- Quinoa fields are found everywhere in this area and look like 1 meter mini-trees when full grown. To harvest, the entire stalk is pulled and hit against a hard surface to remove the grain. For 3 years the field is sowed then given 3 years of rest for the soil to regain its nutrients.