OYOP: Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Bolivia is a beautifully raw destination often forgotten and rarely yearned for. The Spanish conquered the indigenous people here, raping them of their gold and silver, enslaving them in the process. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise here after robbing a payroll caravan for local miners. Political propaganda paints the walls of the smallest ten-home villages and locals spread their trash like they do butter on their morning bread—thick and evenly over any and all available space.
There are no honeymooners here, no casual vacationers. Any fellow traveler that you come across is guaranteed to be on a long term journey through South America or the world. Bolivia is a means to an end to get between the newly appreciated Peru and either the classically-loved Argentina or the coastal paradise of Chile. You will never hear Chad from accounting tell you on a Friday after lunch, “I’ll see you guys next Monday. I am headed to Bolivia for a week.” For why would Chad go to the land-locked altiplano deserts of Bolivia when he can head south to sip pina coladas in Cancun or surf in Costa Rica?
And this paragraph would be where your USA TODAY travel writer would turn on a dime and say “Well let me tell you why you should come to Bolivia for your two-week vacation!” I, on the other hand, cannot do so in good faith. Bolivia requires commitment—commitment to travel with a lack of responsibility at home. It requires patience and persistence and an open mind to discomfort. Altitude sickness is a real threat and can disable visitors for days after arrival. Buses promise WIFI, movies, and bathrooms and deliver none. Bathroom breaks consist of stopping on the side of the road and doing your business in an open field over a bed of trash next to the Canadian couple in seats 11 and 12. “Almost there, eh?” the woman awkwardly says to you upon the unwanted eye contact. Schedules are baseline suggestions not to be relied on.
But for those that do make it here, they are rewarded with the opportunity to see something unlike any place else in the world. We learn of jungles, forests, and sandy deserts. We are all aware of icy fjords, island paradises, and rocky canyons. But never do we hear about a salt flat over two miles above sea level hosting islands dotted with centuries-old giant cacti proudly erected in the middle of nowhere.
Karianne and I took the seven hour bus trip from Sucre to Uyuni, land of the gringo traveler. Uyuni was founded as a military base in the late 19th century. It grew rapidly as a train station town supporting the nearby gold and silver mines of Potosi, where the Spanish obtained most of their bouillon after colonizing the area. When the price of tin crashed in the 1970’s Uyuni was on its way to be written off as another ghost town. Insert the gringo backpacker. With the rise of backpackers in the 1980’s looking for a chance to explore the salt flats’ lunar landscape, Uyuni transformed into a town of Toyota Landcruisers and pizzerias. The classic 3-day, 2-night adventure trip was born.
With reportedly 80 tour companies to choose from, we narrowed it down to three. All three had good reviews, but we ended up going with Quechua Connections. While $50 more per person, we justified our decision by the fact that they had no negative reviews on various blogs and forums. Various reports indicate that there have been eighteen deaths on the salt flats since 2008. Drunk driving was the main concern here. We were to spend the next three days in a 4×4 Landcruiser with four other tourists bouncing through the desert. Departure time was 10:30 sharp the next morning, so we grabbed a pizza and went to bed.
Predictably so, the company was late in preparing for the trip the next morning, with our truck finally arriving at 11:30. “Bolivian-time,” they call this. This is very similar to other non-GMT-related times I have heard over the years: Bahamian-time, Peruvian-time, Tobagan-time, Island-time. They are all the same. I would like to propose a different description for when you tell a person you will arrive at one time, but arrive at a time further in the future: “Late”. I think it may have more of an impact on future behavior if we assign this adjective to said scenario. Just something to consider.
Our truck arrived with some prepackaged tourists ready-to-roll. Phillipe, the Uruguayan med student, occupied shotgun. Germans Anke and Evelyn sat next to Ann the Aussie in the middle row, leaving the crammed third seat unoccupied for Karianne and my six foot, three inched self. Wonderful. We loaded our bags and hit the road. Another truck filled with tourists joined us to embark on the three-day journey. My tilted head banged against the roof as we drove off.
Our first stop on Day 1 was the train cemetery. Just a few kilometers away from the town lies 50-75 rusting train cars from the railway heydays of Uyuni. These black steel mega-machines were stacked neatly in a couple of rows as if to plan for tourists to play on them half a century later. As many tour groups offer day trips to the salt flats, there were about 40 Landcruisers here, allowing close to 200 selfie-stick cladding 20-somethings to get the perfect picture with Engine #248. While something of an adult playground, the unique arrangement of these trains of yesteryear in the high desert is a sight to see.
We departed on our way to the salt flats, stopping at a nearby town to see how the salt is processed. Colchani is home to several salt-slingers, as I think they would enjoy being called, who refine the raw salt crystals into a finished product by heating crushed crystals to evaporate any and all moisture. As you may expect, a kilo bag of Uyuni salt is sold for pennies, but I was surprised to learn that none of this salt is exported. Being ubiquitous around the world, the economics just don’t make sense. Ann the Aussie picked up some salt from a nearby pile, tasted it, and disgustingly declared, “Damn, that’s bloody salty!” Ann the Aussie would soon prove to be an outstandingly entertaining comrade.
The salt flats are no more than 15 minutes away from Uyuni. The landscape gradually changes as you leave the pavement and head west. Salt begins to be incorporated in the mud, and before you know it, you are driving along at 60 miles per hour on a pure bed of salt. The Uyuni Salt Flat was formed by a high altitude lake that evaporated many moons ago. While a lake still exists under the flat, no water can be seen on the ground except for the little moisture that seeps through to the salt. Walking on the crystals brings one a bit of juvenile amusement like walking on bubble wrap, but without the fear of running out of material. Our tour company had bikes ready for us on the edge of the flat, and we were to ride to the hotel made of salt to enjoy our lunch. I was pretty sure I had paid to be transported across the flats, but it was looking like I was going to have to do some of the work myself.
If you google Uyuni salt flat you are sure to find one picture. While there are many variations of this one picture, they are all basically the same. The homogenous landscape in the salt flat provides the opportunity to play with depth perception. The classic example is having one dangle a tiny friend from their fingers, or rest a tiny husband on the palm of your hand. This is done all over the world, with my first encounter at the leaning tower of Pisa. More entertaining than taking these pictures is watching people make a fool out of themselves trying to make the shot work.
Karianne and I took the requisite picture and continued on our merry way. Our driver was a quiet fellow, maybe having seen 50 years on this planet. He spoke only when spoken to, and when declaring our destination. “Salar de Uyuni,” he announced. Thirty to forty minutes later we arrive at an oasis island in the vast salt flat. Littered with hundreds of giant cacti, the island hosts a network of quick trails sufficient for a herd of tourists to get their hiking fix. According to our guide, the giant cactus grows about one inch per year. With some 20 to 30 feet tall, a back of the envelope calculation tells me we are surrounded by cacti that existed pre-sliced bread. Now ain’t that something!
As our group began walking up the hill, music began to tickle our ears from down below. A 50+ person group from nearby Potosi had traversed the salt flat via tour bus to perform and film the region’s folkloric dance in the middle of the desert. I have not seen many impromptu moving performances while traveling, except when Karianne and I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain. It was about 5:00 in the evening, having walked all day and afternoon, and were supposed to have reached our hostel by then according to our trusty map. But alas, we had not reached our destination. Grumpy, exhausted, and desperate for a break, we stopped at a small, family-run restaurant for a hot chocolate. Just as we put cup to mouth, a six-piece Gaelic folk band crammed their way into the restaurant and sang a few songs for us and the owners, featuring a catchy tune that sounded like “Karianne, Karianne, Karianne.” Although she will deny it, Karianne shed a few tears of joy, and the hostel ending up being less than 100 yards away.
Switching gears back to Uyuni, we were not grumpy, exhausted, nor desperate for a break. However, the energy that is produced from such unannounced quality performances is much the same. Men and women dressed in colorful outfits stomping to centuries old dance patterns with an endless plain of white in the background is something to write home (or blog) about. Not interested, Ann the Aussie sat under a shaded area while we walked around to enjoy the views. She would not be bothered with such beauty.
We hit up a few other spots in the flat before heading to our accommodation for the night. We all gathered around the table for an evening of instant milk and quinoa soup. A seemingly larger than usual full moon rose from the east horizon, a fittingly similar optical illusion to our pictures from the day.
The second day began with the usual musical chairs for car seats. Anke and Evelyn had gotten comfortable with the third row seat, so the 4 remaining tourists did our rotation. We left the small town that hosted us for the night, riding through more hillsides of giant cacti on narrow pathways. We discovered that Ann the Aussie had been to every country we could think of and did not hesitate to let us know this. With great travel should come great appreciation. Ann the Aussie had found a way to turn great travel into great racism and stereotypical disgust with both nations and peoples. “In Australia, we blah blah blah aboriginals. The people of Asia always this. I found the New Orleanians to be that.” She sat close to Karianne seeking approval from her fellow woman. Karianne looked to me for help, but I had neither the conversational skills nor the proper ropes to help my lovely bride. She was on her own.
We drove through desert valleys of active volcanoes, dormant volcanoes, shallow lakes with hundreds of flamingos, and ancient lakebeds with fossilized plants the size of trucks. The process was quite simple: arrive at a destination, take a few pictures, hop back in the car fifteen minutes later, drive another hour to the next spot. Do this until lunch, then repeat until dinner. I say this to make two points. First, there are so many out-of-this-world landscapes in this compact and remote area of Bolivia. Had I been shown some of these landscapes and were told that they were from one of Saturn’s moons, I may have believed it. Unfortunately, the nature of a tour does not allow one to thoroughly soak in the landscape to one’s pleasure. While not hurried, we did not have the chance to really appreciate each lake, valley, or desert. Places like Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde deserve an afternoon picnic with some deep self-reflection or at least a game of Frisbee. “Watch out for the flamboyance of flamingoes!” Karianne would yell to me as I ran to secure the flying disc. Instead, we are only allotted enough time to marvel at the area and secure a few photos worthy of a few likes on Facebook.
The second day ended with the arrival at a makeshift shelter capable of housing all 15-20 Landcruisers of tourists. Calling the accommodation basic would be glamourizing the shelter. We received enough food to feed about half of our group, maybe three quarters. Anke and Evelyn were displeased with the kitchen’s attempt at providing a vegetarian option for them. While a part of me felt bad for them, the other part of me wanted to say, “We are a two day ride through some of the most inhospitable terrain in South America. Eat your soup and shut-up.” Luckily, we were distracted by a tourist interviewing a French couple who were cycling around the world for three years for what seemed to be some school project. Oddly enough, we had met this couple when crossing into Bolivia from Peru about three weeks earlier. “A backpacking miracle,” some would say. We entered our 6-bed dorm room and prepared to hit the sack. Tony, a Brit from the other truck in our group, warned us of his night yelling. “I sometimes scream of vampires,” he informed us. I grabbed an extra pillow to throw at him if necessary and rolled over.
The third and final day began with a trip to a collection of stinky, bubbling, and smoky geysers nearly 5000 meters above sea level. In any other country, one would expect a parking lot with signs warning you of Sulphuric gas and not to cross the safety ropes, keeping you at a safe distance from falling in. Bolivia has more of a Darwinian approach to the whole situation. There are no signs or ropes littering the site. Want to fall in? Step right up! Care to breath in some toxic gas? Inhale on the count of three! We wandered around holes filled with steaming, bubbly goop that looked perfect for mud baths. We held our noses to avoid the smell of rotten eggs and tiptoed through cracks in the Earth’s crust. Ann the Aussie had seen better geysers in New Zealand, so she did not need to walk around for very long.
We headed over to a hot springs filled with backpackers before making our way through the Dali desert and on to the Chilean border. We said our good byes to those going back to Uyuni, took a couple of group pictures, and hopped back in the truck to go to Chile. Bolivia had entertained us for the last four weeks and it was time to move on.