The Salar Series: El Salar de Uyuni

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Coming upon the salt flats from the north, we got our first glimpses of salt as we drove alongside the Volcano Tunupa.  The terrain under us gradually shifted from dirt to salt as we made our way onto El Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats.  The salt was covered by a thin layer of water reflecting the volcano that was now behind us, the road simply tire tracks carved out of the watery salt.

As the water gradually disappeared, we were left driving across what seemed an endless expanse of dry, hard, cracked salt.  An island of mountains rose out of the blinding whiteness before us, and as we continued further onto the salt leaving Volcano Tunupa behind us, we were surrounded by white ground as far as the eye can see, broken only by the intense blue of the sky and a pocket of mountains on the horizon.

 

So much salt!

It was surreal.  Stopping every so often just to get out of the car and drink in the immensity of this place, you wonder if you’re still on the same Earth you were on only moments before.  You are literally standing upon miles and miles of salt.  It is so flat, the only gradation is the slight ridges of salt on the surface.  It messes with your sense of perspective: walking barely 20 feet from the car, you turn around and the car looks like a toy.

Celebrating!

After walking around the salt, picking it up and tasting it, jumping on it, laying down on it, even kicking it to hear the sound the crystals make as they skitter across yet more salt – like breaking glass, we took a celebratory moment to pass a bit of a bottle of Singani before getting back in the car to continue onwards.  We had made it!  We felt a toast was appropriate…even if we didn’t have cups on hand.

Our next stop was Isla Incahuasi, one of the many rocky islands dotting the otherwise flat salt plain.  While rather touristy as one of the stops made by tours of the area, Isla Incahuasi is home to hundreds of giant cactus plants — the whole thing is covered with enormous cacti.  Considering these cacti grow at an average of an inch a year (or maybe it was a centimeter…regardless they grow really slowly), the plants on Isla Incahuasi are very, very old.  Case in point: we saw a 900 year old cactus!  A hike up to the top of the island takes you past many of these ancient inhabitants, and gives you an excellent view of the surrounding salt.

Isla Incahuasi

Salt hotel interior

Salt truck

We couldn’t stay long at the cactus island; we had to get to the town of Uyuni before 5 to pick up our guide for the next segment of our safari and we had some stuff to see along the way: the original hotel on the salt flats…made entirely of salt.  No longer in use because the old pipes began polluting the salt, you can still tour the building — as long as you buy something from the gift shop.  We bought a coke, so we got to go in.

Continuing on to Uyuni, we drove by an area where workers were mining the salt.  They would pile the salt into small pyramids to dry out in the sun, then shovel the piles into the backs of trucks to be taken into Uyuni.

Salt mining

Uyuni, not to be confused with Salar de Uyuni, is one of the largest towns on the edge of the salt flats with the most extensive system of transportation available out in this middle of nowhere we had come to.  There’s a train from La Paz to Uyuni (it takes 5 days to go one direction), and the town even has an airport, albeit tiny.  A number of tours leave from Uyuni, so naturally the town attracts a number of backpackers.  We picked up our guide, Ronald, from one of these tour companies and he directed us to the train graveyard on the outskirts of Uyuni.

Train Graveyard

After playing around on the trains, we only had one more stop to make before finding a hostel, a drive of only about an hour to some caverns that you can climb through.  We watched the sun set as we drove across the salt flats, casting an array of beautiful colors on the blank white slate of the salt.  It was dark by the time we got to the caves, which were luckily lit inside.  We were given hard hats, which came in handy when we discovered we had to crawl through some tight spaces to see the rock formations inside.  The ceilings were so low in places, we were all bumping our heads.

Climbing in the caves

We wanted to make it to San Juan to sleep, and our guide said it was only about 20 minutes away.  Two hours later, we were still driving along the bumpy dirt roads “toward San Juan,” our faith in our guide wavering slightly.  We would get to a fork in the road and go about 15 minutes down one way when Ronald would pipe up saying we should’ve taken the other route.  So we’d stop, turn around on the narrow trail, find the fork and take the other way.  After about ten of these mishaps, I started wondering if we would be sleeping in the car that night.  Granted, the trails are unmarked and they all look the same, so navigation is done by landmarks like the mountains — easily done during the day, but near impossible at night.  It was incredibly dark; there was barely any moon that night so our way was lit only as far as the high beams could reach.

We finally pulled up to San Juan very late.  Thankfully we were able to find a reasonably priced hostel with a bed for each of us.  It was so cold, we all slept in all our clothes inside our sleeping bags, with this hostel’s incredibly thick wool blankets piled on top, this time not minding the weight for the warmth.  These thick wool blankets must be a Bolivian hostel thing…

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