When I decided to include Bolivia as part of my sabbatical, it was primarily because I wanted to see the famous Salur de Uyuni aka the Bolivian salt flats. The salt flats are the largest salt flats in the world at just over 12,000 square km and sitting at almost 12,000 feet above sea level. The salt deposits are the result of the minerals leached from the mountains and deposited downstream at the bottom of the mountains.
Anyway, in order to see the salt flats, I had to fly one hour southwest of La Paz to the desolate little town of Uyuni. My flight was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, but unfortunately, the Uyuni airport was closed as a result of snow and ice overnight. Huh??? I thought this was the dry season. Eventually it warmed up to a balmy 1 degree celsius (that would be about 33 fairenheight for the Americans) and we took off three hours late.
While I was waiting for my flight, I had the strangest experience. I was paged over the intercom and a Bolivian air employee advised me there was an issue with my checked luggage. Huh? I had already flown on 5 flights on the trip without an issue. What gives? Anyway, I was escorted down the stairs, out onto the tarmac, past a number of planes and then through some double doors where two guys had my checked bag. They asked me to open the bag (by the way no one was speaking English), and indicated they were looking for 3 things and made a spraying motion. I got it. I had my mosquito repellent in my checked bag and for some reason it was creating an issue. I found the little bag inside my bag with the mosquito repellant, pulled it out, gave one of the guys the canisters, he looked at it, shook it, handed it back to me and said O.K. What the heck? It turned out to be a nonissue, and my bag arrived in Uyuni, but is was downright weird. And oh yeah. When my bag arrived, the lock was gone, but nothing was taken out.
Anyway, I spent most of the day in Uyuni trying to warm up. (When the guide books said that going to the salt flats was a bone chattering experience they weren’t kidding. It was frickin’ cold with a brutal wind.). I wandered around the dirt roads in Uyuni for a bit, but being Sunday most everything was closed. It is difficult to describe just how stark and desolate Uyuni actually is. The streets were all dirt and rocks with massive puddles everywhere from the previous day’s snow (and from a rainstorm the day before I learned), the sidewalks were slick with ice and the one story buildings all looked deserted. I felt like a ghost town. Fortunately, the Main Street was a little more lively with some small little restaurants and mom and pop stores open for the tourists heading to the salt flats.
I ended up sleeping about 12 glorious hours in my freezing hotel room. I have come to learn that Bolivians do not use much heat. Instead, they pile on the blankets. I ended up wearing to bed long johns, wool socks, pjs and a fleece and was still cold.
After a lovely breakfast, my guide Rodrago and driver Jose met me at just after 10:00 a.m. for the start of my 3 day trip to the salt flats and surrounding mountains. Now while the snow and nasty weather caused delays for me on Sunday, I was the beneficiary of two things as a result. First, despite the cold, it was a glorious not a cloud in the sky day. And second, the salt flats were not dry. When I booked the trip for the dry season, I expected that our trip across the flats would be on white crystalline salt. However, the rain and snow from the prior two days had apparently left a few inches of water on the salt flats that would allow me to see the gorgeous reflections that most only see during the rainy season. I had effectively been dealt a royal flush!
So once everything was loaded in the land cruiser we set off. First stop was to pick up some rubbers boots for me since I couldn’t walk in the water in my hiking boots. Next up was a kitschy little place just outside Uyuni – the train cemetery. Yep. That’s right. Apparently, when silver was king in this area the mines used trains to truck out the mineral. When the silver industry started to die so did the train system. The trains were left just outside Uyuni to rust and have since become a bit of a tourist mecca. It was fun to wander around and take a look, but I did not take up Rodrago’s offer to climb on the locomotive. With my luck I would fall off and never see the salt flats.
Third up was a 30 minute trip (in the direction of the salt flats) to Colchani, which is one of the primary locations for the extraction and processing of salt (yep in addition to being a tourist destination, the salt flats actually served a practical purpose).
We wandered around for a bit and Fernando explained to me the basic process of extraction, drying, processing and mixing to make table salt. In addition, we saw some amazing statutes made entirely out of salt.
After Colchani, it was time to head onto the salt flats. And the view was in a word, stunning. The little bit of water on the white expanse allowed from these amazing reflections of the blue sky and far away mountains. At one point, it appeared that the mountains were floating. It actually felt like we were flying at times. It was surreal.
We drove across the endless expanse of white and water and reflections stopping periodically to take pictures. About a half hour into the drive we stopped at the outpost created for the Dakar car rally (which had included the slat flats in the itinerary a couple years back). There was a flag pavilion showing all of the flags of the counties of the world who had participated in Dakar that year and wouldn’t you know it … the Canadian flag was not the glorious maple leaf. Nope, those Canuckeleheads had to go and use the Molson red and white “I AM CANADIAN” flag. Classic.
After another half hour or so of driving, we stopped in the middle of the salt flats and the guys pulled out a table and chairs and we set up a picnic lunch. Beef, quinoa, veggies and tea in the most incredible setting I could think of. Lunch good. View… priceless.
We then set out for Isla Incahuasi, an island made of coral (there are actually a number of them) in the middle of the salt flats. And what was particularly striking is the island is covered in cactus. Now while I was admiring the views from the car as we neared the island, I suddenly got the sinking feeling we were going to hike this bad boy. And yep… sure enough when we stopped, Rodrago told me to change into my hiking boots. RATS. I thought I was done with hiking in this thin air.
So with boots on, we set off not the trail up the hillside. The hike was pretty strenuous. While the path was easy to follow, the rocks were coral and incredibly uneven, which made it a little precarious at times as we hiked up, up, up between the cactus. Periodically, we would stop and admire the incredible scenery, but that ever present climb was always there. Now and then we would reach a salty/sandy stretch without the coral stones, which made the hike an awful lot easier (and eased my mind that I would end up stumbling into a cactus).
We finally made it to the top and the views were entirely worth it. A 360 degree view of the salt flats WITH the small layer of water. Stupendous. I later found out from Rodrago that it is impossible to reach the island in the rainy season because the water is too deep, so I considered myself very lucky that I was able to experience such an incredible view.
Once we hiked back down, we got back in the cruiser and headed across the salt flats for the two hour drive to the hotel. Now one thing I have not mentioned. At the start of the trip, Jose asked me if I liked music (at least I think that is what he asked me from the limited Spanish in my repertoire). Next thing I know, he whips out a flash drive inserts it into his radio and we are listening to THE most eclectic mixed tape I have ever heard. The entire drive was awesome. It began with REM continued with Amy Whinehouse, then on to Talking Heads, a little bit of U2, some Ray Charles, then James Brown, Cheap Trick and on and on. However, the coupe de grace occurred when Jason Mraz came on followed by Johnny Cash, the Clash, Kings of Leon, Mumford and Sons and ending with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The last song playing before we arrived at the hotel for the night was the Three Tenors. It was wild. And I haven’t even heard the whole flash drive yet.
So as we drove for two hours, music played on and we continued to look at the amazing scenery. We ended up stopping just after 6 to take in the sunset before arriving at my salt hotel (yep you read that right, my hotel is made of salt) just before dark. Day 1 had been amazing. Not sure how it can be topped.