There once was a great salt lake, 12,000 feet above sea level. Over time it dried up and left behind one of the most incredible geological aberrations in the world: The Salar de Uyuni. The salt from the evaporated lake remains, creating 7500 square miles of salt planes, a hard white sea that stretches to the horizon. It is an incredibly desolate place, the few pockets of life it can sustain are on islands of rock that rise off of the salt flats. Mounds of volcanic rock dotted with giant cacti that support populations of birds, lizards and a very strange rabbit-like creature with a long tail called a viscacha. Surrounding the salt flats are rugged hills and volcanos, some of which were underwater until the Great Lake disappeared.
When we awoke from our sleep deprived coma, we wandered around the oddly wide bleached and bleak streets of Uyuni, looking for the best way to get out onto the Salar. The little town is almost entirely geared towards tourists these days and competition for their dollars is fierce. Every other storefront downtown offers very systematic drives across the salt flats, stopping at a predestined number of thrilling sights. Many of the companies operate on very thin profit margins, cutting when they can on things like the drivers fee or vehicle maintenance. Despite the Salar being one of the widest, flattest, most open places or earth, in 20o8, two tourist laden SUV’s crashed head on killing everyone in both vehicles except one of the drivers.
Wary of the cut rate tour operators and willing to splurge a bit and hire a private car, we pounded the pavement until we found a company who seemed honest and cheap. The next day our driver, Rodrigo, picked us up in his Nissan Patrol and we headed out onto the salt. I (Ian) have a difficult time sometimes writing about absolutely stunning, tranquil places. It doesn’t make sense for me to haul out the superlatives and adjectives of awe in the case of Salar de Uyuni, it’s time to hand it over to the professional photographer and let Magda’s photos speak for themselves (With captions of course, since I can’t control myself).
A gortex cowboy surveying the ‘train cemetery’, an old train yard at the edge of the Salar with dozens of train cars in various states of disintegration.
The gaudy interior of one of several ‘salt hotels’. Built mostly of blocks of salt from the Salar, most of these places have learned why buildings aren’t generally made of salt, they tend to melt in the rain. Despite this inescapable fact of physics, tourists like us love them, even when they have a cheesy winter wonderland theme like this one.
Blocks of salt for a new salt hotel being chiseled out of the solar. An adept salt chopper like the gentleman on the left can cut 200 blocks per day. The guy on the right can’t do anything.
A far less cheesy, very comfortable salt hotel in Tahua. We stayed here at the Tayka Hotel for a night while exploring the Salar.
A cloudy day makes for a spectacular play of light across the Salar.
A viscacha on Incahuasi Island.
Refilling with gas in the middle of the Salar.
Salt is harvested near the town of Colchani. The iconic piles of are collected daily before being processed and sold as table salt.
When we got back to Uyuni after a night out on the salt flats, we made our way to the bus we’d reserved for the city of Sucre. Naturally it had been cancelled due to the ongoing blockades. We asked around for other buses but few others were leaving. We practically ran to the airline office where we were told all planes out of Uyuni were booked for three days. Counting our money we realized we only had enough Bolivianos for possibly one more night at a cheap hostel, and no more. I dipped into the last of our dollars reserve and pulled out two one hundred dollar bills. We brought them to an exchange office, where they were literally thrown back at us: each bill had a tiny tear in it, making them worthless in Bolivia. Coming back to the bus station (or a street that has buses parked on it) we found and bought the two last tickets on a night bus to Cochabomba. It was where we had started our trip in Bolivia, where our ATM cards had expired, and where our replacement cards had been sent.
The decision had been made, it was too difficult to stay in Bolivia any longer. We arrived the next morning in Cochabomba, booked a night bus to La Paz, and from La Paz, we fled the country. We arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia around noon, and had crossed the Peruvian border by 1:30.
We both miss Bolivia. The people were charming, the pace relaxing. The scenery stunning. Someday we’d love to return after they work out the issues that caused the endless blockades. It may seem trite for a tourist to complain about the blockades, but it wasn’t only us that were effected. Alex, our friend at Las Lilas Hostel, had lost hundreds if not thousands of dollars due to cancellations from would-be guests. When we arrived back in Cochabomba, his lovely hostel was empty. Commerce was at a dead stop. Produce was rotting in stalled trucks across the country. Container ships were wracking up massive costs waiting to offload to trucks that never came. I’m not an expert in economics, or Bolivian politics, but it seemed like a terrible way for a developing country to develop.