As we said before, our route was a little crazy during this part of the trip. From Sucre, we headed back to Chile so that we could see San Pedro de Atacama and travel the Lagunas Route back into Bolivia. Yeah, it was a big circle. Back in mid June of 2017, on the way to Chile, we visited one of the highlights of our trip, the Salar de Uyuni. It’s the world’s largest salt flat and truly unique.
But before heading out on the salt we needed to stock up in the town of Uyuni. The town proper is a pretty strange place. It really shouldn’t exist at all and really only does because of the neighboring salar. Between tourism and salt harvesting it supports some 10,000 people.
There are lots of things not to like about this town like the dirty potholed streets, the abundance of crappy tourist shops, the cold or the bad restaurants, but it really grew on us. We got stuck here over the weekend waiting for the propane plant to open and really got to know the town behind the tourism. One way was by showering at the local bathhouse. Hot water is an expensive luxury that many Bolivians can not afford, so local bathhouses are pretty common. You go in, wait in line and take a great shower for a small fee. It was great doing as the locals do, and not feel like strange gringos that live in a van.
We also enjoyed shopping out at the edge of town. On this one street at the end of town, trucks from the lowlands in the east park and sell produce right out of the back. It was here that we learned some important lessons. We walked up to a woman selling potatoes and asked the price. It took her several long seconds to give us a price, “6 Bolivianos”, but she was selling just potatoes and just one variety, all day long! Alex and I looked at each other not knowing if this was at all a fair price. How could we know, at this time we barely knew the exchange rate let alone what produce should cost. The woman, without any prompting, quickly lower the price to 3 Bolivianos!
Many locals have heard that tourists have no idea what things cost and operate under the general rule of giving them twice the locals price. It took the woman so long to give us the price because we surprised her and she was doubling the price in her head. It does not always work this way, Bolivians by nature do not haggle. Produce and most other goods have a set price. On this same street, from other folks we got the locals price right off. Sometimes we feel like we’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out if they are giving us the locals price or the gringo price, but sometimes we just don’t know. How much should a pineapple cost?
Uyuni is also home to the famed “Train Cemetery”, were the hulking masses of old steam locomotives and trains cars are left to rot. They are fun to walk through and are great for pictures. After spending a night here we headed out onto the salar.
It’s tough for someone who has never seen it to understand what the salar is like. If you haven’t been there, start by imagining a giant lake 200 kilometers across. Now instead of water there is a perfectly level expanse of snow-white salt that, in some areas, stretches out to the horizon, as far as you can see. Like any good lake there are islands and exposed rocks scattered throughout. The salt is very firm, at least out in the open areas, and you are able to drive a car on it. Over all it is quite smooth, but there are small ridges that formed as the surface solidified, but it’s smooth enough that you can comfortably drive at highway speeds. We had the fortune of spending 7 days and 6 nights, during two different visits, aimlessly wandering around the Salar. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that we will always treasure.
The Salar is the result of millions of years worth of water running down the barren slopes of Bolivia’s altiplano (literally high plane) into the lake, but having no way out aside from evaporation. The majority the altiplano is a closed hydraulic basin. The little precipitation that falls onto the Salar drains to a few lakes, the great Lake Titicaca being one of them. The rain or snow falls on the ground, dissolving minerals as it flows towards the lake. During the dry season the surface of the water in the lake sits right below the salt surface (there is water right below the salt). Each year, during the rainy season, the Salar floods and is covered with about 6 inches of water. The relatively fresh water mixes with the salt water below. Having no where to go, the water slowly evaporates leaving behind a beautiful white crust behind. Over millions of years the bottom of the lake has slowly built up in nice flat layers. Each layer representing a year. In some areas of the salt is 400 feet, 120 meters, deep.
Driving on the salar is like piloting a boat. No roads, just general routes to the different destinations. We had a blast just taking off in Lola across the salt in whatever direction we pleased. After entering the salar from the Uyuni side you drive for about 50 miles, 80 km, to Isla Inkahuasi. 50 miles is far enough that the top of the island is below the horizon and the only way to know where you’re going by following the tracks of others who have gone before you, or by GPS. When a vehicle crosses fresh salt, the tires smash down the little bits of dried salt that sticking up, creating a clear track. As more and more vehicles follow those same tracks the salt gets a little dirty, create a very well defined way. I guess it’s comforting to follow something. We depended on GPS quite a bit. It was also a bit scary traveling that fast without road markings to give you direction. We were constantly worrying about other vehicles not paying attention and slamming into the side of us. Thankfully we never, even remotely, had this happen.
Incredibly, our first day in this remote place we met up with some friends. (Javier is a great photographer check out his Instagram.) We didn’t really decide on an exact location, just talked about where we were going and that we should keep an eye out for each other. During our drive out to Inkahuasi Alex had the binoculars at the ready, scoping out each vehicle in the distance. Most of the vehicles out there were Toyota Land Cruisers doing tours. Picking out the boxy shape of our friend’s jeep was pretty easy. When we spotted them about a kilometer out, running back towards Uyuni, we immediately changed course and headed straight towards them. They did the same, I am sure Lola stood out pretty well on the salt.
We met in the middle and hopped out, set up the camp chairs and table, had a few drinks, some snacks and watched the sunset together. The experience was remarkable. We were out in the open of the perfectly flat expanse, devoid of anything. One spot was as good as any other. As the sun set, in brilliant colors, the cold winter wind started to pick up. We hung out on the salt for as long as we could bear then rushed for the comfort of the van, and had a few more drinks, as the last of the light left the sky. The guys needed to get back to their hotel and left us alone in the dark. We decided to head for the island and park in one of the “bays” out of the wind. (Yeah that’s how it works on the Salar too.) The warm sun welcomed us the next morning pulling the van out of the freezing temperatures and encouraging us to get out of bed.
We spent the next four days wandering around the Salar and visiting different islands. Each night we would find a nice area close to an island to stop for the night. To maximize the warmth of morning sun we would park the van angled towards the northeast. When the sun would come up above the horizon one of us would very quickly pop out of bed and pull off all the curtains, letting the sun stream in, and then quickly scramble back into bed. Within about a half hour the frosty chill was gone and getting out of bed was actually bearable.
One day we set off on foot to explore the Salar. The nearest island was about a 20 min walk away, where we clamored to the highest point about 150 feet (50 meters) above the salar to take in the view. From there we took off the next island the same distance away. This one was bigger and tall, so instead of summiting it, we circumnavigated it enjoying the strange ice formation that happened along the shore line.
Being on the salar was one of the most amazing experiences our lives. It was a total freedom to drive anywhere without worrying about roads. Being able to stop for the night and sleep comfortably in Lola, anywhere we wanted to, was a privilege. We went for two full days without seeing another soul. If you have the chance to visit the Salar de Uyuni don’t pass it up. This is an experience we will never forget.