El Salar de Uyuni. It’s nothing but tons, and tons, and tons of salt.
Over 4,000 square miles of it. Over 10 billion tons of it.
Almost every backpacker and tourist in Bolivia has this place pinned on their mental map. Located in Southern Bolivia, it’s basically on the border with Chile. Many tours from San Pedro de La Atacama, the driest desert in the world, located in Northern Chile, make trips to visit el Salar. So, we originally planned to do this leg of our trip at the end but, like most backpacking plans, it was up for grabs and, of course, changed. We bought our bus ticket and headed to Uyuni just a few days after our arrival. The bus left around 8pm at night and was an about 11 hour trip. We had booked a tour that was supposed to start at 11am. So, that gave us a good few hours of Bolivian-Bus-Time wiggle room.
Most of you know that I’m a mental planner, NOT an actual planner. What that means (in Chelsey terms haha) is that I have thought about all my options and know, more or less, what I want to do… but have not committed. That’s my specialty, to the frustration of many of you :) Now, at home, I do it because life happens and moods change. *Exception for my reputation sake: I commit to the important things! Just not the small things like “what will you be doing Friday night around 10pm?” Too many variables there. That said, I have a plan but it involves a lot of wiggle room. In Backpacking, this characteristic serves me well because, again, well, life happens. Busses break. You meet a fellow backpacker that tells you about a really cool place. You love a place and stay an extra day. And so on.
Getting to Uyuni
Against my gut instinct, for a variety of reasons, I decided to book the tour in Uyuni ahead of time. I know why I did it, but, man, if there was ever a time to change my strategy… Bolivia, of all places, is NOT the place to do it. Why? Because, well, Bolivia happens. And I’m not saying that in a snarky voice. It’s not against Bolivia, it’s just a different way life works. So, what happened? It was a typical bus ride, bumpy, cold, people talking loudly, neck cramping a bit from sleeping in a mostly sitting position, the routine etc.
But, then, about 4am, the bus stopped. I was dozing in and out of sleep, realizing something odd was happening. It smelled terrible of gas. Something broke in the engine, but, no problem, a new bus was coming with a part so the guys could fix it. I went back to bed. Brr… we were in the middle of the desert. It was freezing but I slept another couple hours. It was getting stuffy in the un-moving bus so I got up for some fresh air. The drivers and a couple Bolivians had climbed down the mountain side and gathered branches to make a fire. A bunch of the passengers were standing around it to keep warm. I went over and found out the bus with the part was coming from La Paz, a good 7 hours away.
What?! But, no problem, because we’d still arrive in Uyuni before 11am. Around 6:30am I went back in the bus for a little more shut-eye…. along with most of the passengers. Shortly thereafter an Israeli couple I’d met out by the bonfire woke me up. The driver and all the employees had jumped in a passing truck, leaving us all stranded! Uuuugh. Now, that’s a headache. That meant that maybe a bus was coming for us, maybe one wasn’t. If it was, I guess the people who were bringing the part would have to fix the engine and drive the bus to Uyuni. If it wasn’t, sometime the bus would get picked up, but, for sure, all 60ish of us passengers needed to get out of the desert ASAP. That said, we went to the road and made our minds up to be the quickest with the thumb. Lucky for us, one of the local Bolivian women, dressed in the traditional skirt, hat, etc, stood near us. Within about an hour, a truck passed and came to her (it’s nature to help your own first!) … and we were the lucky, quick beneficiaries :)
Plans changed. We obviously wouldn’t get to Uyuni for our tour. The truck took us to Potosi, an important mining city in Bolivia. We got in, starving, and booked the next bus to Uyuni. We had about an hour and a half so we walked in search of a good, cheap menu del dia (menu of the day). We found a great spot, and for about $2.50 each, we got the typical menu del dia – a drink, soup or salad, bread, main dish (choose one of a two or three options), and desert. I ordered stuffed chicken, mixed veggies, and potatoes, and Teresa ordered tongue, chicken, and sautéed veggies. Both were good, but the soup was DELICIOUS! It’s a spicy peanut soup with cilantro. Mmm, while I wasn’t in love with Bolivian food in general, they make a damn good soup!
The bus ride to Uyuni was a rough bus. The kind used to transport workers to and from the mining city. It felt like it would fall apart any minute, racketing constantly. We got on the bus, looking for our seat, but nothing was empty so we sat in a different seat. I thought maybe it was different here, maybe they don’t use the numbers. But then another girl came on and said we were in her seat, I explained someone was in ours. She looked and said, “oh, no, they’re empty. Just a mamita waiting.” Mamita is one of old the indigenous ladies (papito es an old indigenous man). I learned they don’t buy their seats, and they sit in a seat if it isn’t full but stand or sit on the floor if it is. It was hard for me to continue to think about this division in society, about the difficult lives led by these people. But, that’s another post because this one will be long enough! jaja.
Finally, we arrived.
We got into Uyuni about 4ish. It was a small, dusty village. We went straight to the place we booked our tour and arranged to start the following day. We got a hostel and then went out to dinner, bundled to the max in the cold desert. The main plaza was quite cute and we ate at a busy place on the square. While we’d had good customer service up until this point, this restaurant was on par with what I’d heard. Slow and unhelpful. The entire village of Uyuni was without power, so each table had a candle.
When we came, the girl brought us menus… and then left. About 20 minutes later we grabbed our own candle because it was obvious she wasn’t coming back any time soon. After maybe 1/2 hour she came back and took our order, the final order was one spaghetti and one llama kebab with quinoa on the side. We had to change our order a couple times because they didn’t have most of the stuff on their menu. In reality… they didn’t want to make those items, that happens frequently :) For example, they “didn’t have” quinoa until we were just debating on going somwhere else.
Anyways, the food finally came and it was pretty good. We were ready to go and asked for the check. Then, she helped someone else. Then, she cleaned an empty table. Then, I reminded her for the check. Then, she went and helped someone else. Then she went back to cleaning the table. Then, I asked again for the bill. Then, she went to the kitchen. Then, she went back to cleaning the table…. after 5x of asking, we just put money on the table and left. Frustrating! They have a different time schedule, a different sense of customer service, and just a different “business” and “customer” sense in general. Generally very open to cultural differences, this is something I have a hard time understanding.
We went to bed and woke up early to start our tour to the salt flats. Yaaay! We were so excited to finally get there. For some reason, I did not feel good. AT ALL. I tried to eat some bread and drink some “good for your stomach” tea. Nope, didn’t help AT ALL. The 3-day tour started and, unfortunately, I was sicker than a dog for 2 full days. We thought back and realized there was soy sauce on the llama. On top of that, in 20/20 hindsight, the meat looked funny… and we realized they “didn’t want” to make the meat in our spaghetti – using the soy meat they had left in the kitchen. So, I guess that is what happens when you eat late at night and electricity is out in the village. You get what’s left. That meant I ate 2 kinds of soy… of which I am allergic. Let’s just say it was an absolutely miserable 2 days, riding on bumpy ground through the desert in an old, rickety truck.
Let’s get to the positive side.
With my stomach cramped like an angry fist, although I couldn’t eat, drink, or walk…. I tried as I could to get what I could out of the trip. After all, it was gorgeous. So, I’ll tell you a bit about the 3 painful but beautiful days :)
The first day we went to a bunch of very beautiful lagunas – relatively small pools of water, spread across the desert floors. Carrying the reflection of the mountains in the back, and many with flocks of flamingos slowing grazing through, they were all very picturesque. They were different colors, carrying the pigments of the various minerals in the sand. We also stopped at 2 spots filled with absolutely humongous rock formations. One was volcanic rock and the other was simply huge regular rocks. While that doesn’t sound too enchanting, the various shapes in contrast to the magnificent background was terrific. That night we stayed in a hostel in the middle of the desert. Not sure how our driver got us anywhere, actually. It was simply open, flat desert for hours between each laguna and eventually the hostel.
At the hostel, it was freezing. As usual no hot showers, which is generally manageable, except in the desert when it’s 30 degrees. Yep, that means no shower. No way. Instead, we drank hot tea, stood near the wood stove, and talked with other travelers until we hit the sack (under 10lbs of blankets).
In the morning, I still couldn’t eat/drink. We got up at 4:30am because our first stop was the geysers. You have to get there before the sun comes up in order to see the true effect of their rising. We thought night was cold, that was nothing compared to 5am! We snuggled in the bumpy Jeep until we got there. Our fingers were numb, but we walked around. Small streams of steam were starting to smoke from the ground. With every millimeter that the sun rose, the stronger the geysers did the same. Once the sun showed its orange/pink rays over the sand, they really started boiling. The steam, the sun reflecting over the mountainous sand, and the interesting shadows – even while feeling like a sick icicle, it was a sight to behold!
Next we headed to the hot springs. It was still freezing and most people didn’t want to go in. But, natural hot springs have always been believed to hold special cures for the body and, on top of it, I love hot water. So, I got in my bikini and soaked my sore body. It felt better than words could describe! That night we stayed in a hotel made of salt. The beds were salt blocks, the tables salt blocks, the walls salt blocks – you get the idea. There were maybe 10 other people staying at the hostel, a couple older Bolivian brothers, a girl from Colombia traveling with a friend from France, and a newlywed from Australia. We all shared tea and dinner around the table, sharing stories of our cultures.
The last day we headed to El Salar itself. Driving for hours on the white desert floor, contrasted sharply by the bright blue sky, it was hard to belive that this was once a huuuuge salt water lake. We were there during the end of rainy season, so some parts still had water pools and caused crazy reflections of the fluffy clouds above. We made a couple different stops to take cool pictures… with the white floor it made cool effects :)
One of the places we stopped at was Isla del Pescado, what was once an island in the middle of this dinasaur sized lake. It is covered with giant cactus, some over 20 feet high! At the top of the island hills there is volcanic rock, coral, and remnants of the algae. Pretty cool to think about how this world transforms! This area was very flooded still and the ground felt like melting ice on a lake and/or the crunchy snow left on the driveways once you’ve shoveled. We ate lunch there under the sun and eventually made our way back to the village. On the way out of the Salar we saw a bunch of salt triangles… what happens is people scrape the salt into these shapes so that they can dry. Then, the salt is taken for processing. Interesting to learn how the salt makes it to our tables, huh?!
As evidenced by this story, they say half the experience is getting there, right?