We were told that the overnight bus ride to Uyuni was a cold one but I didn’t understand just how cold it gets in the Bolivian highlands when the sun goes down until we made it through the night. The evening started off fine enough with us both wearing multiple socks, down jackets, hats, raincoats, sleep sacks, and using anything else we could use to drape over us as blankets. We even managed to catch a few hours of sleep before waking up to the bus swaying back and forth, pitching our bodies in every direction as it slowly pushed forward on the rough road to Uyuni. Once awake there was no going back to sleep, the cold had seeped into my bones causing the sort of pain in my toes that made me wonder how easy it was to get frost bite and whether it was slowly happening to me as I slept. No amount of huddling together could keep us warm. As we reached our destination and the bus doors opened we grabbed our virtually weightless bags as quickly as possible from under the bus. We were wearing everything that used to be in them.
In the pitch black morning we had no idea where we were or where to even begin looking for a hotel. Thankfully we could see a lit up hotel sign a handful of blocks away. We rang the bell until a disgruntled teenager came to let us in and showed us to a basic room. Standing in the freezing cold didn’t put us in a good position to negotiate a cheap price so we paid a little more than we wanted to. Which made me really annoyed when we pulled back the sheets to discover fresh looking stains. Another minute of CSI work later I decided that the room had been used and not cleaned before we showed up, and ignoring Andy’s pleas to just deal with it, I marched down to the office and asked for a new room. After what felt like ages we were finally set up in a cleaner room with plenty of heavy wool blankets. We piled them high on top of us and fell asleep immediately to the muffled sounds of the movie Bluestreak coming from the T.V. It took a few more hours before the feeling returned to our extremities.
Uyuni is a small town 12,139 feet in elevation with not much going on but one huge tourist draw; the nearby salt flat. We decided to do a three day Land Cruiser tour starting with the salt flat and working our way close to the Chilean border through Bolivian national parks. It was easy to book a tour through one of the many tour agencies and after declining to sell the woman the down jacket and vest off of our backs we were on our way with tickets to leave the following morning. She made us promise to bring more down clothing if we ever come back.
That evening we found our way into a tiny tea shop run by an older woman. We sat on a bench covered with a wool blanket and drank mate de coca as she told us stories of how the town had changed over the years and described traders using llamas to carry 50 lbs of salt bricks to other towns. When another customer came and sat with us she told him, almost proudly, “These two white people speak Spanish. Can you believe it?!” We are far from fluent Spanish speakers but that didn’t stop this woman from being impressed. As the sun set the bitter cold returned and we holed up in a chicken roaster restaurant to stay warm. The food was amazing and the place was full. All of the other diners were glued to the television set watching a show called El Chavo del Ocho, a Three Stooges like comedy from the eighties that involves a lot of adult actors playing children. Not really my type of show, but I guess it is hugely popular and we saw it playing in a few different places throughout Bolivia.
In the morning we brought our backpacks to the travel agent to store during our trip and picked up our loaner sleeping bags that Andy had talked the woman into giving us. There is no reliable agency in Uyuni right now for the salt flat tours and it is completely up to fate what kind of guide you get, there are bad ones and good ones. We already have really low expectations when it comes to travel agencies in other countries and were prepared for the worst case scenario. We got lucky this time with a competent young guide named Emitario. Our first stop of the day was the Train Cemetery just outside of town. Just a pile of old rusted trains abandoned by the mining companies, it wasn’t really much to see. We walked around for the obligatory half an hour along with the other tourists from the line of Land Cruisers parked side by side. Although we were in a group of six people and one guide, we found that all of the groups follow the same exact schedule for visiting the sites and all stay in the same guest houses. We were worried at first that the amount of people would detract from the scenery, but as the day went on the vehicles spread out a little bit allowing for less people to crowd the sights.
We were excited to move on and finally see the Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat covering an area of 4,086 square miles. Before we could see it though, we had to take another half an hour break at a little town consisting of a line of stalls selling cheap woolen goods and handicrafts made of salt. I was starting to feel a little irritable after watching a mob of tourists with digital SLR cameras pointing them in a little boy’s face like National Geographic photographers stalking a rare animal. He played on an old truck for a while acting more shy as the camera lenses multiplied. When he put out his hand for a few coins no one offered up anything and shortly after that we were herded back into the Land Cruisers to move on to the next stop.
The salt flat was incredible. We saw people raking the salt into pyramids so the water would drain to the bottom leaving the top part dry and ready to use. The reflections of the sky off of the water made for some beautiful views and we drove straight across the wide open space to a building made of salt bricks. The flat being so perfectly white and big makes a great background for creating optical illusions and we entertained ourselves for quite a while taking photos while Emitario made us all lunch. A couple hours passed quickly on the salt flat and pretty soon we were back in Uyuni for a pit stop. Andy and I opted for a snack of blended beer, raw eggs, and sugar to pass the time before heading out farther away from civilization. That night we slept in dorm beds and ate dinner in a long dining hall with each group separated to different tables. It was another cold night and the town was deserted except for a few stray llamas.
The second day of the tour we started to see some different and equally beautiful scenery. There was a lot of red rock, reminding me of Zion National Park in Utah, and we had a blast scrambling up and down the cool rock formations. When we got back to the car we started to get the feeling that our tour companions were kind of duds. The four other people were sitting next to the vehicle looking bored and unimpressed waiting for us. We didn’t care, we couldn’t get enough of the beautiful landscape.
Not much farther on we saw our first flamingos of the trip, hundreds of pink birds dotting the still lagoons. The most impressive lagoon was the last one we saw that day; the Laguna Colorada. The lake sits at 14,035 feet and looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. It is completely red, made that way by the red algae that grows there, and has white borax islands that add to its other worldliness.
The altitude made it hard to sleep that night. I frequently woke up out of breath with a feeling that I was suffocating. Everyone in our group slept fitfully until morning when we left before the sunrise for our first stop of the day; some geysers. In the cold morning the geysers let off so much steam it was like walking through a thick fog. Looking around I had a moment where I realized that I was in a remote corner of a remote country taking in some amazing feats of mother nature. One girl from another car managed to step into some kind of steam vent and burn her foot. I guess it turned out to be only a minor injury but it certainly made us realize just how much a person’s safety is in their own hands when they travel. There are no park rangers telling tourist to stand behind a rope or stay on a path out there.
The same volcanic activity that created the geysers also made a nice big hot spring where we took our breakfast break. While the rest of our crew huddled in the freezing cold, Andy and I ran for the hot water where we spent a good half an hour soaking. The rest of the day was spent driving back to Uyuni, but with stops in places like the Salvador Dali desert it wasn’t a typical boring car ride. On the way we managed to see flamingos, a fox, wild ostriches, vicunas, and plenty of llamas roaming the wide open spaces. The trip was amazing and we are so glad that we took three days to see the area rather than the one day salt flat only tour.
Arriving back to Uyuni we were surprised to see some actual activity in the normally deserted streets. There was a fairly large market going on and I couldn’t resist doing a little shopping. Determined not to suffer through another cold bus ride I managed to find some wool tights with alpacas circling the ankles and thick furry leg warmers. We also snagged some coca leaves and accompanying black goo as well as a bus ticket onto Potosi the next morning.