The Uyuni Salt Flats

We thought we’d lucked out when we got seats on an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni. True to form we hadn’t booked ahead and everyone at the hostel concurred that we’d be fucked for this evening as a result, but after rushing down to the bus station we’d managed to grab three of the last four available seats on a Todo Turismo bus. Now a Todo Turismo bus, that’s not your grandfather’s bus, no sir – they cater to tourists so you get nice big seats, “in-flight” meals, even English movies on the overhead TVs. We watched Sex Tape and saw Cameron Diaz’s bum (or a reasonable facsimile by a body double), and that was nice too. We even got blankets and pillows, and rolling down the highway out of La Paz it felt so smooth, how could a good night’s sleep not be guaranteed?

By shitty Bolivian roads, that’s how. The first half of the trip really was great but the roads completely disintegrated during the second, and we were tossed about as the bus bombed over corrugated dirt roads and swung on and off of detours. And it did so fast. To be honest I can’t really complain as I was sitting near the front of the bus and didn’t get it so bad, but Drisdelle and Murphy assured me that it was a total shitshow in the back, particularly and literally when trying to use the facilities.

Our arrival in Uyuni was early in the morning but after the sunrise and we were immediately swarmed by vendors offering tours of the salt flats. As far as we could tell they all seemed to be pitching the same product so we just went with the woman who approached us first, climbing in her Land Cruiser and over to her office to square up. There were multi-day tours on the table but we decided to go for the longer of the one-day tours.

With several hours to kill before the tour started we found some breakfast, did a quick tour of the town – including a small museum that was kind of lame – and Murphy took a nap on the office couch. An Aussie chick and a British-born-but-mostly-Aussified dude showed up at the office for the tour as well and we all hit it off pretty quickly by tossing around off-color jokes.

Our driver shows up in another Land Cruiser and it turns out we need to pick up two more people at the bus station so I swiftly grab shotgun. Two young, cute French (maybe?) girls are waiting there and jump in. Not sure if they’re shy or what but they seem pretty standoff-ish, like they’re trying to pretend the rest of us aren’t there. Kind of weird.

Our itinerary includes two stops prior to reaching the real salt flats, and the first one is a “train graveyard”. It sounds cool…

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… but to be honest, it’s kind of lame. Just a bunch of rusty trains lying around. Some have been gutted and converted to swing sets, which is admittedly kind of cool, but for the most part it’s a big “meh”.

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The UK/AUS couple are as unimpressed as we are but our driver literally dropped us off and sped off, saying he’d be back in half an hour, so after a quick five-minute look we’re just kicking rocks around and cracking jokes. The French girls have disappeared but we catch a glimpse of them behind a distant pile of rubble. Are they fooling around? Smoking a joint? Taking a shit? This becomes a running joke throughout the day (I lean toward the first option, personally). We send the Aussie chick over to rustle them up so we can split as soon as the driver comes back.

Hands down, the best part of the train graveyard was a character we spotted but unfortunately didn’t take a picture of. He looks exactly like me with five years and two kids added on. Same hair, same beard, same build, same shirt + vest combo, same type of pants, same type of boots. Even the colors of the clothes are the same. Oh, and he spoke Spanish. Other than that and the kids though, the similarities were ridiculous.

On our way to the second stop we pass by several herds of vicuñas, a wild relative of llamas and alpacas, running and grazing along the roadside. They seem to move faster, are leaner, and blend into their surroundings a lot better than their domesticated cousins.

Our next stop is a little tourist trap village on the outskirts of the salt flat. There are stalls selling the usual tourist stuff but a few are selling products cut out of solid salt, i.e. salt dice and salt animal carvings. There’s a small museum with a few larger salt carvings, but mostly just more touristy junk to buy:

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There are some warm beers for sale but we pass. Pulling away we see my doppleganger sucking one back. Murphy exclaims, “He’s drinking a beer, that’s totally like you!”

We roll out into the actual salt flats. Initially it’s not as flat as we expected… there are numerous paths cut into the surface by countless vehicles, a “salt hotel” constructed out of bricks of salt, small dips in the surface where pools of water have formed, and rows of equidistant salt mounds, each a couple of feet high. Our guide explains that people dig up the salt to form these mounds, for what purpose he didn’t explain. Dozens of tourists are taking pics on the mounds though, so maybe that’s it. Our guide encourages us to follow suit and we do.

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We drive further out into the salt flats and come across a small restaurant with a large Dakar Rally monument outside of it (the rally was moved from Africa to South America in 2009 due to fears of terrorism).

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The surface grows less-used and flatter around here and people are taking advantage of the lack of perspective to take wacky pictures. We attempt to get in on the action as well and after several failed and semi-successful attempts using Snoodles we get a pretty damn good one:

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We ride even further out into the salt flats. There are mountains in the distance in most directions but otherwise we can’t see anything except the occasional fellow Land Cruiser. It’s pretty incredible. In the middle of the salt flats is an “island” of rock and cacti that juts up a few hundred feet. Our guides quickly prep some food for us and we sit down to lunch:

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After lunch we’re given 45 minutes to explore so we take a walking path up to the top of the island…

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Everyone jumps back in the Land Cruiser and we head north toward a volcano on the edge of the salt flats. There’s a small village there but we don’t really approach it, we just get out, play around with the empty horizon and try to look cool:

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It’s time to go but all of us passengers discuss whether we’re in a rush or not and since none of us are, we ask the driver if we can hang out to see the sunset and he’s alright with that. We drive back to the entrance to the salt flats – where the mounds and the salt hotel were – and twiddle our thumbs, waiting for the sun to drop. Near the entrance are what look like hot springs, with water bubbling up from under the flats… but they aren’t hot, in fact they’re not even warm, they’re cold. Weird.

Cold. Refreshing. Water. *Lightbulb* Let’s go to the hotel and buy a bunch of beer! Yes! The French girls aren’t in but everyone else is so we drive over, buy about a dozen large beers, drop the tailgate and get some tunes going. Awww yeah, there we go. A couple shots from the salt hotel:

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Before long several other Land Cruisers show up full of photographers and people who inexplicably decide to stand directly between us and the soon-to-be-setting sun. I say it’s inexplicable because the area is HUGE and no place is really any better than any other.

As the sun sets we ready ourselves for our band photo:

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Almost as soon as the sun disappears our driver gets a call; his employer is pissssed and wants him back in town now. He balls the jack on the Land Cruiser, going into more than one four-wheel slide on the loose salt and gravel surface. We’re back to Uyuni in half the time it took to get there.

We grab our things from the office, get some pizza and head over to the train station. We’re worried about not buying tickets in advance but we spring for the pricier tickets and it’s not a problem at all. Next stop, the Argentinian border.

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