Salar de Uyuni – Three days on another planet…made of salt!
Salar de Uyuni, the must-see landscape in Bolivia. Vast salt flats stretching on forever, mountainous terrain, volcanoes and seriously eye-popping scenery. The flats were a former seabed, now raised to 3,800m (13,000ft). It takes three days to cross.
It all happened in slow motion. Crunch, grind! Only three minutes out of Potosi’s bus terminal and we’d crashed into a collectivo that had sped up on our inside as we turned right. Nobody was hurt, and no journey-halting damage, just a delay of an hour or so. As the two drivers argued, a crowd gathered, two random video camera wielding gentlemen filmed it all and ever more police turned up to be part of the excitement. Eventually all the passengers started chanting Vamos! (Let’s go!), having all denied seeing anything (us included), so the police sent us on our way.
Uyuni is a small town literally in the middle of nowhere. As you arrive it emerges low and shimmering out of the desert like something from a post-nuclear dystopia. It looks like tumble-weed territory, but I am not sure they grow here: it’s not that hospitable. As the afternoon wears on, it starts to chill quickly. We’re here for one thing, to set up our tour of the famous Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats. As we enter the office of our agency (Quechua Connections) , we meet Rory and Harriet, fellow tour-goers. Later on as I go back to the office to pay my share, I get my first glimpse of Mel, another of our compatriots-to-be. Mia, the final addition to our crew, will appear tomorrow.
I didn’t want to write this part, it seems a bit nasty, but it’s what we found: The Bolivian service ethos is notably poor. We have met some great and really lovely people but 50% or more of our encounters with hostel owners, waiters, waitresses etc. have been disappointing. Some people just don’t seem to give a bleep! or understand that a friendly attitude improves everything. And we’ve been trying on our side: using Spanish, being smiley and friendly. In Uyuni, we encountered this everywhere except with our tour company, which was great. Hostel – shit ; restaurants – shit. Okay, rant over!
Exploring the Salar de Uyuni
After loading up, we take off in our Landcruiser with Jose-Manuel at the wheel. Every day a veritable convoy of land-cruisers exits Uyuni and heads out onto the flats, leaving a dust trail across the pristine salt.
But first we visit the train graveyard of rusting steam locomotives, remnants from the early days of salt exportation. The rusting husks are graffitied and stripped back. The tour-goers all converge at once, so it becomes a playground and a little tricky to get the lonely photos that this place begs. A dead-straight track runs off towards the horizon, the route to Antofogasta in Chile and the nearest port.
The flats are vast, a hundred or more kilometres across. Even in the dry season when they’re not covered in water, the heat shimmer reflects a mirror image of the mountains in the distance. The shimmer also makes it seem as if they’re floating. The flats look like they’re tiled with polygonal tiles (hexagons, octagons, pentagons) and a raised grout. It’s an artefact of the evaporation process. With white flat and pure blue sky it’s other-worldly. Like something out of an old Dr Who episode, where they used to turn the film negative.
Over the course of the day we sail across miles and miles of flat. Pausing for obligatory crazy photos, as the scenery makes for great false perspective photos. We visit an island of cacti (Isla Pescado) in the middle of the flats and we watch the sunset from inside a cave that was once beneath the sea. Despite the duo-tone landscape I sit with my eyes glued to it. It is breathtaking.
The break for photos was most excellent fun. Stripped down to t-shirts in the beating sun, it was a chance both to stage some standard photos and unleash a little creativity. With a motley array of props (wine bottle, banana, dinosaur, saucepan) we spent a pleasant hour trying to come up with different scenarios, most of which seemed to involve abuse at the hands of my lovely wife: Alison kicking little me, Alison eating little me, Alison stepping on us all, Alison showering little me in coke. Across the plain in the distance we could see little groups of people next to jeeps acting out strange scenarios. All very bizarre, like something off a Pink Floyd album cover!
Even the few buildings that exist out here are made of salt. We lunch in a salt gazebo and we end our day in a salt hostel. The tables, chairs and beds are all made of salt. After dinner there’s time for another run out onto the flats to look at the stars. There’s no light pollution and the sky is clear, so the Milky Way paints a beautiful arc across the sky. Then it’s to bed: clothes, woolly hat socks and mittens, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag and three blankets. And it is only just barely warm enough to fall asleep.
Day 2 is all about landscapes: volcanoes, lakes of all manner of colours, flamingos, a rock tree, the Dali desert and a rail-road to nowhere.
We do encounter some wildlife along the way but this is on the whole barren country, a desert on the top of the continent. Vicuna graze, Rhea (think Ostrich) and Viscacha (rabbit like rodents). The viscacha live in a specific place along the road and get fed orange peel and treats by the passing land-cruisers. Whilst not tame you can get quite close to them. How mad is it that a colony of bizarre rabbit-like creatures wait for snacks one and a half days drive into the desert!
We trace a dirt-track across the flats, moving into more mountainous terrain. Colours are banded across the mountains like some semi-precious stone: sandy, golden, red and white. Many are old volcanoes, a few are active. Boulders shaped by the wind are strewn frugally across the valley floors.
The Salvador Dali desert takes this to an extreme. This is what it feels like to be inside a Dali picture, with its desert, colours, and strange random formations. It’s only missing the odd giraffe-like creatures, crucifixion scenes and a melting clock.
After hours of nothing we come across a few ramshackle buildings. There is a tiny army outpost, the Chilean border is nearby, with broken windows. It seems to be manned. This must be where you’re sent to end a career. Cold, remote and forgotten. Below the camp we recover to the train line, still running unfeasibly straight into the distance.
Next we find the rock tree, which is…a strange tree-like rock. What more can I say about that?
Lagoons, a red one, a green one, one full of flamingos, and this latter is where we lunch. All fringed with mineral deposits: Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium salts and Borax.
Later another salt hostel. Colder, much colder tonight. We’re all sharing a dormitory and after dinner there’s nothing to do except climb into bed, cover yourself with everything you can find, add a hot water bottle and hope you survive the night. I wake up frequently. Every seventh breath I seem to have to take a super deep one, a function of the oxygen-depleted altitude. Isn’t it the same with waves, every seventh one is larger?
We start early, emerging haltingly and unwillingly from our cocoons into the frigid air. It’s minus ten (C) and Jose-Manuel has already been up working on the car. I’m sure I can feel the blood running thicker in my veins, viscous like tar and slowing me down.
We’re off to see some Geysers. In a red-planet landscape, steam geysers shoot up into the ether surrounded by yellow sulphurous stains and colourful bacterial colonies. Bubbling grey mud pools gurgle away and the air reeks of noxious things. You need to be careful here, as rumour has it that a lass died a few years ago having fallen into a scalding hot mud pool. Mel manages to step into a tiny one and Jose-Manuel’s quick attention illustrates a real concern.
The rest of the morning is spent winding our way to the Chilean border via a couple of mountain-rimmed lakes. I’m not sure what I expected of the border but it wasn’t what we found. A small building with a Bolivian flag, in the middle of nowhere, at the base of an extinct volcano…and two shacks.
Jose-Manuel unloads our bags and after a brief good-bye, Mel, Alison and I are left in the frozen waste to await a bus for San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I do hope it arrives.