Uyuni: Salt of the Earth

Uyuni: Salt of the Earth

The small, dreary, ghost-like town of Uyuni (“U-knee”) is located in the southwest region of Bolivia a few hours north of the Chilean border. It happens to be the coldest area of Bolivia and has a record low temperature of -45F. Average temps are between 40F and 50F year round and yes, it was really cold! Not to mention the constant blowing wind and the sudden dust storm straight out of a movie that coated everything not only outside but inside too. The other unfortunate part about Uyuni is all the trash which blows around in the wind like tumbleweeds.

Red Planet Expedition came highly recommended as a reputable tour company so we booked a 3 day/2 night ($180/each) tour of the salt flats for the next day. We met at the office at 10:30am and were introduced to our guide Bismar and driver Jasmin. Joining us in the newer then we expected Toyota Land Cruiser was a young guy named Joe from England and a French couple, Philippe and Christine. Bismar told us that these trips are so hard on the trucks they have to replace them every 3 years. The French couple were avid picture takers and I didn’t think it was possible to out shoot an Asian, but I guess it is. It was a constant click-click out the window of the same thing over and over again. Sometimes they even had to fight over who got the best shot through the window. It ended up being really annoying.

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Our first stop not far out of town was the Train Cemetery. Starting in 1930 retired trains were abandoned here and only later become a sort of tourist attraction. Supposedly it is more expensive to disassemble the trains than just leave them in the desert and it creates a bit of a Disney like feel. The tracks run from the mines in the mountains, through the salt flats and all the way to the coast (which now belongs to Chile). Only small portions of the tracks are still in use today. .

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We passed along through small villages with fields growing red and white quinoa and raising llamas. I tried to get close for a picture but the darn things just kept running away. Stand still, I just want one picture!

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The small town of Colchani is where the locals bring the salt for processing, packaging and shipping. Also useful is the fact that they can extract lithium from the salt to produce batteries for electronics around the world.

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The Salar de Uyuni used to be a lake but eventually dried up over time. Evidence of petrified sea coral  and aquatic fossils are visible and it is still considered to be the largest salt lake in the world. The salt can reach up to 400ft thick in the middle and strangely it’s always clear skies above the flats even if the surrounding towns are stormy. One awesome nerdy science fact is that there is no cell reception or compass usage on the flats due to the high concentration of minerals. Weird!

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Hiked around Cactus Island ($4/each to visit) which has about 4,030 cactus on this small island in the middle of the flats and the oldest cactus is over 100 years old and 50ft tall. Keep in mind that they only grow less then a half inch per year. Now those are some old cacti!

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Finished out day 1 by watching the sun set over the salt flats before heading to our accommodations for the night in a salt block sort of barracks. Of course there was no heat, but we did get some delicious warm food and once you crawled into your sleeping bag it was pretty warm. Too bad Aaron’s sleeping bag zipper was broken! We both slept with all of our clothes on from the day and then some. I’m not sure I took any of the 3 coats or wool hat I was wearing off the whole trip.

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Day 2 started 30 mins late as the French couple overslept and we had to wait for them to pack up and to our horror demand to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee before we departed. Such selfishness and not even an apology to the rest of us. Probably the most interesting stop on this day was the Rock Tree which was made famous by Salvador Daly paintings of the dessert. Funny thing is though that he’s never actually been to see it, someone just showed him a picture of it once and he liked it!

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Through out the day we passed by multiple lagoons with beautiful pink flamingoes, seagulls and other various birds resting in them. We drove past emus, llamas, and small native deer grazing on the high alpine shrubs. Lunch was a chilly picnic at 13,800ft overlooking 1 of the 2 active volcanoes in Bolivia. We made a brief stop to look at some bubbling geysers and to experience what it feels like to be at 16,400ft (5000m) above sea level. My observation: cold, windy and and to breath! By far the best part of the day was visiting the hot springs after being so cold and dusty and worn out from the long day. It was a lovely experience for sure (between the getting in and getting out parts). Brrrrrr!!

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Our last day of the tour was basically a 6-hour drive north back to Uyuni. Aaron and me had been sitting in the cramped 3rd row for the past 2 days and today I demanded a seat switch. I had had enough crawling in and out of the back, I wasn’t feeling well and was just plain grumpy and annoyed with the French couple always getting their way. Unfortunately this plan didn’t work out as perfectly as I hoped as Christine had a “bad knee” and had to stay in the middle row with us. This wouldn’t have been so bad except that she smoked at every stop and smelled like a dirty ashtray. yuck! I was almost beyond myself as the dust had picked up and you could visibly see it swirling around inside the car as we bounced and jerked our way down the dirt roads. Trying to catch a decent breath I rode a portion of the way with my coat over my head; it didn’t really help. I was not a happy camper and ready for this tour to be over. My advice would be to just take the 1-day tour of the salt flats, which is the highlight of the whole trip anyways. The rest of the trip is just a lot driving, wind, dust and cold but with some pretty great views too. You decide, but I think the negatives may not outweigh the positives of the 3-day trip.

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Back in Uyuni by 4pm we had until midnight to kill time before catching the overnight train/bus to LaPaz. We found a hotel that would let us rent a room for 2 hours (I can only imagine what they thought we wanted it for!!) and we took a much needed super hot shower, changed into the cleanest clothes we could find and repacked our bags. We walked around the not so exciting town for  awhile and then returned to a restaurant called Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza we had found our first night in town. This place is AMAZING and the pizza can rival any U.S. pizza joint!! It’s owned by a Massachusetts guy and his Bolivian wife and it just so happens one of the first pictures we saw on the wall when we walked in was of 2 guys standing in t-shirts in the snow next to a Holland/Grand Rapids highway sign!!!! Who would have thought the chances of this? We took advantage of the free wifi and booked our accommodations for LaPaz, yes a little last minute we know, but we knew we’d have time to do this once back in Uyuni. By midnight we were ready to be moving on and quickly fell asleep as soon as the train left the station.

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