The biggest reason for us to come to Bolivia was to visit the Salares de Uyuni and south western Bolivia. Without a doubt the largest tourist attraction in the landlocked nation, the Salares de Uyuni are the worlds biggest salt flat. The salt flat covers over 4,086 square miles (a bit smaller than the size of Connecticut) and during the dry season (when we would be visiting) is just an enormous expanse of salt. The entire 4,000 square miles has an average altitude variation of 1 meter. In other words, picture Connecticut without any houses, trees or obstructions, completely flat and with white salt as ground ... that is the Salares de Uyuni ... incredible.
Getting there from La Paz is a bit tricky. Bolivia is not known for their comfortable and reliable transportation system. In fact it is quite the opposite. Bus accidents in Bolivia are a common affair and when you are busing through the Andes on enormous cliffs with sub-par safety standards it can be a bit nerve racking. Lindsey and I went with the most reputable company we could find and crossed our fingers.
Normally the ride is a 10 hour drive. Impossible to sleep due to the amount of turns in the road (Bolivia doesn't have anything close to the interstate system in the US) and the overall discomfort level of the bus (picture something between a school bus and low end transport bus) we are caught in what seems to be the dumbest display of road construction in the world. Construction has been started in every possible place along the route that the government could think of. Only a few of these places have people working on them, the rest are just closed down waiting to be finished. Luckily we have our computer to keep us occupied for 4 hours of the trip. We downloaded a few movies from Noah and decide to watch "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." I figure, Iīm a big Kevin Smith fan, it should lighten the mood a bit. We should have known by the title that watching this movie on a bus where there is no other entertainment and everyone is crammed together was a bad idea. After 2 hours of feeling awkward that everyone on the bus thought Lindsey and I were just enjoying a porn movie we try to get some shut eye before we arrive. The construction results in the bus taking 17 hours rather than 10. Obviously during the ride we were a bit upset but in retrospect just arriving safely is fine by me.
The town of Uyuni is FREEZING! And Lindsey and I, being us, decide to go with the cheapest option in a hostel we could find. Paying the equivalent of US$2 doesn't feel as rewarding when your teeth are chattering throughout the night. The next morning we get up early to start our 3 day tour chowing down on some random fried potato and meat breakfast balls from a local street vendor - probably not a good idea when you are heading out into the wilderness for three days.
We are picked up by our tour guide Milton. A quiet older gentleman that for some odd reason seems to be wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. He says he grew up in the area and has been doing tours for the last 10 years.
We head off to another hostel to pick up the rest of the group. In our full sized jeep we cram together Milton (driver/tour guide/cook), Lindsey and I, Jeremy and Tony (french guys on vacation), and Carol and Kimberly (french girls studying in Brazil down from a break). Other than the fact that the four of them can talk french behind our back without us having any clue what they are saying its a great group. Lots of energy and everybody seems very excited for the trip.
The first stop on our nature wonderland trip ... the train cemetery. Seemed a little odd to us too. When the Bolivian mining industry collapsed in the 40īs due to a lack of minerals (Europeans and Americans had pretty much stripped the country bare of all valuable minerals) the country did not have much use for their trains and instead of recycling them decided to dump them about 4 kms outside of Uyuni unknowingly creating a great tourist destination for the 21st century known ominously as the train cemetery. Old tracks are the resting ground for the nations former mineral transportation system which now sits there collecting rust. There are no tourist fees or tourist police, just sets of old trains rusting away on the edge of the salt flats.
Of course we had to climb them like we were twelve years old. They provided a great picture scene and I have to admit pretending to be a train conductor was extremely amusing.
After about 15 minutes playing on the trains Milton (our tour guide) quickly ushered us back into the 4x4 to make our next destination. Milton had this crazy obsession about his time schedule. He gave us the warning that if we didn't strictly adhere to his schedule that we would miss out on things. For whatever reason he did not include in his schedule "chatting or providing information to tourists" as an event. Nothing is worse than a tour guide who doesn't tell you anything, barely talks with you and wants to maintain his schedule. Luckily for him the sites we were seeing were unbelievable and, although it would have been nice to get more description, didn't really need it.
The next stop on our tour and the final before we make it out to the Salares was the tourist trap ... i mean, salt community of Colchani. With an estimated population of 611 people, the community of Colchani survives off the salt of the salares. They create salt sculptures, glasses, figurines, dice, you name it they can make it. Lindsey and I were astonished. How can you make all these things with salt? What do you have to do to it? The response unfortunately was not as grandiose as we were expecting. "Itīs just salt," "ya but how do you make it?" ... "with salt." Cīmon bolivia give me something to work with here. After buying a souvenir for the one person I know that loves salt more than anything in this world (Unfortunately, Nick, the salt shot glass called it quits in Puerto Madryn, to be honest im surprised it survived that long in my overpacked backpack) we were off to the main attraction ... the salt flats.
The salt flats were exactly what you expected but at the same time nothing you could have imagined. It feels like emptiness surrounding you with a bleached white floor. You could see absolutely nothing for miles to the horizon. The reflection of the sun hurt your eyes but you couldn't help but stare at the nothingness that lay in front of you. It truly was one of those "hoooooollllllllly sh*t" moments that you look for when you travel.
The thing to do at the salt flats, and really the only thing to do, is to take pictures. Since the salt flats are white for miles you can have some fun and with the right angle take some depth perception altering photos. Everyone does this and we had absolutely no problem jumping in on the fun. Actually it wasn't that fun.
the photographer had to lie on the ground and the person being photographed was ordered to move around or stand still ... its actually tiring and a bit boring.
I mean the photos look fantastic, i just didn't think they would be that much work. We unfortunately did not have many props with us. Carol and Kimberly brought along a Godzilla toy and we tried to take a few pics with an orange we had and Lindseyīs monkey grip camera stand. The end result was less than ideal. The shoes pictures I would say were the easiest to get right and the best of the lot. If you are going here, don't forget the props, and make sure that they are large enough to not have to mess with the zoom too much.
In the middle of the salt flat is an "island." I use quotations because when this was actually a massive lake this island was most definitely underwater. Itīs highest point is probably 3 meters from the ground. Itīs a beautiful island though, with massive cactus and a trail leading through to a viewing point where you can stand and see more nothingness. The island is called "Isla del Pescado" (fish island) since supposedly it looks like a fish from the air (its real name is Incahuasi Island but fish island was easier to say). The best part of fish island? having a place to sit and watch the other tour jeeps drive by. Something about watching a car drive on a salt flat is just very entertaining.
We stayed on fish island for lunch that Milton cooked up for us. He doesn't say much but he cooks up a mean piece of meat. He seems to only put his orange inmate jumpsuit when he is out of the car ... thatīs either to keep his clothes clean or to intimidate other tour groups, not really sure which though. Lunch seems to go by too fast and before we know it Milton is corralling us back into the jeep. We head out across the Salar in who knows what direction. There are no roads or signs out here but somehow Miltonīs internal radar tells him where to go. At one point we actually think he fell asleep at the wheel.
No real point in waking him since its impossible to hit anything out here. We make one more stop for pictures before we head for the "coast" and our accommodation for the night, the Salt Hotel.
I don't actually remember the name of the hotel but true to the name I gave it, it is completely made out of salt. Walls, bed frames, carpet, tables, the only thing not made out of salt were the toilets (thank god). Luckily the amount of rain in this area is less than minimal so the chance of a freak storm coming in and cocooning me in my salt bed was pretty low.
That night we ate something delicious that Milton whipped up (used some carpet salt to season it i think), had a few drinks with our new jeep friends, watched a bit of a crazy fire celebration going on in the woods, hiked across a farm in the pitch black and stumbled upon a decaying horse head, Lindsey challenged a small child to a break-dancing competition, and then went to bed. All a pretty normal night in the Salares I think.
In the middle of the night it hit me from out of nowhere. It could have been something I ate or these damn parasites Iīve been trying to get rid of but I have never felt it this bad before. I sprint to the non-salt bathroom and lose my carpet salt dinner in the toilet. The wine from our toasts with new friends gives it all an eerily red tint. Well that was a little strange, i think to myself, never had there been that much force or need to vomit so quickly, Iīll just head to bed and Iīll probably be fine. Stage 2 started about 10 minutes later.
This whole thing might be a little too graphic so Iīll just leave out the details. Basically stage two was with the same force as stage 1 but not out the same passageway (Lindsey really wants me to write "it was coming out both ends"). And stage 2 lasted for about 5 hours. That night I ended up sleeping about 30 minutes, ingesting 5 Immodiums, expelling about half my body weight, and (somehow!) only waking up Lindsey once. If you want to hear how I solved the"i ran out of toilet paper at about 2am" riddle you can ask me in person some day. Needless to say it was one of the worst nights of my life. That morning we were scheduled to leave at about 6:30am and continue our tour. I was able to get up extremely slowly and, completely exhausted, ingest some tea. I was not ready for this day.
After hearing about my night everyone agreed that I should take the front seat. It was extremely nice of them especially since I found out later another one of the guys in our group had similar (but not as severe) problems as well. Milton is relatively unaware of anything and slips on some hit 80īs music mixed in with some random indigenous tunes for us to rock out to.
The 80īs music was a blast to listen to while the indigenous songs reminded us of the sanctity of the nature surrounding us, it was an odd mix of emotions to get your head around. I was more concerned about not getting sick in the car of course to really notice any of this.
This day of the tour is commonly known as the day of driving too much ... at least thats what I would have named it ... not the best day to follow a bad stomach night. You pretty much spend the day driving around the Bolivian countryside hopping from laguna to mountain to laguna.
The minerals, algae and bacteria are different in each laguna which, depending on the mix, will give off a different color; green, turquoise, red, etc.
Our first stop, after about 5 hours of driving, is the Laguna Hedionda known for its abundance of pink flamingos. This time of year most of them migrate a bit north for warmer temperatures but during the summer thousands of them come to this Laguna to mate and feed. The algae found in the lake is perfect for flamingo food and the scenery really cant be beaten. They get their pink color from eating the red algae here. Best flamingo real estate in the world I would say.
Next we took a picture at some rail tracks that headed into Chile. Milton didn't really give us any history just said, these tracks go to Chile. Thanks Milton.
We also went to see the famous seven colored mountain. A mountain that has so many minerals that it looks like seven distinct separate colors are lining it. Itīs a beautiful view especially with the bright blue skies we had for the day.
Right next to it was a meteor crash site. The meteor hit directly into the side of a mountain leaving a huge imprint on its side. Milton again was a bit too silent and unresponsive to our questions so another missed opportunity at history. The Arbol de Piedra didn't really need any history. A big rock that looks like a tree. We took a quick photo of Lindsey reading a book under the tree and stopped for a pee break (ask Lindsey to explain the pee break picture ... love you honey) before we headed off to the biggest attraction of the day, the Laguna Colorado.
The laguna colorado (Red Laguna) is a salt water lake due to red sediments and the pigmentation of some of the algae looks bright red.
Itīs an enormous lake that looks like its out of a horror movie with red still water. At the right time of year there are a lot of flamingos in the area but we saw it with nothing but the deposits of borax dropped around it (the white stuff in the pictures). This region of Bolivia produces an insane amount of borax which goes into producing detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes. So the next time you do laundry you can think of Bolivia. As youīll see from the pictures the lagoon appeared more orange than red, Milton said that was due to the high winds today. Way to go Milton! I knew you would come up with some good facts at some point. It was a beautiful lake on its own though and mostly worth the 8 hour drive in a bumpy jeep while on the verge of being sick again.
That night we stayed in a run down hostel type place inside the national park. It wasn't heated (nothing is in Bolivia) but it had a few of the typical lead weighted blankets. I don't know what they are made out of but the blankets here weigh like 80 lbs and if you aren't careful will suffocate you. I stayed away from the alcohol that night, got in a quick nap before dinner and passed out in a quiet slumber for the rest of the night.
Miltonīs schedule had us getting up at 5am to see the Solar de Menana geyser basin. The sun doesn't rise in Bolivia at this time of year until about 8am. Looking at geysers in the pitch black isn't all that fun. You don't get to see the sky high shooting gas but you do get to smell the sulfur. After about 5 minutes looking at nothing but smelling everything we told Milton it was time to go and we were off to the Thermal springs.
I wouldnīt really recommend stripping down to a bathing suit in Bolivia during the winter but if there was one place you were going to do it its the Termas de Polques hot springs. Perfect hot tub temperature, not too much of a foul smell from the fumes and a beautiful sunrise. A great place to relax and rejuvenate after wayyyy too much time spent in a car that wasn't meant for 7 people. Lindsey and I jump in and refuse Miltonīs calls to leave as long as possible. I want to just tell him he can pick us up on his next tour, I canīt get back in that car, but eventually, the idea of turning into a prune has us too scared and we very quickly dry ourselves off and pile into the car.
On our trip home we have one more visit; the laguna verde. The Laguna Verde (Green Laguna) is known for being a bright turquoise green color due to copper mineral sediments found along the bottom. Itīs located at about 14,000 feet altitude and covered by beautiful scenery of the altiplano. When we arrived we were a little disappointed. I mean this was the big one, the GREEN lagoon. It was more bluish than green. We asked Milton again expecting a shrug off but again he comes up with a gem. "Itīs not windy enough, needs to be more windy to see the green." Two for two Milton, you are killing it. So what ruined it the day before is ruining it again today, the wind, or rather the lack of it. We all stand around looking at the little too blue lagoon willing the wind to pick up.
And almost on command it does just that. Before our eyes the lagoon starts becoming more and more green. Its a spectacular show accompanied by Milton honking the horn to get in the car so we can continue our trip. Not this time my friend, we are watching this. The lagoon finally gives us a glimpse of why it is so popular turning its special shade of green. Milton finally pulls us into the car and we are off for home!
On the way we stop at a rock park directly out of a Dr Seuss book where I almost fall and kill myself (you know when you are climbing down something and think the ground below your feet is like 10 feet away but its actually about 6 inches away, ya that was me. I let go of my grip thinking i was about to fall 10 feet only to drop 6 inches and look like a big baby, not one of my proudest moments), we stop for lunch at an alpaca breeding area (you need to watch the video of Lindsey trying to sneak up on the alpaca, hysterical),
and drove for about 8 hours straight. It was one of the most exhausting but rewarding tours of our trip. We saw some absolutely beautiful things that you canīt see anywhere in the world. It would have been nice to do that without having to deal with severe stomach problems but nothing is perfect. Bolivia was proving to be a hidden gem to our trip that had much more to offer than we expected.