Written by Lynn
The Bolivian Salt Flats (aka. Salar de Uyuni) are the biggest in the world. At a staggering 10,500 square kilometres they are approximately 25 times the size of the more well known Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (see the movie, The World's Fastest Indian, if you've never heard of these ones). They contain about 10 billion tons of salt, in some spots 10 metres deep, of which 25,000 tons are extracted annually. The local townspeople will even cut blocks of salt to use as bricks in making their homes, or carve tables and chairs from them.
Right on the edges of this amazing vista the landscape makes a sudden and dramatic change, as it is ringed by chains of volcanoes and colourful, briny lakes. At times, groups of wind carved rocks reminiscent of a Star Wars landscape burst out of from behind massive sand dunes. Because of its bizarre and varied landscape it also happens to be a must see on the Bolivian tourist trail.
The first challenge is to get yourself to Uyuni, a small dustbowl of a town on the edge of the salt flats surrounded by a lot of nothing. It's a 6 hour bus ride on yet another incredibly bumpy road, only difference being that during Christmas and New Year's there is even more travel than normal, which means not only are all the seats sold out the day before, but there is standing room only in the aisles. If you've never driven 6 hours with an old man using your shoulder as a stool, you really should try it. It suddenly makes you appreciate the Toronto subway.
In Uyuni it is possible to arrange to take a tour of the salt flats that last anywhere from 1 to 6 days, even longer if you wish. We were lucky enough to be able to hook up with some friends we met while touring Los Llanos in Venezuela. Daniel and Kay, from England, happened to be travelling in the same general direction as us, though we missed them by less than a day in Cusco. Since there were 4 for us we were able to modify our tour a little, though we had a pay a bit of a premium price for it. First we asked that they limit our group to the 4 of us. Not because we're antisocial, but because most tours will try to stuff 6 or 7 tourists in a Land Rover, not fun for 4 days on a bumpy road. Next we asked that we detour off the normal gringo trail to visit the Mirador Volcano, where we wanted to do an easy 2 hour trek up to a look out point over both the salt flats and the now dead volcano. As an added bonus we found out that along the way we were going to get to see some mummies found in the local hills.
The next day at a very civilized hour of 10:30 we headed out on our tour. The four days are jam packed with one after another awe inspiring sites. I don't think we drove more than 2-3 hours at any time without seeing something different and, at times, very freaky. Our first stop was the Uyuni train cemetary. Piles and piles of rusted metal litter the abandoned tracks here. Having never seen a real steam engine up close before, it was quite an interesting half hour spent climbing in and out of all the trains.
After an hour on the dusty roads we reached the very edges of the salt flats and were already amazed. As far as the eye could see stretched an endless sea of blindingly white salt. It was a challenge for us to convince ourselves we hadn't been dropped off in Iqualuit on the edge of the frozen ocean, though the fact we were wearing shorts and t-shirts really helped. Amazingly, because the flats are so extensive it creates an optical illusion that eliminates all depth perception (notice me holding up Gilles and Daniel in minuature).
We made a few stops right along the edges of the salt flats. Once was to see a salt processing factory, where the local women, assisted by their children (sort of, the kids spent a lot more time building salt castles than helping), bag the fire dried salt to sell at the local market for 8 bolivianos ($1US) per kilogram. We also went to see the infamous Salt Hotel, which no longer is allowed to rent out accomodations because of thier inability to handle all the waste created. We stopped to dig salt crystals out from pockets where the salt continues to bubble through to the surface. The flats are actually the remnants of a 40,000 year old ocean, and underneath the surprisingly thick crust there still remains an unknown depth of water that continually renews the salt that is harvested. Salt crystals form on the bottom of this crust, probably because of electrical currents when there are lightning strikes on the flats (amazing electrical storms out here!). After this we headed to the northern edge of the salt plains where we were being put up in a local village just below the Mirador Volacano. Right along the edges of the salt plains water was collecting, creating an enormous mirror that reflected everything with crystal clarity. Sunset and sunrise were both unbelievable as a result.
The next day we started our trek up to the overlook by the volcano. We climbed up approximately 1000m, topping out at 4300m, with lots of rest stops on the way. The first was to view some mummies. There was a family of 4, including 2 children, who were found in the cave we went into. They had apparently died there of either exposure or starvation, likely in a period about 100BC. The cave was then expanded and used to house 3 other mummies along with these ones. The new mummies were buried in a traditional fetal position, the ligaments of their legs having to be severed to allow for it.
After lunch it was onwards to the Isla Pescado (or fish island; a bit of a misnomer for a chunk of land covered by cacti in the middle of an enormous pile of salt, but apparently from above it looks like one?!). This might be my worst possible nightmare of a island to be deserted on. There is nothing but dead coral making up a rocky landscape covered by cacti, some as tall as 8metres. The only upside is the fact that I got to try cactus fruit, which is delicious!
On day 3 we spend hours travelling across high altitude deserts, seeing active volcanoes from a safe distance and a variety of lakes that are a haven for flamingoes. There are apparently 3 different types of flamingoes that make this area their home (the Andean, James and Chilean), feeding off the algae rich waters. In addition to the flamingoes we were also lucky enough to see an indigenous fox, several types of ducks and other waterfowl, wild llamas and the elusive vicuna (though this one was obviously not that elusive as it was standing at the gas station begging for cookies). There was also a wide variety of plants not seen anywhere else. The most interesting of these was the yareta, that looks like a big green brain. It only grows at 3500 - 4000 metres and is used as a source of fuel by the locals. We also saw several very interesting rock formations created by centuries of blowing sand, including the Arbol de Piedra (or ¨tree rock¨).
This worked out to be New Year´s eve, spent on the edges of Laguna Colorado. All sounds lovely, except that we had to be up at 4AM the next day, so we celebrated the UK New Year´s Eve (happened at 9pm Bolivian time) and were off to bed.
At 4AM in the middle of nowhere Bolivia, the stars are amazing and the big dipper is upside down (surprised me for some reason). We loaded up the truck so we could make it up the mountain, topping out at 6000m this time, in order to catch the sun rise by the Sol de Manana geysers, an awe inspiring example of the earth´s crust being unable to contain the power of the magma beneath it. After this we drove to the hot springs and had a quick swim before breakfast.
After this it is a VERY long day getting back to Uyuni, thank god there were only 4 of us in the truck so we could sleep comfortably. All in all it was likely one of the most impressive tours I´ve ever taken, and completely unexpected what we saw. Bolivia - it´s cheap, it´s amazing, it´s worth the trip!!