The Uyuni salt flats are a much-anticipated highlight of our trip. It’s a very unique spot on our planet and the internet has piles and piles of silly pictures from tourists: out there, in the sea of white.
We want to see what this is all about.
Stomping off the bus in Uyuni, shaking off a small cloud of dust from the mines, we’re immediately approached by a woman encouraging us to take her tour of the salt flats. Starting tomorrow. Normally, we give an unconditional NO to this type of approach because it just feels like a scam, but this woman is gracefully addressing all of the concerns raised in our guidebook. She lists all the sites we’ll see, shows us that we’ve got a good SUV, explains that our driver never drinks or drives too fast. With all those boxes ticked, plus her closing move of offering us a free hostel that night, we can’t refuse. Sold. We hand her the cash and then step out of her car.
It felt a bit like a drug deal.
The town of Uyuni is in a red and dusty plane. Hot during the day and cold at night. A dry desert town with a small grid of one-story houses, some simple street markets, and loads of tourists from all over the world who have come here to visit the salt flats just a few kilometers away. Also, they’re very proud to be a part of the 2015 Paris-Dakar race.
After a good night’s sleep, we wait for the SUV to pick us up. It’s late.
Just as we’re starting to suspect they’ve taken off with our money, it finally pulls up to the hostel. We’re seven people in total: the guide, a colombian girl, a swiss guy (Benjamin), a french couple (Damien and Priscille) and us (your favorites).
First stop is the train graveyard just outside of Uyuni. We immediately realize this is going to be the most touristy thing we’ve done. Lots of SUVs unloading lots of people trying to take lots of cool pictures. Oh well, here we go!
Next stop is a small village that has a street lined with gift shops and a tiny, extraordinarily uninteresting museum.
Not impressed, we buy an ashtray made of salt and try our best to drown out the obnoxious tourist conversations with the cuteness of a kitten.
From here we hop over to a location on the edge of the salt flat where they pile the salt up to dry it out before they haul it off. We join the other tourists in taking some amazing pictures.
Finally, we drive out into the middle of the salt flat.
Wow. Awesome pictures. But what is the salt flat made of, really?
Thank you, we’re artists. And that is an excellent question.
The term ‘salt’ is a bit of a loose term. This is not something you should put on your food – even though we wanted to, because our driver didn’t provide any salt with lunch. Wtf.
The salt is made of sodium, lithium, magnesium, potassium – all in chloride form. There is a top layer of four meters of salt on top of one meter of water, then two more meters of salt, then a mix of water and sand. The salt is self regenerating through a process of evaporation, and this evaporation is what creates the hexagonal pattern on its surface.
Commercially, it’s important to recognize that this is where about 40% of earth’s lithium is located. Enough to build a giant battery to power a spaceship that we could live on for ten generations, I think.
It’s now early afternoon and we’re already arriving at our hotel for the night. The good news is that it’s located at the base of a giant volcano. The bad news is that you need at least six hours to climb to the top of the thing. It will probably be dark then. Too much time to kill, but not enough time to summit.
Nonetheless, we set out on the trail to see how far we can go. Might as well, as there is absolutely nothing else to do!
Thankfully, we find a puppy along the way and the sky turns into a colorful light show. I decide to hike up as fast as I can with the remaining light. Léa and a few others hang back and manage to get a local ranger to open up a small cave with baby mummies.
A strange evening. Darkness sets in, and we reconvene at the hotel. We sit down at our dinner table for six, and realize that each of the other tables has a guide going over tomorrow’s plans. They’re being served decent food.
We’re alone. Soggy pasta with two mushrooms per person. We begin to doubt the quality of our tour.
Having not made it up on day one, Benjamin and I decide to try to summit the next morning, which means leaving at 3am to be back in time for our midday drive back out onto the salt flats.
The alarm goes off, and I put on many layers of clothes before Benjamin and I head off into the cool night air. The stars are incredibly bright.
The puppy finds us again, but this time is smart enough to hang behind. He leaves us with a slight whimper. We continue the ascent.
We are about halfway up when the sun rises, casting an orange glow on the already colorful volcano.
We are hiking fast. The last section is a giant mound of loose rocks and a trail that slithers up its steep incline. We’re now over 4500m, so we’re taking five steps and stopping to catch our breath, over and over.
We happily reach the top, and we’re over 5000m, high above the salt flats below.
Looking out onto the salt flat from this height, it is tough to comprehend. I keep thinking it’s the ocean, until I see a car driving across its surface, and the illusion is undone. Amazing views in all directions.
As we begin the descent, we realize we can actually surf down the mountain by jumping on the steep, loose rocks and riding the ensuing mini-landslide. We make it down fast.
Back at the hotel we entertain ourselves with baby ostriches while we wait for The Guide to pick us up. He finally shows up, two hours late.
Our group is reshuffled for the remaining three days: we are now with the french couple and two argentinian girls (Raquel and Graziella).
The new arrivals quickly catch on that our guide does very little beyond driving, and so our group of six unites quickly under the frustration of having to constantly ask questions for even the most basic information of what we’re doing and seeing.
No matter. The scenery is mind-blowing, so we’re having a good time.
First stop is an island out in the middle of the flats, covered in giant cacti.
Following this we leave the salt flats to explore the surrounding area. Next stop is the Valle de las Piedras. With a smoking volcano in the background.
Then a lake with flamingos.
Then another area of giant boulders, great for climbing!
Next a huge red lake, with tons of flamingos.
OK. Now it feels like our tour has taken off. It was like exploring another planet. Long drives between the locations through absolute nothingness which still somehow sustains life.
Our second night is spent at a hotel made of salt. Now, I have to admit this sounds cooler than it is. Bricks of salt are not that different from bricks of adobe. They’re sort of brown. But the place is much nicer than our hotel from day one. Dinner is better as well. Still, The Guide is doing the minimum. We invite him over to have some wine to see if we can warm him up a bit so that he might actually talk to us. He thanks us, and then finishes his glass in two quick gulps and says he’ll see us tomorrow.
We officially dislike him now.
The next morning we wake up at 4am to see a field of geysers, and they’re really impressive. Loud. Hot. Smelly. Surrounded by boiling and bubbling mud of many colors. I’ve never seen anything like it. It feels a bit like a joke, but also dangerous. And, of course, our muse strikes again, inspiring the following artwork.
The next stop is supposed to be hot springs, but there are so many people that it loses its appeal. We skip it.
As we continue our drive, The Guide directs our attention to the /i/ Desierto de Dalí a few kilometers to our left where there are several oddly shaped boulders emerging from a sandy plane. Considering we skipped the hot springs, our group asks him to use this time to take us over there. He refuses, giving us a convoluted explanation that nobody listens to.
Fed up, the group demands we stop the car to hike over to the rocks. I hang back.
It takes them a long time to check out the rocks and return. When they arrive this is when The Guide decides to let us know for the first time that our day ends at 10am at the chilean border, and due to the hike everyone just took we’ll have to skip the green lake we were going to see on the way.
Damien loses it. “This is bullshit!” he exclaims, showing The Guide our map of promised attractions and then throwing it at the dashboard out of frustration.
An awkward silence fills the car as we start to see the green lake pass by a few kilometers to the right of our SUV.
Suddenly, The Guide stops so we can get out to take pictures. We see the other cars off in the distance pulling right up to the lake. We sigh. We take our pictures. We get back in the car. And we drive to the border in silence.
The Guide did not ruin our experience of the salt flats. That area is one of the most amazing places I’ve been. And as I gaze upon the awesome pictures we took, each of them frighteningly unique, the memories of our journey pour into my mind and shine so brightly that I cannot even remember his name.
Categories: Posts in English