Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.
From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.
We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…
There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.
We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.
We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.
The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.
First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.
From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.
From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.
Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.
We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.
The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!
From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.
The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.
We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.
Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery