Passage Note #72 - Part II: Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia's Salt Flats
The unique Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest Salt Flats, is to Bolivia what Machu Picchu is to Peru - it is the highlight of anyone’s trip to Bolivia. This surreal and otherworldly landscape is a photographer’s delight. In the dry season, there is unending white vastness.
The sheer expanse of blinding white creates an usual perspective that is captured in odd-ball photos.......part of every tourist's visit. We were not the exception.
In the wet season, the salt surface is covered with a thin layer of water creating a magical reflective mirror-like backdrop with a disappearing horizon. Wish we had seen it like that!
The remains of several prehistoric lakes that once covered southwestern Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni is 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) in area - about 100 times the size of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. Part of the Altiplano (high Andean plateau) the Salt Flats sit at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The solid white crust, several meters thick, is mined for its salt and covers a pool of brine; half the world's known lithium reserves (an important alkali metal used in batteries) are located here.
There are two kinds of diverse sites to see when you visit the Salt Flats and Southwest Bolivia:
(1) Natural: colorful flamingo-filled lakes (red, green, sky-blue, yellow, white, black), water holes called Eyes of the Salt (Ojos del Salar), geysers and hot springs, badlands, caves (Galaxia Cave), sculptural rock formations eroded by the wind, “islands” in the whiteness covered with tall and ancient cacti (Isla Incahuasi), petrified coral reefs, smoking volcanoes, unique desertscapes (Salvador Dali Desert)................
.........and......(2) Man-made: pre-Incan burial grounds, a train cemetery, hotels built of salt, salt piles drying in the sun for harvest by the miners of the town of Colchani, quinoa fields, and an abandoned 16th century silver mining town.
Organizing The Tour
Standard tours of the Salt Flats begin in the towns of either Uyuni or Tupiza and are a three or four day excursion by 4x4 Totota Landcruiser, accompanied by a guide and a cook. The ending point can be either of these two towns or on the Chilean border. Usually there are six people in a tour at a reasonable price (starting at $160 per person). There are hundreds of tour operators to choose from but several have cautionary feedback from travelers who had nasty stories about flat tires, dilapidated vehicles, and drunk drivers. Friends of ours who had booked a 3 day tour told of their departure from Uyuni with a bubble in one of their tires - as you can imagine, the problems only got worse from there. They declared that all tours are basically the same with not much difference in the operator you choose. We disagree and did quite a bit of homework to analyze our options for the best trip we could organize.
In the end, we decided to go to Tupiza for a four day Salar tour and choose a company once we got there. We took a 3 1/2 hour bus from La Paz to Oruru, famous for its outstanding carnival, stayed 2 nights, and caught a train connection south to Tupiza. The train was touted as being much more comfortable than the unpaved bus roads from here so we were quite surprised at how uncomfortable the train was - very shaky on its narrow gauge tracks; we rocked and rolled for 10 hours overnight.
Tupiza sits in the badlands where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their fate, having chosen the wrong Bolivian to rob. As a “cowboy”/mining town, not much happens here but being there for “Day of the Dead” was an interesting experience; we hung out at the cemetery on Nov. 1 to watch the local traditions of honoring dead ancestors amidst decorated gravesites and a fair-like atmosphere outside the gates, with flower sellers, slabs of meat grilling on open fires (asados) and tables full of families lining the dusty path to the burial ground.
Once in Tupiza we interviewed a few companies and chose La Torre Tours, a family run operator, for a customized 4 day tour ending in Uyuni (see Trip Report for details). The manager, Roberto O., was an affable young man and helped us map out just the trip we wanted, including a few off-the-beaten-path sites and accommodations in more upscale hotels for two of the three nights; the first night was in a standard “basic” accommodation with dorm rooms, shared bathrooms for 18 people, no heat or hot water (and the nights are bitter COLD), and limited electricity.
The Tayka Desert Hotel was in a spectacularly remote desert setting; on our third and last night, we stayed at the Luna Salada Hotel on the edge of the salt flats - one of the famous salt hotels where almost everything is made from salt bricks - walls, ceilings, furniture, floor, stairs, etc.
It would be just the two of us and we decided our spanish was adequate enough to dispense with the additional cost of an english speaking guide. It was comparatively expensive ($600 per person) but we got the private tour we wanted and had no glitches or problems along the way. La Torre Tours was the right choice for us!
Our guide, Roberto G, was fantastic as was our cholita cook, Modesta (who whipped up some great meals from the back of the car). They shepherded and looked after us for four days with smiles, laughter, friendship and good humor. We were impressed with how Roberto was so attentive to the car, checking it and making sure everything was in good working order every step of the way. Modesta taught Linda some Quechua phrases and words which became a hit with the other cooks and drivers we met. They would come over to her just to hear her say “Hello, how are you?” and make bogus conversation..... because no matter what they asked, Linda's answer would be “Arí” (“yes”). Their response was great hilarity and belly laughs, especially from proud tutor Modesta.
We departed on a brilliant sunny morning for our four day Salar adventure. “Haku”!!! (Quechua for “let’s go!”)