I hop down from our 4×4 and hear the slight crunch of salt particles under my boots. After being stuck in the car for a few hours, I immediately reach down to work the cramps out of my legs. As I touch my toes, I can’t help but notice the geometric designs the salt re-organizes itself in after every rainfall.
I stand up and scan the horizon. In the distance I spot a few small mountains rising up from the vast, white expanse. The sun is beginning to dip down behind the mountains and its last red rays reflect off the salt particles spread as far as the eye can see.
I feel so very small.
Visiting Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is one of our most precious memories from our year in Latin America. After spending a few days in La Paz, only a short ride from Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border, we took a night bus to the town of Uyuni in southern Bolivia. There’s not much in the town, but it’s definitely the place to start a tour of the salt flat. Bleary-eyed and caffeine-deprived, we bundled up against the pre-dawn cold and started asking eager local guides about tour prices. As per usual, we were quoted some ridiculous prices when I asked, and much more reasonable ones when Andrea did the talking.
We decided to get some food in our bellies before spending some serious time shopping around for the best deal. We shuffled into a heated, Wifi-enabled breakfast place also harboring a number of other tourists. Over our instant coffee and white bread, we met other travelers and compared expected budgets. Eventually, we pulled together a group of 2 German girls, 1 British guy, and 2 Bolivian-Italians. Andrea worked her bargaining magic with a reasonable tour agency and we ended up paying 600 bolivianos (about $87 USD) each for a 3-day, 2-night, all-inclusive tour of the salt flat. Not bad at all!
- Pro Tip: Whether it’s more widgets or more people, you’ll always get a better deal if you can bring more volume to the bargaining table.
An hour or two later, we got into the 4X4 with our new friends and set off for a train graveyard, only a few kilometers outside the town. Our guide explained that the trains used to transport minerals to and from Antofagasta, Chile, but were left there in the 1940’s when the local mining industry dried up. Due to the harsh desert air and all the salt, the trains have been deteriorating pretty quickly. In any case, it makes for an incredible jungle gym. We both let our inner children loose and had a blast climbing around. More photos here.
Before I knew it, it was time to get back in the car. Later that day, we also visited a massive monument to the Dakar Rally, had lunch in a restaurant built entirely out of salt, and took tons of strange perspective photos out in the salt flat.
Stuck in the Desert
We spent the night in a salt hotel and woke up early the next day because we had a lot of ground to cover. We were driving through the desert caravan-style with another tour group when our driver suddenly got a phone call from the other driver.
All of us tourists were jamming out to the radio when his smile fades away. He scanned the horizon, muttered into the phone, and then hung up.
He put both hands on the wheel.
He suddenly sped up. We turned down the music. The 4X4 started to skid a bit. We all quieted down and started to look back at the other car. We continued to skid, but pulled through back onto solid ground. The third or four time we skidded, the 4X4 didn’t find any more traction. Instead, we felt the car sink into the mud.
Oops. We got out to survey the situation. The first thing I noticed is that when I tried to step out of the car, I didn’t have to step down at all. We were in that deep.
We spent the next few hours baking under the hot Bolivian sun. There were no shovels, so we just peeled off the salty mud caked onto the wheels by hand. It took several attempts, but we huffed and we puffed. We got the jeep out of the mud and continued on our merry way.
A Sunrise to Remember
Our group was in a great mood after successfully getting the jeep out and we had a great rest of the day. Our driver was much more careful with our routes and we took our time seeing the sights.
The next morning, we woke up hours before dawn and piled into our trusty 4X4 for one final day of adventure. I’ll admit I wasn’t at my most enthusiastic that morning when I rolled out of bed, but when we arrived at our first site, I changed my tune.
I have to admit, sometimes when I visit a tourist site, I just pull out my camera, take my shots, and move on. It’s hard to process where you are, to appreciate the history, the beauty, and the context all the time. Some days you’re hungry, some days you’re tired, and sometimes you just want to take a nap, but there are also times where all that fades away and you zone into where you are. Sometimes the situation grabs you.
I don’t know if it was me being sleepy, the vapor, or the emptiness of the place, but as soon as the 4X4 stopped, I hopped out and ran towards the sunrise. I was taken aback by the strong sulfur smell, but continued on anyway. I picked my way through pools of stinky, boiling water and wandered through the mist.
As the sun rose, I was filled with a simple, unqualified joy. I didn’t know what caused the steam to rise from the ground, where I was, or how much time we had there, but none of it mattered. I just took it all in. I inhaled, exhaled, and said thank you for the day, for the chance to be there, and to be alive.