5 January 2014
The salt flats were quite an experience - but like many things in South America, not quite what we expected.
We checked into our Uyuni hostel quite late last night, close to 1am. Uyuni is the base from which all salt flats tours take place. On its own Uyuni isn’t the most interesting place, it’s a small town with a small square and lots of touts and tour operators. People try to get on a tour as soon as possible and get out. For much of the 20th century though, Uyuni was a rail and communication hub for Bolivia.
We hadn’t booked a salt flat tour before our arrival, so the first hour of our morning was madly dashing about trying to ascertain which company had four spots available - as one of the girls from our Potosi mine tour has joined our numbers. After a few dramatic dashes across the squares, we managed to get onto a tour with Andrea tours which comes recommended by Lonely Planet and only cost 950 Boliviano for the whole trip, around $150AUD inclusive of all meals etc.
It is a small tour group with just the four of us, one German girl and one American guy (working in Liberia - which I think is awesome). Our driver Blas doesn’t speak any English (a point of contention with the tour agency) but seems like a nice enough guy. As most of the reviews online say - the English speaking part isn’t so important, far more so if the driver doesn’t drink and drive!
Our first two stops were the train cemetery and a small souvenir market next to a quasi-museum with a large statue of a llama. The souvenir market had quite a few knick-knacks made from Uyuni but no one in our group bought anything so we were happy to be off on our way to the main event.
When we booked our tour, they did warn us that there was going to be a little bit of water on the salt flats, but that did not prepare us for the lake that stretched out forever towards the horizon. The Salar de Uyuni is the highest and largest salt lake in the world at about 12,000 square kilometres, but thanks to the rainy season it was covered by at least 3 inches of water all around - turning it into a real ‘lake’!
I had seen many photos of the salt flats prior to my arrival, white salt and pure blue skies, but the water definitely gave it a different kind of beauty. The endless blue skies and white cloud tuffs were reflected in the water and created a mirage-like experience. Behind us dark black clouds lingered on the fringes of the blue skies and created their own image sandwiches with the water.
The water made it difficult to take the awesome perspective photos that everyone brings home from Bolivia. When we took our first steps into the salt ‘lake’, our driver jokingly told that us that the water would be warm - far from it - but we got used to it, and it was quite amusing to trample up and down the flats, sloshing about like a bunch of kindergardeners. Definitely not the experience that most people get to have on the flats.
Our group’s perseverance paid off after a few tries and a bit of renewed imagination after an initial disappointment. We managed to get a great bunch of photos with emerging out of a shoe, diving off a block of salt, jumping, holding each other etc. We had some great laughs about our failed attempts and got into the car with our wet shoe and feet feeling far more rewarded than when we first arrived.
We ate lunch out of the back of our 4x4, a great mix of salad, pork chops and vegetarian parmas (since some of us had requested vegetarian food to get away from the meat fest that is Bolivia). And we did have a good laugh when the driver asked if chicken was OK with all of the ‘vegetarians’ for dinner. I was very grateful at that moment that I wasn’t a ‘real’ vegetarian! The lunch rest spot will be on the Dakar route next week, so there was a huge sign saying “Dakar Bolivia 2014” erected from stone and a bunch of national flags staked into the ground.
This was probably the most touristy location we have been so far in South America - not counting Machu Picchu. It was back to that old struggle of trying to get an angle which did not include 100 other tourists. Given the size of the flats, that wasn’t too difficult, but there are definitely a few shots that I will need to take a bit of photoshopping to!
On the way to our accommodation in San Juan (more than 4 hours by car away), we took some more great pictures of the watery salt flats. Every scene had so much potential to be a stunning photo - every mountain, cloud, rock, even discarded tyres from previous tours. This first part of the drive was completely in water. Sitting in the front seat, as I dozed in and out of the sun, I could feel the rise and fall of the water levels, but they did not subside much until we reached a short land bridge almost 3 hours later. So we did on not see a single bit of dry salt today at all, except for maybe the coating on our pringle chips!
The final hour was through a windy, bumpy road which took us through some mountains but also across rocky plains - which at times looked barren, but then at other times contained small quinoa fields. As we got closer to San Juan, we also got closer to the lightning we had been seeing for hours, making us wonder if there was going to be a bigger downpour tonight.
After being turned away by the first two hostels we reached in San Juan, we settled into a coy salt hostel, meaning that the walls are constructed by salt bricks. Our room for 3 girls has a sandy floor and all of the furniture (beds included) are based around salt bricks. It is quite novel and seems to hold the heat in well enough.
After our dinner of (guess what!) soup, fried chicken and chips, most of our group has gone to bed, but the other tour group (all Spanish speaking it seems) are still chilling out in the common area. This is rather ironic given that they are having breakfast at 5am and we are two hours later than them. But I am quite content to tap away on my tablet and finish a movie that I’ve been meaning to for a few days now. It’s amazing how fatiguing it can be to sit in a warm car for half a day, but this relaxed itinerary suits me just fine after moving three cities in the last 2 days alone.
Wonder if I will dream of swimming in a salty lake tonight?