The Salt Flats

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Adam and I have been excited about visiting the Salar de Uyuni since day 1 of our trip. Uyuni: home of the largest salt flats on Earth, where tourists love to take crazy photos of themselves in odd positions! Plus, we’d get to check off another world wonder at the same time. Glorious!  We had been writing a list, and collecting props, for our designated hour of photo taking for months now, and it was finally time to put our work into action!

 

The town of Uyuni is nothing special… And that may be giving it credit. It’s a couple blocks of dusty streets in the middle of a desert. The restaurants in town try to cater to every backpacker craving at once.  There were Italian restaurants boasting about their Mexican tacos and their wide selection of traditional Bolivian cuisine: pizzas, fried chicken, American breakfasts, pastas, and burritos, all served at the same tiny hole in the wall. And yet, after 3 days off-roading around the Bolivian countryside, Uyuni was the most appealing town we saw.

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Our tour began at 10am the morning after we arrived. We had a wonderful group of 6, from Brazil, Australia and Canada who got along famously. We all piled into our little 4X4, bags strapped to the roof, and headed out into the desert! 
Our first stop was the train cemetery. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pile of old trains, rusted and no longer in use, stranded in the middle of the desert. The trains were originally British built and used to export minerals to the coast. The Bolivian government supported the railway, but the Indigenous people saw it as an intrusion on their lives and kept sabotaging the tracks. Eventually, the mining industry collapsed, and the trains were left to rust during the 1940’s. At first I didn’t realize why we had a whole 15 minutes to take photos of unused trains, until it became apparent that “train cemetery” is synonymous with “awesome adult playground”. We climbed the trains, got in the conductor’s booth, tried to lift all the heavy parts (read: Adam did) and lay down on the tracks like a damsel in distress (read: I did). 15 minutes and a whole bunch of fun photos later, we knew this was going to be a great tour.  So off to the salt flats we went.

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Driving towards the salt flats looks like you’re driving towards the edge of the sea. You can see it coming from kilometers away; it’s bright white colour reflecting the sky, making it look just like the ocean. The mountains on the other side of the Salar seem to hover in the sky. There is a strange gap between the ground and the base that make them appear as floating islands. Very surreal, and very beautiful. 
Originally we believed the salt flats were the result of a giant, salt-water lake evaporating… Turns out we were wrong. The flats are made from several prehistoric lakes, combining into layers of water and salt crust. The salt crust is anywhere between 10 centimeters and a few meters thick. Underneath the salt crust is a lake! The briny water ranges between 2 and 20 meters deep. There were even a couple breaks in the salt crust, that looked like ice holes for fishing, where you could clearly see the water beneath. The flats stretch for 10,582 square kilometers, making them BY FAR the largest in the world. They make up 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, and much of it is used for human consumption as well.

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Our driver set us loose to take photos while he cooked us a meal in the back of the 4X4. The 6 of us collaborated our ideas and took a plethora of silly photos. 
When lunch and photos were over, it was time to make the 3 hour drive to Chuvica village to spend the night.

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We sped over dirt roads, kicking up loads of dust behind us until we reached the village. The place was deserted. It was a tiny ghost town, in the middle of a brown desert, with only a couple little places for us tourists to stay. It was freezing cold as the sun dropped behind the mountains, and although there was a spectacular sunset, that was the only thing to see or do for the evening. We sat around our little table with hot tea and cookies and chatted until dinner. When dinner arrived we realized we were part of the reject group. We drooled at the hot plates and bottles of wine that arrived at the next table over. Breakfast was the same thing. Cakes, cereal, juice, yogurt, anything you could want, was all laid out on the table next to us… A crushing realization at 6:45 in the morning. But our makeshift runny egg sandwiches were definitely a delight!! And we shamelessly “borrowed” the remaining yogurt and fruit loops after our rival group departed. Class act!

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Day two was full of crazy sites and loads of driving. We set out on the road at 7:30 sharp, and continued into the icy morning. We had an uprising and commandeered the iPod dock from the driver. His choice of Latin pop music on day 1, was less than ideal to the six of us, so Raf plugged in his tunes and we trucked along to ACDC, Metallica and other, more appealing, road-trip artists. The rare bits of desert vegetation had long but passed by this point, and we didn’t see plant life again for 2 whole days. We treacherously drove over rocky paths, engulfed within a landscape that could have been on the moon! Rich, reddish-brown earth, sweeping hills that looked like they were painted in the distance, snow capped mountains and rocky valleys. This place had it all! Except plant life of course.

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We first stopped in the valley of the rocks, where we spent another 15 minutes scrambling around the strange rock formations. Although none of us were really sure what caused these rocks to look so unique (much like the hoodoos of Alberta but less windswept and more jagged) we threw out theories like “glaciers!” and “wind!” like we had a clue. Our driver appeared to be much happier with his title of “driver” than that of “tour guide”. He didn’t speak English, but never explained anything in Spanish either, which left us to either speculate, or rely on the pre-downloaded Wikipedia pages that Mark and Oli provided.

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From there we cruised along to a few lagoons. To be honest, most of their names meld into one. Apart from the Laguna Verde, Blanca and Roja (which were Green, White and Red, respectively) the other names meant nothing to me. However, that didn’t stop each lagoon from being more spectacular than the last. The first one we came upon was a serene blue colour, with ice-capped mountains in the background. In fact, we were at such an altitude by that point, that even the lagoon itself had a thin crust of ice around the edge. The strangest thing about these freezing, high altitude lakes, were the myriad of flamingos that flocked around them! I’m standing there in 8 layers of clothing, kicking at ice, in the middle of a desert and listening to the unusual trills of the cooing flamingos! To me, flamingos belong in hot, tropical places; but here, they splash around in the icy water like it’s the greatest place on Earth! There are three different species of flamingos in the region: The Andean Flamingos (a grayer version), the Chilean Flamingo, and the rarer James Flamingo (which are the brightest pink). All of these types flocked around each of the lagoons we saw during the trip, and their strange cooing sounds could be heard across the valleys.

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From our first lagoon, we continued through the Siloli Desert, otherwise referred to as the desert of Salvador Dali. Dali’s surrealist paintings of desert scenes almost directly reflect the landscape of the Siloli Desert. At first I didn’t think much when our driver stopped on the side of the road for pictures, but as soon as he said the name Dali, I immediately understood. For a second you could even picture the bizarre, long-legged animals from his paintings just cruising across the horizon. The place really is spectacular!

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After we ate lunch out of the back of the van, we stopped at a place called “El Arbol de Piedra” or “the Stone Tree”. The only type of tree we’d seen in days, and it was made out of stone. It sat there, strange and seemingly out of place in the middle of the desert, but looked remarkably like a big, bushy tree. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t fallen over! A tiny base, expanding out into makeshift branches and foliage, the stone tree must be about 6m high! 
It was a quick stopover at the stone tree, then we continued to our final sight for the day: the red lagoon.

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No one was joking about the name; the red lagoon is a deep reddish-orange colour and stretches on for kilometers! (again, fully inhabited by trilling flamingos). Apparently the colour is caused by a copper sulfate that is found in the water. Once again, very little “touristic” information given on the lagoon. I believe there was something to do with Algae as well, but as I decided to procrastinate writing this blog, I have forgotten the details.  
Nevertheless, it was a short drive from the red lagoon to our overnight destination, Huayllajara. A town, much like the first, that had absolutely nothing to do. Although this one did have a place to buy cans of beer, it apparently traded that luxury for its ability to provide electricity. So we drank beer in the diminishing light until 6:30, when finally, the dim hall lights turned on for 3 hours while we ate dinner, and called it an early night for bed. Which was fine with us, as our wake up time was quarter to 5 in the morning.

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Let me tell you, quarter to five came too early after a sleepless night for us all. The dry climate and 4500ish meter altitude kept us all unable to breathe properly through the night. But we dragged our asses out of bed, early enough to still see the night sky all lit up with stars, and drove off into the darkness. First stop: the Geysers. At almost 5000m, the natural geysers and clay mud pots in the Sol de Mañana volcano were pretty neat. The sunlight was just getting ready to peak over the mountain, but the giant vents of steam that shot out of the ground were clearly visible, even before sunrise. Once again, no safety standards. Big surprise. Please feel free to walk through the dark, along the slippery mud, right up to the edge of the lava filled hole with shooting steam, all you’d like! You could clearly hear the sucking and sloshing, of what I’m assuming was lava, below: although I was confused that there was no heat, or red glow, like the lava that can be seen in other volcanoes. In fact, it was freezing out! There was no heat whatsoever. I immediately regretted wearing flip-flops and it didn’t take long before I jumped back into the jeep, shivering.

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We watched the sunrise while we drove through the desert on our way to breakfast. At our breakfast stop was a natural hot springs that we had about a half hour to lounge around in. The temperature outside was insanely cold, and after getting into the water there was no way I wanted to face the outside world again! But it was a pretty spectacular view from the springs. You could stare through the steam, out towards a lake and the still rising sun off in the horizon. Not too bad a morning if you ask me!

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When we’d finished with breakfast, we drove onwards to the Green Lagoon. Not as green as the red lagoon was red, but the lake was still spectacular! The mountains in the background looked like a watercolor painting, and the lake was so still that it created a perfect reflection. This was sadly our last stop before the border into Chile. It was time to say goodbye to our Brazilian friends “The Raf’s” and work our way into San Pedro de Atacama. 
The Uyuni tour was incredibly fantastic, and I’m so thankful we had time to do the three-day trek over the one day. The extraterrestrial landscape of Southern Bolivia is unlike anything else we’ve seen in South America yet. Just another spectacular adventure to tick off the list!

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