Salar de Uyuni

We were happy that we were able to enter Bolivia, arrive in Tupiza, and organize a tour of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s salt flats, for the next morning. Conscious that every day is precious, we were very appreciative that La Torre tours was so accommodating; bright and early on our first full morning in Bolivia, the four of us met Henry, our driver, and Isabel, our cook, and all climbed into our 4WD transport that would take us through the Salar de Uyuni. Although it would have been fun to explore the area in our van, we knew the conditions would wreak havoc on our delicate little flower and were happy to be chauffeured around for a few days.

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Wolf had done a tour of the Salar de Uyuni tour on his last trip to Bolivia but I took it as a good sign that he was excited to do it again. The agent that helped us book the trip had made an amazing impression so we felt like we were setting out in good hands for our four-day tour. The first part of our first day we drove in and around the beautiful canyon lands outside Tupiza.

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Henry, our guide and driver, chatted with us about the area and explained as much as we could understand with our limited Spanish. We passed small mining towns and a few of the locals blocked the road in several places:

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Henry and Isabel must have thought we were a bit nutty because we absolutely went crazy for the llamas, feeling the need to comment on and photograph as many as possible. They’re just so darn adorable. At lunchtime we stopped in a tiny little mining town where Isabel popped into a community kitchen to make lunch.

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We had time for a quick wander around town; encompassing only a few blocks, we took it all in pretty quickly, but we stopped long enough for Wolf to befriend a baby llama:

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By the time I was brave enough to approach it had lost interest :)

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Lunchtime was awesome and we were amazed at Isabel’s skills and ability to feed us as well as the two other groups travelling in our caravan.

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Next we travelled to the ghost town of San Antonio, the ruins of a once-rich mining town that disappeared after the Spanish arrived and pillaged all the remaining valuables.

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After a quick tour through town we were back in the car.

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We expected more of the same scenery, but all of a sudden it was snowing and our dry, arid landscape turned to a blanket of white studded with tufts of shrubbery.

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We stopped for pictures at Laguna Morejon when we reached the overlook at 4,855 meters, but it was cold enough that no one wanted to linger too long, even with Volcan Ulturuncu creating an impressive backdrop.

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While it snowed outside, we made ourselves a nice cozy picnic in the back of the car, with our resident Frenchie, Anas, leading the charge by distributing cheese for all.

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The sky continued to look ominous, accentuated by volcanic peaks and dramatic scenery.

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Finally we pulled into the tiny town of Quetena Grande where we would spend the night.

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Henry and Isabel made sure we were settled in and then set about arranging dinner and planning for the next day. The dorm-style beds made it all feel a bit like summer camp and we sat around with the folks from our caravan chatting and enjoying coffee and cookies before dinner.

Since we had packed a bottle of Bailey’s, we made fast friends when we offered to share with everyone. Just before dinner, a couple of little girls from the village came in and asked if we would like the to perform. Of course we told them we would be honored, and they proceeded to sing a couple of songs and even recite a poem for us. They were just so darn cute that we were happy to part with a few bolivianos to reward them for their performance.P1080884 (1024x768) P1080885 (1024x768)

It had been a long day and we were all starting to feel the effects of the altitude so we were all happy to call it an early night.

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The next morning we had a quick breakfast and an early start, with just enough time for a quick walk about town and a visit with the local llama population while our guides packed up the cars.

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The next time we stopped was another intense llama viewing session, with dozens and dozens of llamas hanging out in their pen, all decked out in their finest Bolivian colors.

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Somehow Wolf managed to find the only non-llama creature for miles around.

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I have to admit that I had no idea what to expect from the Salar de Uyuni, but I was beginning to realize that our tour would be so much more than a visit to the salt flats.

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Just one day into our trip and already the landscapes were so incredibly varied.

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Our next stop brought us to a huge lagoon filled with flamingoes.

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Beyond the fact that it was crazy to see flamingoes in the wild, it also felt other-worldly with snowcapped peaks in the background, beautiful skies, and calm, still waters that reflected the entire scene.

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From there we went on to another couple of lagoons known for harvesting of salt and borax. Exploring was fun, but we also got a kick out of just taking fun photos.

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A bit later we made it to the Desierto de Dali, with surreal-colored mountains and otherworldly rock formations of petrified lava sticking out of the sand.

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The whole scene looks like the ruins of a lost city and was appropriately quite reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting.

Everytime I looked around it seemed like there was another stunning scene. I even found the stretches of road between sights to be stunning.

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As we neared the Laguna Blanca, our guide spotted a fox and we were able to watch it as it investigated our car and wandered away.

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One of our favorite stops of the day was the Laguna Verde, with Volcano Licancabur marking the border with Chile in the background.

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According to our guide, NASA used the summit of this volcano to test the Mars Rover – at 5,925 meters and with extremely rocky terrain and high winds, plus low air pressure and high winds, the environment comes as close as possible to Martian conditions. Krissie – can I get a fact check on this one?

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When lunch rolled around we stopped at the Polques hot springs and went for a quick dip in the natural springs before enjoying another home-cooked meal from Isabel.

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The hot springs were super warm and the scenery was so great and we’d already seen so many cool things… everyone was in a super happy place.

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After lunch we checked out the Sol de Manana geysers. Another active volcanic area, we were surrounded by bubbling mud, steaming geysers, and all kinds of fun geothermal activity.

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It had been a long day and already we felt like we had seen some pretty amazing things. We finally pulled into Huayllajara where we would spent the night. We dropped our bags and settled in just in time for a storm to roll in.

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It rained and turned cold and we were just getting cozy when Henry told us it was time to jump back in the car. There was a lull in the rain and he wanted to take us out to Laguna Colorada. At that point we were just getting warm again and we weren’t convinced that another lagoon would be worth it, but at this point we trusted Henry, so we obliged.

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Henry absolutely nailed it. Lagua Colorada was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. It felt like a dream landscape. The pictures don’t really do it justice, particularly because our camera died halfway through out visit. The lagoon itself sits at the base of a volcano and is home to various types of flamingoes. Over the course of a couple of days we’d seen lagoons with white water and green water and blue water, but here, the water was various shades of red. From pink, to deep, rusty reds, to purples, the entire lagoon was like every little girl’s favorite color palate. To top it all off, the lagoon was teeming with flamingoes.

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Thousands of flamingoes, as far as the eye can see. We spent a couple of hours just hanging out at the lagoon.

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We walked down to the water’s edge, checked out the flamingoes, and then just walked along the edge, following the volcanic shorelines around a huge hill, and on the otherside, encountered a herd (flock? gaggle? School?) of llamas. The whole thing felt unbelieveable: we were wandering around a red lake, full of shocking pink flamingoes, only to stumble across a massive group of llamas all dressed up with colorful yarn markings…

We could have stayed for hours more. And it’s hard to describe how beautiful and incredible the lake really was. The pictures hardly do it justice, but being there in person was incredibly moving. And again, as has been the case so many times on this trip, I found myself thinking about how unbelieveably lucky I am. Lucky to be here. Lucky to be experiencing such amazing things with someone I love. Lucky on so many levels.

We were on a high that night as we gathered in the kitchen for dinner. At this point we had made friends with the other folks in our caravan and we all had an awesome time chatting and comparing notes, particularly with the two other couples who were also from Berlin.

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The next morning another early start and a wander about town brought a new friend:

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Afterwards, we headed to Arbol de Piedra, the stone tree.

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Another example of petrified lava, the tree itself turned out to be just one of many very cool lava-based rock formations. We wandered around the sandy desert, feeling a bit like little kids climbing all over the rocky formations.

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Driving through some deep canyons we passed more fun creatures who seemed to really like our leftover pancakes from breakfast that morning.

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At Laguna Honda we stopped again to check out more flamingoes and a pretty ridiculously beautiful panorama of the lagoon and volcano.

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One last stop at Laguna Hedionda for another view of flamingoes and volcanoes, neither of which were getting old at this point.

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Isabel served lunch out of the back of the cars and we ate quickly watching the storm brewing and a lightning show beginning overhead.

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Early on in the day Henry had warned us that we’d have to play it by ear and see how the weather was holding out in order to determine where we would spend the night. If the weather was bad we would have to drive to the city of the Uyuni and would only be able to access a corner of the salt flats. If the weather played in our favor, we would overnight in Puerto Chuvica, sleep in the salt hotel, and head to the salt flats from there in the morning. Even though the sky was ominous throughout lunch, Henry surveyed the other drivers and decided we’d head to the salt hotel. We were stoked that things were working out the way we had hoped.

Driving through snow and rain and desert the rest of the afternoon gave us a taste of everything.

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We stopped to check out the railroad tracks that run across the desert and to stretch our legs with a view of another active volcano and some awesome brain-like plants that, like coral reef, take hundreds of years to get to a size like this:P1090564 (1024x768) (2)

On our way to the salt hotel we came across a group of other tours all stopped along the road. We weren’t quite sure what happened until we pulled to the front of the group and saw that one of the tour vehicles had gotten stuck in a deep ditch on the side of the road.

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We stopped to see if we could help – Isabel started gathering anything dry she could find to help create a track out of the mud and we watched as another group made a couple of attempts to pull the car out of the ditch, unfortunately without any luck. Chatting with the folks that had been in the car, they told us the driver had been acting irresponsibly the whole time. We felt lucky that we’d had a great experience with our driver thus far and that we felt well taken care of. And especially happy that our van was safely far, far away :)

We left the injured vehicle waiting for a tow truck and passed a few quinoa fields before arriving in a small town.

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Our guides had to knock on quite a few doors before finally finding a place for us all to stay in one of the salt hotels. IMG_0439 (1024x765) IMG_0438 (765x1024)

Outside our guides and cooks busied themselves with getting settled while we checked out our new digs, made entirely of salt – tables, chairs, beds, walls… a bit gimmicky but still a fun experience.

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Before settling in for the evening Ciaran, Anas, Wolf and I took a stroll through the town, checking out the church, the main square, and meandering down a few side streets to check out local homes.

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Surprisingly, quite a few buildings were also made of salt – I guess when you live on the salt flats it’s a pretty easily accessible building material.

Back at our hotel we settled at salt tables for tea and cookies before dinner, and eventually sat down with everyone from our tour group to share our last dinner together. At this point we’d all gotten to know each other quite well and we felt lucky to have shared our experience with a genuinely nice group of people. We had brought a couple of bottles of wine on the trip and pulled them out to share with group at dinner – everyone was grateful and we toasted to an awesome tour.

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The next morning we packed in the dark and hit the road by 5am in order to arrive at the salt flats by sunrise. We drove a few miles down the road and then turned to enter the salt flats. Just as we were about to drive down onto the salt flats the two vehicles in front of us stopped short, seemingly unsure of whether to proceed. Our driver pulled ahead and in the headlights we could see that the salt flats were covered in a layer of water. In the dark it was impossible to tell just how much water we were talking about and at first our driver paused and immediately we all assumed that we’d have to select an alternate route. A few seconds later, Henry started up, pulled out onto the salt flats, and we were off.

Our layer of water turned out to be a couple of inches deep and we drove for a while in the darkness through the water. And even though the water was shallow, our layer of water spread out evenly for hundreds of kilometers and it felt as though we were driving on the surface of a massive lake.

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Gradually hints of sunrise began to light up the sky and reflect off the still surface of the water; the effect was ethereal.P1090640 (1024x768) (2)

We drove on, enthralled with watching the dawn slowly light up the Salar de Uyuni and enjoying the reflection of the distant hills and mountains on the water.

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The light show kept getting better and better, and eventually Henry found a dry place to park and enjoy the rest of the morning.

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We all piled out to walk out on the water, frolic around in the salt, and soak in the whole experience.

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It’s hard to express how amazingly beautiful the Salar de Uyuni really is. I think we were lucky to arrive during a time when the Salar was still covered in water, but not enough that it prevented us from driving across the flats.

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With or without water, 12,000+ square kilometers of salt flats stretching as far as the eye can see is an impressive sight.

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We spent hours enjoying the view and taking pictures as the light changed.

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Isabel made us breakfast, served from the back of our cars. The night before she told me that she had a surprise breakfast planned for that morning, so when she pulled out a heart-shaped coffee cake and told us that it represented her heart because she cared about us, I knew that she had really put some love and thought into making sure our last breakfast together was memorable.

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We got together for a few group pics and even managed to convince Henry and Isabel, who had ridden with us the entire time, to pose for a quick shot before moving on.

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We drove on to find a dry area of the salt flats.

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When we stopped, Henry pointed out a hole in the salt and showed us the briny water below and the perfect salt cubes that connected to create the vast expanse of salt that stretched to the horizon.

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The guides got together and started setting us up to pose for funny pictures. The huge, empty expanse of the salt flats distorts depth perception so there are lots of opportunities for crazy, funny pictures, typical tourist-type stuff. Cheesy, but all plenty of fun.

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Eventually we made our way towards Uyuni, stopping to check out all the flags left by other visitors.

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Towards the edges of the flats, they were harvesting salt, piling it up to dry in pyramid-shaped mounds, creating more gorgeous scenery as we said goodbye to the salt flats.

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We stopped at a neaby market town for lunch and to check out the artisan market. It was funny to see a huge line of 4WD SUVs all ready for the next stop on the tourist trail.

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In Uyuni we stopped at the train graveyard, full of rusted old trains and railroad equipment.

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Like a ghost town for trains, it was an interesting place to wander around, climbing in and out of engines and along tracks like little kids.

Since the trains were the official last stop of our tour, we said our goodbyes to everyone on tour, knowing we’d probably meet again somewhere on the gringo trail. We were headed back to Tupiza with Henry and Isabel so we had another four hours of driving ahead of us. The drive back was just as beautiful as the tour, with more colorful hillsides and gorgeous rock formations.

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Henry pulled over a few times, telling us he was hearing a strange rattling sound. Each time, he would crawl under the car and attempt to fix it, but each time he would pull over again a bit later, still hearing an issue. Eventually he must have realized that the problem hadn’t improved. He pulled over, we all climbed out of the car, and Henry got to work jacking up the car and pulling off the tire. Isabel put us all to work gathering rocks to block the tires and Wolf pitched in to help Henry.

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I do have to compliment Henry for managing to select an incredibly picturesque spot to work on repairing the car. The huge rock formations in the background, a sweeping landscape in the foreground, and some dramatic looking clouds kept us pretty entertained, especially when the lightning show started up.

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While we enjoyed the scenery, Henry had pulled off the tire and taken apart the breaks, revealing a worn out pad and a rusted caliper. At this point we’d spent a soild hour or so working on the car and things weren’t looking good. At just the right magical moment, one of the other cars in our caravan tour happened to drive by.

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He saw us struggling and pitched in to help Henry. At some point they realized they wouldn’t be able to fix it now so Henry told us to grab our bags and load everything into the other car – he and Isabel would drive back with three intact brakes and he thought we would be more comfortable in a car with a full set :)

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We were sad to say goodbye to henry and Isabel but piled in with our new friend and headed back towards Tupiza. The drive back was fairly dicey. By the time we pulled away it had started to rain a lot, and most of the route back was dirt roads perched on the edge of mountain passess… once again, the lightning show in the sky did it’s best to distract us. Many hours later, we finally made it back to Tupiza, exhausted and worn out but fully satisfied that we’d had an amazing adventure.

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