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Day 39 – Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

November 18, 2010

Location: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Date: Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Salar de Uyuni is why I came to Bolivia. The horizon to horizon salt flats, the world’s highest and largest salt lake, are one of the strangest places on earth. Now that it’s over, I can’t help but think that this three day trip’s given me its best on the first day; that I’ve started with dessert; that in the opening credits I’ve found out that Bruce Willis is dead people, too. What’s left to see?

But we’ll get to that in a second. Let’s first talk Uyuni, the little railroad town that’s one tourist downturn away from becoming a ghost town. It’s nothing. It’s empty. It’s where Jamil and I met the Irish couple and the two Danish girls we’d be spending the next three days with in a car. It’s where we stacked our bags (bound in orange tarp) on the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser, next to a tank of propane and a spare container of gasoline.

The town’s also a kilometer from a train graveyard. A testament of what the town of Uyuni once was—a railway hub between Bolivia and Chile. Nowadays, it’s just another stop between one thing and the next.

Today, that next thing this is the Salar de Uyuni. At 3,650 meters (12,000 feet) and 9,000-12,000 square km (5,500-7,500 square miles) it’s twice as big as Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The surface is covered with a 2 to 20 m (6 to 60 feet) layer of salt. We’re not talking grains of table salt. We’re talking a solid block of pure salt thousands of kilometers square. To harvest the stuff, the workers use hand tools to hack at the surface and pile it into mounds to dry. What’s left are cones of rock that happen to be made of salt.

In spots, the salar is pure, blinding white. The salt dries each year into large pentagonal and hexagonal shapes that repeat across the lake bed like psychedelic linoleum. One guide said this is because the chemical structure of water affects the way the salt dries.

The white surface stretches to the horizon and, if you can get it right, is ripe for creating optical illusions with a camera. At one point I had to get on the ground to try and get an angle for a shot and discovered that lying on an uncovered bed of salt is about as comfortable as jamming your elbows into a wall of porcupines. The sun bouncing off the bleached white crust made it feel like we were standing on the surface of a crunchy, mirrored frying pan. Walking the salar without sunglasses makes snow (salt?) blindness inevitable. I could have stayed there for hours.

That wasn’t to be. Our guide, somehow commandeered a bicycle and rode towards us from Isla del Pescadores and a spot on the island where he’d prepared our first meal. Originally called Incahuasi (or Inca House), the lake island is covered in giant cacti. After a makeshift lunch on a tablecloth spread over a rock, we were back in the jeep. By lunch on the first of three days, I’d blown the trip’s wad. One can only hope there’s more to this antiplano than just the salt flats, otherwise we’re done.

We zipped across the rest of the salt flat and started to transition to the desert plateau. Cruising past a hillside military outpost, the Land Cruiser fishtailed its way through deep sand and dust.

Three hours later and ten minutes from our destination, we came upon two Bolivian women walking roadside through waves of dust driven by the evening wind. Our driver slammed on the brakes and made a show of asking us for permission to give them a lift. I’m not sure we had much choice. We shuffled our seats and I ended up with a local woman half sitting in my lap. My discomfort, however, could not have been matched by the four mile walk those women would have had to do through the cold, sand, and wind. The inconvenience for us was a small thing compared to the hour the women would have had to walk through the driving sand. I wanted to ask where they were coming from but, in the end, my limited Spanish and my natural shyness hamstrung me.

Parked bags stashed in our shared rooms, we decided to do a little shopping. Walking through the empty town of San Juan past empty basketball courts, a barren square, dusty streets, old homes made of traditional brick, a seemingly abandoned church, it seemed like the town had been abandoned. The wind was almost unbearable. Cresting even the small hill next to the church meant braving gale force, Antarctic-like winds.

The salar might be done, but there’s more trip to go. Huddled in a dimly lit dining room, we travelers soldiered through a meal of burger patties, papas fritas, and lukewarm soup.

No running water. No power outlets. No heat. Just wind, cold, llamas, and salt. For us, it’s a taste of life on the antiplano. What’s dessert, a trip highlight, and a vacation for us is just another day on the homestead for a couple of Bolivian women.

GALLERY: Click through for bonus pictures of a graveyard, Mervyn acting a fool, and another illusion or two.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2010 9:14 pm

    Welcome to rural Bolivia at altitude….the lowlands are a bit less “rigorous”.

    The in-between (Cochabamba) are like paradise!

    • December 4, 2010 1:29 pm

      I’m going to have to come back for sure. I can’t imagine a much harsher place than Bolivia’s antiplano that doesn’t involve snow. (Note: It does snow on the antiplano, just not during South America’s summer.)

  2. Sally permalink
    November 30, 2010 10:21 am

    When I pick you up from LAX, I will expect a llama (alpaca, whatever) from you. A white one. Girl. Long lashes. Calm demeanor. No spitting. And a cake of salt.

    • December 4, 2010 1:31 pm

      You’ve described a llama fetus.

      It’s not produce or food. It’s not a live animal. It’s not cocaine. I wonder if I could get one through U.S. immigration? A fetus, that is.

      • December 4, 2010 2:09 pm

        DO NOT FAIL to turn on the camera on your mobile phone as you start the Customs Service process with your llama fetus!!

        I want to see the film, please…..!!

        🙂

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