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Salar de Uyuni Guide

by Elena on February 25, 2010

Nothing like a huge, salt desert high up in the mountains of Bolivia to remind you just how cold it can get.  The expanse of white looks like a huge field of snow, and in the middle of the night it might as well be.  It is cold.  You have been warned.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

We booked our tour of the Salar de Uyuni in La Paz, and were assured by a stealthy travel agent that we wouldn’t come across any problems.  We hopped on an overnight bus to Uyuni, expecting to arrive the following morning.  The kiosk in the bus terminal printed clearly: Uyuni?  Apparently the bus company thought it was questionable as to whether or not we would arrive, an omen perhaps of what was to come.

UyuniThe bus had no heating and all night long, freezing air leaked in to where we were seated.  Ice began to form on the inside of the glass and we tried to snuggle together, under every bit of clothing that we had in our backpacks.  We arrived in Uyuni hours earlier than expected, in the middle of the night, and without a helpful guide to greet us.  We made our way to the nearest hostel and slept in our jackets and shoes until we were able to feel our toes again.  Just a couple hours later the sun came out and the memories of the cold, white night seemed almost fake.  They say that a mirage in the desert can trick the eye and it made me wonder about deserts made of salt and perhaps a mystical force that can inflict pain.  As it turns out, the most difficult part of our trip was actually getting to Uyuni.  Now we were armed with lots of warm clothing and jackets (no longer tucked away at the bottom of a bus).

We joined our tour group, one Canadian, one Australian and two Argentinians, who would be our companions for the next couple of days.  Like all other groups touring the Salt Flats, we would be traveling around in SUV’s capable of maneuvering the tricky terrain.  It really made my cynical mind wonder about the possibility of Jeep endorsements, with all the Jeeps cruising around like a real life Jeep commercial, but I digress.

Our first stop was a train cemetery, created after the mining industry collapsed and industrialists left abandoned trains on the outskirts of the Uyuni Salt Flat.  Turns out the abandoned railroad is part of the tourist attraction, a somewhat eerie reminder of the past and how quickly something that used to be so powerful can end up rusting under the Bolivian sun.Salar de Uyuni - Abandoned Railroad

The Salar of Uyuni is 10,500 square kilometers, large enough to be viewed from space, and to impress even the most jaded eyes.  During the dry season, you can stand on packed salt, formed on top of a mixture of brine.  The salt flat used to be a large lake that slowly filled up with sediment because of the lack of any drainage outlets.  Legend tells a slightly more interesting story that the salt flat was formed because of the giant people living in the mountains, more specifically the tears and breast milk of a woman grieving over her fleeing and unfaithful husband.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

The feeling of standing in the middle of such a huge, natural wonder can you make you feel insignificant in comparison, but that feeling of inadequacy doesn’t last long.  Not when there are funny pictures to take!  Just like the obligatory picture of pushing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tourists must take advantage of photographic tricks like this one:Salar de Uyuni Bolivia 13

The next stop on our tour was a place called Fish Island, an island of rock and cacti, where we stopped to explore and eat our lunch.  Some of the cacti on this island are well over 1,200 years old and gigantic, almost triple the size of my 5’2 height.  The highlight of this stop was the chance to see the salt flat from higher ground, seeing as you can’t really tell the shape of the fish while you are standing on it.Salar de Uyuni - Fish Island

After Fish Island, we drove through the salt flat for hours, stopping ever so often to take pictures and to admire the ripples in the salt.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Day one included the train graveyard, the salt flat, and Fish Island.  We stayed at a hostel (not the salt hotel) in the salt flat, made friends with other land cruising tour groups, had a few beers and watched the sun set and rise.  One of the members of our group, from a country that shall remain nameless *cough* Argentina *cough* experienced one of the side effects of high altitude, a pretty nasty hangover.  The next day we explored the Altiplano.

For the full photo album of the Salar de Uyuni, check out the photography page.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Federico February 27, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Hi Elena

I went to the Salar about 6 years ago and I have excellent memories of it. I would say that it is at the top of all the attractions South Amercia has, probably in the top three. And i totally agree with you: the most difficult or uncomfortable part of the salar is actually getting to Uyuni. I did it in late December, and the bus trip was very much horrible: chickens squawking all the way, peopls sleeping on the alley, no paved road, broken window with some blood on it…quite a nightmare. But once there everything changes! I acually spent Ney Year’s there, right besides the Laguna Colorada……was travelling with a buddy and with 4 swiss people. We ended up drinking champaign and singing the Beetles ÿellow submarine”while dancing around a rock because it was the onlt thing we could find in common. Hillarious and probably my favourite Ney Year’s until now! Cool photo trick by the way!

Federico
maitravelsite dot com

Elena March 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

ha I’m glad to hear other people had the same experience we had. I was beginning to think we were just being babies! The Salar on the other hand was incredible. I can imagine that New Year’s by the Laguna Colorada was even better. For some reason on our trip we decided to sing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer over and over again.
Right now I’m in Spain. Galicia to be exact and I couldn’t be happier.

Happy Travels,
Elena

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