Visiting Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, is at the top of many South American bucket lists. The style of travel isn’t glamorous, driving for hours on end in a 4X4, with some vehicles cramming more people than they should into the SUV. Nonetheless, the surreal landscapes, incredible photo opportunities, and sense of adventure driving through no man’s land make any inconveniences seem trivial. We kicked off our 3-day tour in the post-apocalyptic town of Uyuni, Bolivia, the starting point of most salt flat tours. There are between eighty to a hundred different tour operators in Uyuni, so I didn’t have any travel finding a company. But finding a reputable operator may be the bigger issue. Occasional travel tales of drunk driving and broken down vehicles spread from hostel to hostel. Assuming I would get what I pay for, I paid for a middle of the road tour with a Spanish speaking guide, hoping he’d be a responsible driver with a reliable vehicle.
I was lucky to have a great group of people in my 4X4, with representatives from Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Portugal. Freddi, our driver, didn’t go above and beyond, but proved to be what I was looking for – responsible and reliable.
Before heading off to the Salt Flats, we stopped at the Train Cemetery. Several abandoned trains were laid to rest in the same area after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s. The unintended result has been a hot tourist attraction and adult playground, in yet another post-apocalyptic setting reminiscent of Mad Max and The Book of Eli. After climbing inside, on top of, and on the sides of the rail cars for half an hour or so, we drove onwards towards the Salt Flats. The Salt Flats are an endless sea of white. Completely flat and completely salty. I’ve been accused of being too salty more than a few times, so I tried not to get too close lest my symptoms worsen. I did manage to pose for a few famous Salt Flats perspective photos though. It’s not as easy as it looks. If you can hold a pose and let the photographer work you a bit, you might come away with a memorable picture.
Fish Island, AKA Giant Cactus Island, AKA Isla Incahuasi was our next stop. Cacti standing three or four times my height towered over me all across the “island”, which wasn’t surrounded by water, but endless Salt Flats. The island’s peak offered incredible panoramic views of the Salt Flats and mountains in the distance. I found myself asking, “What planet am I on?” Surely this isn’t earth. I tried to phone home to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, only to realize I had no service.
Continuing onward across the Salt Flats, we came across a man extracting salt from the ground. Salt of the earth he was. He worked hard and kept a smile on his face when tourists stopped by to admire his craft. That night, we stayed at a lodge with salt floors and walls. This sunset was the perfect way to end the day.
The second day marked our transition from the Moon to Mars. We had passed the lunar Salt Flats and proceeded onward to the outskirts of the Atacama Desert – the driest (non-polar) desert in the world. Despite dozens of other SUVs somewhere in the surrounding vicinity, we rarely came across them while we were driving. Isolation in the vast expanses of the desert is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. We stopped at train tracks (still used by freight trains), lagoons with hundreds of flamingos feeding in the shallow waters, otherworldly rock formations and rock faces (some literally looked like faces), weird plants, and a desert rabbit habitat.
The Dream Team was the first group to make it to our hotel that afternoon. As I entered the travelers’ lodge and glimpsed through the windows, I chuckled when I saw princess bedding in one of the rooms. It turns out the joke was on me. The dormitory had six beds: three with wilderness bedding (fierce bears) and three with pink princess bedding. Our group had four men and two women…I was the last man to enter the room…you can do the math. I spent my last night in Bolivia with Cinderella and Belle.
Our third and final day commenced with an early 4:00AM wakeup. The natural planetarium presented wonderful starry skies that helped to cushion the biting pain of the frigid morning. We arrived at the geysers at dawn, with the rising sun reflecting off the desert mountains. After a few photos, the group was eager to return to the warm car to head towards the coveted hot springs. Freddi, our driver, warned us not to spend more than 15-20 minutes in the hot springs, because extreme differences in the outside temperature and the hot springs, coupled with the altitude (roughly 14,400 feet), could make us sick. The hot springs thawed our cold bodies and, though difficult, I respected Freddi’s advice and exited the hot springs after 15 wonderful minutes.
I was the only one in our group transferring to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile that morning, with the rest of the crew returning to Uyuni, Bolivia. Freddi dropped me off at the border and I bid farewell to the group.
In San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, I rented a bicycle and rode out to the Valley of the Moon in the Atacama Desert. The self-guided bike tour included caving, breathtaking viewpoints, and geographic formations reminiscent of…you guessed it…the moon. There were a few other cars and cyclists on the route, but I was alone out there for the most part. Incredible trip with surreal landscapes, I just wish I had brought more water. Nevertheless, I made it back in one piece, with chapped lips and a dry throat. Totally worth it though.
I’ll be flying back to the United States tomorrow night after nearly 5 and a half months on the road. I can’t wait to catch up with many of you upon my return!