The Blinding Salar de Uyuni

June 8, 2010 (Day 21)

Like I mentioned earlier, the only reason we went to Uyuni was because that's the starting point for tours of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.  There are tonnes of tour operators offering pretty much the same tour itinerary and price so even though there isn't much to do in Uyuni, comparing countless operators is basically pointless because they will all promise you the same thing.  We selected Andes Salt Expeditions Tour Operator because they were recommended by some fellow tourists we talked to earlier on our trip and they also offered an English-speaking guide for a minimal extra cost.

The tour was scheduled to leave at 10:30am but by the time the tour operator figured out (after asking us countless times) who was going in which jeep, who was vegetarian, who needed a sleeping bag, who was coming back to Uyuni (vs. Chile), who was on the 2-day trip (vs. the 3-day trip), we did not actually depart until after 11:00am.

We were on the 3-day trip that would take us to the Chilean border and save us another visit to Uyuni and a long bus ride to our next destination.  Hence, we had to get our passports stamped with post-dated Bolivian exit stamps at a little office, just down the street from the tour operator, without any questions asked. The officials did this many times before and it showed.

Here is a map of our Salar de Uyuni journey over the next three days.

So we got into our jeep along with a couple of Australian women, their Peruvian English-speaking guide, an American, and our driver, and we were on our way on our tour of Salar de Uyuni  Another jeep full of tourists, the group's cook, and our English-speaking guide were also involved in our tour group.

Our first stop was just outside the outskirts of town, where you can find the place where a series of nineteenth and early 20th century steam engines, locomotives, and rail cars have gone to die at the train cemetery. Had I known that the graveyard had been so close to town, I would have journeyed over here yesterday when there was absolutely nothing to do!

After about 20 minutes of climbing onto the trains like a little kid in a playground, and snapping a few photos, it was time to get back into the jeep, and head back into town to pick our food.  I'm not sure why they couldn't have done this before picking us up for the tour but anyways, just go with the flow, Mike. After a 5-10 minutes wait to load the jeep, we then proceeded to a garage to have the air pressure checked on the jeep tires. Once that was done, it was time to pull out the big sunglasses as we were finally on our way to salt flats!

We arrived in Colchanilies, which lies beside the Salar de Uyuni, and is the home of the Cooperative Rosario where we observed the methods of salt extraction from the Salar and its preparation for national consumption.

After our llama-steak lunch at a little restaurant made out of salt,

and taking a number of "funny pictures,"

we headed off to Isla Pescada which is located in the centre of the Salar (about 100 km from Uyuni). Surrounded by the blinding white salt flat, we hiked the trail that weaves its way around the spectacular “island“ that is covered in trichocerus cacti and home to a number of viscachas that look like huge rabbits.  

If you are curious about the feel of the salt flat, I can say that it has a pretty unique feeling.  It looks a bit like icy snow, crunchy and hard, but definitely a bit different. And it obviously, tastes like salt!

Just as the sun was setting,

we arrived at a salt hotel, just off the Salar.  Picture the ice hotel but made out of salt and not as luxurious, but just as unique. After settling into our rooms for the evening,

we headed to the dining room to talk with our fellow travelers and enjoy dinner as a group of kids sung and played musical instruments for us.  After dinner, the generator was about to go out and most people headed back to their rooms, but a few of us stayed behind, and treated the kids to the plentiful leftovers.  At first, some of the kids were reluctant or shy to accept our offering but considering we, unfortunately, did not have anything else to offer them, we insisted that they join us at the table and eat the untouched food left behind.  I remember there was one boy who appeared to be too scared to join us, perhaps he was afraid that he would get in trouble, but I finally convinced him to join us by treating him just like one of us by calling him “Amigo“.  It seemed like that was the magic word that convinced him it was ok to eat with us.  That was a very moving moment for me as the kids were apparently really hungry as they tried eating as much as possible as quickly as they could, and it really put things into perspective as to how lucky we really have it.

The lights turned off soon thereafter and the kids were shooed off by the kitchen staff as they cleared off the table, and we were left to share our travel stories in the candlelight.  As the candle got shorter, it was time to head to our rooms.  It was the end of a memorable day and just the beginning of a memorable night...

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