Bolivia, Destinations, Photography, South America

Salar de Uyuni: Please Pass the Salt {and the Chocolate, too}

February 23, 2012

Island Vacation? No, not a golden beach on tropical shores: a vast, evaporated lake of salt sitting 11,995 feet high in the land-locked country of Bolivia. The 4,000 square mile Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) is roughly the size of Oregon’s entire Willamette Valley floor.

A visit to this natural phenomenon was part of our transportation scheme as we maneuvered overland through southern Bolivia and on into Chile.

The population of nearby towns seems dwarfed in contrast to the vast space, and families’ livelihoods are crudely supported on salt extraction and tourist entertainment industries.

The small town of Colchani at the gateway to the Salar greeted us with eerie scenes of desolate life under an enormous sky: buildings constructed of carved salt bricks and topped with tin roofs, men manually loading thousands of pounds of salt into semi-trucks the same way they’ve shoveled for weeks and months and years before, women selling colorful wares in the streets to jeep-fulls of Germans, Aussies, British, and more who piled out of their bench seat thrones to peruse the offerings.

Ill at ease we felt, watching the crushing weight of supply and demand industry ride on the backs of workers with little choice…

Returning to our ride, we watched the horizon change to white and made our way across the ancient lake bed to the Hotel de Sal outpost.

Excavated salt piles dry in the sun for days, then men shovel the white grains into trucks, bake them in ovens in Colchani, process them with iodine, and box the final product as table salt to be sold in Bolivia and Brazil.

Arrival. Sunglasses. Hats and high SPF. Then, queue the silly pictures requisite for any Salt Flat visit.

The one missing shot: all the 4×4 drivers, congregating in patches of shade near the Hotel, laughing and razzing their amigos, nonplussed by the same sight of salt and travelers seen day in and day out.

Windy and hot in the January summertime sun…

For $160 p.p., three days, two nights, transportation and meals, there’s little room for complaint, and sometimes room for praise: unsalted pasta, tomatoes, and beef, and real ceramic dishware

Farewell to the flats (our rainy season visit precluded a trip farther out to the Isla del Pescado), and on to the afternoon drive south through arid llama country.

Note: Fifty-cent ice cream bars at road tip pit stops cheer the soul.

Our tour guide, Edgar, stopped to help a driver so drunk he couldn’t stay on the road. A tense twenty minutes unfolded as we first tried following behind the drunk to the next town and then, after a second diversion into the ditch and another hair-raising encounter with a third vehicle, we insisted that Edgar take the drunk’s keys, drive the car, and let our group drive ourselves to the meeting point.

Non-regulation of driver safety standards is one rampant, highly dangerous trouble with this particular cross-country-tour industry. Massive numbers of “agencies” have popped up in Uyuni, the isolated launching point for Salt Flat, Volcano, and Lake expeditions, but many are unsafe in their practices and willing to cut corners to make an extra Boliviano.

Some fellow travelers trying to hire guides in the city encountered drivers who were already (or still?) inebriated at nine in the morning. Companies will sell an extra seat and squish one-too-many people into a tour. Vehicles are missing seat belts. Jeeps pass wildly on the dangerous gravel roads.

Our “Best of the Worst” experience was fortunate…

We arrived, in once piece, at our first night’s stay: small dorm style accommodations run by families living at tiny outposts along the way.

Promises of hot water were like the service: perhaps well-intentioned but with little ultimate payoff. What we lacked in comfort, though, nature made up for in spectacle. Sunset Performances. Mountains. Lightning and Thunderstorms. (Remember the metal roofs?) Long hours of conversation among our fine travel companions…

First day down; volcanoes, colored lakes, flamingos and once-in-a-lifetime-snow yet to come…

This piece is second in a four post journey following our tire tracks south from La Paz, Bolivia by overnight bus to Uyuni and then onward via 4×4 through cemeteries, salt flats, volcanoes and lakes, through lands of geysers and hot springs and high elevation passes, and finally past the Chilean border and into the Atacama desert…

For the first in this series, see:

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  • Reply Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    1) Please tell me you saw the biggest llama ever???
    2) These pictures made my heart smile. I LOVE Salar de Uyuni!!!!!!!!!!
    3) That last picture…there are now words!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 23, 2012 at 8:51 pm

      Haha, Andi : ) We settled for seeing the greatest sign ever; it seemed like a better bet to forever leave the size of the llama to our imaginations.
      That lightning storm was incredible! I’m grateful to have caught the shot as a record of the memory; the rumble of the thunder was so loud and the flashes lit up so bright against that huge, dark sky…

  • Reply CJ February 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I just love that first photo of you two on the evaporated lake…..
    and the adventure continues. Thank you so much for sharing it all in your beautiful, honest and candid way.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 23, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      CJ!! So great to hear from you. That first picture shows so well the wild colors out there… The water looked truly tropical. Astounding, really. So glad you’re enjoying the read. You really made my hopes surge at the thought of meeting up in NZ! Keep me posted as the year goes on… xoxo Bethany

  • Reply Judy Loucks February 23, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    So did you taste the salt?

    • Reply twoOregonians February 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      Such a good question! You know, now, come to think of it, I don’t think we ever did! Aside from the Uyuni Salt that was in that magnificent chocolate bar ; )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica February 24, 2012 at 4:37 am

    I hear the Salar is flooded now, so you can only do day tours and cannot see everything. Good thing you guys got there before the heavy rains. What company did you use out of which city? I’m gathering suggestions to plan my own trip :-)

    • Reply twoOregonians February 24, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Hey Stephanie,
      Yep, the rainy season had started by the time we arrived, too. We made the day trip out to the Hotel and spent time driving around a bit of the flats, but we weren’t able to visit the Isla de Pescado. Still very spectacular, though. And with more rain, the beautiful reflections can be simply amazing.

      We used Blue Line; I hesitate to out and out recommend them, but they were better than anyone else we encountered, so….? Good luck! Can’t wait to read about your experiences.

  • Reply Marissa Borelli Casellini February 24, 2012 at 10:57 am

    LOVE your Fiji Teal Borelli scarf! I must go there one day!

    • Reply twoOregonians February 26, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      Thanks, Marissa! You’ll not regret it if you ever do make it to Bolivia. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country.

  • Reply Kim February 24, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    That last photo is phenomenal.

    • Reply twoOregonians February 26, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      The storm was amazing to watch!

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  • Reply Valynne Bernetich February 27, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Awesome photography! I love that you are sharing this adventure with all of us. You sure do have a way with words and camera…

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