My Favorite Place in South America- Salar de Uyuni: Day 1

Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world at nearly 11,000 square kilometers.  It’s the principle tourist attraction in Bolivia, and is, in my opinion, the coolest place in South America.  Seriously… cooler than Machu Picchu, Patagonia, whatever.

In my journal, I have January 27th labeled as “DEADLINE DAY”.  Given the three days I had lost puking in my hostel, if I wanted to go to Uyuni (the main reason I came to Bolivia) before crossing into Argentina, I had to leave La Paz that night.  So despite still feeling bad, I took a bunch of Imodium to block up my stomach, packed my stuff, and walked to the bus station.  I got a ‘full cama’ bus for almost nothing (yay Bolivian prices), and began the overnight bus ride.  I was gifted with this beautiful sunset as the bus climbed out of the La Paz valley:img_2603

Luckily, I managed to make it through the entire night without any stomach related incidents.  The bus arrived at 5:30am, and once the sun came up I started shopping around for a tour company.  Dozens of companies run salt flat tours and they all essentially do the same things and go to the same places.  Therefore, I wasn’t trying to find a tour that went somewhere out of the ordinary, but instead one that was reliable and wasn’t too expensive.  There have been tons of problems with drunk drivers on Uyuni tours, so I didn’t mind paying a little more for a reputable organization that held its drivers accountable.  I ended up choosing “Andes Salt Expedition”, a company that had good reviews on TripAdvisor (and I would recommend them).

— Seriously, if you’re gonna do a salt flat tour, DON’T choose the cheapest option.  First and foremost, people have died and been seriously injured because of drunk drivers.  Second, even if nothing serious like that happens, you’re in the middle of a desert at 12-14,000 feet, and you’re sitting in a car for most of the day.  It’s an incredible place but also a rugged, unforgiving place, and the days can be uncomfortable.  I heard so many horror stories from people in La Paz who chose the cheapest option and had a jeep with no space and terrible food.  It completely ruined their experience—

I got pretty lucky with my group.  Given how much of the trip was spent driving from one location to the next, having a fun group was a huge plus: an American (Hayley), a Brit (Tom), two Germans (Bene and Florin), and an Irishman (Cian).  Most of the people I had met in Bolivia were either Argentinian or Chilean, so it was nice to speak English again.  Some of them already knew each other, but they immediately welcomed me into their group (Tom bought me a beer within the first hour – although I couldn’t drink it cause of my stomach).  They were all incredibly nice and a joy to travel with.  Here’s a cool shot of all of them walking on the salt flat together:img_2640

DAY 1

Day one was the day we actually spent on the salt flat.  We left from Uyuni in this jeep, our home for the next three days:img_2621

The first stop, right on the edge of the salt flat, was a train graveyard.  In the 20th century, Uyuni had been a railroad hub, and when the railroad industry began to die, a number of trains were discarded here to rust.  It was actually surprisingly cool and interesting, especially since we could climb all over the trains.

Next stop was a kinda gimmicky market very catered to tourists, which was a waste of time.  But, after a short stop, we finally made our way into the salt flat.  As we approached it, the desert landscape slowly transitioned from simple dirt to salt.  It began like this:img_2615

Then became this:img_2617

Before we finally made it into the actual Salar where we ate a simple lunch:

On the edges of the Salar, the salt was a little browner (as seen above), but after lunch we drove two hours into the center and with each passing moment the ground got whiter and whiter, until it was nearly blinding without sunglasses.  We finally stopped at Fish Island (which has nothing to do with fish), a random island in an ocean of salt.

It was absolutely mind-blowing.  The entire island was covered by gigantic cacti, and when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic:img_2649

We climbed to the very top of the island and were rewarded with a sea of white and one of the most unforgettable views of my life.  Pictures in no way do justice to how awe-inspiring it was, but here are a few to give you a sense of it:

Then, we got back in the jeep and drove to a section of the Salar where we could barely see land.  It felt like we were entirely alone in the world:img_2669img_2668

This is also where people take the famous perspective shots.  Because it’s totally flat and there’s nothing in the background, it’s really easy to take a picture for example where it looks like someones giant foot is squishing a tiny person.img_2672

See what I mean? As might be expected from a car of twenty-something year olds, the only perspective shots we took were slightly inappropriate, so I’m not going to share them here.

After this last stop, the sun began to set, so we got back in the jeep and drove off the salt flat to our hostel.  Our day on the Salar was over, and the next two days would be spent exploring the high altitude plateau (altiplano) around it, which was somehow just as impressive as the salt flat itself.

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