There’s a place, near the top of the world where endless expanses of blue sky meet an endless blanket of white. The place is surreal, incredible, gorgeous…. It’s like no other place on earth and you almost feel like, if you could jump high enough, that you could reach heaven.
God truly had a special plan in mind when he created the salt flats outside of the Bolivian town of Uyuni. An endless expanse of white crystals that stretch on for miles and at the center reaches a depth of 150 meters. In case you’re wondering, thats a lot of salt.
I first saw a picture of Salar de Uyuni about 5 years ago and it was immediately placed at the top of my bucket list. Like I said before, the place looked surreal, and the photography opportunities seemed endless. It was a special kind of paradise.
Over these last few months, as I planned my return to Bolivia I have to admit, there was a piece of me that hoped that sometime during my 10 months in the country an opportunity would pop up for me to visit the salt flats, I had no idea it would come only a week after my arrival.
When I arrived at HOH there were 4 other volunteers. Two of them, Angus and Allison had already been here for two months. They’d traveled around the country and had made a failed attempt at getting to Salar de Uyuni, so before Angus left last week they wanted to try one more time. I just happened to arrive at the perfect time.
So, two fridays ago, a week to the day since I arrived in Bolivia we packed up our backpacks and boarded a bus to Oruro and then a train to Uyuni. It was a long travel day to say the least and it included a dramatic change in both altitude and temperature. We left the spring-like climate of Cochabamba and were greated by 40 degree temperatures in Uyuni. Brrrrrrr.
The next morning, after making a quick stop at our tour companies office, and at the market to buy necessities like water and toilet paper, we all loaded into a Toyota 4×4 along with an Aussie guy named Scott and headed out into the flats with a brief stop at a train cemetery and a salt processing factory along the way.
The company gave us a bag of props to use for pictures so we had a lot of fun taking perspective shots on the flats.
After eating lunch in a retired salt hotel, taking a bazillion pictures and watching our driver/guide/cook Orlando fix our flat tire we headed deeper into the flats, making a stop at Fish Island, which is covered in giant Cacti, and thankfully, had a bathroom.
After our hike, we drove further into the flats, and further away from the horde of other tour groups. This gave us a chance to stop and really take some fun we’re in the middle of nowhere photos, and also gave us a chance to see the sunset over the flats. So gorgeous.
That first night our accommodations were pretty awesome. We got to stay in a salt hotel just to the side of the salt flats. Literally everything was made of salt. The walls, chairs, tables, beds (although we had a real mattress thankfully), it was pretty awesome.
The next morning we took off into a landscape beyond the salt flats, skirting the border of Chile for most of the day. Our first stop was at the ancient lava fields of an active volcano, half in Bolivia, half in Chile. If you looked really close you could see a little plume of steam rising from the west side of the volcano, but don’t worry, it didn’t erupt.
Then we were onto the first of many lagoons, and I got my first glimpse of my highly anticipated flamingos. The setting couldn’t have been more gorgeous. Aside from the fact that the locals call it “Stinky Lake” (in spanish of course) because of the lakes sulfur content, the surrounding high peaks and bright pink flamingos made the location perfect.
After lunch we were off again, and we truly learned why these tours are taken in 4×4’s. The landscape and driving was pretty rough, climbing over rocks and falling into holes, but our next 2 stops were totally worth it. First we made a brief stop at the Stone Tree. Formed from a rock that had been worn away over time by wind and erosion, it was a pretty cool site to see, then we were off to an even cooler stop, Laguna Colorada, aka Red Lake. Yes ladies in gentleman, it’s not a photoshop job, the lake really is that red. It looked as though someone dumped a million cans of Campbell’s tomato soup in it, incredible.
After a long day of driving, the laguna was our last stop and we drove 5 minutes to our hotel for the night, which was unfortunately made of bricks, not salt. The hostel itself was entirely unimpressive other than the fact that we froze our butts off. When we woke up at 4:30 the next morning (a ridiculously early start) it was well below freezing, and as we took off into the martian landscape I couldn’t help but notice we were driving over frozen puddles. Brrrr.
We drove up, and up and up until we finally reached an altitude of 5,000 meters (aka 16,404 for you Americans), enter altitude sickness, fun. As Orlando was explaining the altitude we managed to run over a boulder, yes a boulder, but the 4×4 handled it. That’s one tough vehicle!
Our first stop for the day was only a couple minutes past the 5,000 meter point at some geysers. We got out to take some pictures, and the minute my foot touched the ground I immediately wanted to jump back inside. It was freezing. Take the below freezing temperature and add a 40 mph wind on top of that and you get a mighty cold atmosphere. So, I snapped a couple pictures and two minutes later I was back in the SUV, shivering and waiting for my crazy friends to return.
I didn’t have to stay cold for very long because our next stop was at a natural hot spring. Yes the few minutes between taking off my layers and jumping into the water was a bit cold, but the temperature of the water couldn’t have been better. We didn’t want to get out! Alas, we had a 30 minute time limit, bummer. And once we’d put all of our layers on again we were off driving through the Dali desert and on to Laguna Verde and the border of Chile.
An interesting fact about the Laguna, no flamingos live in it because it gets it’s unnatural green color from Aresenic. The lake is full of it, so don’t get to close! The color of the water was less than impressive while we were there because apparently it was the wrong time of the day, but again, it was cold and windy so I only stayed out to take pictures for a minute.
After the lake we were supposed to drop Scott of at the Chile Border crossing, an activity I was really looking forward to because you actually have to cross into Chile to get to the guard post (hello, country 37!), but, since he was the only one in our car going to Chile he was moved to another car to save time. So instead, I was forced to look at Chile, a mere 500 feet away, as we turned around and began the long trek back to Uyuni. It was a day devoid of sites, except for a herd of llamas that showed up when we took a break for lunch, so we were just able to rest as we rode back.
We had to spend a few, freezing, hours in Uyuni before we were able to board our 1 am train back to Oruro and once we reached Oruro the next morning we were greated with a blockade, a common site in Bolivia. Usually they occur only in specific cities, but this blockade was a national one, so we weren’t able to get a bus back to Cochabamba until that evening. We spent the day wandering around Oruro, but unless you’re there during Carnival there really isn’t anything to see.
It’s crazy to me to think I was able to have this incredible adventure my first week in Bolivia. I feel so blessed by everything God has given to me so far, and I’m excited to share with you about the adventure I was able to go on this past weekend as well, and even more I’m excited to share about the ministry that’s going on here. So stay tuned. I have more to come!