Prehistoric lakes. Rare flamingos. Otherworldly vistas. The Uyuni Salt Flats and Atacama Desert is no doubt, an unforgettable trip.
It’s also one of the most grueling. Jungle trekking through the Amazon seemed like a cakewalk in comparison. In fact, the trip just to get to Uyuni was fairly arduous. We spent 11 hours on an overnight bus from La Paz. Over half the time, a bumpy, dirt road rattled our bodies long after the trip was over.
Around 7am, we arrived bleary-eyed in Uyuni, the gateway town to the infamous salt flats and Atacama Desert. After a desperately needed cafe con leche, we headed to the office of Licancabur Tours. Luckily, we managed to snag the last two spots on a tour heading out that day.
Within the hour, the rest of our group arrived in Uyuni. There was Jorge, an artist/sculptor from Spain who was hoping to find inspiration for a new art installation. Takashi, a grad student from Japan, who was several months into a three-year sabbatical around the world. Sandro and Seraina, a sweet couple from Switzerland who both worked as professors. And last but not least, Estaban, our fearless guide and driver. Quintessentially tough, he embodied the strong, resilient spirit of the Bolivian people.
Around 9am, we piled into “Little Black,” the SUV that would take us from the town of Uyuni into the wild, rugged desert plateau.
Groggy from our overnight trip, it was hard to believe that instead of going to sleep, we were embarking on our cross-country adventure. Luckily, our group instantly bonded. Everyone was polite, easy-going — both interesting and interested. It made the drive across the Andean Plateau much more manageable. Despite the challenges ahead, everyone was excited about the trip. Group dynamics are important on any tour, but especially one that involves adapting to less-than-ideal situations. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more positive group to share our experience with.
Our first stop was the Cementerio de Trenes (train cemetery). Just 10 minutes from Uyuni, abandoned trains lie in the middle of nowhere. Old tracks still remain where trains formerly transported minerals to ports along the Pacific Ocean. A once thriving railway network, now a barren wasteland.
Next, we headed to the main attraction for the day: the iconic Uyuni salt flats. Forty thousand years ago, this area of the earth was part of a huge prehistoric lake. After drying up, a few salt pools remained including what is now known as the Salar de Uyuni. At over 4,000 square miles, it’s the biggest salt flat in the world, containing 10 billion tons of salt with nearly 25,000 tons extracted annually.
The Uyuni salt flats are, in a word: magical.
After taking the obligatory perspective shots, we headed to Isla Incahuasi (“Home of the Incas.”) Located in the middle of the salt flats, the island was formed by an ancient volcano and is now home to centuries-old cacti. Passing a llama carcass (as if on a movie set), we entered the Cueva Galaxiz (“Galaxy Cave”) and Cueva del Diablo (“Devil’s Cave”). Unbelievably, these rock formations were created 225 million years ago. Located at the bottom of a steep ravine, Devil’s Cave is a pre-Inca burial site with offerings of coca leaves surrounding ominous mummified skeletons.
The next day, we hit the road at dawn to begin an action-packed day including volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and wildlife.
In Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, the country’s most visited protected area, our first stop was Laguna Hedionda. The “Stinking Lake” is a salt lake famous for its migratory pink and white flamingos. The name comes from the smell caused by its high sulfur content. But it wasn’t too bad and wow, was it beautiful.
Continuing on, we stopped in the speck village of San Juan where Estaban did some proactive car maintenance. Not exactly knowing how to help, we all just sat around watching him. Jorge and Sandro eventually bought some beers from the only store on the four building strip.
At some point, José, a boy around nine or ten years old, wandered over to us. Spotting my travel journal, he sat next to me as I drew a few caricatures of the group. I handed him the journal and without exchanging a word, he drew his own caricatures of Jorge and Brian. I gave him a thumbs up. He smiled and seemed quite proud of himself. When it was time to go, we reluctantly said goodbye to José. Driving off, I couldn’t help but wonder when the next tour group might be coming in to entertain him.
We soon arrived in a fascinating area where strong winds have shaped rocks into natural works of art.
The Siloli Desert contains the highly photographed Arbol de Piedra (“Stone Tree”). At over 16 feet, it’s a stunning natural wonder to see in person. The “rock sculpture” is the result of millions of years of erosion. It’s been declared a national monument to ensure it remains protected. Before leaving, we passed some time playing American football with a hat, launching it into the crazy winds. Not sure if it was cabin fever from the car or the supernatural surroundings, but we were all feeling a little kooky. For whatever reason, the seven of us flailing around in the desert chasing after a hat was pure entertainment.
We continued on to another spectacular salt lake in the Altiplano region, Laguna Colorado. The “Red Lake” gets its name from specific algae and minerals that give the water its amazing hue. It really plays tricks on your mind to see a vibrant, blood-red lake. A backdrop of snow-capped mountains puncturates the mystical lunar landscape, along with a plethora of flamingos – among them, the rare James’ Flamingo. This particular species is only found in the high Andean plateaus. Naturally white, the lake actually stains their feathers making them appear pink.
With the sun setting shortly, Estaban drove us to a stone hut in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, where we’d spending the night.
We’d hardly seen any other groups that day, but when we pulled up, there were several SUVs parked outside. Clearly, this was the only place to stay (literally) within a 200 mile radius. When we entered, we quickly realized there was no heat and only a couple of non-functioning toilets. This would be a challenging night.
Our group gathered with other travelers in the common area. Exhausted but elated, we exchanged stories of what we’d seen and experienced so far. Estaban, along with the other drivers, set to work preparing dinner for everyone. Within a few minutes, a steaming dish of spaghetti, accompanied by some hot soup, appeared. Jorge and Sandro graciously passed around the beer they’d bought earlier — along with some wine.
As the temperature began to drop, we drank more and added on more layers. Some time before midnight, we stumbled into our shared dorm room. We pushed our beds together, distributed blankets and huddled in one massive pile in an attempt to stay warm. The temperature dropped to an unspeakable 20 below zero Fahrenheit. It was just as cold when Estaban woke us up for our 4:30am departure time.
Not going to lie, it was a rough eight hours.
Our destination that morning was Sol de Mañana (“Morning Sun”), a volcanic area of steaming geysers and pools with boiling mud. When we arrived, we were shocked by how wide open the field was with absolutely no blockades. Visitors can easily wander around what is essentially a minefield of liquid danger. One terrifying misstep and you could find yourself in temperatures exceeding 400 degrees. Not a good way to go.
Next, we travelled through the Salvador Dali desert to reach Aguas Termales de Polques (“Polques Hot Springs”). For those willing to strip down in the sub-zero temperatures, momentarily relief can be found in these naturally heated, mineral-rich thermal pools. But getting in means eventually having to come out. Only three people in our group were up for the challenge. Brian, Jorge and Sandro took the plunge, leaving the rest of us quite envious as we watched, shivering on the edge of the pools.
Our last stop of the day was the Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde, respectively the “White Lake” and “Green Lake.” At 14,000 feet above sea level, these bodies of water are the highest mountain lakes on the planet. Our group stood taking in the surreal landscape. A wild coyote trotted by in the distance. While much of this area is about what you see, the way it makes you feel is a huge part of the experience. Foreign. Inaccessible. Isolated.
Less than an hour later, we arrived at the Bolivian border where we dropped off half the group.
Takashi, Sandro and Seraina were continuing on to Chile. Saying goodbye to them was like leaving family. We had shared so much in such a little time. It was profound and meaningful, and it would not be able to be recreated. We gave our final hugs. And just like that, went our separate ways.
Driving through the Altiplano swamplands, we didn’t think it was possible for the roads to get much worse. But if we learned one thing on this trip, it’s that things could always get worse. We finally reached our last destination for the day, the ghost town of San Antonio de Lipez. A once thriving mining town of 150,000 has now been reduced to ruins and rubble. Legend says that workers made a pact with the devil to get rich from mining. When they didn’t keep up their end of the bargain, they mysteriously died. Then, strange things began to happen — locals claimed to even see ghosts. Soon after, everyone abandoned the town.
Knowing that story, I’m not sure we were entirely on board with spending the night in nearby Nueva San Antonio. While hundreds of people supposedly live there, we didn’t see anyone wandering the streets except for a curious young girl, about six or seven years old. Wearing a bright fuchsia sweater that popped against the brown dirt, she seemed to appear out of nowhere. She watched us curiously and then disappeared. Perhaps she was a ghost…? We didn’t even see the owners of the home where we rented a room for the evening.
Once again, we found ourselves lying in a strange bed in a strange land feeling… well, strange.
We were very happy to make it through the night without incident (i.e. no apparitions of ghosts.) Our last day was supposed to be fairly uneventful. A peaceful drive through the Quebrada de Palala Valley… what could go wrong?
After breakfast, we hit the road. By this point, we were used to the bumpiness of the dirt and gravel roads. We stopped for a quick lunch – the llama meat making an appearance one last time – then continued on. For almost three hours, we didn’t see another person or vehicle. Suddenly, the road became significantly worse. Next thing we knew, there was a loud commotion. We had hit a massive pot hole. The front fender popped off, along with the corresponding tire and rim, and landed 100 feet away across a shallow ravine. Little Black came to an immediate stop.
While far from the first breakdown of the trip, this was the first time Estaban looked genuinely worried.
As he assessed the damage to the fender, Jorge and Brian headed to the other side of the bank to fetch the tire and rim. Somehow, Estaban managed to jerry-rig the tire and rim back on the car. His door remained permanently jammed which forced him to enter (and exit) through the window.
Three hours later, we were back on the road. We arrived at the viewpoint, El Sillar (“The Saddle”), with its unusual rock formations. The four of us stood there in awe and exhaustion. We didn’t talk about it, but it was obvious we were all feeling bad. Pretty sure the dried llama meat had finally caught up to us. After taking a few pictures, we hopped back in Little Black and made our way to civilization in Tupiza. Once there, Jorge hugged us close:
“Four days! It is like one whole year we’ve spent together, yes?”
We agreed and reminisced on all we had seen and experienced since leaving Uyuni. It had been unreal. But the most unreal thing? Estaban and Jorge got into Little Black to begin the trip back to Uyuni. Just imagining that arduous four-day drive all over again made us shudder.
We gave our final hugs. And just like that, went our separate ways.