Uyuni, Bolivia: Stop at the Salt Flats

When Emme came to visit us in Cusco, we had a discussion about post-vacation afterglow. For most Americans, an international trip means you’ve just dropped a ton of money and at least half of your vacation time.  And when you only have a week or two to travel, you’re probably going to places you’re already excited about. This combo results in people usually loving every vacation they take. (As you’d hope!)

The reason I bring this up is that we realized that since we have months and months and no itinerary, this phenomenon doesn’t really apply. Sometimes we wander aimlessly, and because of that we feel okay about not liking places, and it doesn’t negatively impact our trip. The truth is that we’ve mostly loved the places we’ve visited…but this blog is about a time that this wasn’t the case.

Before Brett and I left, we made a brief bucket-list of places we’d love to see during our trip. Some we scheduled way in advanced, and sort of planned our trip around (e.g. Inca Trail, W Trek, Milford Track), and others were more pipe dreams. One of those dreams was seeing the Uyuni Salt Flats in Southwestern Bolivia.  Uyuni is a tiny, extremely remote city that hosts the world’s largest salt flat (it’s the same size as the big island of Hawaii), which is a landscape unlike anywhere else in the world. Within our Peru Hop ticket, we were able to schedule exactly enough time to get to La Paz, fly to Uyuni, do a 3 day tour of the area, and get back to Peru in time to meet our friends in Cusco. There was no room for missed connections.

On the afternoon of the 9th of March, Brett and I were in a 6 hour bus between Chivay and Puno, Peru. We were making our way to Puno in order to catch the early bus to La Paz, Bolivia the next morning. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Puno we realized that we were still missing several of the documents necessary in order to secure our Bolivian tourist visas at the border the next day. There is a reciprocity process in place for Americans due to the thorough documentation and high fees we require from Bolivian citizens to enter our country. Every single piece of info we require, they require. This includes: an exit ticket from the country, hotel confirmation, itinerary, credit card statements, passport copies, passport photos, and $160 in crispy-fresh USD. Brett was able to assemble most of everything on his laptop and get our hostel to print it out, and the passport photos we were luckily able to secure at the border crossing. Once again, the guides on the Peru-now-Bolivia Hop busses were very helpful. It was a huge relief when it was over and we made it to La Paz in time to catch our plane to Uyuni early the next morning.

It felt pretty luxurious to hop on our 45 minute plane, instead of slugging our way to Uyuni on the 9 hour overnighter. As we landed, all you could see in any direction was dust, with the exception of the small dirt streets and brick buildings of Uyuni. We taxied in to the main street and popped into a couple tourist agencies before choosing one that seemed reasonably priced and could take us on a 3 day tour leaving just an hour later. Since we knew that tour was what we wanted, we booked it, grabbed some wet wipes and Jalepeno Pringles for the road and hopped in our 4 wheeler.

We quickly found out we were the only English-speakers in our car, with the rest of our group made of an author from Spain, and three girls from France. Our driver/”guide” also only spoke Spanish, so you can imagine that Brett and I got a whole lot of practice over the 3 days we spent cooped up with everyone. We started the first day at the Uyuni Train Graveyard, which was so contaminated with litter it actually reeked. We stopped for an hour in the little town that operates the salt mines on the flat, and avoided buying the cheapo souvenirs we’d now seen hundreds of times. Someone told us because of the high rains, we wouldn’t be able to drive into the Salt Flats at all, and our tour would just stop at a Salt Hotel and turn around. Brett and I kept exchanging “what did we get ourselves into” looks. Finally, we barreled back into the car, and started our next trip to our next destination, which was incredible. Our driver barely narrated what was going on, but after a couples minutes on a dirt road, the car was suddenly submerged in a foot and a half of water. We realized the Salt Hotel that we were going to for lunch was actually about 2 miles into the salt flats (aka Salar de Uyuni), and that we’d get to see them after all. As we drove deeper into the flats, the water got shallower and clearer, and the coastline disappeared. Toyota Land Cruisers dotted the horizon like little ants, and it felt like we were in some Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang type of situation.

We pulled up to a building that came out of nowhere – made entirely of salt, and our driver set out a picnic lunch for us on a salt block table. He gave us about an hour to take pictures afterwards, and Brett and I had so much fun using forced perspective and the water’s reflection. We had bought flip flops to walk around in, but they kicked the water up on our clothes and turned our entire pants crusty white. By the time we got back in the car, it felt like we were entirely wrapped in a thin layer of salt. We drove back out to the coast, and watched the sunset over the endless, shallow sea. It rivaled the one in Huacachina. We got dropped off at a hostel back in town, and because Brett and I were the only married couple in our group, we got our own room (MARRIAGE RULEZ!).  The hostel owners served us a huge dinner, and after rinsing all the salt off, I slept pretty soundly.

We got up early the next day and loaded back up in the cruiser to start about 8 hours of off-roading deep into the desert. Imagine sitting scrunched up in a car with 6 other people on a bumpy road for that long; it is exactly as pleasant as it sounds. There were some cool stops along the way: packs of vicuña, Mars-like rocks, flamingos in a lake the color of wine. But Brett and I agreed that the landscape probably wasn’t worth the amount of dirt we inhaled, or having to listen to this song six times in an hour. We rolled into our very rural hostel just before dinner and played a round of Cheers, Governor in Spanish (which I was so pumped about – it’s a common game in both Spain and France too) while drinking terrible Bolivian beers. The day continued to improve over dinner with our group sharing our spirit animals and listening to two super tiny boys sing Despacito. And when it got dark, it was the most amazing starry sky I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, check out this picture that Brett took. Incredible.

We had to wake up around 4 AM the next morning to make it to the geysers in time for the sunrise. Our entire group was packed up and ready to go, but because another group’s 4-wheeler was totally stalled, we had to wait around in the freezing cold for about 45 minutes while our driver tried to help. Luckily, we made it to the geysers in time for the sunrise, and it was like something from another planet. Some of the geysers shot out cool air, which was weird, and the bright, flat sunlight shining on the steam created the most amazing shadows. The rest of the day consisted of the long, 8-hour haul back to Uyuni. We stopped a few times to stretch our legs and check out more weird rocks (like the rock tree!), and strange colored lakes. Somewhere in between my phone fell out of my pocket, and our driver was unwilling/unable to drive the 40 minutes back to the last stop to find it. Unfortunately, because we were in the middle of nowhere, there was no other way to hitch a ride back, or call another driver, and so this marked the end of my phone’s life.

We made it back to Uyuni with just enough energy to shower and crawl into bed. Brett and I had booked a room at maybe the weirdest place yet. Our room was clearly a bathroom they turned into a bedroom, with a tile wall on one side and a shower right next to the bed. The ceiling was painted green and brown, like someone had thrown a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream on it. It didn’t matter – we were pooped.

The next day our flight wasn’t out until the evening, so we walked up and down the main street popping into tourist agencies to see if someone had turned in my phone. They hadn’t. Most people laughed us out of their shops. I got really good at saying “I lost my phone yesterday” in Spanish. I downed my sorrows in a pizza lunch and pizza dinner. Brett dropped his kindle on the ground and cracked the screen. Since bad things happen in threes, our plane was delayed over an hour due to “high winds”. In the time we saw two other planes come and go. It was kind of infuriating.

The silver lining is that our plane did eventually leave, and we made it back to La Paz in time to sleep for a few hours before yet another early morning bus. Our next stop was Cusco, to meet up with our amazing friends Emme and Dan! We had never been more excited to get to the next place.



9 thoughts on “Uyuni, Bolivia: Stop at the Salt Flats

  1. Who knew you could fit into a pringles can?! Love the pictures and jealous of that sunset, starscape and playing Cheers Governor in Spanish!!


  2. We feel like a couple of little mice in your pockets. Enjoying the journey with amazing pictures and great stories. Can’t wait to hear about New Zealand.

    Liked by 1 person

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