On May 3rd we started our 4-day primitive extravaganza to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Yes, this is salt, not snow. Pinch me!
Perhaps the most sought-after Bolivian experience by backpackers and travelers alike is spending three or four days in a jeep traversing the incredible landscape of southwestern Bolivia. The main attraction is the salar, nearly 7,000 square miles of bright white landscape dotted with cactus and rock formations.
What Do I Mean By “Primitive”?
We drove 500 miles in four days all on unpaved surfaces. In fact, there were many times that we weren’t even driving on a road at all. We were literally in the middle of nowhere for days on end. There were a few pueblos located in strategic places along the route with the sole purpose of supporting this popular tourist trek. These pueblos provided basic nighttime accommodations for tour groups like ours, and our cook – along with the other cooks – used the kitchens to prepare our food for each day.
At night the electricity turned off at 9:00 pm and it never came on in the morning. We bunked in rooms with at least four people and shared one bathroom for up to 13 people. We didn’t have any heat and trust me, it was cold! The temps got down to freezing two of the nights. Forget about showering. We were lucky if the toilets flushed.
While the accommodations were bare-bones, the tour, the people and the scenery more than made up for the saggy mattresses, frigid temperatures and long bathroom lines.
Our International Peeps
There were 13 of us in three jeeps. Lilia (our Canadian friend), Harry and I were in one jeep with Laurie, a Chinese woman living in Paris. Our driver was a 24 year-old Bolivian named Antonio who has been working the circuit for five years. The cook also rode in our jeep with us. There were two British backpackers and one German in another jeep, and the third jeep was filled with a French family — mom, dad, two young kids, grandma and grandpa. The family of four is traveling around the world for one year! We had fun playing card games with them at night and being goofy with them during the day.
We drove up and out of Tupiza and immediately felt worlds away from the small western town. Our wildlife safari began almost immediately when we saw five condors flying above the edge of the canyon. Antonio actually pulled over and jumped out to take a picture, making us realize what a special occurrence it was. (Credit to Lilia for the condor photo). Everyday we saw countless numbers of alpaca and their vicuna cousins roaming on the varied terrain.
We saw sand dunes one minute and high mountain, snow-covered peaks the next.
This massive peak was in our sites for quite a while and it was fun to watch it get bigger and bigger the closer we got. We stopped to walk around the ruins and we were quickly out of breath due to the high altitude. I’d never been at 13,000 feet before! For reference, Mt Hood in Oregon is 11,200 feet. Our hearts worked overtime to pump oxygen into our bodies and we were all a little dizzy.
Shortly after the ruins we reached our high point of the trip at just over 15,000 feet. Woohoo!
It was cold sleeping at 14,000 feet! I went to bed wearing most of my clothes and slept inside my sleeping bag, under the covers. The weight of the several heavy wool army blankets made turning over a real challenge.
Damn, it was hard to get out of our sleeping bags because it was so cold! Luckily we had each other to cuddle with in the jeep, because wouldn’t you know it — there wasn’t heat in there, either. Our first stop of the day was the Llama Hotel.
Later that day we had our first glimpse of a salt field, a sign of things to come. We just couldn’t get over how quickly the landscape changed.
We visited an area of impressive geothermal activity and felt like we were on the moon.
The minerals in Bolivia’s soil are rich and varied, turning the lakes different colors. This lagoon was literally red. And yes, those are pink flamingos!
We played card games in the evening before the lights went out, and it should be noted that some of us got a little competitive. It’s no wonder that the young French kids stuck to playing UNO with their grandparents.
We saw a petrified tree and played on some big boulders. Behind Harry is the semi-active Ollague volcano, which sits on the border of Chile and Bolivia. Unfortunately you can’t see the smoke spewing out of it’s top. We visited another lake with more flamingos, had a picnic from the back of the jeeps, and marveled at the hard, rough green lichen growing on the rocks.
We spent our last night at the Salt Hotel, and guess what? The bricks for the walls, beds, tables and chairs were all made out of salt! I felt like a princess in a palace…. we all know how much I love salt. And no, I didn’t try to lick the walls. I was happy to discover that salt bricks have an insulating factor which meant that it wasn’t ridiculously cold inside.
We left the Salt Hotel at 5:00 am and drove an hour to catch the sunrise from the top of a coral island. On the way there we officially drove onto the salar. Antonio turned off the headlights for 10 minutes and drove in the dark using the light from the moon reflecting on the salar to guide him.
Bundled up (but still freezing cold) we watched the sunrise. What a spectacular, special experience.
We hiked back down for breakfast and hot tea. To warm ourselves up we played soccer on the salar as the sun rose in the sky. Two of my favorite things: soccer and salt! That’s when things started to get a little surreal.
I’ve got this guy in the palm of my hand…
And that, my friends, is the story of our 4-day primitive extravaganza across southern Boliva. We will always be inspired and humbled by this experience. Viva Bolivia!