The most important thing that needs to be said about this part of my trip is that going to Bolivia and not visiting the salt flats is like going to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. Overall, Bolivia is a gorgeous country with landscapes to die for, but this area and the desert surrounding it seem to be from a fairytale world. An extremely dry and salty fairytale world.
We went on a three days tour that took us from Uyuni, Bolivia all the way down to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The salt flats tours can be booked in many places including La Paz, Sucre and Potosi. Since this place is so important to the Bolivian tourism, information about it can be found everywhere in the country. Our tour was included in the big tour we bought from La Paz to Santiago (which took us through Sucre and Potosi), but the prices that are offered are around 800 Bolivianos for the 3 days.
The train cemetery
The first stop on day one is the train cemetery located near Uyuni. A while back, Bolivia used many trains for exporting. They are now abandoned at the edge of this small town. Old, retired trains are just sitting around in the desert with no other purpose than tourism enjoyment. I must say it is a pretty awesome place but at the same time a very sad one too. Sheldon Cooper would be devastated if he saw this (Big Bang Theory reference).
Right at the edge of the Salt Flats there is a little area where people still produce and sell salt. From my understanding, in the 80s this place used to be a large industrial place for salt but in the meantime it just became a tourist place. Probably the economics weren’t very good for this particular mineral?
The little bumps of salt are actually man made. They come and scratch the flats as soon as it starts drying and they make these little hills. After a while, they transport them to those who produce the comestible salt. Most of the producers are locals that they keep the salt in their backyards for a few weeks so it can dry. Afterwards, they grind it, mix it with iodium and package it. From what I remember, 48 packages of salt are sold with $1 US, which is pretty much nothing in the great scale of things.
The perspective and the Salt Flats
A short description of the Salt Flats is basically a sea of white. Tens of thousands of years ago, this area used to be a very large sea. Then the Andes started developing and the plateau started to raise higher and higher, up to 3646 meters where it stands right now. So, the sea went dry leaving behind all the salt to cover the ground. There is still some water under this salt blanket and in some places it comes out through small patches called popularly “eyes of the Salar”.
The coolest thing about the salt flats are the perspective pictures. With a white sea at your feet is very easy to play around with the perspective of things and have for example a dinosaur chasing you. It takes a while to getting used to taking these pictures but once you get it, it becomes amazingly fun!
Island in the sun
Incahuasi and Sajchilla are the two major islands located in the middle of the salt flats. All tours go by one or another. We stopped by Incahuasi, which is also called the Cactus Island. I think the very tall cacti gave the name away. Fun fact of the day: each cactus grows one centimeter a year. The tallest was at 12 meters but it died before we got to visit the island. The second tallest was 9 meters which gives it an age of approximately 900 years. I’ll just let that sink in…
From the island the Thunupa volcano can be see in the horizon. The story we received from our guide about it is that this volcano was a woman who fell in love with a boy from a different tribe. Their families didn’t approve of the union and decided to separate them, but it was too late as she was already pregnant. She had the baby but it was taken from her and she became so sad that one day she laid down and passed away. Before passing away her milk spilled so that’s how the salt flats came to be. But, if you look in the horizon you can see her body shape as she lays sleeping forever. Very Romeo and Juliettish if you ask me… Of course that depending on who you ask, there are other versions of the legend.
Just a sundown in the horizon
Our last stop on day one was a very small and simple hostel at the edge of the salt flats. They only had electricity for a few hours and paid showers, but they did have the most amazing homemade dinner in the world – soup, fried chicken and baked potatoes. That sounds to me as the receipt for a great night sleep. In the cold, of course.
We woke up early in the morning to see the sunrise right from our window. Lucy, the lama we renamed at this hostel joined us for this great event, but that’s a story for the desert day.