When we left on this trip, neither of us had heard about the Solar, the largest and highest salt flats in the world. En route, several travelers had told us not to miss it, and they were right. To get there we took a bus to Oruro, and then a train to the town of Uyuni, at the edge of the flats. The train was delayed and we didn't get in until close to midnight. We lugged our bags to one end of town to the Hotel Tonito, close to the army base. It looked closed, but we banged on the door for a few minutes and someone finally came to let us in. We had made a reservation for this place in LaPaz, and it was nothing to rave about. In the morning we had breakfast at Minute Man Pizza, adjoining the hotel. This turned out to be quite a hospitable eatery, run by an American from Amhearst Massachusetts, and his Bolivian wife. They had various organic treats, and seemed to be the one place in Uyuni where you didn't have to worry about the food making you sick.
The small town has broad streets with low buildings and reminded me of the American west. It used to be a major railroad crossing, and is still a small commercial hub for southern Bolivia. The major business seems to be tourism, with many agencies and guide shops. While Nanette chatted with George, the owner of Minuteman, I went around to various guide services to check out jeep trips. This particular year the flats were flooded with up to two feet of water, and we heard that the tours just went out for a few hours, and then came back to town on the same day before driving around to see other sites. I talked to a few other visitors on the streets who said that there was one company that was still taking people all the way across. This appealed to my more risk taking, age denying side, and I booked a 3 days trip for the two of us at $60 a piece. I was not about to be deterred by a little water. The agent said they were leaving in an hour, and would not be running another trip for a few days. We had not planned to leave so soon, but this seemed too good to pass up. I practically ran back to the retaurant to get Nanette, and we checked out of the hotel in record time.
When we returned to the tiny tour office, there were young people from Switzerland and Sweden and a couple of Brazilians, but we were the only Americans. Naturally, the guides were not ready to leave for more than an hour. Hurry up and wait. A women from the office finally showed us where the jeeps were parked, not one but two, and there were already several people packed into one of them. Clearly, I wasn't the only risk taker here, though we were the two oldest by far. Both of the vehicles looked as if they had seen better days. Each was at least 20 years old and extremely discolored, presumably from the salt. Another hour was spent trying to jump start one of the jeeps. Not an auspicious beginning. I wondered what would happen if we got stuck in the middle of the Solar. Eventually they got the engine started, and our first stop was the railroad graveyard outside of town. There were several engines and rusty cars that looked to be 50 to 100 years old, remnants of Uyuni's more prosperous years as a shipping and railroad center.
The tracks appeared to go nowhere.
Next stop was a little further out of town where our driver stopped to pack the engine. What is that, you ask? I didn't know either, but the driver pulled up various weeds and plants from the arid soil and placed them around the engine to protect it from the salt.
At last, we were ready to begin. In front of us the salt flats stretched on for miles, as far as we could see. The sky was a deep blue, and the water acted as a mirror which reflected it. At first, the water was about a foot deep and did not present any major problems. We drove across, creating a small wake as the salt quickly crusted over the windshield. After a few minutes it became impossible to see out, and I wondered how the driver knew which direction to go in since everything looked the same, and there appeared to be few landmarks. Every 5 or 10 minutes he would toss the contents of a bottle of water onto the windshield, so that he could get a quick look before the salt built up again. Perhaps this was enough to find the way. I hoped so anyway. We had to roll down our windows to see anything from the back seats, but as soon as we did the salt coated our faces. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bottom was pure white and flat, except for small ridges that had been formed by the water sloshing on the top.
The air was very clear as were about 3800 meters high, or 13,000 feet. There were several snow capped mountains visible off to one side, but other than that, it seemed like a vast emptiness of white and blue, a giant reflecting pool disorienting in its intensity. We saw only a few other vehicles, but in an hour or two, we came to a small island where there were several other jeeps, a hotel, and a restaurant, all constructed of salt.
The water was shallower here, about 6 inches, and the mounds of salt looked like snow. It was a fantastical scene. The hotel was surrounded by multicolored flags, people from various parts of the world, and located in what appeared to be an endless white plain in the middle of nowhere. I was giddy as I ran from one pile of salt to the next, trying to take it all in, and posing for the camera as Nanette snapped pictures.
During lunch we met people from other tours, all of which, save ours, were turning back at this point. Maybe they knew something we didn't. It was close to three before we started off again on our journey to nowhere. Our driver and guide sat in the front seat talking in Spanish and chewing on coca leaves. After a while, we seemed to loose track of the other jeep, but our guides didn't seem concerned. As the afternoon wore on, clouds built up and we began to hear thunder and see lightening in the distance. This was also reflected in the water, creating a double image of jagged flashes in a sea that was dark on one side and orange-pink on the other.
By now, the water was about two feet deep, and reached almost to the top of the exhaust. Not good, I thought, as the jeep could easily stall out. Our driver and guide began to talk a bit more heatedly, and seemed unsure of where to go. For all we knew, they had driven around in one big circle. As we drove on, the storm seemed to move closer, and the wind picked up forming small whitecaps.
It also started to get colder. Were we lost?
At a certain point our jeep did indeed did stall out, and I wondered if this had been such a good idea after all. Perhaps as the other tour guides had told me, it was too dangerous to make it across under these conditions. After about 15 minutes it was obvious that the engine was not going to start, despite valiant attempts, and our guide began to make preparations to leave the jeep.
We had been told before we left that at some point, we would have to walk across in the water, but somehow this did not seem part of the plan. There was no shoreline in sight and the water came up almost to the doors. And where was the other jeep? I was in no hurry to get out, and start wading in salt water in the middle of an electrical storm . It seemed too dangerous. It was more prudent to sit tight until the storm passed. In back of us, the two young Swedish doctors in their mid 20' began to cry when it became obvious that the jeep was not going to move again. They thought we were done for. I was a little more sanguine, having been through other close calls, and tried to console them. Our guide took out a small raft and loaded several jerry cans of gasoline on top. He told us that there was a third jeep on the opposite shoreline, not yet visible, which was going to meet us, but that we needed to get there before dark. By now it was close to 6 and the daylight was fading quickly. He explained that normally we could get closer to the shoreline before we had to walk, but now the water was too deep, and the walk would be longer than planned. As these preparations were under way, our companions arrived in jeep number two. We all let out a big cheer. It seemed then that we were not lost, or at least we were all lost together.
By the time the driver of the 2nd jeep had made his preparations, the storm had moved off and was no longer directly overhead. This was a good thing. At least we would be less likely to be struck by lightening. I had forgotten to get my shorts out of my pack, and decided to just strip down to my underwear, to avoid getting my only pair of long pants wet while walking to shore. We all got out, and everyone got a kick out seeing me, altacocker (old fart) that I am, standing in the water in my underwear and rain jacket, along with my red pack
Vagabonding at 60 indeed, well at this point 57. What was I thinking? Everyone took scandalous pictures of my semi-naked bod, and we all laughed hysterically. It provided a bit of comic relief in what was a rather tense situation. With our trustworthy (we hoped) guide in the the lead, we started to trekking towards shore. I looked back and wondered how they would ever get the jeep started, but by then, that was the least of my concerns. Most of us were barefoot or were wearing sandals, and the bottom was slippery. It was not easy walking in several feet of water, and we got chilled quickly as the sun went down. After a while, and it felt like a long while, we could make out the shoreline in the distance The storm had more or less blown itself out, but the cloud formations were hallucinogenic in the pink light. We must have walked for an hour or more, and could see a small spit of land jutting out into the salt flats. Sure enough, there was another jeep at the end of it, flashing its lights so that we could see the way across the darkening water. Eventually we all made it, shivering as we got back into the jeep. This one seemed in much better condition than the last one. I guess this wasn't going to be a suicidal mission after all. For a time, I wasn't sure. Our destination was another salt hotel about ½ hour drive up the shoreline. We arrived just as the last light of day was extinguished. The tables and chairs were also made of salt and so were the beds.
Luckily, not the pillows and the mattresses. There was no electricity, but in the dining room they had gas lanterns that put out a friendly glow. In our room, we used candles. Nanette was feeling pretty sick and took a nap before dinner, hoping the Cipro she had taken earlier would work. Cipro is a broad spectrum antibiotic which is good for stomach issues in third world countries. We never leave home without it. Dinner was served about an hour later, and consisted of some kind of greasy meat of unknown origin, and a vegetable soup made with Andean rice, or quinoa, which is a staple in these parts because of its hardiness. I was feeling queasy myself, and just had a little soup. Nanette ate almost nothing. We all went to bed early, tired after the adventures of the day.
The next morning, practically everyone was sick. Good thing I didn't eat much. Nanette was a little better than the previous evening, but still not feeling well. We had a long day of travel over very rough tracks to get to our next destination, which was a national park further into a remote and higher section of the Altiplano. This was some of the wildest country I had ever seen. Snow covered volcanoes amidst the dry soil, it was a very sparsely populated high desert.
Again I was reminded of the American west, but on an even bigger scale.
There were weird rock formations, multicolored, and worn away by wind and water into strange shapes and sizes.
A Bit of Snow
It was windy most of the time and chilly in the thin air. Periodically the jeep would get stuck and we'd all have to get out and push. At one point we had to cross a muddy stream that looked several feet deep with soft sand all around. I wasn't sure the jeep would make it, but after scouting around for a while our driver found the best place to cross, while we hopped from boulder to boulder to get to the other side. We stopped for lunch at some rock formations that provided a little shelter from the wind, and waited while the guide fired up a kerosene stove in the back of the jeep to heat up our food. By this time I was hungry and gobbled up the basic grilled cheese sandwiches, hoping for the best. We continued all afternoon without seeing another vehicle, and climbed higher as we approached the park. We passed lakes of different colors, red and green. The guide told us it was because of the minerals. The red one had a number of flamingos who looked strangely out of place in this non-tropical moonscape. Nothing lived in the green lake because it contained too much arsenic.
We arrived at the park huts as it was getting dark. It was really cold now, close to freezing, and we didn't carry sleeping bags with us, unlike several of the other travelers. Luckily, Manuel, our guide, took pity on us old folks and gave us several warm blankets. Although we didn't pass any vehicles on the way, it was crowded inside, and for a little while it wasn't even clear whether there would be enough room. Eventually though, they crammed us all into one big room and we each got a bed. Dinner was served by lantern light, and there was more quinoa soup and some kind of chicken. Oh well, we weren't here for the food. I awoke the next morning, after a fitful night, to about two inches of snow that dusted everything with white, and made it look even more surreal. We left before dawn, and our first stop just as the sun was coming up, was the site of several large steam vents blowing through the rocks.
A couple of the largest were colored by minerals, and must of have been 20 or 30 feet high. We stomped around in the cold air, listening to the whooshing of the earth as our breath made steam vents in the cold air. With all the condensation, snow on the ground, and the sun filtering through the mist, it was an other worldly inferno.
An hour later we stopped at some shallow hot springs. Most of the group refused to go in because of the freezing temperatures, but maybe because of years of getting naked in a a hot-tub in the northeast winters in upstate New York, we had no hesitation. And it was worth every minute. The water was warm enough to be comfortable, and the view before us was of high mountains and a small lake. The enormous sense of space, and the warmth of the bath were enough to make me forget the difficulty of getting here. It was good to give my bones a rest in this spiritual place.
From here we drove on to another bright green laguna, empty of all life because of the toxic minerals, but captivating to look at.
It was surrounded by mountains devoid of vegetation. From there we continued on to the Chilean border, where about half of our group got out and waited for the bus to meet them at the guard house and bring them back to civilization. The rest of us had another long bumpy jeep ride back to Uyuni, but there were many more interesting sights along the way, including one area, known as the Dali rocks.
Slowly we started to come to signs of civilization, and eventually got to a small Indian village where we got out for a break. There was an escarpment past the village giving it some cover from the harshness of the land, and for some unknown reason a ten foot tall wooden chicken sat in the center of town.
We stopped for candy bars in the tienda, and sat next to the chicken while children unused to seeing gringos stared at us.
Deciding Whether to Eat the Candy we Gave Him
We still had another two hours, but the ride went quickly as we talked politics to our Brazilian friends, 19 and 20, who were incredibly well informed for their age, and spoke English, Spanish, and, Italian fluently, as well as their native Portuguese. When we arrived back in Uyuni we took a shower and headed straight for Minuteman. Pizza never tasted so good.
The next day we rested up for the overnight train ride to the Argentine border, and contemplated the experience of the preceding few days. Despite being sick, they were without a doubt, one of the highlights of our trip