June 8-10, 2019 San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni Salt Flats
Despite the late night of galaxy gazing, I managed to get some sleep and was excited to take the trip to the salt flats of Bolivia. One of the best parts about this trip was that I did very little research and I also tried to ignore too many descriptions from the tour agency personnel. I wanted it to be a journey of discovery. I wanted to be surprised. I was picked up from the hostel at about 6:30am and after picking up a few more people we headed to the Bolivian border a mere 20 minutes away. We had a diverse group of three Italians (one of Japanese origin) and a French couple and then myself. It’s always interesting meeting new people on this type of trip and one never knows if deep friendships will be formed, or if you’ll just stay acquaintances, or if you’ll never hear from each other again. I am happy to say we had an awesome cohesive group. More on the cast of characters later.
Twenty minutes later we were at the Bolivian border in gridlocked traffic. No one was moving. Why? The Chilean Carabinieri was not at his post yet. He literally held the keys to the border (a rudimentary metal swing gate). So our guide nonchalantly declared we were having breakfast by the side of the road. He got his little table out and we feasted on bread, some fruit, juice and of course coffee, all in the midst of trucks. As soon as the Carabinieri appeared we gulped our last sip of coffee and packed everything back into the van.
The Chilean border station was a decent building that we passed through. It was just a usual document check and we were through. Then we met our Bolivian driver Freddy who would also be our guide for the next three days. I should call him Superman. He was the nicest, most competent, patient guide you could have in the middle of nowhere (yeah, the high deserts of Bolivia and then the salt flats all make you feel so small and insignificant).
The Bolivian immigration was nothing like the Chilean. Being a US citizen meant much more scrutiny and I had paid the highest visa fee out of all our group – $160! One of the officers did not accept my hundred dollar bill because of a micro-tear. Luckily I had another one which he deemed acceptable. The whole thing was very comical, yet not. My fate rested in their hands. Well at least my $160 got me a 10 year multiple entry visa and I wouldn’t have to go through these shenanigans for another decade.
We loaded up the roof of the 4×4 and were on our way – into the wilds of Bolivia.
We went through some high altitude passes and were very close to Volcan Licancabur that loomed omnipresent around San Pedro de Atacama. I believe that the highest pass we crossed was about 16,000 ft above sea level. Simply amazing when you consider that Mt. Whitney – the highest mountain in the continental United States – is just a little over 14,000 ft tall.
Our first stop was at some geysers – these geysers were spouting some interesting colored fumes and liquids. They were quite different from the Tatio Geysers. We also stopped at Laguna Blanca – it’s namesake – white due to the salt and mineral content in the region.
We stopped at Laguna Colorada (Red Lake or Colored Lake). It was full of flamingos – a very beautiful sight.
As I mentioned before, these were the little surprises that I had been waiting for. The actual salt flats would hold me spellbound, but these sights along the way were the icing on the cake – I was in my element – such rugged natural beauty all around – and such variety. Being a mountaineer, I felt like a little kid – spotting volcanos left and right. And sometimes I would imagine what they’d be like to climb.
We got into the town where we would spend the night around 5pm. That gave Antoine (the French lad) and me time to go for a hike after dinner to do some galaxy gazing. Dinner was a meal of delicious llama steak (I thought it was beef!). After dinner, Antoine and I braved the cold and did our best to get some shots of the Milky Way. I was proud that I was able to spot the Southern Cross and also capture it with my digital SLR camera. The astronomy crash course in the Atacama Desert a few days earlier had paid off!
Day two of our trip we stopped at a huge rock garden with amazing rocks and huecos (holes). And there were a couple of rocks that look like real life objects. For example the rock in the shape of the World Cup (it was a stretch, but remember that over here, soccer is a religion. It was fun scrambling among the rocks and taking pictures for each other. We chatted quite a bit and I got to know my travel partners very well.
Our next stop was Lago Misterioso (Mysterious Lake). This was an amazing lake almost hidden from the main road. After a bit of a hike we were treated to a wildlife sanctuary with marshlands and canyons around. It was ideal for some yoga and meditation.
After stopping at a deserted railway stop where we sampled different kinds of beer, we kept journeying to our last lodge, a Salt Hotel in the town of Colcha K. Yes, you read that correctly – our walls were made of salt. We were obviously getting close to our destination of Salar de Uyuni. After another great dinner we went for a walk by the church in town and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It was great running into Thomas who I had met at the astronomy tour in San Pedro de Atacama. It’s amazing how you keep running into the same people who are searching for the same adventures.
Day three involved rising early to get to the Salar de Uyuni before sunsrise. It was cold. -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). It was well worth the wait in the cold. We were treated to some amazing skies. There was nothing around for miles. Just a few islands in the salt (yes again, you read correctly – land masses coming out of the salt flats are called islas (islands) here). I learned so much about geology, flora and fauna, on this trip. Freddy was incredible at maneuvering the 4×4 in a vast expanse of nothing, avoiding the risk of getting stuck in the salt. Once we found our spot in the salt, the different hues of the sun rising started to mesmerize us. Photos don’t do justice (although I try). And eventually you realize you are in a sea of salt – the hexagonal shapes clearly visible. This was one of the best experiences of my life. Take a trip to the Salt Flats! It was truly the experience of a life time.
Our next stop was the “Island” of Incahuasi. It was full of cacti – such an unusual sight – all this green in this ocean of salt. We walked around the island as Freddy prepared breakfast for us.
We were not done after breakfast. Freddy found a spot for us to park in the vast expanse of salt again and this time he donned his movie producer hat. We took some great videos and photos using optical illusions. Here you go!
After toying around (literally), we went and explored the Salt Museum, also home to one of the Dakkar races. There I found a Bangladeshi flag – I was so happy!
Once we reached the actual town of Uyuni we went and visited the Railway Cemetery. It was quite an experience. There were lots of graffiti on some of the trains. It was quite an inexplicable melancholy feeling being in the midst of these rusty trains that had seen better days.
This trip offered me a lot of reflection. The beauty and vast expanses I experienced and the life (both wildlife and landscapes) all made me take a step back and realize there is so much more to acknowledge than just ourselves. Having a great group of travel partners also reminded me how fortunate we are, to be able to share this beauty in the midst of strangers, who turn into friends – and what a gift that can be.