Bottom-Dollar Tours in Bolivia: Exploring The Great Salt Flats And Beyond

Bolivia is magical realism in its purest form: nothing appears to change yet nothing can be predicted.
Bolivia Salt Flats
Photo by Jordan Kraft

“Maybe find out what the tour involves first.”

Propelled by our wives’ sage advice, Don and I found ourselves sitting in the cramped front office of Camel Tours in downtown Uyuni, on the Bolivian altiplano, thinking about how no camels live in Bolivia. Heavy snowfall had closed the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, which contained several of the usual tourist attractions, such as the picturesque Laguna Colorada. Hence the suggestion made by Jordan and Annie to find out what the new tour plan would be before fully committing.

A youth named Wilson ecstatically described the proposed route. Or all possible routes, or simply features on the map that excited him. Wilson delivered each word with a joy and exuberance bordering on mania. Although we stopped him several times to clarify where we could go versus where we would go, we still walked away with only the vague outline of a plan and the name of our guide: Diego.

Wilson appeared happier about Diego than I had managed to feel about getting married or finishing grad school. “Diego is our youngest guide,” Wilson continued, working himself into a fervor of excitement. “He is young and so full of life! He is always laughing and joking. He is pure joy to be around — you are going to love Diego!”

Although our wives had hoped for more detail, this plan sounded like an adventure. We had come to Bolivia in search of a different sort of trip and Don and I decided that come what may, the proposed plan probably fit the bill. It certainly fit our budget.

*

The next morning, we met Diego, a serious and taciturn young man, who communicated in as few words as necessary, possibly due to an unbelievably large and spherical wad of coca leaves lodged in his cheek. We also met the final two members of our six-person tour. Ludwig and Pascal were a pair of just-graduated Germans. Wilson had gleefully described them as “una pareja,” which implies a romantic coupling and which Ludwig and Pascal were clearly not.

Anything could have lain behind Wilson’s mislabeling. Bolivia is a country where reality hangs on by the barest threads. Nothing is certain. No direct question merits an equally direct answer (unless that answer is “yes,” in which case you should mentally prepare yourself for an outcome of “no”). Bolivia is magical realism in its purest form: nothing appears to change yet nothing can be predicted.

We crammed ourselves into the Land Cruiser and Wilson jumped into the front seat. “I’ll be your guide today, then you’ll just have Diego for the last two days,” he said, smiling like he had just won the lottery.

A trail of salt and dust followed us out of Uyuni and into the desolate Bolivian altiplano, with its color palette of yellows, browns, and reds, faintly speckled with the green of a few hardy bushes.

*

Bolivia

To a mix of Latin rock and US 80’s hits, our guides chauffeured us to two crystalline lagoons separated by a high ridge. Wilson had emphatically ensured us that we would see “Oooh! So many condors!” The lack of condors did not diminish the lagoons’ beauty. Two flamingos watched us cautiously from the first lagoon, occasionally flying away in long and lazy patterns when we approached too near.

“Do flamingos not leave for the winter,” I asked?

“Oh, they do,” exclaimed Wilson, while Diego purposefully chewed his coca leaves. “These ones must have screwed up and laid their eggs too late, so now they’re stuck here.”

I nodded and kept my doubts regarding this explanation to myself.

Bouncing over the rocky terrain of the altiplano, our next stop was the long-abandoned Mina Española (“Spanish Mine”), a former site of gold extraction.

A common legend regarding mines is that they are the domain of el Tío, a cigar smoking, pisco drinking, coca chewing Andean demigod that incorporated equal parts the Christian Devil and a pre-Hispanic god of the underworld. People leave offerings for el Tío at the mine entrance, to ask for his protection. As Wilson happily explained, “Once you’re inside the mine, you’re out of sight of God and the Virgin Mary.”

The mine’s high entrance afforded us views over the silent valley, the dull gold of its winter grasses intermittently outshone by the fierce high altitude sun reflecting off patches of dense snow. We peeked inside, but saw no sign of el Tío and scrambled back to Diego waiting in the vehicle.

“Now for the hot springs,” shouted Wilson, in full rapture. “They’re so hot! But not too hot! You’ll love them!”

Moments later, Wilson shouted and Diego brought the Land Cruiser to a sudden halt alongside an old man walking against our direction. Wilson leaned across Diego to stick his head out the window.

“Is there a hot spring down this way?”

Fortunately, the old man indicated that there was.

Ten minutes later, Wilson and Diego jumped from the Land Cruiser and ran to inspect the site. Their body language suggested that they hoped we would stay in the car, which we didn’t. Our thermal bath consisted of a concrete cube dug into the marshy ground, empty but for some greenish algae at the bottom. Wilson removed a rock from a cement dike and a stream of water began flowing into the concrete basin. I dipped my hand in. The water felt tepid, above freezing but less than inviting.

Both Jordan and Annie immediately declared that they would sit this one out. The problem was less the temperature of the “hot spring” than the lateness of the day. With the sun setting behind the mountains, the temperature slid quickly down the scale. The thought of stepping out of tepid water and into freezing air appealed to no one. “The water gets warmer,” beamed Wilson, to a bank of oblique looks.

“The water gets warmer,” beamed Wilson, to a bank of oblique looks.

Like a true champ, Ludwig decided that he hadn’t come all this way to not at least give it a try and without further ado, in he went.  Ludwig confirmed that, contrary to belief, the water actually had grown warmer. Soon Wilson, Diego and a local who happened to show up were all in the bath and after some internal deliberation, I sided with Ludwig’s reasoning and in I went, too. Pascal and the ladies were still not buying it.

We returned to our lodging in Tomave, where we made our beds in a room that had a huge but hidden propane leak. We cracked the window open to let the gas escape, which let the sub-freezing temperatures in. With liners inside sleeping bags, sleeping bags underneath a pancake stack of blankets and swaddled in long johns and smart wool, we survived the night and awoke to day two.

*

“I hope we actually see the salar,” said Ludwig.

Given the first day’s freewheeling uncertainty, Ludwig’s concern seemed justified. Perhaps to keep our anticipation high, our guides had a couple stops planned before we actually drove onto the salar. First stop: a former mining town.

In a ruined and unnamed village, lonely stone cylinders stood where foundries once devoured the metal torn from the mountainsides. A church crumbled into the earth from where it had been raised. The open roofs of stone houses observed our passage in silence. Unexpectedly, people flitted between buildings and across streets. This nameless place was only half a ghost town, the living still eking out an existence amongst the ghosts of the past.

“What’s the name of this town,” I asked an old man passing us on his way to open a stone llama pen. He glanced at me briefly and shrugged, not slowing down.

From the half-living village, Diego chauffeured us back through Uyuni, where we dropped off Wilson, refueled the Land Cruiser and picked up two large extra tanks of fuel for our voyage into the eponymous salt flat. Still one anticipation-whetting stop before the great salar: Uyuni’s Train Cemetery.

The cemetery houses the steel husks of several trains that now live as playgrounds for tourists to climb over.

“When was this founded,” I asked Diego?

“Nineteen eighty-seven,” he replied without hesitation. Online sources dispute this date, claiming that the cemetery began sometime in the 1940’s. No matter.

train cemetery bolivia

After an appetizer of dead trains and dying villages finally came the main course of the salar. The Salar de Uyuni is Bolivia’s tourism crown jewel for good reason. The empty white expanse is otherworldly in its stark beauty.

Raised from sea level by tectonic violence and dried through the actions of high-altitude low air pressure, volcanism and a warming climate, this one-time inland sea is now a scaled hide etched in salt. Measuring between a few centimeters to several meters thick (one hundred meters, by Diego’s reckoning), the immense salt flat sits atop a lake of brine, which bubbles up to the surface in places.

With nothing in the way to help gauge distance, the flat emptiness of the salar has gained fame as a mecca for forced perspective photography. Devoted pilgrims that we were, we took our turn at this obligatory activity. Diego smoothly and authoritatively transitioned into the role of photographer. Using a series of grunts, growls and sharp hand gestures, he hustled us from one position to another. We also had our own ideas for fun pictures, to which Diego acquiesced with minor reluctance.

Bolivia Salt Flats

At Inchuasi Island, Diego had just completed a mathematically perfect sphere of chewed coca leaves that had grown too large to either spit out or swallow. This superhuman feat of patience, concentration and the destruction of nearly half the world’s coca supply did not go unnoticed by the other guides.

“Damn dude,” exclaimed one, in what I mistook for admiration, “you gotta ease up that shit! Someone’s gonna get you in trouble!”

Coca leaves are perfectly legal in Bolivia, but I assume that Diego was pushing the envelope of some company standard.

We wandered the strange terrain of Incahuasi, the only source of sweet ground water in this otherwise dry sea. After marveling at the 40,000-year-old fossilized coral and massive millennia cacti (Trichocereus pasacana), we loaded up once again and Diego sped like a hunted man into the depths of the Salar.

Bolivia

“I know a good place to see the sunset,” he said.

To my untrained eyes, Diego’s secret spot was a featureless point on the wide-open plain of the salar, indistinguishable from any other point in sight. Why this was his spot, I can’t fathom, but as the sun set, it hardly mattered. The blinding white of the salar became a horizontal painter’s easel for an orb that shed color after color, changing vestments from gold to orange, red to purple, as our shadows stretched asymptotically across the flat land.

With the sun fully set, Diego entered an even greater rush to get to that night’s lodgings. Blood pooled to the back of my head as he floored it over the darkening salar.

The reason for Diego’s haste became evident when we reached the town of San Juan. The first hotel he approached was fully booked. So was the second and San Juan did not look like a town with a lot of options. A few minutes drive outside of town, we found a salt hotel with open rooms. Diego gave us a thumbs-up, his face a portrait of relief.

That night was freezing and clear, with an utterly unobstructed view of the Milky Way. Years had passed since I had seen so many stars in the sky. Our little group stood in the darkness, staring upwards in awe until we noticed the stench of the sewage that been dumped onto the field in which we stood. We found another site and gazed reverently into the bowels of the Universe while fending off an excited stray dog.

Bolivia

Photo by Jordan Kraft

*

Our final day began with a strong pot of coffee and a pan full of what I’m pretty sure started as cake mix and only lacked frosting.

“We’re going to see another salar today,” Diego informed us, “very different from the last. This one has more dirt.”

We offered Diego some coffee, which he declined, doubtlessly because it would have taken the edge off the coca planet that was steadily accreting inside his left cheek.

Diego had not oversold that day’s salar. In contrast to the relentlessly white and featureless landscape of the Salar de Uyuni, the Salar de Chihuana looks like snowfall on Mars. Rocky, red sand broke through dustings of snow-white salt through which ran a solitary train track.

From Chihuana we drove to Laguna Cañapa (Laguna Hedionda, according to Google, although it neighbors a Cerro Cañapa), whose crystalline waters created oneiric symmetries between heaven and earth. Although it was mid-winter in Bolivia, just days shy of the winter solstice, the lakeshore smelled of early spring in my native Southeast Alaska. I beheld radiantly pink flamingos and extinct stratovolcanoes while inhaling the smell of rare warm March days in Juneau when the clouds have somewhere better to be and the sun melts enough snow to reveal glimpses of flowing water and marsh grasses. The smell of those days is that of the promise of summer activities to come: hiking, bonfires on the beach and the fabled long Alaskan day.

Ludwig knelt to take a photo and a man dressed like a made-for-TV Special Forces commando, complete with a black balaclava, stepped directly in front of him. The Army of One removed a pair of binoculars from a chest pocket on his black combat vest and surveyed the terrain. Apparently satisfied that the ridgelines were clear, he gave a curt nod to the ether and continued his patrol of the lake’s perimeter.

Bolivia Salt Flats

Photo by Jordan Kraft

At Laguna Chulluncani, a group of tourists on the muddy shore squared off against a group of flamingos in the shallow waters. Each group eyed the other as though expecting a sudden display. For a change, the final day’s lunch was based not on breaded mystery meat, but on canned, room-temperature (frigid, in this case) tuna. After our meal, we sat and watched the flamingos make slow and elegant passes through the muddy water with their hooked beaks, scooping up the algae that give them their vibrant pink color.

From here, our route wound back north towards Uyuni to complete the circle of our journey. We made one final stop in the Valle de las Piedras — The Valley of the Rocks — whose wind-sculpted bodies filled both our horizon and our imaginations with their alien contours. Lost in the desolate scenery, we grew quiet and contemplative. We scattered languidly, taking pictures, or just sitting in silence. I found a few formations amenable to climbing and meditatively engaged in my favorite activity.

The silence on the ride back spoke to the quality of our trip. Provided only a vague outline of a plan, we had gambled on things working out and they had. We walked away from the Camel Tours office with new stories to tell, our imaginations fully charged with new sights. Bolivia’s stark beauty had left us calm and satiated. Nonetheless, my gaze gravitated to the resplendent white expanse diminishing in our rearview mirror as we drove north towards La Paz. Sometimes there is nothing so beautiful as one last look.

 

 

Author’s Favorite Travel Gear

 
                              

Canon EOS 80D Camera: A good camera is a must for any adventure and this one, in particular, is a marvel of photographic technology.

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket: Travel to cold places always involves a struggle between packing warm and packing light. This jacket ticks both boxes. Lightweight and easily compressed, I’ve been impressed by its ability to keep me warm everywhere from the Bolivian highlands to winter camping in Alaska.

Petzl Tikka Headlamp: Don’t get caught in the dark. Whether for an unexpected power outage or to navigate the outdoors during the wee hours, keeping a headlight handy is never a bad idea.

Forest Ray

Forest Ray lives on the road, traveling throughout the Americas. He is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and has published with Verge Magazine and Nature Communications. He and his wife run the travel blog 42strong.com.

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