A bumpy 7 hour drive on dirt roads from Potosi brought us to the dusty town of Uyuni. Endurance, dust, and cold are three general themes we have come to expect when visiting many of the starkly beautiful areas of the Bolivian altiplano (high plains). Our three day tour of the salt flat and desert of southeastern Bolivia met those expectations and then some. After piling our belongings on the roof of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cramming 6 tourists, a driver, and a cook into its tight quarters, we set out to explore. I think Land Cruisers would be crowded with 7 people, so us 8 occupants got to know each other quite quickly. We made a quick stop at the ‘train graveyard’ littered with rusty wrecks of abandoned steam engines before heading into the blinding white sea of salt called the Salar de Uyuni. Distant mountains hovered like alien spaceships above the salt flats from the mirages, and we stopped at a strange cactus-covered island for lunch. The brilliant sun reflecting off the white salt almost could make us forget the below-freezing night-time temperatures.
Driving for several hours after lunch we left the Salar and headed into a desolate landscape. Rocks sculpted by the wind and hardy shrubs dotted the desert. We made a quick stop in the Galaxy Caves to view fossilized seaweed and pre-Inca burial tombs before driving three more hours to the tiny town of San Pedro. The sun was setting as we pulled into our simple hostel, and we think the bare lightbulbs in our rooms were the only lights in the whole village. The generator clunked off around 10 pm, so our group quietly went to bed anticipating an early start the next morning. So far from any cities or lights, the Milky Way spilled across the black night sky.
The landscape continued to become more varied and bizarre as we headed south toward the Argentinian and Chilean borders of Bolivia. Colored lagunas were filled with chattering flamingos, llamas and vicuñas grazed the barren hillsides, and foxes and the adorable Pokemon-like chinchillas darted among rocks and bushes. While in some ways we felt like this was the farthest we had traveled from ‘civilization,’ the clouds of dust kicked up by the constant stream of tourists being ferried in caravans of 4x4s around the desert reminded us we were not exactly off the beaten trail.
We realized we didn’t know cold until our second night in the 4,500 m high altitude desert when we were trying to sleep in unheated concrete structures. Our driver woke us at the painful dark hour of 4 am and bundled us into the truck for an hour-long drive to a weird volcanic moonscape of steam geysers, bubbling mud pots, and searing cold winds. As the horizon lightened with the rising sun we continued to natural hot-baths that attracted llamas and flamingos to their welcoming warmth. The feeling returned to our fingers and toes as we ate a big breakfast before driving through the Desiertos de Siloli and Salvador Dali. Multicolored mountain and volcano peaks towered over the sandy wasteland, complete with a brilliant green laguna supporting more pink flamingos.
After visiting the hot spring, desert, and laguna, we still had 7 hours of driving in front of us. Packed in between my fellow tourists in the tiny space I felt hypnotized by the constantly rocking Land Cruiser as it skidded down sandy roads and lurched over rocks. Filthy and wind-burnt we rumbled into Uyuni in the evening, gratefully devoured a large pizza, had a quick shower, and enjoyed an uninterrupted and relatively warm night sleep at our hostel. We took faithful caballo out for a spin on the Salar the next day, but otherwise recuperated in our hotel room. Tomorrow we start a 1000 mile grind to Mendoza Argentina to meet our friends Tom and Kelsey.