Empty Canvas

One of the most anticipated parts of my trip was the 3-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Southwest Bolivia. The journey is a staple of the South American backpackers route, and for good reason – three days of unbelievable vistas, making new friends, and experiencing landscapes unique to the world.

The trip started in the small Bolivian town of Uyuni, about as middle-of-nowhere as you can possibly get. Here, about 60-80 tour agencies all tout pretty much the exact same tour, making it very difficult to pick one. Together with my travel partner Sinead, we set off about accomplishing the task. It’s not a light endeavour. You’re basically handing your life over to a Bolivian 4WD driver for three days. Stories of drunken driving, accidents, mechanical problems, and promises made but not kept abound to the point that all guidebooks absolutely refuse to recommend any agency, highlighting only a few that generally have good reputations.

It was our experience that agencies will tell you almost anything to get you in their car. Just about every agency we visited told us that they had either two Australians or two British people already signed up. We finally settled on Oasis Odysseys, the only agency mentioned in both travel books we were carrying. Of all the agencies we visited, they were charging the most up front and seemed to be spewing the smallest amount of bullshit. Not to mention that we witnessed the two other “Australians” sign up for the tour – they were actually a French-German couple. Maybe with all the money they earn, the woman in the office could take a geography lesson. 🙂 With everything booked, we headed back to our hotel, the Tonito, and it’s attached pizzeria, the Minuteman, the most unanimously recommended eatery in any city I’ve been to in the last two months, again for good reason.

The next day, we met our companions for the next 72 hours – Amy and Priya, from England, travelling before starting university and Mateo and Anna, the supposedly Australian, French-German couple we’d met earlier, who speak to each other in Spanish and English. I think that’s the most countries I’ve ever fit into one sentence. Lest I forget our driver Javier, and his wife Lisette, who would be doing the cooking. That’s six tourists and two Bolivians inside a Toyota Land Cruiser jeep. Needless to say it was a tight fit (all the luggage was strapped to the roof).

But the trip could not possibly have been more flawless and I feel very lucky to have had such an awesome experience. We started off just outside of Uyuni, at the train cemetary, a large collection of abandoned rail cars sitting next to the track that runs from Bolivia to Chile. After a few minutes of exploration, we headed off to the main attraction, the Salar de Uyuni. Way back when, most of Bolivia was a salt lake connected to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Earth’s plates started shifting, the salt lake was disconnected from the ocean and split into three smaller lakes – Titicaca, Uyuni, and another near Oruro. Titicaca and Oruro both had inlet and outlet sources, resulting in a desalinization over time, and leaving the current lakes in their place. But Uyuni had no inlet or outlet, resulting in a stagnant salt lake that over time dissappeared through evaporation and other mechanisms, leaving nothing but a massive salt desert in the middle of Southwest Bolivia.

The experience of walking in a white desert is otherworldly. Like in any desert, your sense of perception no longer applies. Things that look very small from a distance can in reality be massive. This leads to a lot of people taking funny pictures that play with perception (there’s a couple in my Flickr gallery – link below). In the middle of this desert lies Isla Pescado, a large land mass that seemingly grows out of the salt and is filled to the brim with massive cacti. We stopped here for lunch. Our chef, Lisette, was absolutely amazing throughout the three days making meals ranging from llama steak to lasagna to pizza – all with very limited kitchen supplies. Some of the meals will go down as the best on my trip, and most were significantly more impressive than what other tour groups were getting. Speaking of other tour groups, there were probably about 15-20 full jeeps of tourists on the circuit at any given time. That leads to a lot of people and overcrowding at many of the sites. But our driver Javier was terrific and somehow managed to always be the first or near the first car to arrive at any of the sites, giving us 10-15 minutes of peace before the masses arrived. Again, a flawless tour. After visiting the salt desert, we went off the beaten track to explore some formerly underwater caves that are now dry, resulting in extremely well preserved fossilized coral, and nearby, a pre-Inca, post-lake cemetary. Then we headed to our first night’s accomodation where we watched the sun set and reveal a beautiful starry night.

On our second day, we got up fairly early and drove into true sandy desert landscapes, where we saw first the Rock Army, a massive collection of fossilized corals that all lean in one direction, resembling an advancing army. Then we visited a number of lagoons that are flamingo habitats, before finishing the day at Laguna Colorada, a lagoon who’s colour changes depending on the direction and speed of the wind. It’s most famous colour is a deep, deep red that gives of the appearance of a lagoon of blood. We called it a night nearby in a large hostel with no heating. At this altitude, over 4000 masl on this night, it  tends to go below zero. The alpaca wool blanket that I bought in Peru certainly came in handy!

On the final day, we got up very early, around 4:30 AM. Normally, if everyone is doing the tour back to Uyuni, you don’t get up this early. But as I was moving on to Chile, we had to get up extra early so the tour could drop me off at the border and still get back to Uyuni on time. Thankfully, the rest of the group was really good about it all and didn’t kick me out of the car. Unfortunately, it meant that we had to visit the Sol de Manana geysers in the dark, which didn’t really allow us to see them at all. The ironic thing is that I was the least affected by this as I was planning to visit the much more impressive El Tatio geysers in Chile in a few days anyways. But it did get us to the wonderful thermal pools before sunrise and the crowds. This was possibly the best part of the trip. Though it was extremely cold outside, the temptation of natural 35 degree water was too hard to resist and we quickly got in to watch the sun rise over the mountains from the comfort of the pool. After braving the cold to get out of the pool, and feasting on an incredible final breakfast, I found myself at the border waiting for a bus to San Pedro de Atacama and my return to Chile.

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