It was 8:00 pm and I was running down the streets of La Paz not quite sure where I was going. I couldn't see Ol who was faster and had run ahead of me. We were running to catch a bus for our tour to the Uyuni salt flats and he had gone ahead to hold the bus for us.
Just as I was about to give up hope, I saw a line of buses near the bus terminal. Ol was standing next to the Todo Turismo bus loading the backpack into the bus. It was 8:02 and we luckily caught our bust Uyuni which was scheduled to leave at 8:00 pm. We would be spending the next three days exploring Bolivia's high plateau which is located in the volcanic Andes mountain range.
Uyuni is home to the world’s largest salt flats at 4,000 square miles. It is located at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level and is covered by a few meters of salt crust, formed by the transformation of several large prehistoric salt lakes. The crust is flat and several meters thick and covers a pool of brine which contains fifty to seventy percent of the worlds lithium supply.
The Uyuni salt flats are a major breeding ground for several species of flamingoes. Star Wars fans may recognize the scenery as this was the location for major scenes from the film "The Last Jedi." We were excited to visit after hearing so many first hand accounts of people’s visits. I just hoped it would be worth enduring another Bolivian bus ride.
I made my way across the street to Ol and the bus driver. He seemed very professional and looked like someone I could entrust our life to (you will have to read my previous post on my rational fear of Bolivian bus drivers). I asked if I had time to visit the bano and he agreed to wait. Thank goodness, as I didn't need to add another stress to my already racing heart.
Soon we were comfortably tucked into our bus seats for the overnight journey. The attendant handed everyone fresh pillows, blankets, and a bottle of water. He then began our dinner service. Ol and I had read that the some companies routinely served llama as their meat of choice on these tours. We read that the vegetarian meals were better.
So, we listed that we were vegetarians on all of the forms and for the next three day and four nights we would be vegetarians. Besides, I'm just not up to eating any cute llamas. We were handed a foil trail which had roasted vegetables, pasta, and a potato croquet. We were then served hot coca tea or coffee. Ok, maybe I prematurely pre-judged all Bolivian buses.
We were told that after dinner service the lights would be dimmed and we could then recline our seats for the night. After our last overnight bus adventure, I was just happy that the bus was snug and warm. Right at 9:00 the lights dimmed and a recent Hollywood movie began playing on the buses flat screens. I think I fell asleep at 9:15. It had been a long day.
I slept all through the night. The next thing I remember is hearing people stirring. I removed my eye mask and saw that it was daylight. The attendant was walking through the aisles gathering the pillows and blankets. He then started serving breakfast. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was thouroghly rested and relaxed . So much for being afraid of Bolivian bus drivers!
I was surprised that Uyuni was actually a fairly large town. I was expecting one road and a few small shops. The town reminded me of an old western movie set. The roads were dust covered and the building fronts old and worn. A wide boulevard ran down the middle of each side and the wide median had trees, benches and a few sculptures.
When we stepped off of the bus, a taxi driver was waiting with a sign with our names on it and that of another couple. Adam and Jessica were from Australia and just beginning their South American journey. They were taking a few months off from their work and were on the same tour we were on.
We followed our driver to the car and he showed us the Red Planet tour office. The office would open at 8:00 a.m. so he drove us a little further down the street to a cafe where we could have breakfast and wait.
We decided to settle in and charge our electronics. It might be three days until we have another opportunity to charge everything. I used the opportunity to go get water for the trip and a few snacks. We had planned buying snacks and water in La Paz, but since we barely made our bus we didn't have time. I left Ol charging our devices and I went in search of provisions.
Uyuni was just waking up and coming alive. I walked a few streets over and found the mercado but it was still closed. Street vendors were setting up their fruit, vegetable, and handicraft stands. The street dogs were just starting their rounds. This was a cool little town with a hippie and backpacker vibe. After strolling around, I finally found a small convenience store and picked up a large bottle of water, a few packs of Oreos, and M&M’s (I know how to keep my man happy).
I made my way back to the restaurant with our provisions for the next few days. With the devices now adequately charged, we packed up and headed to the Red Planet tour office. We checked in with our passports and listened to the guide describe what we would be doing for the next few days. He then divided the group between two vehicles. Louis would be our guide and driver. We followed him to his Toyota LandCruiser. There would only be five of us in the vehicle; Louis, Jessica, Adam, Ol, and me.
While I was walking around town, I saw cars from other tour companies being crammed with people. I had read how some companies had as many as eight people in a car for three days. This was a relative luxury. I was also thankful that Louis was completely fluent in English. My concerns were being relieved one at a time.
My big worry about doing a three day trip was being packed into a car and not being able to stretch out my knees. Thankfully, everyone agreed to let me have the front seat. Ol, Jess, and Adam would take turns crawling into the far back seat, which was also another nice seat to stretch out on. Two people shared the middle seat. We all had lots of room to stretch out.
Soon, we were driving to our first stop on the tour, the train cemetery. At the turn of the last century, Uyuni was a mining town. To support the mining industry, the city had a railroad car factory. In 1940's, after mining went into decline, the cars were abandoned to rust. The wind and the salt made the trains looks hundreds of years older than they were. We pretended that we were in a Mario Brothers video game and took some playful photos. After that we were off to have lunch in a building made of salt and to a see a salt factory. We would then spend the afternoon on the salt flats.
When we entered the salt flats, I was surprised at how much water we were driving through. The water was well over the tire rims of our vehicle. There were dozens of other four wheel drive SUV’s making their way across the salt flats, it was a highway without any lanes and plenty of traffic.
Soon, Louis and the other vehicle in our group were off in a different direction. The water became much shallower and Louis found a place to stop. It all looked the same to me. All I could see was a smooth reflective surface stretching to the horizon. However, it was clear that Louis knew the in and outs of the salt flats like the back of his hand. When we got out of our vehicles we were all speechless. It was as beautiful as we had been told. The clear blue sky and the surrounding mountains were reflected back at us in the clear water. It was like standing on a mirror that never ended.
As we walked through the water, salt crusted on our legs and feet and splashed on our pants leaving white stains. It didn’t take long and we all had our cameras out and snapping photos. Louis gave us a brief history of the area and then started taking photos of us.
Louis then brought out a box of props and was soon busy directing us like we were extras in his own photo shoot. After seeing Louis' first photos we were all hooked. Over the next few hours we were all little kids again posing and playing with Louis' toys. He shrunk us, made us into giants, and even made us disappear in a cooking pot. Louis had us being kissed, eaten, chased and blown over. He also posed us in artistic formations that reflected into geometric shapes. It was a lot of fun, and our laughter carried across the salt plain.
Ol and I felt very lucky. We had definitely picked the right tour company and we were sure that we had the best guide. We had read about tour companies that only spent an hour at the salt flats and then they were off. We are unable to post videos on our blog, but I will have Ol post a few of them on his FaceBook page. Louis is a true art director!
We also loved the people that we would spend the next few days with. Everyone on our tour was nice and willing to have fun. In addition to us, we had two couples from Australia, two girls from Puerto Rico, and a couple from Sweden.
Even after a few hours playing on the salt flats, none of us wanted to leave. However, we had a few hours drive to where we would be spending the night. Our hotel for the night was higher in Bolivia’s Andean Altiplano (high plain). It is the area where the Andes are the widest and is the most extensive area of high plateau on Earth outside of Tibet.
The majority of the Altiplano is in Bolivia, but the northern part rests in Peru and southern parts lie in Chile and Argentina. The plateau hosts several cities that we had already visited, including La Paz and Oruro. It also includes Lake Titicaca (the largest lake in South America) and Copacabana which we will visit when we finish the trip to Uyuni.
The Atacama Desert, one of the driest areas on Earth, lies to the southwest of the Altiplano, and to the East lies the humid Amazon rainforest. Unlike Tibet, the Altiplano is dominated by massive active volcanoes.
Before the Spanish conquered the area in the 16th century, the area was home to several Pre-Colombian cultures. Today international tourism, mining, llama, and vicuna herding are the main economic activities.
It is a harsh and rugged landscape and the views are stunning. I was fortunate to have a front row seat to such majestic beauty! With the first day of our three day tour complete, I couldn't wait to see what adventure and scenery the next two days would bring!