Crossing Bolivia’s Salt Flats—Part 2

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Bolivia, Budget Travel, Central and South America, Tours & Attractions — By on January 17, 2011 at 8:34 am

By Erin Griffith
LG Correspondent

Sun, jeeps, questionable tour guides: Here’s what to expect when you’re trekking through Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Check out last week’s Part 1 for a guide to booking your tour.

Spectacular whiteness

Sunglasses required. At the salt flats, everything in the world is pure, blinding white. You can see as far as what feels like the end of the world, but after hours of staring off into the distance, you start to lose your sense of perspective. It’s pretty standard to take a series of silly photos demonstrating the lack of perspective on such vast flatness.

Blue, red, and purple lagoons

They’re eerie and quiet with neon-colored water that lies very still. Bring your own guidebook if you want to learn about what you’re seeing, unless you get lucky with a Spanish-speaking driver (and speak Spanish yourself).

Fish Island

It doesn’t seem real—after miles of driving (and sometimes skidding) over nothing but white salt plains, you spy an “island” oasis. And it’s covered in thousand-year-old cacti. Oh, and shaped like a fish. Hike around the island and try not to lose your breath. If the view doesn’t do it, the thin air will.

Gurgling geysers

Take a peek but be careful with that stuff—its toxic and the terrain around it isn’t exactly stable. Bolivia isn’t the top South American country for Health & Safety.

Hours of driving

After awhile, the mountains blend together, the paths seem to have no apparent destination, a cloud of desert dust will attach itself to you like Pig Pen, and the other jeeps from your tour will disappear into the distance. You’ll wonder how in God’s name your driver knows where he’s going, and you’ll wonder when your next chance to pee will present itself. You’ll notice you haven’t seen water or vegetation for several hours, yet the strange deer-like animals frolicking around don’t seem to be thirsty.

Altitude

The altitude affects everyone differently, from diarrhea and headaches to nausea and a lack of appetite. There are two constants though: You will lose your breath during acts as simple as rolling over in bed, and you will regret boozing. High altitude drinking hits hard—same goes for high altitude hangovers.

A park pass

You must buy an entry ticket to the national park. Don’t lose it—you’ll have to show it each morning of the tour. Or, if you’re a Chronic Loser of Important Papers like me, lie convincingly in Spanish.

Cold

High altitude locations are always on the chilly side, but the salt flats are freezing during North America’s summer months and only slightly less freezing during our spring months. Wear under-layers and extra socks. In fact, bring an extra blanket or sleeping bag even if your tour operator promises you’ll have plenty.

A night at a salt hotel

We were promised that here, “everything is made of salt except the toilet.” For the most part, the building made good on the claim. The floor is giant grains of salt, and the walls and chairs and beds were made of big salt bricks. Lonely Planet warns that the salt hotel dumps its waste in the salt flats, but that particular building has actually been converted into a museum precisely because of the waste issue. The prevalence of used toilet paper shoved into bushes and grass patches throughout the desert, on the other hand, is still a problem.

Sunrise snobs

Each day you have the option to drag your freezing butt out of bed in the black predawn to observe the rising sun. Just to manage expectations, neither of the accommodations offers a “proper” view of the sunrise, according to certain Sunrise Snobs. Meaning, the sun has already risen behind mountains before it officially comes into your view. The real way, apparently, to appreciate a sunrise requires pitch black darkness before the big guy crosses the horizon. Preferably over a body of water.

Hot spring

Something about stripping off literally every article of clothing you own to a jump into a 2 foot deep pool of water seems counter-intuitive, but a morning dip into a bubbling pool of naturally hot water is the closest thing you’ll get to a shower for three days. You could shower at the Salt Hotel, but hot water is scarce, and at night, it’s truly too cold to get naked.

Sun

Despite the temperature, at high altitude, your hands and nose are exposed to some serious sun. Don’t end up looking like you’re wearing brown gloves—use sunscreen.

“Total shit” food

All of the tours serve food that is edible, bountiful, and, as my British companions eloquently put it, “total shit.” I’m talking fancy hot dogs, greasy french fries, and pasta with ketchup sauce. And yet, I never went hungry. The chicken was unprocessed, the noodles were filling, and the hot chocolate flowed plentifully. Think back to your ramen days in college, and you won’t be frustrated.

Photos by Travis Harwood

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