Day 68 – 8 May 2015
My destination was Uyuni, Bolivia and the Salar by the same name. To get there required 3 days in a 4×4 vehicle through crudely marked roads that zigzagged through the harsh barren landscape. Drivers are hired to take 5-6 passengers each through this rugged terrain. It costs roughly $185USD for transportation, 3 meals a day, and 2 nights accomodation, plus stops along the way to see some of the most dramatic and untouched scenery I had yet to see.
We left San Pedro de Atacama early in the morning, and after a quick stop at the border checkpoint, we were on our way into southern Bolivia. There were 3 vehicles in our caravan, 5 passengers each. My vehicle consisted of myself, Caroline and Torben from Germany, and 2 guys from Spain. In the other vehicles, there were 3 German girls, a Colombian couple, a Brazilian couple, a Brazilian brother/sister duo, and Klaus, the only other solo traveler besides me.
On our first day off the map, we entered Reserva Nacional de Fauna andina Eduardo Avaroa, making stops at Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca, Laguna Colorada, the geysers, and the thermal pools. Each lagoon was more jaw-droppingly beautiful than the last and the geysers were exponentially more impressive than the ones I had witnessed at El Tatio in Chile. Flamingos peppered the lagoons and didn’t show any signs of being aware of our presence. It was, in a word, breathtaking.
That night we slept in a basic accommodation near Laguna Colorada. The beds were concrete slabs with a thin mattress and 3 wool blankets on top. Even still, it was bone-chillingly cold and thankfully, Klaus had an extra sleeping bag that he was able to lend me.
We had arrived at the lodge in the afternoon which left a good amount of free time to kill. Caroline, Torben, Klaus, and I parked ourselves at the long communal table, but seeing as there wasn’t a bar, we sat drinking tea and swapping travel stories for hours. Because of the altitude, none of us had much of an appetite but when it came time for dinner, we shared quinoa soup, spaghetti, and canned peaches family-style. After dinner, everyone cleared out but the 4 of us remained. We were determined to stay awake until at least 9:00 and kept checking the clock, willing the time to go faster. Soon, the Brazilians reappeared (you didn’t really think the Brazilians went to bed before 9:00, now did you??). They asked if we minded if they played some music. Um, of course not!! Sounded like better entertainment than what we were already doing! And then they did what they do best – they danced! There was even an impromptu samba lesson for Caroline and I (although trying to dance the sexy samba in hiking shoes is not recommended). However, it was one of those moments where I stepped outside of myself and realized how remarkable it was that we were a bunch of people from different cultures, dancing our hearts out, completely sober, in the middle of the Bolivian wilderness.
The next day our stops included Arbol de Piedra (a rock that resembles a tree), a few more lagoons, and a surprise sighting of a fox.
But this was also the day the trouble started. One of the vehicles in our caravan started breaking down and then we were separated. My vehicle was running fine so we continued on ahead of the rest, leaving the other two to handle repairs. We reconnected at lunch, but it became all too apparent that the drivers of the other two 4x4s resented our driver for leaving them on their own. The passengers in their vehicles shared a table in a nice sheltered corner overlooking the lake. The passengers in our vehicle shared a table in the middle of the parking lot that was so windy we had to hold our plates and glasses from blowing away.
This was mostly a shame for Klaus and I. Because we were the only solo travelers in our group, we were becoming quite close and I missed having him at the various photo stops. Without the modern distractions of texting and Facebook and wifi, you can get to know someone pretty well in a short amount of time using that old-fashioned method of talking.
That evening, the entire group was reunited at the Salt Hotel, a building constructed entirely out of salt. It was supposed to be a much nicer place than where we stayed the first night, but the main differences were that the beds were made out of salt instead of concrete, there was a bar, and that the temperature was marginally warmer. Again, Caroline, Torben, Klaus and I got comfortable at one of the salt tables and ordered up a half dozen beers and a couple bottles of wine from the salt bar. Bolivian wine tends to be really sweet and none of us liked it all that much. Jefferson, one of the Brazilians, was the only one who seemed to like the wine so he finished off whatever the rest of us didn’t drink. The important thing was that we kept our empty beer bottle to use as a prop the following day (see below).
On our final day to the salt flats, our vehicle left before the other two and we didn’t see them again the rest of the day. I think we were all disappointed because taking goofy perspective photos at the salar is definitely more fun with more people, but we came up with a few ideas on our own. Salar de Uyuni is approximately 11,000 square miles of uninterrupted salt. It sits at an elevation of 12,000 ft and is more than 20 meters deep in some places. In the middle of the salt flat is a cactus island where we could climb to the top for some stunning views.
We arrived in the small town of Uyuni in the afternoon of Mother’s Day, where I was thankful the internet gave me just enough juice to have a static-filled conversation with Mom. Caroline and Torben were planning to take an overnight bus to La Paz that same day. I was going to spend the night and take a morning bus to Sucre. As we were deciding where we should go for a farewell drink, the other 2 jeeps finally arrived, everyone looking a little exhausted after all the car trouble. The 3 of us, plus the 3 German girls and Klaus, all settled in for some pizza and beer before we would all have to say goodbye. The girls were headed to Coroico for some warmer weather and Klaus was going to La Paz as well, but not until the following day.
It was over a slice of mushroom and olive pizza that Klaus mentioned he was thinking about going to Sucre. He had never heard of it before I talked about it, but now he was considering changing his plans because I said I thought it was supposed to be nice. That’s the beauty of backpacker travel. Plans can change on a dime. And in this case, a quite literal dime. He pulled out a coin – heads, La Paz; tails, Sucre. As fate would have it, it landed on tails.