Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni

EDITORS NOTE: As we spend most of the summer working at home on Cozumel, we are publishing a series of stories from our travels through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina in 2009 and 2010. Enjoy!

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. January 7, 2010

As the bus negotiated the switchbacks down the mountain, the wide valley of Uyuni and the salt flats spread out before us. At least it did on paper, since the current dust storm blowing through the valley obscured what probably was a fine view.

The highway into town was lined with wire fences and scrub brush adorned with hundreds of plastic bags, setting the stage for the grim town of Uyuni. Other than being annoyed by the howling wind, and hoping it would stop or calm down, we weren’t fazed by the ugliness of Uyuni, because we were here for a four-day trip through the magnificent Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest and highest salt flats.

Our arrival during the first week of January was perfect. It was during the rainy season and the vast salt flats had been turned into a vast lake with a surreal mirror effect.

After a night in a basic guest house, we met our driver, Fredi, and his wife, our cook for the next four days. We had chosen Licancabur Tours, primarily because none of the online forums dissed them, a few praised them, and they gave us a good price for a one-way trip to Tapiza. They also seemed to understand that the trip was about the photo opportunities, just not seeing the requisite sites, and would be our jumping off point for Argentina.

We paid a little more than most tourists (about $300 USD apiece), but our laptops and photo gear were safe inside, not on the dusty roof. Also, we weren’t squished in a Toyota Sardine Cruiser. Most of the tourist vehicles we saw had a driver and cook comfortably ensconced in the front bucket seats, with three tourists in the middle seat and another two or three in the way back seat. All of their backpacks were strapped to the luggage rack, covered by a dust-proof(?) tarp. Bet they got a good price, though.

The cost of the trip includes transportation, meals and beds in basic guest houses along  the way. There are a few upscale hotels on part of the route, but they don’t have good locations, are pretty rustic and cost around $100 USD per night.

The Uyuni-based tours begin the obligatory first stop at the train cemetery, just outside of town. Lots of steam engines and their cars rusting in the high altitude salty air. Actually it didn’t suck.

Once we left the salt flats, we passed through huge deserts with geyser pools at 16,000 feet, mineral lakes with flamingos and Chile’s active volcanoes.

On our second day we drove across the salt flats, which in many places was covered with a centimeter of water You can understand the high cost of a tour that probably destroys a vehicle with rust after a couple of seasons.

Lunch was near one of the mineral-laden lagunas where we photographed flamingos. There we witnessed one of the very real dangers of the Salar. A tourist in a vehicle from Chile was in a near-coma with high altitude sickness. Perhaps he had come straight from sea level to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and had proceeded to our location at more than 4,000 meters. A lone traveler, he had booked his seat through a Chilean tour company and nobody in his vehicle knew him or his history.

None of the dozens of drivers had a satellite phone and I’m not sure who they could have called if they produced one. His best hope for recovery was to descend in elevation, but Uyuni was more than a day’s drive, as was the route back to Chile. Even then, the high elevations at Uyuni or San Pedro would offer little relief. The driver didn’t seem too keen on inconveniencing the other passengers by changing the route or pace of the trip.

We felt helpless and hopeless, but we continued toward Laguna Colorado. Whenever I think of this trip I wonder if he survived. We were haunted by the apparent lack of understanding or concern of high altitude sickness by the drivers.

VERY IMPORTANT! If you are going to do this trip from Chile, I would only do it after spending 3 – 4 nights in San Pedro de Atacama (2440 meters) to acclimate, especially if you are coming from sea level. This is a remote trip at very high elevations, with no health facilities and no opportunities for evacuation if you become ill or injured. Be sure you understand the dangers of high altitude sickness and the ways to prevent it.

After four weeks in Peru, much of it at elevations above 3,000 meters, we were acclimated and had no problems.

A couple of weeks later, living it up at the posh Estancia Colomé in Northwestern Argentina, an ascot-wearing English gentleman inquired about the Salar trip, saying he and Penelope planned to do it, this visit or next.

We told him that it was indescribably beautiful. Then we told him that we traveled unpaved roads in the Land Cruiser for 32 hours during four days, inhaled our lifetime adult dosage of dust, got sick from the food, endured the driest of all possible nasal passages, and spent one night on the poorest excuse for a bed I have laid on in my life.

This not a trip for the faint of heart. But, it is a trip of a lifetime.

UP NEXT: Machu Picchu in the Morning.