I’m in the middle of Bolivia on an overnight bus speeding across the desert in the pouring rain and it sounds like the wheels are coming off at any minute. It’s 1:00 in the morning, Sunday, March 15, the lights are out and I’m the only one awake, mostly because you can’t make deals with God to please let you live thru this bus ride if you’re sleeping. The drunk guy behind me just woke up in a panic looking for something he’d dropped. I handed him the glass bottle of alcohol that had rolled under my seat. He took it without a word and went back to sleep. Across the aisle from me is my husband. He is larger than the normal Bolivian man so we bought two seats each with the plan to stretch out and get some rest. He looks like a giant gorilla in a coat closet, all legs and arms akimbo as he tries to get comfortable. We are outside of Uyuni, where we’ve just finished a 3-day trip into the salt flats. It’s been almost a week since I’ve blogged — there is no wifi where we’ve been, as there’s rarely water and electricity — and feels almost as long since we’ve showered and had a proper night’s sleep. We are covered in salt and dust and who knows what else. But it was worth it and I am so freaking thankful we did it.
After 4 days in Chile’s Atacama desert, we headed out on a 3-day expedition into Salar de Uyuni, aka the Bolivian salt flats, aka the Bolivian desert made of salt. Uyuni is a town in SW Bolivia; salar means desert of salt. It’s the largest salt flat in the world: 4,000 square miles of nothing but white. You have to drive across two days of Bolivian desert in order to reach it, and the journey itself takes you to another world from the start. You can see what I mean in the photos below. The trip almost didn’t happen: for every zillion glowing reviews of the journey, there are a couple hundred bad ones, and I almost let those talk us out of going. But Anthony reminded me this was the one trip I’ve wanted to do since we started planning this whole adventure. So at 7am Thursday morning, we left San Pedro de Atacama in a van with 4 other people, all French (already a good sign). At the Chilean-Bolivian border, we had breakfast and transferred to a Toyota Landcruiser, apparently the only vehicle that can withstand the wear and tear of the terrain. Every agency uses them — there was a row of at least 20 at the border, picking up their groups like us that were coming in from Chile. We met Pedro, the Bolivian man who would be our driver/cook/guide/mechanic for the next 3 days, and we were off. Pedro spoke only spanish. Anthony, english. The sweet french couple, a doctor and his wife who joked they were the token older people on the trip, spoke only french, with a bit of english. Sofiano, in his late 20s traveling alone (he’s almost finished with med school, which will come in handy later), also spoke spanish. All of the french I took a few years back now counts for nothing, as I can only understand 1 out of every 67 words, so thank God for Bera, a french girl my age traveling on her own who actually did her own RTW trip two years ago — she speaks perfect spanish and english, in addition to french and I’m betting swahili and who knows what other languages. She was the great UN translator between the 7 of us. You really have to have a good group and a good guide for this trip to be a success and thank God we got both, in spades. We drove through the Bolivian desert, stopping at lagunas (Colorada, Verde and Blanco the most well-known) and volcanoes and geysers, this time boiling with sulfur and mud, not water like in Chile, alongside herds of vicunas and llamas, and of course more flamingoes. The landscape was like nothing I’ve seen before: open, vast, no roads except for those made by vehicles that day; boiling hot, freezing cold, holy shit gorgeous. One of the sites was called Dali’s Desert, taking surrealism to a whole new level, with rock formations that looked like they were arranged by Dali himself. The entire area seemed like we’d landed on another planet and we were the only people there. I still don’t understand how the guides remember where to go as there are no street signs. Take a left at the llama, maybe. I got sick from the altitude that first day. The salt flats are located 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains, on the outskirts of Petosi, one of the highest cities in the world (for context, Machu Picchu is 9,000 feet up, Pike’s Peak 14,000, and Everest 29,000). Pedro was chewing coca leaves, a common remedy here to fight altitude sickness, and the rest of us joined in, but it did nothing for me. You chew the leaves and keep them in the side of your mouth, never swallowing them — it’s the juice that helps. Side note: cocaine is extracted from these same leaves but has to be processed in order to be effective. Chewing the leaves and drinking them in tea has no similar effect, and they’ve been used for medicinal purposes in south and central america for thousands of years. This message brought to you by the DEA. But that great history lesson didn’t help me or my stomach or head a bit. Our four compadres in the car plied me with western medicine and I was fine once we descended a bit and had a late lunch at our refugio, where we were staying for the night. This place was a little building in the middle of the desert. Literally just a building. In the middle of the desert. No town, no roads, just a structure with 10 rooms and a little tienda next door, run by the same people who were cooking for us in the refugio. The 6 of us stayed in one room, made up of 6 single beds, each one covered in old Lion King and Cars blankets with MLB sheets. I am not a princess but I do have some standards. I made concessions for this leg of our journey, por ejemplo trading out my beloved Everlane carry-on bag (thank you for the rec Tory Johnson, I loved Anthony’s bag so much I bought myself one too) for the backpack I’ve been using for hikes. So glad I did — was so easy for the constant putting on and taking off of layers and digging out snacks and sunscreen. This first night, Bera lent me her sleeping sack (picture a sleeping bag but much thinner, like a sheet to put between you and whatever questionable linens you’re sleeping on) and I covered the pillow with my cashmere wrap (the desert doesn’t have to mean I forget who I am). Also we brought our own toilet paper to the bathroom and while a ziplock would have been fine, I placed mine in one of my favorite shoe bags, which my husband found amusing. I didn’t see what was wrong with a little decorum. No showers at this place and no flushing toilets either — had to take water from the big steel drum and put into the toilet after you were finished. Had a great dinner at the refugio, then as we got into bed, I broke out my headlamp (most useful gift ever, sister, thank you so much and I’m so sorry for making fun of it at Christmas) so I could read and in a few minutes, we all had them on. I wish we had a picture. Before passing out, we went outside to look at the stars. I’ve never seen anything like it. Stars not only pasted across the sky above but also beside you, behind you, in front of you. It felt like walking into a planetarium with the fake sky lit up — I was waiting for Tom Hanks’ voice to start explaining the planets to me (Museum of Natural History anyone?) The Atacama desert in Chile had amazing stars, but there we were still near a town, with buildings and lights, even if small ones. Here in Bolivia, there was no town. We were the only building for hundreds of miles. Nothing was around us except for the flamingoes a few yards away, and the lights inside barely worked. It was breathtaking. I would have stayed out there oohing and aahhhing at the stars all night but it was bloody cold. So I hopped back into my sleep sack and passed out. Slept thru the night without touching the sheets (maybe a little bit of a princess) and the next AM, headed out for more driving through the desert toward Uyuni. First stop, Arbol de Piedra, an area of rock formations in the middle of the desert. We climbed up onto the rocks (the others in my group climbed, I was pushed/pulled), met a group of Brazilians on a 2-year bike journey to Canada and I immediately felt lazy. Then I started thinking about lunch. Pedro set it up beside a beautiful lagoon and we ate outside with the lake in front of us and the mountains behind us. The lagoons are made of salt water and/or borax — completely toxic, no fish or plants underwater, but there are microorganisms on which the flamingoes feast. Hence the flocks and flocks of pink bird everywhere. Also we were surrounded at one point by immense fields of quinoa — Bolivia exports a ton. They’re the bright red plants in the photos. If you could just add in a kale farm and some lentils my husband would have never left. That night, as lightning flashed all around us (there is nowhere for it to hide ), we arrived at a salt hotel, as in a hotel completely made of salt (yes of course I licked the wall to double check), located on the edge of the salt flats. Anthony and I got our own room and bathroom woohoooo and were so excited to take showers and charge our cameras — we were told we would only get electricity for four hours, then it would be shut off for the night, so charge em if you got em. But when we walked in, we found out the electric had gone out already (it was 6pm) and the hot water was not so hot. It was actually freezing. I strapped on a headlamp (yup), threw bath gel on myself (bottles of Bliss products lifted from the W in Santiago, of course), jumped into the icy shower and 30 seconds later I was done. I was so sad. Bera had the same problem in her room — she was sharing with Sofiano, who had the good sense to use the doctor’s shower, as he and his wife actually had hot water (we found this out too late). Over dinner (lights were back on now) I asked the lovely doctor if he would please take a look at Anthony’s hand. I had been bandaging it on my own every day post-stitches and A was cleaning it, and I wanted to make sure between the two of us Mensa candidates we weren’t making it worse. So after dinner and a couple bottles of wine (eh, it’s Bolivia), the 6 of us filed into his and his wife’s room. He laid out his kit (yep, travels with it), cut around and cleaned up the wounds, which were a bit of a mess (the one without stitches actually looked worse than the one with), put a second skin bandage over it all and gave us extra saline and supplies. It was the best medical care we’d gotten since arriving in South America. And so kind and generous and wonderful of him to do this. I’d been worried about Anthony’s hand, and we hadn’t been anywhere that we could just drop into a good hospital for a checkup without the risk of coming out minus a limb. I hugged him and his wife and we all went to sleep, though we didn’t really have a choice. The power was supposed to cut out for the night at 10:30pm but at 10:07, the lights dimmed once, then twice, like a post-apocalyptic movie, then sent us into pitch black. Lights out it was. 4am wakeup the next morning for our third and last day and the main event: the actual Uyuni salt flats. We left the salt hotel and drove in. It had rained the night before so the conditions were perfect: 3cm of water on the ground, meaning the reflections would be magnifique. As the sun started to rise, it became apparent why people make this trek: it was stunning. Everything above water had a mirror image below: the mountains, the sunrise, the people. We took 276 pictures here alone and I wish I would have taken more. Afterward we drove to a small island — these were all over the flats and were made of coral, believed to once have been underwater — and hiked to the top for incredible views of the salt flats. It was a sea of white. It looked like an ocean, and bear in mind when you’re looking at the pics below that Bolivia has no ocean. Everything you see that you think is the sea is actually. just. salt. It looks like a sea of snow, though it’s 90 degrees out. We had breakfast there then went to a dry area of the flats for more pictures. Without landmarks or a horizon, it’s easy to play with perspective in photos. Finally, we headed out of the salar and into the very small city of Uyuni, where our excursion with Pedro ended. We all scrambled to figure out what was next: travel for Anthony and me and hotels for the others. We had a quick pizza and beer with Sofiano, then at 8pm boarded the overnight bus, aka death trap, where we are now. We should pull into the Bolivian capital of La Paz around 7am tomorrow, then head to the airport for a flight to Cuzco, Peru. Next stop: Machu Picchu. Boarding the bus, we agreed we must be doing something right, because we managed to pull together an amazing journey, make friends out of 4 strangers in the middle of Bolivia in a dusty 4×4 and see landscapes we didn’t realize existed. All just by saying let’s give this a shot.
We’re doing ok.
How we traveled to/through Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia:
Expediciones Estrella del Sur (some groups can be sketchy – read the reviews of the group and individual drivers before booking)