From Potosí we took a beautiful bus ride “down” to Uyuni. Down is in
quotes because it really wasn’t that far down. Uyuni is a small dusty town,
with really nothing to recommend it except that it’s close to the salt flats
that carry the same name. We spent a few hours visiting tour operators and
ATMs trying to find a tour that would end up in Tupiza. Most tours end up in
Argentina, but tours from Tupiza to Uyuni exist so the reverse must as well, or
so we reasoned. In the end we paid a hefty premium to have a private tour with
the itinerary we wanted.
In the morning we were picked up by Grober from Salty Desert Tours, who would
be our driver/guide for the next 4 days. We got our stuff and ourselves into
the Toyota Landcruiser and headed off into the desert. Because it was just the
two of us, there was plenty of space and we didn’t have to put our bags on the
roof. The Landcruiser is the standard vehicle for ferrying tourists around the
desert. I don’t think we saw anything else. I have fantasies of buying one to
explore North American wilderness, but they’re not cheap. The one Grober owns
had cost him USD 33,000, used.
After brief visits to the train graveyard and a local museum we set off for the
main attraction: Salar de Uyuni (aka the Uyuni salt flats). It’s big enough
that you cannot see one side from the other, and the salt is up to 120 meters
thick. That said, commercial salt harvesting is on its way out. There’s lithium
to be found, though, and that is being mined although we didn’t see any
evidence of that.
We stopped at various places on the flats, but my favorite moment was after we
had finished hiking the island and we had some time left. Danielle and I
decided to just walk in a straight line away from all the tourists, and got far
enough away that we could no longer hear them or their cars. I enjoyed it
partly because it had been a while since we experienced silence, and partly
just because of the weird sensation of crunching salt beneath our feet, with
nothing much different to be seen for a long way in any direction.
From that point on the days kind of blur together. We stayed in private rooms
in hostels. (One night in a hostel built out of salt, which was a fun gimmick.)
Our guide took care of all our meals, or at least paid the the hostel owners
for them. We just had to show up and eat. The food was always tasty, and there
was always too much. We spent some time above 5,000 meters so the weather was
colder than it had been, but only at night was it really cold.
During the day we would drive through improbable landscapes, stopping here and
there for a photo or a walk. This gave us plenty of time to ask questions and
learn about all kinds of topics. (Vicunya hair is much more valuable than llama
hair, but the farmers can’t keep vicunyas because once you shave them they die
from the cold. Locals use cell phones to keep in touch when they’re locating a
lost llama, which makes the process much simpler than it used to be. Grober
wants to build a house but the government is slow-walking his paperwork to buy
a piece of property for 5 years. Nevertheless Grober loves the government
because they’ve brought electricity to every village in the country.)
We spent 4 days this way, ending in an epic descent from the high desert into
Tupiza, which is at just 3,000 meters elevation. Below is some of what we saw
on this trip.
Flamingoes. In the cold. At altitude. Who knew?
Viscachas, which look like a cross between rabbits and chinchillas.
Strangely flat break in rocks. It fell this way naturally.
Flamingoes in a lake that’s naturally red. (The red comes from a chemical in
the water. The wind stirs it up and makes the water red.)
At night there were zillions of stars. We went out one night to gawk and take
Mud pots. Don’t fall in!
Wonderfully colored mountains.
Bufadores. Some neat kind of wetland where you’d expect a river.