Days: 317-318 (8 May 2015 – 9 May 2015)
Total distance travelled: 60,157.76 kilometres (37,365.07 miles)
A ridiculously cold morning was our farewell from Potosi, the clear skies and roughly 4,000 metres of elevation combining to keep our breath both short and frosty!
We’d decided on the first bus of the morning to hopefully give us time to visit the railway graveyard outside of Uyuni the very same day, but when our bus made what seemed an unscheduled stop an hour into (our four hour) journey, we had no idea what was going on.
The driver and his conductor (possibly also his wife) advised us that we’d be here about an hour, a surprise to us, as well as many locals on board.
Seems this was no regular occurrence!
I wandered out to see what the nearby restaurant was serving up, but as I entered, the couple of staff members I could see raced past me and out into the morning (they did have several full tables worth of patrons), so I abandoned this pursuit.
Instead I occupied myself watching a young piglet attempting to learn the ways of courtship, as he repeatedly attempted to mount what may have been his brother (who was not surprisingly, rather disinterested).
There was thankfully a local lady dishing out more of those delicious Sonso’s (fried mashed potato filled with goodies and served with a spicy salsa), and it was whilst purchasing a couple of these hot little numbers that I was distracted by some cheering and finally discovered the true reason for our delay.
All of a sudden a pack of youths ran past, followed by a few more.
The road ahead had been blocked for a marathon!
It wasn’t all that long until the final straggler puffed his way past our bus, then we were back on our way.
The rest of the journey was scenic, but uneventful, and around noon we found ourselves on the dusty, chilly (despite the sun) streets of Uyuni, our last true town in Bolivia.
First business was to find ourselves a bed for the night which we achieved pretty easily, then came the hunt for a tour into the Salar de Uyuni, but as importantly could get us on to Chile afterwards.
Our investigation started poorly, with our first option, one recommended in our guidebook closed, but the second was more promising, but in a real ‘Goldilocks’ moment, the third tour agency was just right.
They were the same price as the second, however they already had others signed up, and the thought of traversing the salt flats and beyond with some company was a real deal clincher.
Our plans for the afternoon however, they were made redundant as the first stop of our tour the following morning was to be the Cemetario de Trenes… so we wandered about looking for some lunch instead.
We considered pizza, but then found just outside the main market a woman selling barbequed chicken rolls and we were sold!
A relaxing afternoon followed by us finally getting that feed of pizza in what was the precursor to a not so early morning.
We were surprised, but when we booked out tour, they advised us that departure was 10am, so just make sure you’re here before then… we took our bags there, left them in the office and wandered out to look at additional food options (ultimately we took little more than a few apples).
We soon met our companions to be.
A Swedish couple (Johan and Maddy) who to our surprise had spent the past three years living not so far away from us in Melbourne, and a Dutch couple, Tobias and Elles who we’d actually travelled on the same bus from Peru to Bolivia with (and even spotted on Isla del Sol).
In short time, we were all aboard, Sarah and I taking the less desired seats at the back, whilst we were all happy for Maddy, who was feeling a little unwell, to assume the shotgun position with the prized view out the front of our vehicle.
We were quickly at our first destination, and for one such as I who grew up with train mad cousins (ultimately some of that passion rubbed off on me), this place was a dream!
To see these hulking engines, which in their day must have been worth a fortune dying a slow death on the fringes of a salt desert was more incredible in person, despite having seen images in the past.
How they were not worth more (in some point in time) as scrap metal was an amazement to us all.
Still, they were now an incredible park upon which we clambered, explored and posed for photos.
In time we’d all had our fun, and it was time to saddle back up and get back into the relative warmth our 4WD offered.
Our true journey began with us essentially skirting the salt flats, until we got to what is apparently the last town of note before our adventure into the barren lands, Colchani.
Here we were presented with both the interesting and the tacky.
We were initially lead into a small hut where we met an old local, he demonstrated a little of his business (unsurprisingly he was in the salt trade).
He showed us his product, how it was soaked, then the water dried off to clean it of impurities, down to the little details, where he bagged it up in small plastic satchels, then using a blowtorch sealed these little packets as we watched.
Sadly it wasn’t the kind of thing we were able to purchase, having just purchased a fresh supermarket batch only days earlier (I can hear it now, “Oh, how convenient”, but it is in fact true).
We did however indulge in the tacky, to keep our efforts to try and grab a souvenir bracelet in every country we visited (we were quickly running out of time in Bolivia), so found ourselves one each from one of the tourist geared vendors.
It was also to be our lunch stop, where we had some time out in what was pretty much some woman’s house, where enjoyed soup, chicken and plenty of healthy, bubbly Coca-Cola… I guess the Coca may have originally been Bolivian!
At last, we cruised out of town, and onto the Salar de Uyuni!
But not for long… as pretty soon we hit what they called the ‘salt mountains’, although as far as mountains go, they’re small indeed.
Rather, piles or mounds of salt that have been collected, possibly by those same folks in Colchani, just seem to sit there, so who were we to pass up the opportunity for a few posed pics with our new crew?
Of course I couldn’t resist the chance to have a little taste… and yes, surprise, surprise, it was salty!
Back on board, we were now settled in for what promised to be some serious driving, where we’d finally cover some distance in this great, white expanse.
And that we did, after a quick detour to check out some springs that bubble up from beneath the salty surface, we didn’t look back, the journey broken only by the sudden need for us to brake, as Maddy needed to suddenly empty her stomach.
We all truly felt for her, as she obviously was not feeling too great at all.
After she’d coloured the white sands in some fresh hues, we continued on, our destination in fact an old hotel, now museum set in the heart of the salt flats.
The first indication that we were getting close to anything, was the appearance of a monument to the Dakar rally (formerly the Paris-Dakar rally, but now held in South America since 2009), with the hotel just ahead.
The hotel was okay, but didn’t hold my attention for too long, instead it was a mountain of colour outside that captured my eye.
A collection of flags fluttered in the strong winds, and with the bleak surrounds, the splash of colour they injected to the scene was striking.
I’m not sure if it was a project begun by travellers (perhaps it has something to do with the rally), but it is a mantle they have seemingly assumed with aplomb.
It wasn’t just countries represented, with my eagle eye (I love flags) identifying some that certain governments wished didn’t exist (such as the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan) to patriotic regions of Europe such as those of Brittany or the Catalan people.
Another lengthy period in the car followed, as we traversed this vast sea of salt, and it’s perhaps fitting that it resembled a sea, as our next stop was to be an island!
Isla Incahuasi sits roughly in the centre of the Salar de Uyuni, and is one of several islands in the depths of this wide expanse of salt.
But just because this is a plain of salt, don’t think that these islands are lifeless.
The islands themselves are literally covered with cacti!
We paid our entrance fee, then began to climb these heights in seemingly, the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately Maddy was feeling to poorly to make the ascent, so we felt for both she and Johan, as neither seemed truly able to enjoy the stunning place in which we found ourselves (although Johan did his best to try and make the best of it).
After driving for hours and seeing barely any vehicles, it certainly felt as though this was where they all were, although atop the hill looking down, it definitely didn’t feel as crowded as it could.
We made our descent, then lingered close to our 4WD as we awaited the call to mount up.
Just by chance I glance back towards the island as another couple of tourists wandered by.
Like a scene out of a movie I glanced, then did a double take, by this time removing my sunglasses for an even better look.
Then, suddenly excited I made my way towards the pair, by now recognition also on their faces (Sarah at this point was still behind me wondering what the fuck was going on), not just mine.
It was Iris and Kurt, a German couple we’d met way back in Mexico, crossed paths with in Belize, but not actually seen for over seven months when we’d both been back in Guatemala!
To suddenly spot them here, in the middle of nowhere was amazing.
We agreed to catch up in San Pedro de Atacama (our first stop in Chile), and went on our merry way.
Not far from Isla Incahuasi we came to another halt, but not due to any adverse circumstances.
It was finally time to grab some of those clichéd Salar de Uyuni pictures.
You’ve probably seen them before, everybody does them, but they’re truly a lot of fun.
The empty vastness makes it difficult for the mind to properly grasp perspective, so we were able to play around with a little trick photography.
After we’d had enough playing around, the final act for the day remained.
One of the primary reasons we ultimately settled on this tour company (I forgot to mention this earlier), is that unlike most, they stay closer to the salt flats on this first night, so that we can linger a little longer to watch the sunset from out atop the crusted, salty surface.
The day was by now nearly done, so it was to a nice empty expanse that we travelled.
It quickly became apparent however, that the sun by now had lost most of its heat, so as we waited, it wasn’t long at all before our entire party had donned whatever additional layers they had readily available.
Sarah and I got a little sneaky and grabbed ourselves probably the best seat in the house… although we happily surrendered it in the name of sharing with our new friends!
When the fiery orb that is the Sun finally dipped below the horizon, we made our way on to our lodgings for the night, an amazing building built entirely from salt!
Despite the cold night, the salt apparently absorbs the heat during the day, so at night we were kept comfortable thanks the heat it radiated.
A novel way to end a most incredible day!
* Morning bus from Potosi to Uyuni cost us $35.00 Bolivianos each.
* Our 3 day/2 night salt flats tour cost us $800.00 Bolivianos per person, including transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
* There was an entrance fee of $30.00 Bolivianos per person to explore the Isla Incahuasi.