Being in high spirits in the Uyuni Salt Flats

So you have been seeing this super cool picture of your friends jumping around in a desert. And you have been amazed at the photographic genius of your best mate, who is – by using a false perspective shot – holding two of his friends in his palm while he’s sitting in a desert like a Yoda. Let me solve the mystery as there is nothing really creative about it. Because anyone can do these kinds of shots in the “Salar de Uyuni” (Salt Flat of Uyuni). Try a picture search on Google, Picasa or Flickr and you will be amazed how uncreative most people are – including me – when it comes to orchestrating a truly unique picture scene.

Silly me in the Salar de Uyuni

Nevertheless, what sounds like the usual bold, grumpy statement from me, turned out to be actually much fun in reality. Being planned since a few months back as the big highlight in South America – among others places like Torres del Paine and Macchu Picchu – I was a bit bewildered that friends back home would urge me to visit the Salar de Uyuni. Seems that some years back, this probably was a travelers secret. Nowadays, visiting the largest salt flat in the world is simply a “must” for any visitor to central South America. Being a standard destination for most travelers, the salt flat is very well connected by tours starting from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)Salta (Argentina) or even as far as La Paz (Bolivia). Being so well hyped, no wonder I was annoyingly chuckling, when I got this “hot tip” not to miss Uyuni.

After a bit of investigation, it seemed to me that the route from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to the town of Uyuni (Bolivia) would present most of the scenic views. In fact, the three day trip I booked was super-charged with numerous sights, such as the Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, Decierto Rocas del Salvador Dali, Geyser sol de Mañana, Laguna Colorada, Arbol de Piedra, Lagunas Altiplanicas (ie Laguna Honda, Laguna Chearcota, Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Cañapa), Volcan Ollague, Salar de Chiguna, Villa Martin, Salar de Uyuni (incl. Isla de los Pescadores, Museo de Sal, Minas de Sal) and finally the Cemeterio del Tren in Uyuni.

Right on the first day, we took the “uphill” road to Bolivian border – after having stamped out at the customs check point on the Chilean side. Noting the road sign announcing an 7% incline, plus calculating the distance from the roadside markers (25 kilometers) – I arrived at the conclusion that we were gaining at least 1800 meters altitude (on top of the 2400 meters altitude from San Pedro de Atacama). Except for the very last part, which was winding, the road is more or less a straight track pointing all the way up to the Bolivean plateau. After one hour, we arrived at the Bolivian border post, at a measured altitude of 4’300 meters. This alone did set my height record of places visited. However, after clearing customs, we were bound to go even higher. Thanks to Will, member of our tour group – who was monitoring the altitude using his high-tech wristwatch – we could establish the absolute record height at 4’950 meters that same day.

Salt Lagoon ChalviryCoping with such a high altitude is definitely not easy. Some of the people in our tour group did take altitude sickness pills, others not – me included. Arriving at the “Geyser Sol de Mañana” (Morning Sun Geyser Basin) – probably still at around 4’800 meters of altitude – I seriously struggled. These scenic and colourful geysers are bubbling very hot and evaporate a cloud of gassy smog. Breathing in this mix of thin air and sulfur gas was the biggest challenge for me on that particular trip. Thinking and talking at this height becomes a nightmare and I felt like being drunk, including the next morning’s hangover headache – all at the same time. Some people of our group struggled a bit more, but eventually we all got better on the second day, when our itinerary would descend to roughly 3’800 meters.

Animal life at a salt lake

So, what’s the big fuzz about this Salar de Uyuni? Well, it is definitely scenic, beautiful and breathtaking. It is one of these strange Nature places on earth, which are hard to explain. The sheer surface size of 12’000 square kilometers (a fourth of the size of my home country, Switzerland) and the elevated location on 3’700 meters above sea level make this salt plain stand out from anything else I have visited so far throughout my entire life (which is not much – the cynical reader thinks). The Salar de Uyuni truly do live up to the hype and somehow the salt flat seems to induce happiness. Everyone I met there was smiling, having a fun day and enjoyed being in this very special place. But visiting this area also meant the end of a great three day trip, by arriving in the town of Uyuni.

This town sprawls of four-wheel drives (4WD), that have large outdoor gear fixed to their roofs. In the mornings at around 10 o’clock, a common sight is the gathering of small groups standing next to these vehicles. Handshakes and a few polite words introduce the obvious members of the impending desert trip. It seems as if the towns’ only business consists in selling excursions to the salt flat. In the afternoons, the situation reverses. Arriving outdoor vehicles arrive, spitting out happy people who bid farewell to each other. Some of them are hopping on the next bus to La Paz – some of them are staying in town to relax and wind down from a marathon trip.

The type of travelers I did encounter in Uyuni, definitely had changed in comparison the the other countries further south on this continent. Suddenly, there are a lot of “hardcore”-type backpackers roaming the streets and camping with their tents in the city park. They look mostly like hippies arriving straight out of a time-warp from the 60’s Woodstock Festival.

Carnival in Uyuni

The dress code among them consists of a woolen Bolivian or Peruvian cap, a colourful poncho and “Jesus”-pants with sandals. The more hardcore of them would even walk barefoot. For men, a sizable unwashed beard is a must, while many women wear similarly clean looking dreadlocks. Sure, you get these backpackers in many other cities. But I have never seen so much of them in one place (even the “hippie”-place in Don Det, Laos had less of them). This makes me truly wonder how all these guys and girls will look once they get “cattled” back to their real life in their nine to five jobs. It’s as if they wanted to wear a carnival dress making sure not to be recognised.

But then again, the locals don’t bother at all wearing special clothes or masks for their carnival festivities. How do I know? Well, it was carnival time in Uyuniduring the week-end I stayed there. Lots of music, dance and street parades were keeping the town well alive in the evenings. Which did put a nice, albeit unplanned, final touch on a very scenic and special trip to one of Earth’s most out of this World’s places.

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