Thanksgiving in Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni
We had some long driving days in Bolivia. The roads were in fair condition and we made good time heading south to the famous salt flats.
Chris makes a new friend. This little guy’s mama was the owner of our campground. He wanted nothing to do with Ben and Emma, instead preferring to follow Chris around as he went about his morning routines. Here they are refilling the water tank of our toilet.
After crossing the border we beat a path from La Paz south to the town of Uyuni, a dusty outpost perched on the edge of a vast salt flat. Seen from above, it’s the white blotch in the southwest corner of the country.
The popular spot to camp in Uyuni is the old train yard; a collection of rusty locomotives that are slowly sinking into the earth on the edge of the town dump. Despite our dubious introduction to the train graveyard, it was actually a hoot to nose through the old machines and we happily set up camp for the night.
The next morning we awoke early with three goals:
- Fill the truck with gas
- Stock up on groceries
- Spray the underbelly of the truck with a slimy coating of used motor oil
Getting gas in Bolivia is dicey for foreigners. The government has implemented insanely high prices for non-local vehicles.
For example: if locals pay $1/liter, the foreigner price will be $4/liter. You can’t get the local price but a little negotiating might get you into the $2/liter range. So basically you pull up to a gas station, hope that no one else is getting gas, strike a deal with the gas pump guy, and watch as he fills your tank at top speed. Then get the hell out of dodge.
You might have to try two or three gas stations before you are able to successfully fill up. Fortunately we got lucky at our first station in Uyuni, which was fabulous as there are only a few gas pumps in town from which to choose.
We stopped at a corner market, adding a few rubbery carrots and some loaves of bread to our stores. If you are able, we advise stocking up in La Paz as the grocery options were limited in their offerings. We did score a major delicacy: Boxed Kraft Mac & Cheese. The food gourmands among us might sniff at such basic fare, but if you’re age 7 and in Bolivia, such a find ranks up there with Christmas morning.
Next we headed to a car wash, which was a bit of a misnomer given that they coated the underside of the truck in the stickiest, stinkiest used oil you’d ever seen. Evidently it protects the undercarriage from the corrosive power of the salt. Thus lubricated, we headed north to the salt flats.
The nearby town of Colchani is technically the entrance to the salt flats. We followed a line of Land Rovers out through the dusty streets; suddenly the vast flats spread out in front of us and the small town faded away. It was eerie.
Most people drive straight east and end up in the vicinity of the Dakar Rally monument. We stopped for lunch and had our first taste of this strange new landscape.
The Uyuni Flats are the remains of a vast lake that existed 40,000 years ago; they are the largest salt expanse in the world, almost 100 times the size of Bonneville. The thick crust of salt covers a brine solution that is thought to contain 60% of the world’s lithium. It won’t be long before massive extraction efforts are underway to mine materials for the world’s fast-paced technology needs.
Islands emerge from the white landscape like brown smudges on the horizon, covered with sharp rocks that contain the remains of long-ago lake bottom ecosystems.
Uyuni is in the heart of the Andes and clocks in at about 12,000 feet above sea level. The nights are bitterly cold. During the rainy season a layer of water settle on the lake, creating a gorgeous mirror-like surface (google it, it’s amazing). The downside of the precipitation is that the salt softens, making it inadvisable for vehicles to venture out into the middle.
Once past the Dakar Rally monument, it’s time to choose a direction. Some people strike out willy nilly across the salt but we stayed exclusively on the ‘roads’ that had been established by tour companies. We headed slightly northeast to a cluster of tiny uninhabited islands.
The Land Rovers packed with (fellow) tourists bomb along at top speed across the white surface. We settled on a more sedate pace after having a good look at one of the many potholes that dot the lake’s surface.
How would you like to drop a tire in that?!
That afternoon we cozied up to a tiny island in this vast white world; it was a bit like dropping anchor: we found the leeward side next to a gentle beach and set about making the camper secure against the wind. We also plopped a bottle of wine into a pothole: bottle chiller!
The kids got out their buckets and shovels for a little saline beach play. Within 15 minutes they were coated in salt from head to toe.
On the menu: beef heart (long story. Cliff Notes version: our poor spanish tripped us up in the market), instant mashed potatoes, pisco sours, and (of course) boxed mac and cheese. I also had broccoli but by the time we’d finished cooking everything else we were out of pots and freezing cold. Time to head inside for dinner.
The next day we set out to explore our wee little island.
Lots o’ rocks, lots o’ cacti.
The Salar is famous for crazy weird perspective photography. We tried…this was about as good as we could manage with wind, wiggly kids, and a camera that can’t handle light surfaces.
The Salar was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced: harsh, windy, stark, and beautiful. A Thanksgiving we’ll never forget.