April 23-27, 2017
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 pictures.
Mud pots. Don’t fall in!
Wonderfully colored mountains.
Bufadores. Some neat kind of wetland where you’d expect a river.
Rhea, the South American cousin of the ostrich.
And much more…