Day two of the Salar de Uyuni tour is longer than the first day. And there are fewer bathrooms (word to the wise, there).
We left the refugio around 7:30 am and folded ourselves back into the jeep. We played quiet 80s music until everyone woke up. The second day is full of altiplano lakes and volcanoes.
Our first stop was the arbol de piedra, or the stone tree. Throughout the journey through the desert we saw many odd rock formations, all a result of volcanic eruptions hundreds of years ago. These rocks don‘t look volcanic, but they definitely look strange, random grouping off them out in the middle of the dirt or grass. This one is particularly fun to climb and take pictures of.
At this point, I really needed to use the bathroom, and I was in luck. A tiny adobe shack with a toilet that had broken probably in the 80s was behind a group of rocks, and I made use of it. Thankfully Jordan and I had bought another roll of paper with the 10 liters of water back in San Pedro (that is an absolute must). This is also the last bathroom available for hours.
Next up were some more, beautiful altiplano lakes. The Altiplano is the high Andean plateau that we traveled through.
Not to be ungrateful for the view, but after a while they all start to look the same. The flamingos, though, perk up the place. Jordan was able to snag a photo of one flying. Have you ever seen a flamingo fly? It‘s the weirdest thing I‘ve seen in a long while. Jordan made a meme for the heck of it, because it amused him so much.
We drove probably six hours between bathrooms. Like, actual buildings with toilets in them, so all three of us girls convinced Gabriel, our driver, to stop by a lovely rock landscape a couple of times that day. I got very good at au natural. I only share this because 1) it is one of the more vivid memories of the trip and 2) anyone thinking about going, just be aware that the altitude wreaks havoc upon your bladder.
Our last stop was a surprise (to me at least), at a industrial/rail place. It does have a toilet inside a half-constructed building, you just have to ask around for it. They had a few old trains rusting on the rails, and there were about 25 tourists clambering around on them like five-year-olds at a jungle gym.
After singing to 80s music for several hours (including our driver. He was a very stoic, taciturn man but I know he enjoyed the music) we arrived at our resting place for the night: a hostel made from salt. The floors are all loose salt, the tables and chairs and walls are all hard, rock salt. Even the bed frame is made of salt. The only area devoid of salt is the bathroom. And here, thankfully, are showers. One good thing about this trip is that the food is great. Even though we‘ve had very basic accomodations (and our driver kept scaring us by stopping and checking under the hood of the jeep) the food is great, both dinners at the remote hostels and lunch in the back of the jeep. It‘s all filling and tasty.
At this salt hostel we bumped into a large group of Asian tourists that were going to opposite direction. Our drivers made the poor decision to give every group a bottle of wine. I was very surprised at the wine, because while acclimatizing to high altitudes one isn‘t supposed to drink alcohol. While our group (and our neighboring group of Germans and Brazilians) could hold their liqour, the Asians couldn‘t. I think they may have been Japanese. It was someone‘s birthday, then someone found another bottle, then they were yelling and singing. Jordan and I were trying to sleep at that point, just across the common room. He had to go out and tell them firmly in Spanish to be quiet, that everyone was trying to sleep. One of the women danced up to him and I think was going to try to kiss him. It was very odd to see a group of people known for their reserve being so obnoxious.
At 4:00 am we rolled out of bed to greet the sunrise at the Salar. This is the most anticipated event of the whole trip. We dozed in the jeep while Gabriel took us out in the middle of nowhere, at the Salar. I wanted more sleep, but the sunrise was gorgeous. The salt sparkled like snow, and we could see nothing but the salt for miles and a few distant mountains.
We goofed around for a while, then headed to breakfast.
Isla de Pescado (or Incahuasi island) is not an island, nor does it have fish. Instead, it is a hill full of cacti shaped like a fish in the center of the salar, or salt flat. It is actually the top of submerged, ancient volcano.
Before we left we had to mess around with all the random flags at the breakfast point. When it rains the water builds up on the salt and reflects the sky and clouds. We didn’t see any of that, but the salt itself is worth seeing.
This salt flat is the largest salt desert in the world, at over 4,000 square miles. It is also about 12,000 feet above sea level. The salt flats used to be a huge lake (more like a sea!) thousands upon thousands of years ago. The salt crust is also highly rich in lithium, so there are companies with extraction rights in some corners of the salar. According to Aymara lore (the indigenous people from the region), the mountains Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina, which surround the Salar, were giant people. Tunupa married Kusku, but Kusku ran away from her with Kusina. Grieving Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son. Her tears mixed with milk and formed the salar.
Because there is nothing by sky and flat land, you can do some pretty fun distortion/depth perception photos. We had a lot of fun with that!
Across the salar, on the far other end (nearest civilization) are the salt piles. an area where salt is dug from the plane into piles weighing a ton each, and left to dry in the sun before transport to a refinery then to our tables.
We ended the trip at the Cementerio de Trenes. The railroad was a huge deal when it came to Bolivia, partially because it is a landlocked country and partially because Bolivia has oodles of natural resources. (Yes, oodles). The trains here have been rusting for around 75 years. It was pretty cool, but because they were falling apart and had sharp, rusted pieces a little dangerous to climb around. We were able to explore the previous days’ trains more.
But Jordan adores trains, so he had a blast. We were also able to check out some interesting graffiti/street art.
At this point our driver told us that it was election day, so no cars were allowed in the city and we would have to carry our bags, jugs of water, and walk about 15-20 minutes to the tour office. That was fantastic news. But we walked and made it. Uyuni isn’t exactly the nicest of towns. I would advice you to leave as soon as possible. Which is what we tried to do. But the buses weren’t running for hours because of elections, so we spent about seven or eight hours just wandering the streets, waiting for an overnight bus to Sucre, Bolivia.
Everyone else was waiting, too. There were about 80 or 90 backpackers stuck in town, which was kind of humorous. We ran into each other repeatedly because everyone was walking in circles, looking for internet. There was not a lot to be had. However, finally, at 10 pm we got on a local overnight but to Sucre. It was the most incomfortable bus we have taken yet. It wasn’t even a semicama, so it didn’t lean back very far. And Bolivians, if you didn’t know, are short. So short that the seats are twice as close to one another in buses. We folded into our seats and tried to sleep. There were a couple of backpackers on the bus with us that were 6’3″ or more, and frankly I have no idea how they even got their legs into the space. The locals that got on the bus late had to stand in the aisle, and the bathroom was broken. It was not fun.
But we survived and made it to Sucre! And now we have a great Salar tour to talk about.