The Salar de Uyuni
Trip Start Apr 08, 2012
28Trip End Sep 25, 2012
We left at 11 am and after the train cemetery just outside of town we left for the Salar de Uyuni.
You can see the salt flat from the main highway (really just a super bumpy gravel road) as a large expanse of whiteness, but you can only appreciate the massiveness of this place once you enter it.
And it was very obvious when you do enter it, it was almost a line between the Altiplano (high plains/desert) and the salt.
We drove for a couple of hours, stopping at a salt hotel (building made out of salt bricks and a sort of mortar between them) where we had lunch and took hundreds of photographs before continuing to Incahuasi Island.
As out of place as the entire salt flat seems, this island is even more so. It's not very large or very tall but it's covered in cacti and other succulents. We climbed to the top (which was not easy starting at above 3700 m) and from there you can look for miles around in every direction.
And all you can see for miles around is white. Lots of white. And in the far background, circling most of the Salar, are brown mountains, occasionally tipped in white themselves.
So this place is not very colourful, but is entirely unique. During the dry season - now - there are artful cracks in the salt but during the rainy season - which is probably stretching the phrase a bit - enough water covers the salt to create a perfect mirror effect that lasts until the sun can burn it off.
That night we left the salt flat and slept in another salt hotel. The use of salt for buildings has obvious upsides but it is not good for insulation. It often feels colder inside the buildings, the only consolation being the lack of wind.
The temperatures in the Salar do not vary a whole lot throughout the year. In midsummer they can reach 18 C (65 F) with average nightly temperatures of less than 0 C.
I visited during one of the coldest months (July and maybe August being worse) and the daily temperatures didn't go above 16 C in the Salar, with nightly temperatures easily in the negatives. Note that these temperatures are only true for the actual salt flat which is at about 12 100 ft.
The second day we drove through more Altiplano, gradually gaining elevation, eventually getting to almost 4300 m (14 100 ft) where we spent our second night.
On our third day we got even higher. In the early morning we reached a place where about a dozen geysers and hot springs are situated in a shallow (compared to the height of the surrounding mountains, that is) valley.
At this point we were at 5000 m (16 400 ft) and we were told the temperature was - 15 C (5 F).
This temperature by itself is pretty cold, but the bitter winds that seemingly came from every direction made it painful.
So I took most of my photos from the vehicle, opening the window for the barest amount of seconds. But we couldn't drive right up to one of the bubbling hot springs so I sprinted out of the car, got a look and a couple of photos and ran back to the warm (ish) car.
It was too cold to think about the fact that I couldn't breathe while I was outside, but once back in the car I definitely regretted my little jog.
At that height it's almost tiring to talk so I was practically hyperventilating by the time I reached my seat.
I always try to think of a place similar to where I am so perhaps people can relate or try to imagine the place. I was having serious difficulty with this here though. What came to mind after some thinking was perhaps southern Namibia with a bit of Utah's rock formations thrown in.
But someone else in my group came up with the perfect analogy.
Obviously not a real place (no matter how much we may wish it was) but one that most people can visualise. For the rest, it's the desert planet from Star Wars.
And it's fitting in more ways than one. It really feels like you're on a different planet.
The area is on the fringes of the Atacama Desert which is known as the driest place in the world with an average rainfall of about 1 mm and some places have never recorded any moisture.
So the landscape here is brown, with the occasional grey bit.
At this elevation one would expect a constant snow layer and glaciers but few clouds ever reach the majority of this place. Only the extremely high mountains are glacier-capped.
The ground is covered in rocks and sand and only very rarely do you see little tufts of grass poking their way through the soil. Many places showed literally no signs of life at all.
At the end of our last day two people were supposed to be dropped off at the Chilean border but it had started snowing a couple hours beforehand and the border was closed until further notice.
One might try to say that they should be prepared for snow at that location but so few people use that border that it would never be worth it.
It was a really fun tour and there were some amazing and unforgettable views along the way, but I cannot remember the last time I was that cold for that long. I never warmed up for about 5 days - from when I got off the very warm train to when I arrived in La Paz and had a long, hot shower.
But La Paz is just below 3600 m (12 000 ft) and it's never warmer than "not shivering."
So I'm ready for some warmth. But not before one last awesome activity in La Paz (next entry).