Land of Silver & Salt
I haven’t been to the moon yet, but of all the places I’ve seen, nothing reminds me of our crater-filled neighbor in the sky quite like the south of Bolivia. Its cold, desolate, hard to breathe, and the stars shine just a bit brighter. To get here, either hop a bus south from La Paz or if you’re a bit more intrepid, come in from San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile. We opted to do an overland 4×4 trip across the Bolivian Altiplano which promised to be the most scenic and adventurous way to get to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. The 3 day trip to the Salar de Uyuni starts on a dusty highway leaving Chile and the roads soon turn to dirt which soon go away entirely.
Passing giant volcanos and Andean peaks along the way, its an expansive and breathtaking journey. After crossing the border in what amounts to a dusty police hut in the middle of nowhere, we switched vehicles into a more off-road ready vehicle and began our journey towards Uyuni. Pictures don’t prepare you for the challenges that altitude and cold present and its quickly obvious why this land is so desolate. We trekked across the high plains stopping every hour to to visit orangish-red lakes filled with flamingos followed by evenings eating Bolivian stew, which resembled the high altitude fare served in the Himalayas. The nights were slightly hypoxic, but seeing the stars and knowing that we were alone (at least for a 100 mile radius) outweighed the any altitude or cold induced pain. On our 3rd day, we arrived at the Salt Flat and well its got a lot of salt; as far as the eye can see.
Don’t cheap out on this tour or you could get a reckless driver who could put your safety at risk especially once you get to Salt flat, which is where drivers tend to drive as fast as they can depending on how much they were paid. I was approached by a group of crying women at my hotel who had been in an accident because their driver was drinking and we actually had to help out another group who had a flat tire and didn’t have a spare. I guess if there are no highway patrol, you can just drive anywhere you want, but the concern is that if multiple drivers are doing this at some point they could run into each other. Fortunately, we came away unscathed- albeit, Im pretty sure our driver had been drinking as well. The flats themselves are amazing- mile after mile of white sand with the occasional puddle and not a soul in site. The Salar de Uyuni is known for really cool depth perception photos which affords opportunities for creativity. Uyuni is definitely bucket list material for anyone who doesn’t mind a journey to get where they’re going
Fortunately, we came away unscathed- albeit, Im pretty sure our driver had been drinking as well. The flats themselves are amazing- mile after mile of white sand with the occasional puddle and not a soul in site. The Salar de Uyuni is known for really cool depth perception photos which affords opportunities for creativity. Uyuni is definitely bucket list material for anyone who doesn’t mind a journey to get where they’re going
How can I forget a giant train cemetery? They have one in Uyuni and its filled with large metal toys, seesaws, and other tetanus inducing fun. If you’ve ever dreamed of climbing on a train, this place would be a great option…in fact they let you do whatever you want for a modest admission fee. A strange train Disneyland for train fans who love the old west and maybe enjoy the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which took place here. After spending a bit too much time jumping from train to train, we left Uyuni for Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world at well over 13000 feet and home to some real modern day argonauts in search of silver in the gigantic cerro rico, which cradles the city. There was so much silver here in the 16th Century that they could’ve built a bridge made of silver all the way to Spain. There was no bridge, but they did take the silver by mule by way of donkey before being shipped to Panama City and Buenos Aires; layovers on the way back to the motherland. Today, the mines are still going and the silver keeps coming out. Want to join the boys in the mine? No problem, they have tours which take a limited number of guests into the mines to learn the ropes and breath in the particulate. In addition to a reasonable tour fee, we brought alcohol, tobacco, and dynamite as an offering to the workers. They use all 3 of these on a daily basis while they’re hard at work in the mine. In fact, they work so hard and its such tough conditions that the majority of these workers die in their 40s and 50s. I had to hold my shirt over my face because it was nearly impossible to breath with the dust flying everywhere. The best part of the tour was having to jump against rocks to dodge the mine carts that came flying by
As I struggled to breath, the miners smoked cigarettes and drank the cheap firewater we brought with us. These guys work so hard, but cherish every minute that they have and all of them understand the sacrifice they make to provide for their families. It was an eye and bronchial opening experience, but I needed to move on. The town of Potosi has a really cool silver museum which documents the movement of silver in the 1500s to Spain. Not much much else beyond this.. so we checked out and headed north to La Paz.