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The Salt Flats – Final Day in the Desert

Posted by on September 15, 2010

Yet another long-term back post, July 26th in reality. Will get through them faster though. In real terms I’m in Mendoza, Argentina.

I woke early, and poked my head out the window. We’d been assigned rooms, instead of one big dorm, so in our twin room I’d gotten a pretty good sleep – four blankets, I’d even taken my jacket off during the night. Outside the sun was just rising over the desert, where the moon had been the night before. I quickly ran outside and got some photos.

Salt Hotel at sunrise

Salt Hotel at sunrise

The desert itself felt huge, and the hill behind us was indeed covered in cacti, as Miguel had promised.

The breakfast table in the Salt Hotel

The breakfast table in the Salt Hotel

Walking back in, I discovered the hotel’s resident puppy, and made friends with him, as is required with all dogs, stray or pet (ignores remarks from people who have travelled with me into dog-prone areas). Inside, breakfast was served, so I ducked back into the room where Amal was struggling to get up – he was apparently very tired, having not slept too much, and coughed a bit. He insisted he’d be up shortly, so the rest of us had breakfast – cereal, a fresh cake and breads, and started to pack.

Amal was still struggling to rise, but at least today was mostly in the car and then the tour would finish, so he made his way down to the truck, tired from the effort.

The view from the truck

The view from the truck

We headed off, and within ten minutes the desert changed to white. In every direction,cracked plates of salt, all the way to the mountains in some directions, and further than the eye could see in others.

Incahuasi Island

Incahuasi Island

Soon we stopped at Incahuasi Island, or rather which was an island when this entire area was an ocean. Now it’s an oddity in the middle of the salt left over from the sea, and covered in cacti. It’s a national park, so five of us paid the stipend entrance fee while Amal opted to stay in the car – it was going to be a lot of walking, climbing a couple of hundred metres all over the island.

We reached the top after half an hour, having stopped regularly to take cheesy or dodgy photos with cacti, while giving us a chance to catch our breath. The view from the top was surreal. In some directions, you could make out the ‘roads’ – where the salt had flattened from repeated driving, and every so often ‘traffic’ would pass – solitary trucks cruising through the desert. We made our way back down, stopping to note the biggest cactus on the island; a 12m, 800 year-old stunner, and next to it, sadly, a 1200 year-old fallen cactus.

Back in the car, we drove a few kilometres away until we were well in the open – the salt flats are 12,000 square kilometres, the biggest in the world, so there’s a lot of open space. Miguel parked the truck and we walked out in the direction where the horizon emptied away from the mountains. The result is an inability to perceive depth – you have the white of the salt against the perfect blue sky. The benefit of this is ridiculous opportunities for crazy tourist photos – whether it be a recreation of Gulliver’s Travels with ‘tiny’ people ‘walking’ on top of Neil, or Suzie ‘diving’ off Neil’s hand. What we did find is that the salt is surprisingly sharp, and for those lying down for certain shots, it’s not an easy position to be in!

The photographed photographer

The photographed photographer


Our Desert Beast

Our Desert Beast


Gulliver's Travels, Salt Flats style

Gulliver's Travels, Salt Flats style


We spent a good hour there taking photos, and Miguel handling the group shots. Amal even managed to get out of the car for the group shots, and a few of him, before finally satisfied, we bundled back into the car. I was in the front seat at this point and as we sped off into the wide open salt, I was able to get some more photos through the windscreen and out the window – it’s surreal to just see two colours like that!

We arrived in a small ‘settlement’ just outside of Uyuni for lunch, and the opportunity to buy souvenirs. We wandered around but at this point were really just happy to have done the salt flats, and after lunch (chicken which had been marinated, giving it a pinkish colour – Miguel again insisted to the horrified girls that it was flamenco), we headed into the small town of Uyuni.

Uyuni is an oddity. If not for the tourism of the Salar de Uyuni next to it, it may well have become a ghost town by now. Instead it’s a staging point – either the beginning or end of tours, and a departure point for the daily buses to La Paz, Potosi or Sucre. We stopped at the ‘bus station’ a street with bus companies, unpacked and convened. Amal and I were to meet Blair here, at Hotel Girasoles, while Neil and Suzie were off to La Paz on the night bus, and Caz and Hannah off to Potosi. As Amal pretty much just wanted to go to the hotel, we agreed to meet a bit later as we had a few hours, and started walking the five blocks to the hotel as we’d been told there were no taxis in town. About 50m further on and Amal had to stop to recover, as it happens, right next to a taxi(!), so we hopped in that and a little later, checked in at the hotel. I’d spotted a pharmacy next door, so we went in and started to explain as best we could about ‘altura’, before the pharmacist just smiled and handed us a box of anti-altitude sickness pills. Brilliant!

Amal took one and promptly crashed out for a few hours, while I met up with the others and went to what I’ll call ‘tourist street’ – we all were expecting to find the cheap Bolivian food we’d heard so much about, but these restaurants knew the only people here were tourists, and they’d all set their prices to match. Still we found a reasonable pizza place, and Neil and I sampled Potosini, the beer from the highest brewery in the world, or so they claimed.

After saying our goodbyes, I walked back to the hotel, now regretting the lack of a jacket as night had fallen, and so had the temperature. At the hotel Amal woke saying he was feeling better after three hours of sleep, but was still tired, so had some water and went back to sleep. I checked my email on the slow-as-a-dog, pay-to-use internet. There was no wifi anywhere in town that we could find, and the internet was intermittent at best, even in the internet cafes. Blair had found a bus that took him instead to La Paz, so didn’t meet us in Uyuni as planned, which made sense as there really is nothing in Uyuni. I’d emailed to say we’d be there in a couple of days (on Wednesday) – the bus only leaves in the evening – and I then headed to bed, rather tired, but satisfied – a successful day in the salt flats of Bolivia!

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