A Mirror the Size of Two Million Football Fields

9 Mar

Salar de Uyuni is a seemingly boundless evaporated lake of salt and other minerals in the middle of the Altiplano, a high altitude plateau in the Andes spilling over from Bolivia into Chile, Argentina, and Peru. The Uyuni Salt Flat is the biggest salt pan in the world, which makes it one of the prime attractions of Bolivia and obviously one that I couldn’t miss.

Laguna Blanca

To get to the salt flat from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, I joined a tour group for a two-day off-roading adventure over the Altiplano. We first bussed to the Chilean-Bolivian border where I endured a slightly anxious meeting with the border guard. Americans have to purchase a visa for entry into Bolivia, but this border crossing didn’t sell them, so the guard took away my passport for safekeeping by my tour guide until we reached the city where I could purchase my visa. Luckily, I convinced my guide to let me hold onto my passport. I tend to be a bit overprotective with the document that is required for me to get allowed back into my home country.

Laguna Verde and the Licancabur volcano

Safely and somewhat legally in Bolivia, I hopped into the front seat of a land cruiser and got ready for our foray through the mountains and over the plateau to the city of Uyuni, which would be our home base for our excursion to the salt flat.

Our land cruiser bounced over the rocky and sandy terrain of the Altiplano and skidded to a halt at the Laguna Blanca, an ice-white lake circled by smooth mocha-brown mountains with white tips. It was truly beautiful, but there wasn’t much more to do than wander around and take pictures.

The paint-worthy colors of Desierto Dalí

After we had gotten our fill, we rode on to the nearby Laguna Verde, similar to the White Lagoon, although perhaps with water of a slightly greener tint and fronting a massive volcano that was competing for our attention. Despite being in a desert, the air was frigidly cold, and I was becoming apprehensive for our afternoon stop at the hot springs, which would require us to strip down to our bathing suits and get wet.

The thermal springs, just like a big hot tub but with gorgeous scenery

On our way over the arid plateau to the hot springs, we made a quick stop at the Desierto Dalí, named after Salvador Dalí, an eccentric Spanish artist who was known for painting desert scenes. (Apparently he is really famous, and I suffered the dismay of a few of my group members for never having heard of him. What can I say, I’m not good at art history.) I’m not sure if he ever painted the desert named after him, but the red, pink, orange, brown, and white mountain and sand landscape would have made for a stunning piece of art.

Me at the sulphur springs

We made it to the Aguas Termales, and I braved the freezing air in my bikini from the car to the small thermal springs. Thankfully, they were steaming hot. It was nice to relax for a while surrounded by mountains, desert, and flamingo-filled lagoon, although it really felt like we were just chilling in a regular old, unchlorinated hot tub. And it was pretty painful trying to dry off afterwards in the dreadful cold.

The pink-red water of the Laguna Colorada

Next it was on to some sulphur springs that looked like geysers emitting smoking vapor high into the air and dispersing a rotten egg smell into our noses. The smell wasn’t too much to handle, though, so we spent some time darting around the spurts of gas and posing for pictures before speeding off again through the desert and up over the high plains.

Gasping for air, we finally arrived at our hostel. (Okay, we weren’t quite gasping, but at over 15,000 feet above sea level, the thin air was definitely making it more difficult for us to breathe.)

Tons of flamingoes at Laguna Colorada

We chowed down a surprisingly tasty lunch of hot dogs and mashed potatoes, then reboarded the land cruisers for a jaunt to a nearby lagoon. Laguna Colorada was undoubtedly endowed with its name – Red Lagoon – because of the vibrant pink-red color of its water and the salmon pink of the hundreds of flamingoes that awkwardly walk around the shallow lake.

They walk so funny.

I could have watched those flamingoes walk forwards with their backwards legs for hours, but the granite clouds and windy air were threatening storm. Indeed, as the land cruisers bounded us back towards home, a crazy thunderstorm appeared over the hills behind our hostel. I could see the lighting continuously striking the hillside in powerful jagged bolts. We made it into the dry indoors right before the clouds burst over our heads.

The dim lighting of the hostel, the crash of the rain on the tin roof, the booming thunder, and the lack of any human life for miles and miles outside the hostel gave the evening a spooky, horror film-like vibe. I almost expected to see Jack Torrance show up in the dark hallway with an ax.

The eeriness had dissipated the next morning, and we set out in the land cruisers under clear blue skies.

The Stone Tree

All of a sudden, the sandy, rocky ground turned white, and we pulled to a stop at an area of huge natural stone formations, one of which is called Árbol de Piedra, meaning “stone tree,” because of its tree-like shape. On this day, however, the main attraction wasn’t the cool stone formations because the whole place was covered in snow! Thanks to the area being about a thousand feet higher in altitude, the precipitation of the storm the night before had turned to snow and blanketed the whole area with thick whiteness.

Fun in the snow

Of course, we couldn’t resist playing around in the snow for a while. Some snowballs were thrown, some snow angels were made, and the smooth snow surface was damaged with footprints. I imagine our stop at the Stone Tree lasted a lot longer on this day than for other tour groups on non-snow days.

After a few stops to take pictures of some more lagoons in the middle of the desert, we arrived at the Valle de Rocas, where we climbed all over the gigantic rocks covering the valley while our guides made lunch. Then I practically inhaled my plate of rice, potatoes, and tuna. I’m convinced the high altitude makes me hungrier.

The Valley of Rocks

On through the Altiplano we went through towns of farms with llamas and sheep and little stone shacks, to the Cementerio de Trenes, which is just what it sounds like, a train cemetery. It is a place where old trains were abandoned when the area’s mining industry collapsed in the early part of the 20th century. Now the mostly still-intact engines, cars, and cabooses form a sort of playground for tourists to climb over and in. It was really fun to clamber up into the steam engine car and pretend to be conductor for a bit.

Me as a conductor in an abandoned train

That evening, we settled into a hostel in Uyuni, a squalid town that is only worth visiting as a place to sleep, and prepared for a 4:30am wakeup to make it to the salt flats before sunrise.

Half asleep, without coffee, more than a little bit grouchy, and freezing cold in sandals and shorts (our guides had said to prepare for walking in water but didn’t warn us about the freezingness!), I wasn’t having the best time as we waited on the crunchy salt ground for the sun to come up. As I jumped up and down to restore feeling to my feet, I was actually getting angry at the sun for taking its sweet time in coming up that morning. It didn’t help that the expanse of white salt looked like snow, which I think made it feel even colder.

Sunrise turning Salar de Uyuni into a gigantic mirror

Right when I was convinced that the sun wasn’t going to come up that day, a few beams of light appeared over the mountains, the mountaintops turning pink and blue and the few-inch layer of water covering the salt pan turning into a gigantic mirror.

It was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen, the combination of atmospheric colors, jagged mountains, and fluffy clouds doubled in the mirror covering thousands of square miles of flat ground. I was also much happier and warmer as the sun’s reflection off the natural mirror instantly heated the air.

Flying on the roof of a land cruiser over the salt flat mirror

After a leisurely breakfast on the flats, our group scrambled up to the roofs of our land cruisers and our guides sped us back to the entrance of the salt flat. The glass-like water reflected the mountains and clouds and made it feel like we were flying. I was in disbelief that there is actually such a breathtaking place on our earth.

We ended our tour at a nearby salt factory, where we stepped around huge piles of salt, learned of the importance of salt to the region, and saw how salt is packaged for sale. Apparently salt in its crystallized form can be used to make things from little trinkets to furniture and even walls of houses.

I spent the afternoon with a few of my new friends at the Extreme Fun Pub, where we had an extremely fun time drinking coca-infused cocktails and playing cards until it was time to catch our overnight bus to La Paz, which is where we are headed now!

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