The Lunar Landscape – Uyuni Trip Continued

Day 2 began early in the dark and cold. Breakfast was terrible and the hostel workers were hostile, so we were on our way without delay. The theme of the day was rocks and more rocks. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was magical to drive for an hour or more seeing this:

Sandy Expanse

And then suddenly to see this:

The Rocks Await

The magic of nature! It was fascinating how the elements and time combined to plop down these rock playgrounds at random intervals. We had a blast exploring although the rest of the group was definitely more adventuresome than we were. Climbing is not among my skills.

“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call”

Go Ask Alice was my mental soundtrack often throughout this surreal trip.

This view reminded me of a sand art picture someone had when I was a kid.

Sand Art

Despite the desolate landscape, we saw some animals on the trip in addition to the flamingos and viscacha.

One challenge of the long drives is the lack of bathrooms or shelter for a “natural” bathroom. We were all desperate on the second day, which wasn’t a big issue for the men but a hardship for us women. At one stop we found some scrubby bushes, but when I saw evidence of prior use, I managed to hold off until we hit a store about 2 minutes from our hotel. Not a moment too soon!


We stayed in a salt hostel the second night. The tables, chairs, beds, and interior walls were all made of salt. It was still frigid, but the accommodations were slightly better – we had a private, windowless room – and the workers were friendly.

In order to see the sunrise from Incahuasi Island, we were on the road shortly after 5 a.m. on the third and final day. Of course, there was no road; we were driving in the dark across the salt flats. It was disorienting: I felt as though we weren’t moving because the landscape never changed – the salt flat is over 4,000 square miles! I spent the entire day convinced we were on a frozen lake as opposed to a salt flat. I kept expecting to see some ice shanties and snowmobiles.

The island was amazing. It was the top of a volcano back when the salt flat was covered by a sea. Now it is covered by cacti, but you can still see the coral and other fossils. We got there and hoofed it to the top to get perfect pictures of the sunrise. For some reason, I had a hard time getting to the top, possibly due to the altitude or because I am not a morning person, but I managed to get there in time to see the sunrise along with a crowd of tourists. I tend to find sunrises overrated (don’t get me started on the Grand Canyon sunrise trip!) but this one was spectacular.

Morning has Broken

After breakfast we zoomed across the ice salt to get to the “perfect” spot for our photo shoot. Due to the expanse, the horizon is messed up and the shots are surreal. We played around for a couple of hours. Beatriz and Jorge came well prepared  – shots off the salt flat!

After a fast stop at a salt hotel, which apparently was only open for the Dakar rally, and a small town for trinkets, we were on the outskirts of Uyuni at the Train Graveyard. This is always the part of every trip when Matt and I would call it a day, but the tour operators want to give you your money’s worth even if obviously not everyone welcomed tourists.

Uyuni was a desolate, depressing town. While there was plenty of space because it was surrounded by the salt flat, there was garbage dumped on just about every corner. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there if they had a choice. I asked our guide if he lived there and he spoke with pride as to how healthy it was there and how people never get sick because they have a good quality of life. I was stunned, but to each their own. We checked into one of the nicest salt hotels in town (at about $55 a night) and enjoyed the hot shower and comfy beds!

“What a long, strange trip it’s been” sums up the Uyuni salt flat tour perfectly!

An Out-of-This-World Experience

“We are 20 years too old for this trip,” I protested. “This trip” was a 3-day, 2-night SUV trip through the high plains of Bolivia and ending in the Uyuni salt flat, the world’s largest. The reviews and tour operators were blunt – there is nothing luxurious about the trip. We would be bumping along basic roads, staying in hostels, and paying for cold showers. The basic accommodations weren’t my main issue – I’ve grown more accustomed to roughing it than I ever expected –  road trips are not my thing. No matter how beautiful the scenery, my attention span is short. But Matt was set on going, and our friend Lisa enticed me with some fantastic photos and assurances that the scenery is different at every turn, so I ultimately acquiesced.

Our ride

We were in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and would cross the Chile-Bolivia border at the onset of the trip. We didn’t have Bolivian visas, but the tour operator told us that all we needed were two headshots each, our yellow fever cards and passports in order to get the visas at the border. We had one one photo each, and he assured us that it would likely be fine. We were booked on day tours in San Pedro and when we tried to get new photos in the late afternoon the day before our Uyuni tour, we were out of luck: the store was open, but the woman who took the photos wasn’t working that day. Four years ago we would have freaked out at this news and railed about how inefficient it is to have only one worker who can take a picture anywhere in town, but we just shrugged and hoped for the best.

Sand as Far as the Eye Can See

On the day of the trip, a Chilean driver picked us up in a van early in the morning and drove us about 6 blocks to the Chilean immigration office where we joined the the long line of fellow travelers. After about an hour, and somehow with our group being corralled to be dead last, we had our exit stamps and were free to leave the country.

Door to the Immigration Office – Look Carefully – I Closed Wolski’s!

We set off through the desert to the border. That is, first we hit the Chilean border and then after 10 minutes of no-man’s land, we hit Bolivia.

Bolivian Immigration Office

We headed inside to immigration while our Chilean driver transerred our stuff to the SUV and our Bolivian driver. We were a little nervous about the one-photo issue when we got to the front of the immigration line. There were two men working: a policeman and the immigration official. The policeman took our documents and asked for our color copies. Ummm, what? We had passport copies somewhere in our luggage that was now strapped down on the SUV, but no copies of our yellow fever card. Matt let me do the talking and I played the stupid card – because we were. I apologized profusely, asked what we could do, and explained that no one told us we needed copies. The policeman feigned concern for us, explained they had no copy machine in the building (obviously, I’m not sure there was electricity!), and told us how much they needed the copies. We danced the dance, both knowing that the universal finale was inevitable – cold, hard, American cash. When the policeman pulled out his phone and started taking pictures of our documents, I knew we were in. He told us that he would drive to San Pedro on his lunch break to print off the photos and a small tip would be appreciated for his effort. I knew I had $30 in one pocket but also knew that there was no way to surreptitiously separate the $10 from the $20, so I pulled out the $30 and asked if that would compensate him for his time. No surprise: it would.

He passed us over to the immigration official and explained how he would come with our documents later. I believe this to be true in that everyone else had copies that were attached to the paperwork, but I suspect that no special trip was made and that he simply printed off the documents when he went home for the night. The immigration official was friendly and didn’t raise a fuss. The fee was $320 and I handed him 4 hundreds. He peeled off 3 twenties and handed them to me one-by-one while complimenting my Spanish, showing me the 10-year visas he gave us and urging us to return many times to Bolivia. I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he was ripping me off but after about a 10 second stare down, I smiled, said thanks and we skedaddled with our visa stamps.

We lucked out and had a great group – Beatrice and Jorge from Puerto Rico and Eilidh and Justine from Scotland. While they were all at least 20 years younger than us, we got along well and had good laughs. The fact that Beatrice and Jorge were bilingual was an added bonus as our driver only spoke Spanish and they could translate as needed (although Matt and I understood most of what he told us). We were not traveling in a caravan, but all the SUV tours were going to the same places along the way. We ran into a few groups and they all seemed crabby compared to ours, so we felt fortunate. Although our food was so terrible that a stray dog wouldn’t even eat the cake I offered it. One day I traded my pâté and stale bread for another traveler’s cake. Both parties considered themselves to have received the better end of that bargain.

What a great first day! Who knew that sand came in so many colors?! Or that pink flamingoes live at 15,000 feet above sea level on a red lake in a desert? We were delighted at every turn.

Dalí Desert

How Did Those Rocks Get There?

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We settled into our hostel for the night – all 6 to a room! Our companions gave us the “matrimonial” bed – two twins pushed together – but it was so cold in the unheated hostel at over 15,000 feet that Matt and I snuggled into one twin bed to keep warm.

Next Up – Rocks, fox and more!