Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - Day One

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People ask us all the time what made us want to leave everything we knew behind to travel. We talked about "the why" a bit before we left, but usually, we reply with something along the lines of, "There are so many amazing things out there, and we really want to see them" or "We want to travel while we're young, before we settle down." While those answers are true, the real inspiration for the trip began about six years ago when we first saw photos of Salar de Uyuni. Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, with over 4,000 square miles at 12,000 feet elevation. It is the most massive expanse of pure white that you can imagine, with the clearest of blue skies. We learned that the combination of large area, clear skies, and flatness make it one of the best places to calibrate the altimiters for Earth's observation satellites. Both Daniel and I were captivated by the photos taken from other travelers... and a dream was born. To say that we are excited to finally see the very place that really started it all is the understatement of the year. We both had to remind each other, "Wow. This is it. Soak it all in, because we are FINALLY here. This is what the trip is all about."

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We took a three day, two night tour starting in Uyuni and ending in Chile that included the Salar itself, as well as what is called the Southwest Circuit. We were paired with a driver in a 4x4 and two other couples for the trip. A lot of time was spent driving between sites over salt planes, dirt roads, and bumpy 4x4 tracks. Our first stop on day one was at the train cemetary. Uyuni used to be a distribution hub for trains carrying minerals (such as lithium, borax, sodium, potassium, and magnesium) from Salar to ports in the Pacific Ocean. The railway was built in the 1890s, and abandoned in the 1940s when the mining industry collapsed. The abandoned trains are still there and in remarkable shape, given the weather conditions they endure. There were some fun things set up like teeter-totters and swings made out of old train parts to play around on as well. We spent twenty minutes or so walking around, climbing on the old trains, and taking pictures of the area

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Seven kilometers north of Uyuni, our next stop was at the villiage of Colchani. Here, the people make their living by processing salt. The villiagers sold souveniers made entirely of salt, which were among the more interesting souveniers we've seen. There were salt turtles that caught our eye, so we snapped a picture for Daniel's mom. Until this point, we have not bought a single souvenir (with the exception of hats or other useful items)... but we thought it would be nice to have a piece of the Salar to take home and remind us of our time here, so we bought some tasteful candlestick holders. To be honest, they look like something you would buy at Crate & Barrel, except they are made and carved entirely from salt. I am hoping that they don't get destroyed when we ship them home.

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The third stop of the day was at a salt mining area, where salt is dug from the plane and piled into mounds that look like miniature mountains. They are left in the sun to dry before being transported off to a refinery. This was our first glimpse of how vast the Salar really is. The mounds of salt spread before us were such a beautiful sight.

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After the mining are, we drove to the original salt hotel for a brief stop. The hotel is no longer in service (it is now a small museum), but it is made entirely of salt. The bricks, the mortar, the floor, the ceiling... all salt. In front, there is an area where tourists can put the flags of their home country. I was sad to see that there was no United States flag... if I had known, I would have brought one with me. Anyone reading from home, if you ever go, please put up a flag for us!

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At this point, it was time to head to our next location to eat lunch. Our driver stopped at Isla Incawasi, an island made of fossilized coral that sits in the middle of the salar and is covered in giant cacti. The cacti grow at a rate of 1 centimeter per year, and many are estimated to be over 1,000 years old... that makes for a big cactus! Our driver prepared us a lunch of grilled llama steaks, quinoa, avacado, cucumbers, and apples. It is pretty normal for Bolivians to eat llama, and it is a good source of protein and very low in fat. It is a little chewy stringy, though, and definitely not my favorite. After lunch, we hiked to the top of the island, where you could see hundreds of giant cactus plants, with the salar in the backdrop. It was truly stunning, and we spent several moments standing there looking at the view, just saying "Wow." It was breathtaking. When it was time to go, we walked back to the bottom and really got a good look at the flora. A few of the plants were flowering, and we also saw a small bird sitting on top of a cactus. Also, we saw a giant cactus whose flesh had rotted away, and an intricate bark was remaining. We spent some more time taking photos, then it was back to the car for the long drive to our hotel for the night.

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Along the way, we stopped in the middle of a vast expanse of salt. It was a beautiful spot... the salt formed a hexagonal pattern the went on for ages. The hexagons were really interesting, and we later found out that they are formed by Rayleigh-BĂ©nard convection (or in easier terms, because of convection that occurs in the water left during the rainy season).There, we took a lot of goofy pictures that played around with perspective. Because the ground is so white and flat for as far as you can see, you can make it look like you are doing things like sitting on top of a rubix cube, fighting a giant dragon, eating your husband out of a spoon, or holding a car in the palm of your hand. Some of these came out better than others, but we had a lot of fun trying out some different things with our camera. Once we had our fun, we got back into the car and drove the rest of the way to our accomodation for the night.

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We stayed the night in San Juan in a salt hotel. As with the original salt hotel from earlier in the day, absolutely everything was made of salt. We stayed in a room with two double beds and a bench to sit on, all made from salt. In the common eating area, the tables and benches were also made of salt. The walls, floors, bricks, mortar... more salt. It was incredible. There was no electricity, but that didn't matter to us. We ate a lackluster dinner then went to bed early. This concluded the long first day of our three day trip. The whole day was moment after moment of thinking, "Wow, we are actually doing this." After six years of talking and planning and dreaming, we finally saw the place that was captivating enough to make us decide to go on this crazy adventure. Since this post is already long, I will detail days two and three in a subsequent post.

Check out all our crazy Salar de Uyuni pictures on Flickr.