Technically, the Salar de Uyuni but most people just call it The Salar. It’s one of those wonders of the world that is only recently being discovered as a tourist destination. The famous Dakar race started going through here a few years ago and that is what’s credited with elevating The Salar to a world class destination. The launching point for The Salar is the humble (very) town of Uyuni situated on the shore of this onetime giant section of ocean.
In the early 1900’s Bolivia’s borders extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Bolivian government built a railroad to the coast to export vast amounts of salt. Through a series of wars with it’s neighbors, which Bolivia lost them all, Chile expanded all the way north to Peru cutting off Bolivia from the ocean and any port access without paying a huge tax. That effectively ended the salt export business and the trains were just parked and left to rot. Since then the city stagnated until the recent uptick in tourism. Our guide said 70% of the population now works in tourism.
It’s a rag-tag of buildings on the desert floor. The pavement abruptly ends as we reached the city limits and the roads seemed to wander randomly through town. My GPS was useless leaving it up to us to untangle the maze and find our hotel.
We thought about riding our motorcycles on The Salar and doing a homemade tour, I’m glad we didn’t. We learned that the first Dakar race through here had the cars and motorcycles ride across the salt flats. The problem is that it’s not all dry especially in the rainy season which we were in. When it’s wet the water is not very deep but extremely salty (you might have guessed) and it caused major havoc to all the expensive Dakar racing machines. Not good. Now the Dakar race is routed around the actual salt flats. We opted for a three day two night tour in a Toyota Land Cruiser. I read too many horror stories about damage to bearings, chains and electronics of modern motorcycles riding on the salt. Also, it’s really easy to get lost and end up in a soft part of the salt flat sinking helplessly into the salty muck. Lastly, there are no places to get gas and really no hotels. Most bikers end up camping in temperatures that often get below freezing at night. The “lodging” on the tour was generally available only to the tour companies and was very basic, almost like camping.
We picked Red Planet Tours from the many, many tour operators based on some recommendations. There were dire warnings on the internet about unscrupulous tour operators and deadly crashes due to drunk drivers crashing in the desert. Ok, we were warned.
So, here we go, three days in and around the salt flats and the surrounding desert. Of course, we took a gazillion pictures so instead of just trying to summarize them here I made a short video for each day with entertaining music, capturing photos and witty comments. The first one is about 7 minutes long, Deby gets shrunk to pixie size and chased by a dinosaur.
I hope you enjoy.
I have to point out the island we visited. The area was a vast ocean and then through the motion of tectonic plates the ocean floor rose to over 12,000 feet! Of course the ocean dried up and left a bunch of salt. Here is what is cool… under the ocean, like many oceans there were coral reefs. When the ocean dried up these reefs were exposed and petrified. This whole island is a giant petrified coral reef! Wow, you don’t see that everyday much less get to climb around on it.
But enough of all that. On to day two. On the second day we left the salt flats to explore the surrounding area. This video is a little longer, eight and a half minutes. I broke out the GoPro camera so there are some video clips. Our elevations varied from 12,000 feet to over 15,000 feet in places. Wow. I was careful with water and taking altitude pills so actually felt pretty good…. for now.
We ended the second day at a rough grouping of structures with beds. Four people to a room. We shared our room with a young couple where nurses at a hospital in LA. Good to have medical staff nearby. The woman was having symptoms of altitude sickness so I gave here a few of my pills. The only redeeming thing about this place was the nearby hot springs. After dinner all 20 of us walked in complete darkness to the black soupy hole of hot water. The nearly full moon hadn’t risen yet and the dark sky exploded with stars. The Milky Way was as bright as I’ve ever seen it, a giant ribbon of stars in the sky punctuated at the southern end by the Southern Cross constellation.
The water temp was perfect, warmer where the constant stream of water entered and cooler at the exit so we could pick our perfect temperature. The younger crowd was passing around bottles of rum, wine and beer which seemed like a bad combination at almost 14,000 feet so I wisely abstained. After a while the full moon started to rise over the mountains to the east, it was an amazing sight. A special evening for sure.
Red Planet Tours, we were told, is the only tour group that stops here for the night and allows the opportunity for night time soaks in the thermals. During the day many tour groups stop and let tourists soak for a while. Our tour guide said that during the day all the gringos full of sunscreen soaking in the thermal pond makes for some gross water. He called it sopa de gringo…. gringo soup. On the way out I managed an early morning picture of the gringo soup.
Here is the video…. it’s a short one this time as we only stopped at a few places and then blasted through the sand and rocks back to Uyuni.
Here is a final picture of the group, us, our guide and Team-K as our guide called the South Koreans. We had a great time.
Next back on the bikes but first I have to put in a plug for SoySucre.info
Across the street from our hotel is a European guy with good English skills that helped us arrange the tour of the Salar. He was immensely helpful in helping us plan the next section of the trip. If you ever go to Sucre I highly recommend contacting Marco Birchler at the Casa de turismo. Calle Audiencia N 81 Sucre, Bolivia. firstname.lastname@example.org and visiting http://www.soysucre.info/en/
I also have to highly recommend Hotel Boutique La Posada. It was home away from home for about 10 days all together. Staying somewhere for this long we got to know the owners, managers, restaurant staff and the housekeeping crew. They were all fantastic, put up with our constant attempts at their language and excited to hear about our adventures and eager to wish us luck on our voyage.
So, no motorcycles on this post but more to come. We are on the road tomorrow chasing the ghost of Che…. Things didn’t end well for him here in Bolivia.
Donn and Deby