Sitting comfortably in the southwest of Bolivia lies the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. It’s a hair over 4,000 square miles and is rich not just in salt but also in lithium – containing over 50-70% of the world’s reserves. During the wet season, the Salar turns into a massive mirror which draws travelers like ourselves to its epic landscape. Needless to say, our rendezvous with the salt flat is one that will forever stand out vividly in our minds.
The Train Cemetery
As soon as we woke up in the morning, we were antsy to take off and see the Salt Flats. Our group, which consisted of the two of us, our friend Nicole, two travelers from Canada, our tour guide and driver all hopped into the Land Cruiser, ready to be blown away. However, there’s a few stops along the way to the actual Salar de Uyuni.
First, we were taken to the Train Cemetery. It was quite impressive and consisted of old, run-down trains placed in the middle of a desert. Rumor has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went down, guns ablazing, here as well. So of course, we needed to snap some pictures reenacting this.
After our first stop, we headed 50 miles northwest to the pueblo of Colchani. Approximately 600 full time inhabitants reside here, and they own the only salt-making facilities that are permitted to use the salt from the flats. What’s even more interesting is that this salt is not exported out of Bolivia. The only way to bring it out of the country is to purchase it as a gift from Colchani and bring it home with you. We found it pretty amazing that Bolivia prioritizes preserving the beauty and nature of the Salt Flats over the money it could bring in through exports. We wound up having some extra time, as we started having some engine trouble. Although, we weren’t too concerned, since this was a common problem that many reviews and blogs had warned us about. We took a mini tour of one of the facilities and picked up a few local souvenirs. It was at this time that we noticed some serious clouds heading our way, and we all knew that we didn’t have much time before the heavens opened up. Dare we say this would be a foreshadowing of what was yet to come?
Salar de Uyuni
Within minutes of leaving Colchani, we casually drove onto the world’s largest salt flat. Talk about sensory overload. The contrast of the dampened, white salt with the black, inky sky was breathtaking. The shallow pools of water that laid a top the salt flat created a mirror making it almost impossible to tell which part was the reflection. We snapped as many photographs as possible before the inevitable rain made its way to us. In an effort to remain dry, our first lunch was spent in the comfort of our truck, trying yet another local meal: Llama.
After the rain passed we headed to Incahuasi Island, passing through the central part of the Salt Flat. It was on this stretch that we took full advantage of capturing the pictures that every traveler so deeply desires. Time seemed to stop and the experience still seems just as unreal as it did in that moment. It’s one of those places that just stops you in your tracks; there’s no way to be in the presence of such wonder and not see God’s hand in all of it. It was a pretty indescribable feeling.
The Salar was endless and all we could see was miles and miles of what looked like cracked white moonstone and a blue sky filled with swollen yet soft, white clouds. It kept reminding Pete of an old Window’s screensaver.
Incahausi Island itself is a rocky hilltop situated in the middle of the Salar. It contains hundreds of giant cacti, some standing as tall as 12 meters! Rumor has it that it was named Incahuasi, meaning Inca House, because the locals believed that these giant cacti were ancient Incan souls. These furry fingers add to the lure of this place as well as the petrified coral that is scattered about – the island is actually the remains of an ancient volcano that was once submerged under a prehistoric lake. The only remaining evidence of this is the coral rock fossils that make up the landscape.
A short hike to the top provided an unbelievable vantage point, including indescribable panoramic views and a glimpse of another storm that was approaching us like a freight train. The wind grew intense and pelted grains of sand at each of us causing the need for a quick descent down and back into the safety of our truck. Looking back on this moment, Pete is reminded of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Incahuasi had a mystical feel to it and as soon as we stepped foot onto its petrified soil it wanted us off. The only thing missing was the precious stone!
Now, let us remind you that we were traveling to the Salt Flats during the rainy season. This means it’s very hit-or-miss when it comes to where you are able to drive and what you are able to see. Prior to our arrival, it had rained for two whole days, which is why our 22-year-old driver continued to tell us that we would not be able to see the beautiful sunset on our way to the hostel. Nevertheless, he changed his mind after the Temple of Doom and informed our guide, Nadia, that the winds had shifted and we would indeed be taking the scenic route. We couldn’t have been more thrilled. These were going to be the pictures we were waiting for!
Sunset on Salar de Uyuni
By now many of you have probably seen the stunning images we captured of the sunset. Just as the sun was setting, our driver made a quick two-minute stop, and we all hopped out of the truck and snapped some of the best photos of the day. The drop in temperature was quite noticeable as was the amount of water we were standing in (which was at least three inches deep). None of this mattered to us in the moment; we were simply taken away by our surroundings.
That was true, at least until moments later when we hopped back into our truck to make it back to land before nightfall. As if out of a movie, our driver began to slow and we heard the sound of water whooshing around the truck. We came to a stop and watched as the young, Bolivian driver aggressively jumped out of the truck and threw his hands up in the air – something was wrong.
Getting Stuck on the Salt Flats
We knew we were in trouble but we didn’t know what exactly that meant. Pete jumped out of the truck to get a closer look and saw the sunken tire. The ground was too wet and flooded from the past few days’ rain, and it couldn’t handle the weight of our truck. Panic struck for a moment. The sun was almost gone and the temperature was hovering just above 40 degrees. In the distance we saw yet another storm heading our way; outside our driver was pacing around on his phone trying to inform the company in Uyuni of our troubles.
All of us came to the realization that we would be alright but that we would be here for a while. From personal experience, South Americans aren’t the best with time estimates, so after our guide told us 4 times that help would arrive in 30 minutes, we stopped asking. The only real concern was staying warm through the night if it came down to us camping in the truck. Our spirits remained high though, and we played Ellen’s Heads Up game, snacked on apple pie and shared swigs of Johnny Walker (the only food and drink we had in the truck..) to get our minds off of the situation. The only time panic truly struck was when the young driver’s cell phone was down to 1% battery. He was walking around outside, phone to ear, in order to direct the rescue squad to our location. Without his phone we were doomed. Our solar powered battery charger was not charged. The driver’s face said all we needed to know. Without that phone we would be in for a long night, stranded in the middle of a 12,000 km salt flat. Miraculously, Nicole had remembered that she had one with her in her pack on the roof, and it thankfully had enough juice left to give the dying cell phone some life. Exhale.
Even though we were in communication with the rescue truck, the darkness made it hard to believe that it was even possible to find us at all. Picture how vast a desert is and then consider how hard it would be to find someone in the middle of the desert, when it’s pitch black out and being guided by landmarks that can only be seen in the day. Plus with all of the flooding of the past few days, there was no direct path to our vehicle.
None of us will ever forget the moment when we saw the pair of illuminated headlights in the distance. Utter relief. Another Exhale. They slowly made their way but stopped about 100 yards short of us. It was too wet. It was too risky. Our driver climbed onto our roof, threw us all of our bags, and we sprinted towards the truck with all of our belongings and headlamps to guide our way. It was midnight and 5 people who started off as strangers were running together with the giddiness of a child who just left school for the summer. The ground was icy and wet. Each step made a small wave of cold, saltwater that was bound to soak the person next to them. We piled into the rescue truck, panting, sweating, smiling and cheering.
Within moments of reaching safety, we were told we’d need to get out and push. At first we thought it was a joke – this could not be happening again. Without hesitation, the two of us jumped out of our rescue truck to help push, as we were the only ones wearing boots. The poor other girls were all wearing sandals and soaked up to their calves with freezing salt water. This moment will always remind Pete of the scene from Little Miss Sunshine when everyone jumps out to push the van and then jumps back in. Just replace the van with a 4×4 truck, place them in the middle of a desert where the temperature is now in the 30’s and, well, you get the idea. Momentum picked up and we ran to hop into the moving vehicle to avoid another stuck car.
To this day we still do not know how the driver find us or how he got us to our hostel. The 20 mile drive to the small town where we were staying took well over an hour. The driver was doing figure 8’s, swerving, driving with his lights off, driving with only Pete’s headlamp and his head out the window and various maneuvers that would have made you question his sobriety. We came to the conclusion that this was his modern-day GPS. By checking the depth of water on the ground, using the moon as a guide and his own intuition, he was able to get us safely to our residence for the evening.
Upon arriving to our hostel, the sense of relief was apparent. We all ate like we hadn’t eaten in days and moved like zombies into our rooms for the night. Exhaustion overtook us like night takes over day. We couldn’t have been happier to finally be back to safety. And while we joked that we had all just survived the Inca Trail only to get stranded in the middle of the Salt Flats, we would do it all over again. It was an experience that we will never forget, and in the end, the views were absolutely worth the adventure.
The second two days of the Salt Flats tour were whole other experiences within themselves. In order to not write the longest blog post of all time, we have just included some pictures with brief captions below. Please feel free to email us at email@example.com if you’d like more information!