One thing on the must-see list for Bolivia was the Uyuni Salar. I had heard enough people rave about the beautiful Bolivian salt flats: the miles of lunar saltiness stretching as far as the eye can see, the perfect reflections on the salt water pools, and of course, the hilarious photo opportunities. Based on these photos, I assumed Uyuni is just like the Moon. Well, I know it isn’t, but since I am unlikely to be able to ever afford a trip to the Moon, this place seemed like a good substitute.
I was squished into a 4WD for a three day tour of the Uyuni salt flats and deserts en route to Chile. Destination: San Pedro de Atacama. My tour company was Ripley Tours**. Not that it mattered. Whenever a company can’t fill up one Jeep, they merge their tours with other companies. So I ended up in a Jeep from Colque Tours, where 1 out of 6 people had booked with the actual operator.
**A word of warning: there is little licensing or regulation over the salt flat tours, so if you are going, try to stick with a reputable company if possible. My driver was awesome but there was no safety or emergency equipment on board (no phone or radios either!). Plus, the other two Jeeps from this company had major problems. One broke down every three hours and had a drunk driver. The other had a brand new driver who had trouble figuring out how to drive in reverse. And other tour companies got stuck in the flats:
Safety concerns aside, there is a whole lot to see and be amazed by in the Uyuni salt flats, the Salar. It is 200 square kilometres of salt, about 12 feet deep. Yes, I just gave a metric then an imperial measurement. That is what happens when a generation that knows imperial measurements teaches the next generation the metric system.
The tour started at the Train Cemetery, a glorified junkyard that was formerly the site of the first rail lines between Bolivia and Chile. Today it is a desert littered with rusty old train cars that make you wary of tetanus. Tip to Space Adventures, the moon mission company: if there is an old satellite or space shuttle junkyard site en route to the Moon that you think would be of interest to your customers, please note that no, it is not.
When everyone in my car had gotten enough pictures of the rusty trains, we headed into the endless plains of the Salar. The salt flats did not disappoint. I could almost pretend I was on the Moon in the salt flats, glittering sea of endless white that they are…
Except that it was a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius. I have no science to back me up, but I think the Moon is probably a bit chilly in terms of climate.
At lunch time, I regretted that we weren’t on the cold Moon since it would have preserved our meal. The driver plonked down a cooler and started unpacking our lunch, which included pork chops, cheese, pasta and vegetables. Normally I would have been excited by this spread. However, since we were not on the chilly Moon, and were instead in the stinking hot desert, I was alarmed. I had not failed to notice that there was no ice in the cooler, nor freezer packs, nor any cold-generating device to prevent the rotting of food and breeding of scary food bacteria. So I had ketchup on noodles for lunch, while others with braver stomachs than mine dug into the questionable meat and dairy offerings.
Dinner was an even scarier affair, with distinctly grey chicken appearing on our plates. Please note there had been a bag with two chickens sitting on top of the lunch cooler on top of the Jeep all day, driving around the desert. Please also note this bag was no longer atop the car after dinner. Coincidence? Doubtful. The moral of that story is Pack Your Own Snacks.
On Days Two and Three of the driving tour, we left the Moon and approached the border with Chile and entered the “countryside of Dali” – an area of red-stained desert that the surrealist artist Salvador Dali used as the backdrop for several paintings.
The only company around us was one or two other Jeeps, the odd family of llamas, and flocks of flamingos, whose toes are probably frost-bitten from the icy laguna water in the cold early morning hours of the desert.
This desert had a true air of desolation. At least it did until fifteen minutes later, when we pulled up to a natural hot springs resort teeming with other desert explorers.
Maybe they couldn’t afford to go to the Moon either.