Our second visit to Bolivia was planned to be much shorter and focused than our first visit. Along the western border of Bolivia lies the Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world. To the south of the Salar is a region of very high altitude lakes and geysers along a rough network of very bad roads that lead to the Chilean border. This is known as the Lagunas Route. Collectively, they are known as the Southwest Circuit. This route is popular among overlanders as the region is unlike any other in the world and is a challenging route to Chile.
The first objective for us was getting to Uyuni. In any other country, getting from A to B is relatively easy. This is where you need to remind yourself that you are in Bolivia. The highway from the border to Tupiza was in good condition and relatively uneventful. From Tupiza to Uyuni a new highway is being built to span the 120 miles between the two cities but is not yet complete. This road is about half newly paved and half bone jarring (or is it fat jiggling?) washboard forcing a maximum speed of not more than ten miles per hour. Ouch.
Along this stretch, road construction was in progress everywhere. Unlike road construction in the US, there are no flaggers, no signs and no real rhyme or reason to the flow of traffic. About 40 miles of detours simply followed along dry river beds with tracks leading everywhere. At times it was fun and at other times it was completely ludicrous.
As you may remember from one of our previous blog posts, filling up with fuel in Bolivia is a bit of a trick. We stopped at a fueling station halfway to Uyuni hoping to make headway on arriving to Uyuni with at least a little fuel in the tank. When we pulled up, we were met by a police officer who indicated they do sell diesel and told us where to park. Generally, if a police officer is present, the attendant will not sell at a rate less than the foreigner price. The attendant told us he would only sell at the foreigner price so we asked what the distance was to Uyuni. After some quick calculations, we concluded we had enough fuel to make it and said goodbye. Before we started the truck, he told us to wait while he “moved the cameras” and came back to fill our truck at a reduced rate. Ah to be back in corrupt Bolivia!
After too many hours on rough roads, we pulled off to the side of the highway and camped at this spot for the night.
In Uyuni, we were busy running errands and stocking up for the upcoming week. Luckily, we stocked up on most of our dry goods in Salta before leaving Argentina as the only grocery store in town consisted of three isles. With a few modifications to our menu, we were able to gather enough other foods at markets scattered throughout the town. Next, we stocked up on drinking water and dish water. Normally we carry a five gallon jug of drinking water but for this stretch we doubled it to carry ten gallons. We were able to fill our dish water tank at a fueling station and the attendant offered to fill our truck and jerry can with diesel at a reduced price. Score! The process of preparing for the trip was easier and faster than we thought. Late in the afternoon we retreated to our camp spot for the night at the train cemetery south of Uyuni.
The train cemetery is a small area south of Uyuni where the trains from the early 1900s were sent to rust away after they were no longer useful. Nearly 25 engines and countless cars sit on tracks that lead nowhere and are slowly sinking into the sand. We explored for an hour or so around sunset then headed to bed.
In the morning, we set out towards the Salar. About ten miles northwest of Uyuni, we turned off the nice paved highway onto a terrible dirt road. Eventually, the road began to change color and we found ourselves on a very solid salt track. Just after entering the Salar we stopped to see the Dakar Monument, Salt Hotel and Flags of the Nations.
Following the brief stop, we jumped on a track that would lead us to the north end of the Salar to the Tunupa Volcano. Driving on the Salar was strange. Initially, we couldn’t help but think that driving on the salt was like driving on hard packed snow. But it wasn’t. The salt was actually very rough so sliding on it would be nearly impossible. Many people just take off and drive across the Salar in the direction they need to go but we took the conservative route following tracks of other vehicles as there are soft areas where it would be possible to bury your vehicle in salt water/mud. We often drove at 50 MPH but slowed it down as there were some large potholes that were difficult to see.
Between the Salt Hotel and Tunupa Volcano, we parked the truck and worked on our photography skills. The Salar is a perfect place to take photos that create optical illusions.
And no, it is not soft and fluffy so snow angels don’t work…
Eventually we left the Salar to the north and drove to the Volcano for a quick hike. As we were still acclimating to the elevation, the 13,000 foot starting point met us like a good swift kick to the chest. For an hour, we huffed and puffed straight uphill until we arrived at the mirador. The volcano itself was great to see up close, but the view of the Salar from high above was the real treat. The enormous salt flat stretched from mountain range to mountain range. Interestingly, near the middle of the Salar, many “islands” rise above the salt with landscapes no different from the surrounding mountains.
At the base of the volcano is a small area with standing water which makes a perfect mirror. We were a bit worked up when we were charged for parking but got a photo of the ladies so I suppose it was worth it!
After leaving the volcano, we jumped in the truck in search of a camp spot for the night. Camping on the Salar is permitted anywhere so finding a camp spot was pretty easy. We wanted to camp on the Salar itself, but didn’t want to be right next to a track where we would be passed by 50 Land Cruisers in the morning. We ventured towards the western side of the Salar which is much less frequented by tours and set up camp. In the photos below, you can see that it looks like we are parked on a frozen lake, but it was actually about 80 degrees in the photo so we sat in the shade to keep cool.
And here is a spot where they were mining the salt. The hole is only about a foot deep filled with water but looks pretty cool!
The next day, we took off driving towards one of the main islands on the Salar. The Incahuasi Island is right in the middle of the Salar and is dotted with fun looking cacti similar to the Saguaros of Arizona. From this island, we bounced from island to island. Our confidence in driving across the Salar grew and we eventually just pointed the truck where we wanted to go. At one point, I took my hands off the steering wheel for a minute or so at 55MPH and just let the truck go. There are not many places on earth where this would be possible and, yes, it was super weird!
All of these rocks are actually fossilized coral. Pretty strange for 12,000+ feet!
Later in the afternoon, we parked the truck in the middle of the Salar and made camp. It was a perfect place to sit in our chairs, drink some beer, play some Frisbee and contemplate the foreign landscape we were on.
Tunupa Volcano about 60 miles away.
After three days and two nights on the Salar, we decided to wrap up our visit. We racked up nearly 200 miles just driving from one spot to the other. With this realization, we had to do a bit of research regarding the Salar. We discovered it is actually bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined and just slightly smaller than Connecticut. In many places, the salt layer is very thin but in other areas it is several meters thick. The surface is very hard, but underneath, a brine liquid exists and is very rich in lithium. In fact, the lithium held in the Salar is believed to contain nearly 70% of the known reserves in the world. Apparently it is currently being mined by a company owned by the Bolivian government, but we didn’t see those operations. The only mining we observed was small “mom and pop” operations gathering salt.
Our original plan was to enjoy the Salar then jump right into the Laguna Route without returning to Uyuni. Unfortunately, Laughlin’s phone decided to reset itself to factory settings and we were without a GPS and detailed maps. Rather than forcing our plan to work, we returned to Uyuni, restocked, showered, washed the salt off the truck before starting the Laguna Route. Since we have so many photos to share, we will share the Laguna Route experience in our next blog post.