My friend Ellen and I traveled to Bolivia in February to visit the southern altiplano region, the highlight of which is the Uyuni Salt Flat, the largest salt flat in the world.
Ellen and I are both Irish girls from the Midwest with similar names, and of course we happened to show up at the airport dressed nearly identical to each other. We flew from Asuncion to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and then to La Paz and then on to Uyuni. Each flight was short – 60 to 90 minutes – and the layovers weren’t too long. And flying without kids was a breeze!
We could really feel the altitude in La Paz. With its elevation of 12,000 feet it is more than double the elevation of Denver (5,280 feet). Flying out of La Paz was interesting as it sits high in a plateau and the drop offs are steep.
Uyuni, which barely existed thirty years ago, now thrives supporting the tourism industry. In the downtown area, there are many hotels, tour companies, restaurants, currency exchanges, and souvenir shops all catering to tourists.
When we arrived in Uyuni we took a taxi to our hotel, and relaxed for a bit.
That night we walked around the town and went for dinner at the top rated restaurant in our guidebook – a cute pizza place. The waiter was horrified to hear we were from Paraguay, thinking we had driven to neighboring Bolivia. He felt better when he found out we had flown instead. For dinner we split a Hawaiian pizza, a spicy llama pizza, and a Bolivian wine from the Tarija region. Everything was great.
On our way back to the hotel, we walked past a busy night market.
The next day Ellen and I left on a three-day tour of the area with our driver Valerio.
Our first stop was the Uyuni train graveyard. The trains in Uyuni had been in use from about the 1940s to the 1970s to carry salt and minerals in coal-fueled trains. Now though, trucks carry the salt and minerals and the abandoned trains make for an interesting visit.
Our next stop was the town of Colchani for some shopping at artisan markets. The word Colchani means “on the banks of the salt falt” in the Bolivian indigenous language, and that’s exactly where the town is located.
We walked around the town market and visited a salt museum featuring large sculptures made of salt. Even the bathroom was built with salt bricks for walls.
The strangest thing happened in Colchani – I met a Bolivian family with the most un-Bolivian sounding names. The dad was named Brian, the mom was Aylin (pronounced Eileen), and they had a little boy named Daniel. I first spoke to the wife and tried to negotiate with her on the price of a Godzilla and she called over her husband, “Brian!” she yelled. Satisfied with the price we agreed on, I handed Brian some money but he didn’t have the right change so he called over his wife, “Aylin!” he yelled. And she walked over carrying a young boy in her arms. Ellen and I, quite surprised at the names of the parents, asked the name of the little boy. “Daniel,” answered Aylin. So strange! Here’s the happy family.
Aside from the Godzilla toy, I also bought three little llamas for my three little boys, and a small nativity set.
Finally we entered the “salar”, or salt flat. On the edge of the salar, there are small bubbling puddles, called “ojos de salar” or “eyes of the salt flat”. The salt flat has an altitude of 12,000 feet, is 30 feet deep, covers 4,000 square miles, and is growing. Water flows beneath the salt flat and bubbles up to the surface near the edges of the salt flat.
Beneath the salar is a lithium-rich brine. Given the size of the salar, it is believed to contain 50 to 70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves.
We also visited the “montañitos de salar” or “little salt mountains” made by shoveling the top layer of salt into piles. This process helps to dry the salt so that it can be used for consumption.
In the middle of the salt flat, there is an old hotel, no longer open to overnight guests. The building is made of salt and features several spots where visitors can eat their packed lunch. There was a seven-year old boy running the cash register at the small snack shop inside.
We met a guy who had started his trip in Peru on his motorcycle a month earlier and we saw a huge statue in honor of the Dakar race, which has driven across the salt flat the past few years.
Our driver Valerio set up lunch while Ellen and I played with making fun pictures.
We had a delicious lunch in the middle of the salt flat surrounded by wide open space. As Ellen said, “Isn’t it everyone’s dream to drink wine on another planet?” The setting really was other worldly.
After lunch, we visited Isla Incahuasi, an unusual island in the middle of the salt flat, for some hiking. We could really feel the elevation as we hiked to the top of the island!
The island features a museum (notice the blindfolds over the about-to-be slaughtered llamas) and the parking blocks made of salt.
Our hotel was up on a hill overlooking the salt flat.
Our room was really cute.
Everything was made of salt, we were told – the walls, the ceiling, the bed platform, the hallways, and benches. Just to be sure, Ellen and I may have licked the walls. They tasted pretty salty!
Ellen and I hung out in the hot tub for a little while enjoying the panoramic view.
We relaxed a bit in hammocks in the hallway.
The next morning, we watched the sunrise over the salt flat.
After a quick breakfast, we were on the road to continue our adventure!