The salt flats in Bolivia are one of the world’s most striking natural wonders and the highlight of the country for many of its visitors. As I was already travelling around Argentina’s north, I thought it would be a shame not to hop across the border into Bolivia and see this magnificent spectacle for myself, which my travel buddies, Rose and Leo, were more than willing to join in with. It turned out to be quite an adventure…
The adventure began in the small town of Yavi, which sits just fifteen minutes away from the Argentinian border town, La Quiaca. The events of our first night there were truly serendipitous; we were hoping for nothing more than some warm food and a good night’s sleep, but shortly after dinner, two men entered the little posada and introduced themselves as Juan and Jorge from La Quiaca and Villazon (the Bolivian border town) respectively. They came bearing guitars and red wine, which they poured into glasses for each of us, before sitting down to play. As the wine flowed, the more passion the two men put into their singing and playing, and we were treated to a truly wonderful song that they’d composed themselves, which they performed twice (upon our request). Leo and our other friend Mariano picked up their guitars too, and the evening soon transformed into one of music and merriment. Juan and Jorge even promised to return the next day to take us to Villazon, so we could continue our journey in Bolivia.
Unfortunately, Jorge fell ill and Juan advised us he wouldn’t be able to take us across the border after all, but he did take us to a restaurant for a wonderful asado in La Quiaca, followed by a dark, dingy bar, where Leo once again performed for those present. It was a strange place, but I liked it, as it was devoid of tourists and the locals couldn’t have been friendlier towards us. We decided at the end (after yet more wine), that it would be best to begin our journey into Bolivia the following morning instead. It was easy enough getting to Villazon, where Leo almost lost his guitar after leaving it at customs, and from there on to Tupiza, one of the smaller, more peaceful Bolivian towns nearby. However, we had some trouble moving on from there; strikers in Uyuni, where the salt flats are located, were blocking the road, making it impossible for any cars, buses or trains to enter. Needless to say, we found ourselves stuck in Tupiza for a fair few days. Eventually though, we were able to book ourselves onto a 4-day tour with two American girls, as the tour guides had managed to find an alternative route, much to our delight. Our problems did not end there though.
Day 1 went according to plan and we managed to fit in a heck of a lot of driving, passing some spectacular sights, such as rock formations Quebrada de Palala and El Sillar, and llamas and alpacas grazing at the Awana Pampa plain. Despite the fact it was winter, the sun was shining, but it was still extremely cold and windy. However, I discovered a whole new meaning of cold when we arrived at the (extremely basic) accommodation that evening. We were in the middle of nowhere at extremely high altitude and the ‘windows’ were essentially just rectangular holes in the walls. After we’d piled on the layers, we sat huddled around hot cups of tea, which we kept refilling simply to keep our hands warm, before gorging on hot soup. Still, we were far from warm. That night, each one of us struggled to sleep, I even woke up on several occasions because I was struggling to breathe and felt dizzy from the lack of oxygen- my body wasn’t used to this!
Day 2 was by far the most dramatic and had to be cut short, due to a tremendous sandstorm. As we drove through the mighty Atacama Desert, the sand was coming at us with such force that it chipped the windscreen. At this point, our guide, Jonar, began to grow concerned and put the jeep in reverse, informing us that he was doing so because the rear windscreen was sturdier than the one at the front. We each exchanged worried glances as we reversed into the violent storm, but Jonar remained calm and continued driving slowly until we were out of there. Fortunately, we made it to the accommodation in one piece, but it was just 2pm and there was absolutely nothing to do. Besides, it was freezing cold once again.
On the third day, we were able to continue our journey and I was blown away by how drastically the scenery changed time and time again over such a short distance; one minute you’re gazing out at a red lagoon, then you’re passing a lone rock formation in the shape of a tree, then all of a sudden you’re face-to-face with dozens of flamingos. It was quite remarkable. Our final stop was the salt hotel, located just alongside the salt flats themselves, but the salt we saw wasn’t white; it was brown. At this point, we each began to feel rather deflated, for we hadn’t come this far simply to stare at dirty salt. On the plus side, it was a bit warmer here, and we each got given a glass of wine with our dinner that night- every cloud…
Fortunately, our final day did not disappoint. We got up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over the amazing stretch of salt, which, in the light of day, looked a lot whiter. Admiring its beauty surrounded by tall cacti and just a handful of other tourists (most hadn’t woken up in time), this moment had to be the highlight of the entire tour, and just confirmed that it had been worth making the trip for. We spent the rest of the morning frolicking about on the salt and taking silly perspective photos, before having lunch and laughing about all the obstacles we’d overcome to get to our final destination. Believe it or not, we faced yet another on the journey home, when we had to take an alternative route once again after witnessing several vehicles get stuck in sand! All in all, it was an exciting, albeit at times frightening (and consistently bloody freezing) experience.