A Journey Through Bolivia, Part 4: Getting to the Salt Flats

Maria Clark December 11, 2013
Uyuni Salt Flats

Photograph by Maria Clark

The bus took off at night from busy smelly La Paz. This was going to be a 12 hour trip from the capital city in the northern part of Bolivia to the Uyuni salt flats all the way down in the southwest corner of the country.

The tour guide turned on the lights and handed out warm aluminum containers with our dinner.  The seats dipped almost all of the way back and we sat there eating our hot dinner of rise and chunks of chicken with peas.

He stood at the front of the bus as it swerved through packed streets and said,

“You can either watch the movie now when the roads are paved or get some sleep. The second half of the journey the roads are completely unpaved.”

We chose sleep at first.

A paved road meant little. The road rose and dipped in a series of back crushing jolts. Out the window, I could see large rocks lit strewn about.

The young Spanish guy sitting next to me turn left and right trying to fall asleep.

“This is useless,” he finally said.

Sleep was going to be impossible that night. And so 12 hours passed by amidst bumps and jolts, scattered conversation and darker surroundings as the city turned to mountain roads.

I woke up from a half sleep at 5:30 that morning.

The sun was skirting the horizon staining the sky a deep purple like a bruise. As the light started spreading I could see we weren’t actually on a mountain road teetering over a precipice. The road had flattened out into a vast desert. All I could see before me was an expanse of rocks and dusty terrain.  The road itself was barely paved, merely an indentation in the land.

Two hours later the bus pulled up in Uyuni, a small village in Southwest Bolivia. The bus stopped and we were greeted by a pack of stray dogs that had chased the bus all the way from the main entrance to town to the bus stop. Tour guides came out in droves with pamphlets offering different varieties of the same tour through the salt flats. I had already set everything up and headed off to meet with my tour guide. The lack of sleep had caught up with me and I felt like a zombie walking through this chilly wind swept town. The one story buildings that were once white, were caked in reddish brown dust, from the winds that swept across the mountains.

A woman with a fat baby strapped to her back in a poncho greeted me by the bus with a sign that read my name.

She asked me to follow her.  The tourism office was small and papered in thank you notes from travelers who had gone with the company through the lagoons and salt flats in previous years. A German guy in dirty khaki pants sat by himself on a leather couch in the office.

He was talking to himself.

I was terrified.

He was smelly.

The woman walked up to me grabbing ahold of my hands motioning me to collect my things. The German guy seemed not to notice and I felt hope fill my veins when I saw he wasn’t going to be joining us on the excursion to the salt flats.

The 4×4 was packed with five others, three 20 year olds from Portugal and a couple from Canada. The jeep started with a rattle and set off on a trail following several other jeeps to the outskirts of the dusty town of Uyuni.

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Photograph by Maria Clark

We all pulled up and disbanded in front of a rusted train yard that stood eerily surrounded by desert and mountains. When they were still up and functioning, Uyuni used to be a post where trains would stop to collect minerals that would be delivered elsewhere in the country. Now the town mainly caters to hundreds of tourists such as myself that descend on it to see the rusted trains and salt flats.

The jeep driven by Donato, a tour guide who had been taking tourists out to the flats for decades, bounced along past the train yard headed straight to the salt flats.