by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
We researched the best way to visit the famous Bolivian Salt Flats. They start from a little town in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama.
We took a bus to San Pedro and found a small hotel, which made the arrangements. “Just stand by the adobe wall at 6:30 tomorrow morning and they will pick you up for the trip,” the manager at the hotel said.
While we were standing by the wall, several other backpackers joined us, and soon we were picked up by taxi and driven to the starting point. It took two safari trucks for nine people, and we took off. Before we knew it, we were riding across salt fields as far as the eye could see. There were no roads, no signs, and no hint of civilization. Someone asked the driver how he knew where to drive and he replied, “I do this four or five times a week, and we just travel on the tracks from other vehicles.”
The salt flats were formed 30,000-42,000 years ago from drying salt lakes. It is several yards deep and covers 4,086 square miles at 11,995 ft above sea level.
We stopped several times when there was something different to see. At one point the young backpackers took photos; one photo made it look like one person was standing on the hands of the others because the glaring white of the salt distorts the illusion of depth. At another place, a couple of large boulders had been carved by the wind and salt into grotesque shapes.
At the Bolivian border (in the middle of nowhere) we stopped at a small building where the Bolivian guards took our U.S. passports. In 10 years of traveling, we had never been separated from them, and it was a bit scary. We were told we could pick them up in Uyuni. In return, we were given a jar full of coca leaves to chew as a preventative for altitude sickness.
Some areas of the flats are covered with shallow lakes, and flamingoes wander through the water looking for food. At one place, the water is warmed by a geyser, and deep enough so that people can swim. The air temperature was about 45 degrees, and I chose to just stand and watch as others stripped down to their underwear and jumped in.
There are some worn-down hills sticking out of the salt, where large saguaro cactus grow to be giants. We stopped near one for lunch and everyone snapped more pictures.
Back again on the salt flats, we marveled at how the Old West bandits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, could ever have thought they wouldn’t stick out from the crowds.
As the day was waning, we were driven to some small hills where villagers ran a youth hostel. Outside of the hostel stood a lama decked out in red and green bows. He stood quietly as several of us patted his fur and marveled at how thick it felt. Like his cousin, the camel, he could turn and spit in a flash, and after being told that, none of us wanted to put it to the test.
The hotel was the only place where tourists could spend the night, and it was filled with other travelers from other parties. I figured that there were at least six tourist jeeps driving on the flats, but we never saw any of the others on our two-day trip, except at the hotel.
The hotel had a large dining room and kitchen at one end, and then a long hall with dormitory rooms for beds. At the other end of the sleeping wing, there was a ballroom where parties and weddings were held. The night we were there it held only travelers like ourselves.
Dinner was served. It was typical Bolivian food—tasty, but it would not have passed any class for presentation. After that, we were taken to our room; it had lumpy beds and what felt like 40 pounds of blankets. The cold air was ripping through our sweaters and jackets like icy fingers, and we were grateful for the heavy covers. The shared bathroom was down the hall, and getting out of the nice warm bed was torture.
On the second day we watched as the rising sun’s rays came across the salt to us, painting everything with a golden hue. After a simple breakfast, we all piled back into our vehicles and continued. We passed heaps of harvested salt, and saw a train that was used to transport the salt from the flats to the processing plants. It definitely looked strange to see rails running on the flat bed of salt. Someone told us that because of the dry air, the train didn’t suffer from rust as much as it would have near the ocean. A few miles on we came to a small hotel built entirely of salt blocks. Inside, the beds, chairs, and tables were also built of white blocks of salt, some yellowed through years of guests and use.
Finally, at the edge of the Great Salt Flats, we came to Uyuni, where the taxis stopped, and we unloaded our bags. We trooped around and found a hotel room. After that, we hurried to find the customs office where we all hoped our passports were waiting. The whole little town is as flat as the Flats. We found the office and, to our great relief, our passports were all there.
This was an adventure well worth the few dollars we spent, and the two days enduring the cold, salt, and feeling of being on another planet.