Salar de Uyuni - to Another Galaxy and Beyond

The most popular tourist destination in Bolivia is without a doubt a four wheel drive trek through Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. This was my on the top of my must-do list in South America and I was particularly looking forward to seeing the slat flat ‘s reflection when it’s covered in water. It’s covered in a few inches of water during the rainy season, which is February. We planned to pass through Bolivia during September, but I didn’t learn about this rainy season stipulation until after we left for our trip around the world. When you’re traveling for so long it’s hard to research everything. I’m not sure how I missed something this big, but luckily Jesse broke the news to me before we got to Bolivia that I would not get to see any reflections in Uyuni. I would have been devastated if we arrived in the town and learned the unfortunate news then.

About a week before we arrived in Uyuni, Jesse biked down the world’s most dangerous road in La Paz and he met a couple who found a tiny tour agency that offered early morning half day tours of the salt flats WITH WATER REFLECTION. I was skeptical because everyone we met in the past two months told us how they weren’t able to see water, but this small lead seemed worth pursuing. Once we arrived in Uyuni we found the small agency and to my surprise, they were offering trips out into the water-filled section of the salt flat. I couldn’t believe it!

We checked around with a bunch of agencies and they seemed to be the only one who offered this. We later learned that this is the first time in the past eight years (or eleven – I forget which) that Bolivia received enough precipitation during the rainy season and a cold enough winter to keep a section of the salt flats covered in water in September. It wasn’t a cheap tour that they offered, but it was the only one so we jumped at the chance to meet our driver at 3 am the next morning and head out into the dark.

At this point I should mention Joanne and Lyndal, “the girls,” two amazing people from Australia and without a doubt our favorite travel comrades. We met them our first week in Peru the morning of our Laguna 69 trek and invited ourselves to eat at their table because there weren’t any empty ones. We then ran into them again a month later when we crossed the border from Peru to Bolivia on Lake Titicaca. We rushed to exchange numbers on a bus end met for dinner one night in La Paz, Bolivia. Our paths crossed again in Sucre, Bolivia but this time we were sort of exchanging messages about getting together if we happened to be there at the same time, and we were!

This is when we started becoming more than travel acquaintances. When you’re traveling for as long as we are, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to not have to repeat the same conversations over and over again with people you meet on the road. With them we were able to move beyond (1) Where are you from? (2) How long are you traveling for? (3) Where are you going next? Jesse and I probably interact with other travelers much less than they do in the first place since they are two single best friends traveling together.

After we left Sucre we kept in touch and discussed how we may be arriving in Uyuni around the same time and that if we were, we should do a tour together. When you book a tour in Uyuni, you commit to 3-4 full days in a car with whoever is on your tour. You wake up early, drive long distances between stops, and spend essentially all day together. I knew that it would be much better to spend this tour with at least two out of four people we knew and liked than to gamble with four strangers. At least then we would have the numbers, for important things like rotating seating arrangements in the car and taking turns controlling the music. We met them in Uyuni and the four of us set out for the early morning reflection extravaganza. More on the girls at the end of this post.

When we left the hostel, it was pitch black. It was of course, 3 AM. As we left the oddly placed cobblestone streets in the town, there were some street lights spread every few blocks, but we quickly entered one large, flat expanse of salt where our driver’s instincts and experience led us on a 45 minute drive through salt to find the water. You couldn’t even call where he drove a road. It was (we later saw on the drive back once it was light out) one massive expanse of leveled salt in every direction as far as the eyes could see. I have no idea how he found the section where the salt was covered in water, but he did.

When we signed up for the tour the day before they told me that the biggest shoe size was a 42. Jesse needed at least a 47. The woman argued with me that every large male tourist says they needed shoes that big, but no one ever did. I argued back and forth with her about how Jesse really did need shoes that large, but she wasn’t having it. It didn’t matter anyways; if a 42 was the biggest they had, that’s what Jesse was getting. They told us to wear two pairs of socks because it was going to be cold. I thought they meant the air outside, but they were referring to the frigid water that we would be wading in to see the salt flat.

We needed the rubber boots because we would be walking through 2-3 inches of water. Of course Jesse’s boots didn’t even come close to fitting, so he hobbled around with his feet in the boots as best he could, and held onto my shoulders to balance.

In the water covered salt flats, we were in another galaxy. Pictures couldn’t capture this beauty, or least I wasn’t an experienced enough of a photographer to do so. We had a 360° view of stars in the pitch black of the night in what seemed like multiple dimensions surrounding us. It was as if we stepped out of the car and into space. The night stars were perfectly reflected in the water. The Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and other constellations that you can only see from the southern hemisphere were above and below us. Everywhere you looked there were twinkling bits of light around you. Add some massive shooting stars in and it seemed like we were standing in the middle of some virtual reality sphere, too beautiful to be possibly seen from planet earth.

There was so much night sky to enjoy that you didn’t know where to look, our heads bobbed from one direction to the next, trying to soak in everything. At multiple points, it was too cold for our feet in the water with the air chill of around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. When our toes couldn’t stand it any longer we would huddle inside the jeep for warmth long enough to stare out the windows and talk ourselves into bracing the frigid H2O in all its’ glory and step into space once more.

We also had the salt flats mostly to ourselves all morning. A few cars pulled way into the distance around 5 AM, just in time to catch the beginning of the sunrise. As the sun started to slowly rise, the sky changed colors all around you. Sometimes I saw slivers of blue and orange and at other times I felt like I was in a cotton candy swirl. The pictures speak for themselves.

Around 7 AM we headed back to the hostel, took hot showers to shake off the numbness from the morning’s activities and enjoyed the best hostel breakfast I’ve ever had at Bunker hostel in Uyuni. Most people we met told us to do our Uyuni tour starting in the southern tip of Bolivia and working our way towards Uyuni so we could end with the salt flat as our grand finale, but most people also said we wouldn’t get to see water on them. We opted to start the tour in Uyuni because we would cross borders into Chile with the tour for an easy immigration experience.

We left that same day around 10 AM and headed into the salt flat, except this time we drove to an area that wasn’t covered in water. On this first day we visited a railroad junk yard where old trains are disposed of and used somewhat as canvases for aspiring graffiti artists, then headed to the salt flats where we enjoyed lunch in a hotel made completely out of salt, played in the salt and took fun photos manipulating the completely flat ground and ended the day on an old coral reef that is now covered in cactus to watch the sunset.

Two quick tips about booking a tour in Uyuni: book late at night the evening before you want to start the tour. Some companies will only have two people booked for the next day which means that they have to run the tour no matter what, but still have spaces left. In this case, you can bargain with them to lower the price. We each paid 250 bolivianos less than the other two travelers in our jeep because we booked at 7 PM the night before our tour left. The company begged us not to say anything to the other travelers because it wasn’t fair. NOTHING in Bolivia seemed fair, but for once we were on the right side of this advantage.

The second piece of advice is to ask the tour agent if the driver knows how to take pictures in the salt flat. Our driver just dropped us off in the salt flat and basically said okay go have fun and take photos while he slept in his car the whole time. Even when we asked him to please come and help us, he had no idea what he was doing. Manipulating special reasoning on the flats for that perfect photo was so much harder than it looked. We met people who said that their tour guides did everything for them with the photos. We wrongly assumed that all tour guides knew how to do this, so if you ever visit here make sure to ask before you book your tour!

The next two days were filled with crazy desert and rock formations, driving through dust, sand and salt, blue and green lagoons with flurrying pink flamingos spread throughout, the bright red Laguna Colorada, and some natural geysers that looked like a scene from Land Before Time.

Even though our guide wasn’t the best, this was hands down the most amazing tour either of us have ever taken on this trip or any previous one. If you have a bucket list, this should be on it. Experiencing the salt flat first hand was ten times better than any photos I saw beforehand. If you get the chance, book your trip for February so you don’t risk missing out on the reflected Milky Way.

At the end of the tour, Jo, Lyndal, Jesse and I headed into San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, which felt like walking into a gift shop at the end of ride in Universal Studies. We thought we were saying our goodbyes there. My parents were coming to visit in a few days and they were headed to meet Lyndal’s friend on a road trip down through Patagonia while we hitchhiked it. This however was the first of many false goodbyes that the four of us shared. We met up again in Barliloche and in El Bolson, which were two stops along our hitchhiking route. In El Bolson we made a huge family meal with about 9 of us and somehow managed to find enough ingredients to make smores over a huge bonfire for our final night together…

Until they text us and asked when we were getting to Buenos Aires a month later. We just happened to have an overnight layover in the city the next day. They were supposed to have left a week prior, but fate wanted us to meet again, and again two days later in Iguazu Falls where we said our final goodbyes and shared a lovely Thanksgiving day and evening together. We both have open invitations to visit in the US and Australia any time we want and we really hope to see them again someday. We’re half convinced we will get a text in two months that says plans changed and they will see us next week in India.

Having the two of them as friends on the road has been such a blessing. Yes, we still interact with other travelers and enjoy meeting people, but it really can be exhausting having constant surface level conversations when you meet people. No, the four of us don’t really know each other like I do my friends back home, but they have enriched our time in South America so much. And their companionship also made us miss our friends back home all the more.

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