In this journal…
the most beautiful sunrise in the world
The bus arrived at Uyuni, a small dustbowl town, around 5 a.m. I was woken up from my solemn slumber, and touts from all kinds of tour agencies surrounded the bus. I was still rubbing my eyes as we got off, and I was immediately approached by a hoard of agents selling their packages. I was very aware that the normal packaged being offered was a 3-day tour around the places. I, however, wanted to experience more in this magical place. I wanted to see more of this legendary piece of salt, and 3 days could not satisfy my thirst.
Uyuni in the morning
I asked around for a 4 day trip, and I was met with a dozen agents shaking their heads. Finally, one older lady sighed, and held me to one side. She told me she could do it for me, but it wouldn’t be cheap. I made it clear to her that she would need to do better than that, and she finally took me to her agency. I finally settled down a price of 900 Bolivianos with her, and I was ready to go! I bought myself some food and water, and we departed around 10 a.m. First stop was an abandoned site full of 1930 style trains.
This is the famous Uyuni Train Cemetery, the only noticeable attraction around town. Back in the British colonial days, southwest Bolivia was filled with all kinds of minerals. Potosi had the famous silver mountain, and other areas had copper and coal. As a result, the trains were necessary to carry the rocks to the coast of nowadays Chile in order to be shipped back to Europe.
However, the entire industry collapsed in 1940s due to the mines running out of minerals. The whole place quickly got deserted and hundreds of trains were simply left to die in the once transport hub: Uyuni.
climbing trains is so fun! why have I not done that before? oh right, death
Interestingly, now there is also a train that runs from Oruro to Uyuni on a daily basis, but the tracks have been remodeled and relocated. Also the connection to the Pacific Ocean has been lost due to the confrontation between Chile and Bolivia over the access to the sea. Only Bolivia and Paraguay are landlocked, aka, do not have access to the sea, on the entire continent!
looking at the abandoned trains
Our next stop was a little town on the edge of the salar. Salar basically means salt flats, so you will see me use this term a lot more. This town is called Colchani, whose purpose now is solely to accommodate the sheer number of tourists coming here. However, on our way to the place, the driver suddenly hit the brakes so hard that I had an intimate relationship with the seat in front of me.
IT IS A VICUÑA IN THE ROAD!
A vicuña is a wild llama, just like wild horses to domestic horses. They are taller and slimmer, but
equinely equally as cute. We arrived into the little village, and stopped right in front of a full barrack of little shops. I got myself a Bolivia cap like I always do, and took a walk in the peripheral parts of the village.
“llama chicharron (basically means deep fried) sold here”
Salar de Uyuni
We finally drove into the salt flats. The first stop was a short one on the edge of a salt farm. The salt farm here still uses the old techniques with just hand and basic tools. However, this salar has more lithium than everywhere else in the world combined, making Bolivia the Saudi Arabia of lithium. If you pay close attention to your cell phone or in chemistry class, you would know lithium is a key metal for batteries. What I was standing on, was over 1 trillion dollars of lithium, waiting to be utilized.
yum yum~! (why do I look so fat in this picture? oh wait I am fat.)
the only thing protruding from the ground I will see in the next few days
I took a bite of the salt, hmmm~, just like when I see couples cuddling beside me, salty as fuck~! The next stop was called the “eye of the salt flat”, which is a series of salt springs by the edge of the flats. The entire salar is actually a lake, and it is just so salty that it is covered with meters of salt crust. On a relatively weak spot on the crust, the water underneath will gush to the surface like a hot spring.
salt spring “eye of the salt flat”
For our lunch stop, we continued directly to the famous salt hotel called Palacio de Sal in the middle of the salar. The hotel was originally constructed in the 90s, and quickly failed because the sanitation was a huge problem in the middle of a desert made of salt. It was shut down before the turn of the millennium. Everything inside is made of salt. The walls, the ceiling, the beds, the tables, you name it, are all made from blocks of NaCl. As a result, it is strictly prohibited to lick the walls and tables for the integrity of the structure.
the Dakar monument in the front
The hotel now is a museum housing some rather uninteresting things, but it is also the place for every group to have lunch. I looked that the wall, thought about the rules of not licking, and decided to proceed licking the wall.
As expected, I was coughing nonstop for the rest of the hour because the salt completely shut down my respiration system. It was all worth it at the end though! I got to lick a wall! There was an elevated platform in front of the museum called Plaza de las Banderas, which had a lot of flags from all over the world planted on top. I believe everyone brought their countries’ own flags and flew them proudly on this giant piece of salt.
Plaza de las Banderas
a jeep passing by
After lunch, it was a long, long drive to the northern boundaries of the salar. The entire salar is more than 200km in radius, and it took us a solid one hour and half to get to the north side. You may think it is super fun, but imagine this: white, flat, featureless ground with nothing else but the humming engine sound and lazy afternoon sun. You will fall asleep, guaranteed.
walking on the flats
However, the driver had to keep himself awake, even though he can technically put the car on cruise and fall asleep as well since there is literally 0 obstacles in the 100 miles in front of us. However, based on the long history of very nasty accidents that happened on the salt flats, I would recommend all drivers stay awake… Our driver used the old method to keep himself awake: coca leaves. Yes, the one cocaine is made from. They are hella powerful when it comes to keeping you awake. 😉
entrance to Coqueza
By 3 o’clock, we were finally reaching the northern end of the salt flats. An enormous volcano stood in the back, and a small village called Coqueza was barely peeking through the barren lands. At least it was something not white! A large marsh stood in the front of the village on the surface of the salt flats, likely formed by rainwater running off the volcano. Lots of flamingoes dwell in the marsh, feeding off their favorite algae.
I am so single, I live with a flamingo
The village itself was just a few houses made from salt surrounded by llama feeding grounds in the front, and the volcano in the back. Besides a little bit of quinoa farmland, there was not another trace of agriculture.
the colorful volcano called Tunupa
The entire town appeared to be completely dead. Nobody could be seen, and it was as quiet as the Soviet ghost town I went to in Svalbard. The afternoon wind blew off a layer of dust and salt collected on the scorched afternoon earth. The only thing moving in sight was just a herd of llamas, and of course I had to approach them. Llamas are my favorite~!
como se llama?
Me llamo Carl, y tu?
Maybe it is a good time to give the salar a proper introduction. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the entire world, covering a staggering 10582 square kilometers, bigger than the Bahamas. It is so white and so flat that it is used as the primary calibration place for satellites. Sitting at more than 3600m/12000ft above sea level, it only experiences rain during November to February, which usually floods the entire area. What ensues, is what keeps driving people to the place. The thin layer of water with the flat surface forms an enormous flat mirror, reflecting everything, everywhere. It is truly a sight to behold, and it is not something you can ever understand by looking at a photograph.
I, along with another fellow traveler, Pia from Chile, settled into the homestay we had for the night. All others in the jeep returned to Uyuni to end their 1 day tour. I sat inside this hotel made from giant blocks of salt, and looked into the distance. A llama was feeling itchy on its back, and decided to take a dirt bath right in front of me.
roll, roll, roll!
Then we decided to take a walk. The town was really small, and had a little chapel made from rocks. Right in front of the chapel was a small plaza full of giant cacti, and a tourist information booth. Nobody was in there, and there was not a human in sight on the plaza either. The school grounds only had one basketball court, with a slightly deflated football sitting at the corner. The only sound I could hear was dogs barking at the highland winds in the distance.
We reached the edge between the salar and the grassland. A few flamingoes were chomping their dinner in the marshlands, and were caught aback that there was anything else moving. They promptly took off, flying to another less disturbed area to feast.
By the time we got back, the sky was turning dark red. The mountains to the west started obscuring the light, dimming the salar from a pearl white color to a gloomy grey hue. I sat in front of the llamas sitting in front of the homestay sitting in front of the salar, and slowly watched the dusk dawn onto the salar.
the night is nigh
The dinner was finally served by the housemother as darkness completely shrouded the village. There was no electricity, so we had to eat dinner under a candle light. I loved the simple spaghetti and potato soup a lot because it was likely my only chance to ever eat a dinner with someone else under candle light in my life. We talked for hours, as there was virtually nobody else within the 100km radius. The candle burnt out, and the darkness (my old friend) took control of the room. It reminded us to go grab our thickest jacket and venture out into the wild: stars.
Sitting this high with absolutely no cloud cover means only one thing: you get to see stars you have never seen before. Millions of stars quaintly illuminated the salar as a giant band of milky way penetrates straight through the horizons. It was likely the best starry night I had ever seen, just like Van Gogh’s masterpiece when I got to it in Museum of Modern Art. We gazed upon it for so long that my lower jaw almost froze…
Salar de Uyuni woohoo~!
Next day, I woke up at 5 just as Pia and I agreed. However, she was nowhere to be seen, still snoring her night through the coldest hours on the planet. I shivered like I was turned into vibrate mode as I walked outside the village towards the salar, hoping to get a glimpse of the forthcoming sunrise. What I saw instead was completely mesmerizing. If I do not say this is the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in the world, I must be lying to myself.
Salar at sunrise
Wow. Just, wow. The water came out of nowhere overnight and slightly flooded the little area in front of the village, creating the perfect layer for a reflection of the sunrise. The bright orange oozed into the dark blue, creating a color gradient so elegant that I could not help but stare at it. The clouds were puffing a pinkish color as if somewhere in the sky a giant candy floss machine malfunctioned…
heaven on earth
I have always felt somewhat different ever since I began travelling. I felt my heart opened up, with much more spaces to fill random knowledge, trivia, memories and food inside. Yet I never noticed how lonely I was until I truly started traveling. I felt like while my mind was expanding, the world was shrinking. I could be in Africa one day and Asia the next. Distance no longer felt like a barrier, and the world felt like a small playground I can easily access through my backyard. However, after all these steps taken, I still was alone, unable to find anyone in this small, small world… These feelings haunted me, until the moment I reached this salar.
Tunupa and its reflection
Standing right in the middle between heaven and earth, I suddenly stopped feeling this giant rock on top of my heart. True, others found love of their lives, or a steady job, but isn’t this some kind of beauty on its own that I found? It is as beautiful as, if not more beautiful than, the sweet love of a home, a family or a thriving career. Some may say it is ephemeral, but these memories last forever. I may be alone, but I have never been happier before, and who says I am on the wrong side here? I still sigh when I see couples showing off their love; I still silently weep at my unforeseeable future; I still hurt when I see others getting approval for their outstanding accomplishments; but who am I to say that others may secretly do the same to me? I felt free. For the first time, I see space both above me, below me, and most importantly, inside me.
It was needless to say the best sunrise I had ever had in my short life. I walked around in the salar aimlessly after the sun had made its way above the horizon. I found my shadow being dragged long and dark on the white salt flats. The volcano was irradiating a different hue at a different angle like a giant natural disco ball, and I was so curious that my steps scared a few resting flamingoes away.
my only company, my shadow
Some llamas had already woken up, and were galloping by the edge of the salt flats, probably doing their morning exercise. I followed them to the edge of the grasslands, and took out some cookies I brought myself. It was such a nice breakfast date with my favorite llamas, and I would never complain about waking up early if I can do this every day of the week.
llamas, salar, sky
munch, munch, munch!
After breakfast, we departed for the towering Tunupa. A full climb would take a whole day, yet we would be picked up by noon, so half-way sounded like as far as we could go. We walked around the town and started heading up this 5300m/17500ft volcano. The altitude made the climb especially tiring, but a lot of llamas decided to accompany us on our way up. Could not have asked for better companions on this journey!
fluffy friends are the best friends
The entire area was divided by short rock walls set up by the villagers, and llamas were free to move from place to place. Some plots of the land were used to grow potatoes, and others were simply there to feed the animals. After an hour of climb, we finally reached the first platform where we could enter an ancient tomb made by an unknown group of people.
entrance to the tomb area
In a few rock caves sat a handful of mummies, which predated the Incas. Some evidence of child sacrifice were also found here, as tiny skulls scattered the places. Nobody really knew who made them, why were they there, or what were they for. The dry climate and low temperature preserved these mummies almost perfectly, and some villagers still came here to pay homage. The cave was devoid of light, and I had to turn on my flashlight. I was immediately taken aback by how the mummy was presented.
now that is a long yawn
Then another hour brought us to the top of the second viewing platform, where the entire salar just unfolded in front of us like a white sheet of paper. We sat on the top and ate a lot of snacks, feeling the wind brushing off the edges of the mountain. It was a surreal experience, as the white salt gave the illusion of an ocean, and I felt like I was sitting on an island looking at the undulating water…
on top of the volcano
We were picked up from the village, and had a lunch right in the plaza. We then had a pleasant drive towards Isla Incahuasi/Fish Island, a small hill in the middle of nowhere. It was populated with giant cacti, and charged a ridiculous amount of money to just get in and take a walk on top of it. I gladly refused to pay up for that, and walked around the island instead.
deep in the salar
Some rather interesting phenomenon could be observed here in Salar de Uyuni. One of those intriguing occurrences is the illusion that something is floating. The sun heats up the ground so much that the air coming off the surface is very warm, which creates a difference in density, and in turn that causes the light to bend, making things far in the distance appear as if they are floating.
After a few hours of mindless fun in the middle of the salar, the driver started taking us back to the town of Uyuni. It was a stellar adventure to be able to experience the largest salt flat in the world, along with giant cacti, colorful volcano, flamingoes and llamas, beautiful starry sky, and most importantly, a self-reflection. I doubt if there is anywhere that can come near this place in terms of sheer beauty, but I no longer doubt myself if I made the right choice. Salar de Uyuni, you are such a mesmerizing creature…
We arrived at Uyuni just around sunset, and I hugged Pia goodbye. I went back to the agency, ready to ask what to do for the rest two days of my trip, but the lady in the agency was shocked to see me. “Why are you here??? You are not supposed to be here!!!” She realized the driver made a mistake by not handing me over to another driver in Isla Incahuasi. All other guys were here for a day trip, but I was supposed to continue with another jeep, and likely the driver completely forgot. The lady sighed, made a few dozen phone calls, and walked me to a local hotel. I got myself a private room at her expense, and she paid for me in a local fried chicken restaurant.
Uyuni at night
I was originally supposed to live in another salt hotel dormitory with no electricity, no shower, and no hot food, but I got all these simply because the driver made a mistake? Hell yeah! I took my shower, bought some snacks, and retreated to my private room for some wifi~ I eagerly waited for the next day, as the rest of the trip would take me to the furthest corners of the Bolivian wilds. I have heard of legends of there existing thousands of flamingoes, rock trees as large as real ones, and animals so bizarre that nobody had a name for it…