Salty surreality of Salar de Uyuni

The best part of traveling, for me, is experiencing something entirely new. There are places on this planet that, through the relentless force of nature, are completely unique to themselves. To venture out into the rugged wilderness hundreds of miles away from the nearest city is like visiting another world. And if an extraterrestrial being were to take a trip to Eduardo Avaroa National Park and Salar de Uyuni here on Earth, surely even it would think this place is straight-up bonkers.

Thanks to the wonderful people at La Torre Tours, based out of Tupiza, Bolivia, Stephanie and I were fortunate enough to see a part of this planet that otherwise would only exist to us in adventure magazines. Big shout out to our fearless driver Alejandro, and our amazing cook Gaby. They worked really hard to make sure we got the most out of our 4-day ride through Bolivia’s outback. If you find yourself looking into such a tour, I can assure you there’s a reason 4000 reviews on Tripadvisor gave them 5 stars.

Day 1:  Breathtaking views. Seriously – we weren’t getting enough oxygen

The tour starts with the longest day of driving. We headed southwest out of Tupiza and climbed up up up to higher elevation, then down down down through switchbacks and over dried river beds. We stayed entertained by the rugged landscape as it changed dramatically with each new valley.

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Sculpted by wind and water, the landscape outside of Tupiza makes for a great first impression.

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Llama mama and youngin’.

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Vicuñas are deer-like cousins of llamas.

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Rhea (“suri” in Quechua) are the South American version of ostriches. Very skidish and super fast.

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Of course we get a flat tire in the middle of the desert. Vicuña bones – an omen of doom?

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Puebla fantasma. Ghost town. Spaniards got their kicks by enslaving Incas, exploiting their land, and moving on when the silver and gold ran out.

At about 4200 meters (13,800 ft) above sea level, altitude sickness started to kick in. To put that height in perspective, ever been to Denver? Stack another Denver on top of that. Nice work – only a kilometer higher to go! We had hoped our gradual climb through the altiplano over the previous week would have prepared us, but no such luck.

You may have heard that a common remedy for altitude sickness is the humble coca leaf. With all the effort the CIA spends irradicating the plant, you’d think it’d be kind of hush-hush and taken on the side. I wasn’t expecting to see old ladies in every storefront sitting next to giant bags of the stuff and just about everybody with a big ole wad of it in their cheeks. But sure enough, the Bolivianos response to international pressure is, “Coca sí, cocaina no.” So, when in Rome… For the record, it tastes like green tea and was so bitter it didn’t seem worth the hassle.

Day 2: Vast desolate beauty

The views of the previous day turned out to be just a warm up for what was to come next. Amid the vast empty spaces and harsh backdrop, southwest Bolivia contains pockets of beauty that are out of this world. These photos will give you a glimpse, but really it takes hours for each scene to unfold its full majesty.

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Flamingos of Lago Hedionda

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Salar de Chalviri

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Salar de Chalviri

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Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur. That green color is produced when wind whips up arsenic on the water’s surface. Yummy.

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Deseirto de Dali. Or as I call it, The Persistence of Altitude Sickness.

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Aguas Termales. This is right around 5000 meters (16,400 ft). Gah!

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Aguas Termales

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Laguna Colorada. Flamingos get their pink color from the carotenoids in the red algae they snack on.

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Laguna Colorada

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Adolescence is tough on everyone.

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Laguna Colorada

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Laguna Colorada

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Laguna Colorada

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Laguna Colorada

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Laguna Colorada – OK OK I just can’t get enough

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Rad sunset clouds over Huaylla Jara.

Night two was crazy cold. Like, all our clothes on with a hat in a sleeping bag under the covers cold. That sunset was amazing but I thought I was going to freeze my hands off.

Day 3:  Flamingos and mirages as far as the eye can see

The hits just kept on coming for Day 3. If you haven’t gotten enough of flamingos and bright, briney lagoons the first two days, well you’re in for a treat.

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Arbol de Piedra – Tree of stone

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Laguna Hondas

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Laguna Hedionda

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Flight of the flamingos – Laguna Hedionda

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Laguna Hedionda

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Laguna Hedionda and Volcan Ollague

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A meal alone with quiet reflection

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Laguna Hedionda

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Pink flamingo is not impressed.

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Laguna Cañapa

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Salar de Chiguana and a fire on the mountain.

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Salar de Chiguana

My eyes might be playing tricks on me…

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The floating mountains of Bolivia

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Can I keep it?!

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Milky Way

The third night we stayed in a hotel made of salt. Forgive me for not taking a shot of it, but picture cinder blocks made out of huge chunks of salt, and you get the idea. I finally got out to take some night sky photos. Not bad, considering I’m traveling light and had to use a rock for a tripod!

Day 4:  Salt salt everywhere, nor a margarita to drink

We woke up early to catch the sunrise over the salt flat. That was neat, but even cooler was the ride. With the perfectly flat and unblemished salt flat as our road, Alejandro turned off the lights and drove in near complete darkness for 20 minutes. Only the faint glow of stars and the hint of sun before it peaked over the horizon to show the way.

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Occasional hills pop out of the salt flat like islands on a lake. As improbable as it seems, they’re teeming with life.

We threw the word “surreal” around a lot during this tour. You just have to see it in person to really appreciate how strange this world is. Imagine the planet millions of years ago as a very different place. The ocean floor in this region was pushed up two and a half miles by tectonic forces and all its water drained out. Leftover is a perfectly flat layer of salt 3-6 feet deep in every direction for miles and miles.

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Our mighty stallion after a job well done.

Want to see more pictures from our trip around the world? Click around the links below for my previous posts. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter. I only post once or twice a month, so it’s all about quality over quantity. Hope you enjoyed!

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