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By the time that we reacquainted ourselves with our vehicle and our gear, and set out once more for the famous salt flats, I must admit that I was ready to be underwhelmed. Maybe it was just being tired. Our tour had been interesting, for sure, but a lot of driving for only a few real “sights.” There was grumbling among the passengers, and already talk of getting some of our money back for all of the trouble and the lack of sightseeing.

Around lunch time we made it to the first real tourist stop… a restaurant made of salt, replete with a gift store, carved salt figurines, and a roof that looked likely to collapse at any minute. But out front was a collection of many flags ripping in the wind, and they were quite pretty against the white and the blue.

And in truth, the place was starting to get pretty. We drove through a salt-gathering operation where trucks, light machinery, and people were gathering the salt into piles to be picked up and carted away, and the triangular shapes of them were strange and symmetric in an increasingly strange landscape. And we were starting to see our first large expanses of water, too.

But it was probably an hour or so later that the Salar de Uyuni began to show itself as the most incredible sight I was to see inBolivia.

It was explained to me by a tour guide at Lake Titicaca that the salt flats at Uyuni are the leftover remnants of a sea that was trapped inland by the rising mountains of the Andesand evaporated. A similar story to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But in the case of Bolivia, Lake Titicacais on the same high, flat plateau (altiplano) as the salt flats… and Titicaca is certainly not salty. Apparently there is an outlet down near Uyuni, and over the course of however many thousands of years, the fresh water pouring out of the mountains onto the altiplano slowly pushed the salt water down to the vicinity of Uyuni before things dried out and the whole thing evaporated.

In any case, the take-home message is that the Uyuni salt flats is a huge expanse of salt left over from the slow evaporation of an inland sea. And it is very flat. And it had just snowed for several days in the high country.

All of this meant that there was a 2” deep or so layer of water, let’s call it a sheen of water for poetry’s sake, spread evenly across miles of white salt. And the sky was liberally scattered with beautiful clouds to break up the neverending blue. In the distance deep blue hulks of mountains and volcanoes gathered clouds to their heads before letting them sally out across the flats.

And there was not a whisper of wind.

The salt flats were a giant mirror reflecting all of this.

Now, I suppose you can imagine, perhaps, the beauty and strangeness of this. But this wasn’t just an isolated vista somewhere; this was hours of driving in this alien landscape. It looked like we would reach the mountains at any time, but we were driving for hours in this surreal beauty. At times it was almost too much. I could feel brain cells smoking and exploding as they tried to reconcile the fact that I was sitting in a Landcruiser, but that somehow the horizon had disappeared. There were times when I could feel vertigo and had to stop looking out the window and fix my gaze on something concrete and unchanging. My hat on the dashboard. The steering wheel.

After a few hours of this, one of the mountains on the horizon began to separate itself and creep closer. Incahuasi. Out in the middle of the salt flats there exist a couple of small islands, and one of these islands is maintained as a tourist destination. And it is covered in large, ancient cacti. We were told these grow about 1 cm a year… and some of these specimens were up to 12 meters tall. Old beings.

One of the strangest feelings of the day was when our Landcruiser circled half around the island to reach the trailhead on the back side. After hours of driving on a sheen of water, it truly felt like we were a boat taking a wide berth around the shallows and seeking the safe landing on the back side of the island.

Before long we were safely ashore and snapping photos.

salt "surf"

After our allotted hour on the island, Victor broke the news that climbing Tonopa, the volcano to the north, wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have time.

What we did have time for, however, was a stop on the way back to Uyuni to watch the sun bid its fiery farewell to the day. As the light faded the clouds took up its colors in a wide spectrum of changing colors and textures that was, of course, reflected upon itself upon the skin of water.

And well after dark we rolled into Uyuni in salt-covered vehicles, found a hostel, and brought our guides and cook out to dinner in Uyuni. And slept well. Very well.

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There is something about snowfall that makes everything quiet. Imagine millions of little sound-absorbing particles on the wind, blanketing the ground, filling cracks. It is as if, during a snowfall, someone has sound-proofed the world. When I woke on the third morning of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I noted two things – that it was warmer than I thought it would be at over 15,000 feet, and that the morning was unnaturally quiet. And so I wandered out of the room and down the hallway to the doorway that led outside to see how much snow there was. There was over a foot on the ground, and more still falling hard.

Now I should mention that every time I see a snowfall like this, it always makes me happy. There is something magical about a storm that is burying you in whiteness and giving you the gift of such beauty. However, my normal elation in this case was tempered with a slight concern about the future and fate of our tour. Our discussion with Victor the night before about trying to see some of the sights in the morning seemed a touch absurd. Were we going to need to be rescued? No chains in these Landcruisers, I was pretty sure, but a fair share of bald tires. Hmm.

Over breakfast the rumors started flying… we were going to spend another day holed up in the tourist quarters and see if tomorrow was a better day. But what if tomorrow was a worse day? The drivers held a congress while the passengers all discussed what they wanted and didn’t want. In the end it didn’t really matter. The word came back from the drivers that we were leaving – quickly – and heading toward Uyuni and the Salt Flat. We were getting out while the getting was good.

In retrospect, this was a wise decision considering the conditions. Victor had mentioned earlier in the trip that in 2004, fifteen meters of snow had fallen on the high country around Laguna Colorada. People in several small villages had to be evacuated by helicopter while their livestock were left to flounder and die. Snow like this was unusual (haven’t seen snow like this since 2006, Victor said over tea), but who was to say it wouldn’t keep snowing until we were 15 meters under?

photo by Anne Kalker

Still, there were grumblings from the tourists. We’d already missed most of the sightseeing in the park and high country, and now we were going to go to Uyuni and see the salt flat from there? One of the reasons for doing the tour Tupiza-to-Uyuni was that on the last day, you arrived out on the salt flats at sunrise. And in the process you enjoyed a touch of solitude while the caravans of tourists from Uyuni were still on their way out there. All of this seemed very much in jeopardy.

But, for me at least, it didn’t take long before it was clear that what mattered was just finding the way out.

We helped Victor gas up the Landcruiser, did our best to secure the gear and our packs tightly in a tarp on top, and set out into the whiteness. Not thirty meters from the front door, one of the ‘cruisers was already spinning its wheels. It was going to be a long day. Before long we were in a thirty vehicle chain on the flat, white expanse around Laguna Colorada. The vehicles in front were in charge of finding the buried road, while those in back simply tried to follow the tracks of the truck in front of them without getting stuck.

Victor, a 7-year or more veteran of this route, eventually turned and asked if one of us would drive while he went up ahead to help find the road. And so this is how I found myself in the driver’s seat of a Landcruiser in whiteout conditions, doing my part to stay in the tracks and keep from burying the ‘cruiser or ramming the Landcruiser in front of me.

photo by Denis Marechal

It was slow going, but eventually we reached the park entrance, where Victor assumed control of the vehicle again. The weather changed, too. Instead of heavy snowfall, a strong wind took over, so now there was a shifting sheet of white snow about three feet high, being blown sideways across the landscape and gathering in the lee of wind breaks like the road.

We passed Laguna Capina again, and before long we found ourselves on the safe, low ground, where the sun was even beginning to show its face a little.

And we found one last beautiful place before the sun said its farewell. I forget the name…Valley of the Rocks? This was a Utah-like setting where orange and tan sandstone blocks stood silent and eroding in an open landscape surrounded by mountains. With the sun setting and touching everything lightly, there was a glow to the landscape that was truly magical.

And so, with darkness well-established, we pulled into a village two hours from Uyuni. After some searching, we found an alojamiento with open rooms, though we had to wait a few minutes while the pillows were stitched, a door was finished, and some carpet was laid.

And after some discussion, Victor agreed that we would get up and out of there at 4 am in order to see the sunrise on the famous Salar de Uyuni.

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There we sat at Tupiza Tours, our bags piled in one corner of the office, as several other tour groups had a landcruiser pull up in front of the hotel and whisk them and their bags away into the ether of beauty and adventure. A tour lady called a number and told us that Victor was running a little late… they were stopping to pick up fresh vegetables for the trip. We took this as a good sign. Among other things, the French couple from the hotel had informed us that the food had been very good, thanks to Ema. And luckily for us, delaying our trip a day to accommodate Anne also meant that Ema could make this trip, so all seemed quite good. The sun was shining and we were ready to be amazed.

Before long our bags were secured on the roof with a tarp over them along with the extra barrels of gas and a canister of propane for cooking. We weaved through town for a little bit and then began the long climb out of Tupiza. It wasn’t long before we were in a train of Landcruisers (and at least one Nissan Patrol, I should mention, just for correctness) stopping at a high point… a saddle with crazy rock formations below us to the right (Valle de Luna) and a wide vista of mountains, folded valleys, and colored rocks. The area around Tupiza is a truly magical place, and here we were with a condor’s view of it all.

It was about this time that we learned, to our disappointment, that we were actually paired up with another Tupiza Tours Landcruiser. Ema mentioned that we had to wait for the other ‘cruiser because she was fixing them lunch, too. This is what we had tried to avoid when booking the tour… and why we delayed a day so that Anne could come with us. And, as it turned out, this day might have been pretty important.

Overall, Victor and Ema were pretty quiet. Victor pointed out a few things, and was very knowledgeable when asked questions, but it was clear from the start that he was a quiet, respectful person by nature. Ema was more talkative, in a motherly sort of way. She wanted to know if we were comfortable, and did we want some coca? We did. I would like to think that this was the beginning of a fine relationship between us and our hosts. I am sure that all tourists like to believe that they are somehow more special to their guides than other tours, but I think in our case this might have actually come to be true. Sharing coca leaves in Boliviais an ice-breaker… a way of saying hello and initiating a bit of time spent together. And so, contently chewing hojas de coca, we left the colored canyons of Tupiza behind and found ourselves on a high, grassy plateau.

And it was here that I began to fall in love with the golden bunchgrasses in the high country ofBolivia…

I can’t explain it, but sometimes a place just feels right. And beautiful. Perhaps beauty is the key to it all in the end. To me, these endless expanses of yellow grasses in the foreground before a blue sky and reaching ridges and peaks… it touched me somehow. I kept looking at the grasses, knowing that a photograph couldn’t capture it, but admiring the subtle texture and color they added to everything. This would continue for days until we dropped down into the salt flats themselves.

For lunch we found ourselves on a wide, flat valley floor covered in bright yellow grass and llamas. While the various cooks set to work, the tourists scattered to collect their llama pictures. A few of the llamas, two in particular, had obviously learned something about the Landcruisers and associated tourists, for they were soon wandering among the vehicles looking for handouts. They seemed willing to eat anything.

Or try anything…

Denis corrupts a llama

Our partner Landcruiser seemed full of loud and somewhat obnoxious tourists. Two fromCanadaand two fromBritain. We heard one of the Brits saying that she was not getting out of the vehicle for lunch (it was a bit cold in the wind), and one of the Canadians, Nick, seemed to need a lot of attention and was loud enough to demand it. We tried to separate ourselves from them, but it was hard with two rigs parked side by side. Even Ema seemed less-than-enthusiastic about them.

a quick stop for some futbal - photo by Anne Kalker

After lunch was a blur of bunchgrass and scenery. And some vicuñas. Vicuñas are llama-like animals of the high country… long-necked like a llama, but less fluffy and more compact. They are a soft brown and white, a slightly more delicate version of a llama. We learned from Victor that vicuña wool is a prized commodity – it sells for $100 US dollars per kilo! They are protected animals inBolivia, so the local people capture them once a year (I don’t know how), liberate them of their wool, and then let them go. A similar story for alpacas, though their wool is worth much less, and the llama is unprotected and its wool worth the least.

vicunas and bunchgrass

Over the course of our tour together, I really came to like and admire my French friends, Denis and Léa. It started the first evening as we pulled into a small village to spend the night. A nearby mountain towering over everything with snowy flanks caught all of our attention, but so did Victor and Ema unloading the Landcruiser. The helping hands were quick to come from all three of us, carrying supplies to the kitchen, getting all the backpacks into a room, checking to see if there was anything else we could do. The kitchen didn’t have a light, and Ema was soon wearing Denis’ headlamp.

And it continued later, when we made sure that both Victor and Emma sat with us for a bit and sampled the rum that we had brought for the trip. There was a sense that we were all in this together, while the four from the other Landcruiser were happy to stay separate and to be served. I was quite happy with our side of the room.

The other driver, Raoul, joined us for a bit, too. He was another quiet, unassuming Bolivian, but often joked with Victor, and his face was capable of lighting up with a brilliant smile. The other group also had an English-speaking guide, Reynaldo, who was funny and outgoing. It quickly became obvious that he was already developing quite a crush on our young, blonde-haired Anne.

And sometime in the course of our conversation and imbibery, I stepped out of the walls of our little enclosure for the night, and found it to be snowing. And there was already an inch or so on the ground.

It was to become the theme of our trip.

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