The entrance point to the famous salt flats is the small town of Uyurni, that feels pretty much like a ghost town peppered with a few pizza restaurants and hotels.
We spent a day in jeeps driving across the flats – the highest in the world. The huge white expanse was once a sea that has completely evaporated.
At the edge of the flats the salt is fairly loose and scraping down a few centimetres releases the water from the lake below. Here is home to small villages where everyone works processing salt by hand into edible table salt for a pittance, and despite the huge quantities that are bagged, none is exported.
Crazy Walter drove us further in. Most areas the salt is compacted to 30cm deep, not that much considering there is 27m of water below! There were a lot of holes and we had visions of the jeeps crashing through.
On a sunny day, the salt sparkles against the deep blue sky. We were a bit sad that today’s weather was reminiscent of home and the white didn’t look as stunning against… White clouds.
Salt, not snow
Fish Island was our pitstop for lunch, a huge rocky island made of fossilised coral and now home to cactuses. And a very out-of-place alpaca.
Crazy Walter raced us back to solid ground, flinging us about in the back, and in the fading light we visited the train graveyard. Uyurni is literally the end of the line for trains, and old rusting engines are left here to be climbed, graffitied and turned into swings.
Off-roading and off-itinerary
Originally the two day drive across the altiplano would land us in San Pedro, Chile. However word on the street was that the snow was too severe on the pass, and if we managed to cross the border, we wouldn’t be getting into Argentina any time soon. So a different route was planned that would finish in Bolivia.
(The girls from our last tour did do this journey, had to take an 11 hour detour, have been stuck in Chile for a week and are now having to pay for flights to Argentina….)
One of the great things about overlanding is that the truck we do this tour in is capable of driving almost everywhere. However ‘Gus’ is also a 26 year old converted lorry and her quirks come alive when off-roading across bumpy, snowy terrain. Over the next two days the dashboard fell off, overhead lights popped from sockets, door handles flew off, the torsion bar snapped, and most annoyingly the pump between fuel tanks stopped working.
This meant stopping and siphoning diesel for an hour at a time, from one tank, to a jerry can, to another tank. In the freezing cold. With the doors open and bitter winds. Grr….
Snow this time
The altiplano is a mass of bizarre landscapes, from valleys of weathered rocks, to multicoloured lagoons home to flamingos. Our first night was to be spent in a hostel near to one of these lagoons, although hostel is a generous description for it. After bouncing along in the darkness we arrived in snowfall to an isolated brick building with dorm rooms. As it was now -10 outside survival tactics kicked in and in the name of keeping warm we cooked up a spicy curry, drank wine and built a fire. When the wine ran dry we discovered that the only other hut in this barren landscape was incredibly, a shop, fully stocked with alcohol and a Christmas tree!
Stef and I were bunking up with our leaders Steve and Katie and when no one was looking we moved one of the gas burners into our room to heat it up a bit.
The next day was bloody freezing and brought new adventures in navigating – and getting stuck – up snowy slopes.
We saw the iconic rock featured in Salvador Dali’s work, many lagoons and flamingoes, vicuñas, chinchillas, and ostriches.
A few more fuel siphoning stops and we were -almost – back to civilisation. First though, we desperately needed diesel and our local guide knew just where to head. We pulled up at a small hut and soon enough a man ran out with a bucket of fluorescent green diesel to siphon into the vehicle. Five more buckets got us on our way and we made it back to Uyuni.