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The Salt Flat Saga : Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

We had to shout at each other to be heard above the howling wind. The flying sand was stinging our faces and got into our eyes, noses, mouths and ears so that we could barely see, and had difficulty catching a breath.  With all of this going on, we were trying to dig the van out of a foot of soft sand which had blown in and engulfed what should have been a road.  To make matters even worse, the fast flying sand was creating a static charge, so that every time we tried to open the car door we were zapped with an electric shock.

This is probably the craziest situation we’ve encountered since starting our trip. Visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats was supposed to be a simple two day drive, but things don’t always go to plan.

Uyuni 10Uyuni 11

The drive to Uyuni started out quite well. We left Sucre early and puzzled our way through Potosi without too much hassle. We soon heard on the grapevine that the road to Uyuni was blockaded by protesters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe normal route to Uyuni… no big deal

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We were discussing the situation with a roadside restaurant owner when a truck laden with vegetables stopped for lunch. “These are my friends.” He said. “Follow them, they know another way.” This was the start of our hassles.

Firstly, the old truck was so weighed down with onions and potatoes that they had trouble climbing the steep grades and had to stop halfway up every hill to cool off.

It was already sundown by the time we reached their secret bypass through the desert.

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Unfortunately the deep sand proved a little too much for the heavily laden truck. Not knowing the way, and feeling obliged to help, we endured the freezing cold to unload the veges and dig their truck out of the sand.

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We finally arrived at the town of Uyuni, about 7 hours and only 112 kms later, frozen to the bone and tired. We found the place we had been looking for, grabbed some pizza and then collapsed into a deep sleep in the van on the street.

Uyuni 07Room with a view

The next day we learned that our troubles were not over. Due to the blockade, there was no fuel in town. We thought we’d find people selling it in plastic containers, trying to make a buck. But no such luck, the town was dry.

Our only option was to drive 110 km further on to another town that was sure to have gasoline. We had just enough fuel in the tank to make it, but only just.

It turns out that the road from Uyuni to Atocha is a horribly corrugated gravel road that shook the van like crazy and jarred our bones for hours. This was where we hit the sandstorm.

Uyuni 08 Uyuni 09No gas here

We were stuck in the middle of the road and unable to see more than two metres in front of us. We were worried a 4×4 would come screaming through at any minute and take us out. It probably took us close to an hour to move the van back onto firm ground, but it felt like so much longer, all the while being blasted by gale force wind and sand.

We were sitting in the car catching our breath, and wiping the sand from our eyes when help arrived. Once again, a local who knew another way said “Follow me.”

He set off at a cracking pace through the desert as we struggled to keep up. We only got stuck twice more before finally making it through to Atocha.

Uyuni 12 Uyuni 13The windows were closed but this sand still found a way in

Once in Atocha we asked for directions to the gas station.  “Just drive through the river, about five kilometres.” We had to ask a few times to make sure we heard right. We did.

Uyuni 14The river/road to the gas station

We made some calculations to figure out how much fuel we would need over the next few days, unfortunately the gas station wouldn’t fill our spare containers so we had to siphon the full tank into our spare bidones and then return for more.

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After another chilly street sleep in the van we hit the road to return to Uyuni. Luckily we picked up a hitchhiker who once again knew another way. It was a lot longer in distance, but it stuck to firm roads all the way and got us there pretty quickly.

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Back in Uyuni, Bec got horribly sick with a stomach bug. The staff at the Toñito Hotel were great to us.  We’d been eating at their restaurant and using their bathrooms while we slept in the street outside. So they knew what we’d been through. They let us book in early to a room, even sending up soup and hot water to help Bec recover. A good rest, a hot shower and bit of friendly help were just what we needed at this point.

So, we finally made it to the Salt Flats on the day that the blockade ended, making all of our hassles over the past few days essentially unnecessary.

Uyuni 17 Uyuni 18 Uyuni 19 Uyuni 20 Uyuni 21 Uyuni 22 Uyuni 23 Uyuni 24 Uyuni 25 Uyuni 26Uyuni 34 We met Stefano on the Salar, he’s travelling around the world on his 250cc Yamaha

We chilled out in the middle of the Salar for the day and then found our way to Isla Incahuasi, the cactus covered island in the middle of the salt lake.

The sun was just setting as the hordes of backpacker-filled Landcruisers left the island. We set up our bed for the night and watched as the sun set in a soft glow over the distant mountains.

Uyuni 27 Uyuni 28 Uyuni 29 Uyuni 30Uyuni 31

The night was incredibly quiet and clear with the most amazing starry sky I have ever seen. It was also brutally cold. But, we were warm and happy under our four layers of blankets and sleeping bags, hardly aware that the windows were covered in ice and our water bottles were frozen solid.

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The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset had been.

As we were having breakfast and boiling cups of tea, the crowds of people arrived once again. Our cue to fire up the engine, hit the open salt flat and get out of there.

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Being out on the Salar was really beautiful and peaceful, but it was a bit of an anticlimax after all the hassles we went through to get there.

When we returned the main road was open for travel, blissfully smooth and trouble free. We put in a long day of driving and made it to Tupiza late in the evening. We wanted to get to the border early the next day.

Our last hurdle for the week was mostly our fault. I thought we could buy our Argentina visas at the border, but it turns out they are only available online. So after being technically stamped out of Bolivia, we headed back into town to get our Argentina visas.  The internet was so slow that the visa website wouldn’t even load. After hours of trying, we finally decided to call Mugsie in Canada and ask her to do it for us. We finally made it into Argentina, 7 hours after arriving at the border. Just in time for dinner and another cold night of sleeping on the streets.

We look back on it now and laugh, but this past week has been exhausting. Just a few too many obstacles and a little too much adventure. Hopefully we can relax a little now.


Posted from Mendoza, Argentina