On the second day of our trip I barely made it out of bed in time to watch the sun rise. Our group ate a quick breakfast as our drivers defrosted the SUVs and checked under the hoods. Natacha was still struggling with the altitude, but she felt much better than she had the day before.
At 8am our caravan took off towards Uyuni. In some places all three SUVs followed the same unpaved road. In other places there was no clearly-defined road and we all blazed different paths across the atliplano. Mountains and volcanoes rose on all sides. We passed herds of vicuña and spotted a viscacha (similar to a chinchilla) half-asleep in the morning sun. Soon we reached the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), one of the area’s most well-known rock formations.
Driving Through Southwestern Bolivia (Video)
Later that morning we drove over a mountain pass completely covered in snow. We stopped to take photos in the blindingly white landscape, and, inevitably, snowball fights broke out. By the time we left, Matthew and Natacha had built a snowman.
In the afternoon we explored a string of high-altitude lakes: Laguna Honda, Laguna Hedionda, and Laguna Cañapa. Each of the lakes was uniquely beautiful and I wished I could have visited them at sunrise or sunset. At Laguna Cañapa we stopped for lunch and were joined by a fox hoping for a handout.
As we drew closer to Uyuni we passed an area full of rock formations that looked like Arches National Park in Utah. A little later we arrived at the outskirts of Uyuni, where we stopped at a railroad graveyard before driving into town.
That night we slept in an Uyuni hotel (one that actually had showers) and woke up at 5am so we could drive out to the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat – for sunrise. Covering 10,582 square kilometers, the Salar de Uyuni is almost twice as large as the state of Delaware.
After sunrise we drove to the Palacio de Sal (Salt Palace), a hotel built from salt blocks, and ate breakfast at a table made of salt while we sat on chairs made of salt. One of the hotel’s rooms housed a salt museum, including statues carved from salt. I began to sense there might be some kind of “salt” theme at work.
The salt flat’s crusty white surface, extending to the horizon in every direction, makes it a popular place for gimmick photos that create depth-of-field illusions. Matthew and Natacha, for example, wanted a photo that made it look like they were holding the ears of a super-sized Gizmo (from the movie Gremlins). I decided not to ask why they were carrying a Gizmo doll on a year-long around-the-world trip.
At mid-day we drove back towards Uyuni, stopping briefly to watch local workers shoveling piles of salt into trucks.
Our tour ended after lunch that afternoon in Uyuni. We’d seen one amazing place after another, and I was really sorry that our time in Bolivia’s southwestern altiplano had come to an end.