After getting our group together and recovering briefly in Villazón, we took a bus to Tupiza, a town further north. We were hoping to get to Uyuni, and a town yet further north, where we would take a tour of the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats). But when we arrived in Tupiza, we found out buses to Uyuni would only be leaving the next day. So we wandered down the road, and, weary and tired, booked a room at the nearest hostel. We found out that they offered a 4-day tour of the Salt Flats and surrounding area for a reasonable price, which would allow us to cut out a day of travel to Uyuni and head directly out on a tour.
We left the next day at 8am. It was the 5 of us, our driver, Dieter (a Tupiza resident who only spoke Spanish), and another car. We drove up incredibly steep, rocky roads, the 4WD definitely coming in handy. The views were absolutely breathtaking. Mountain after mountain and rolling landscapes stretched for miles. We came to a lookout of jutting, multi-colored rocks. Continuing on, we got out to admire the fields of llamas grazing in the open plains. The silence was absolutely stunning, calming, and profound. Piling back into the car, we drove on, admiring the landscapes. We also talked about everything: laughing and giving each other a hard time. Even after only spending a couple of days with Simon, James, and Bram, I was starting to feel really comfortable around them.
And it was really refreshing. As much as I like the challenge of Buenos Aires-of speaking only Spanish, trying to make Argentine friends and fully immerse myself in Argentine culture-there was something so comforting about feeling accepted in this group of foreigners. And although I felt like I was “choosing the easy way” by spending time with foreigners, I realized it was something I had missed so much and was making me so much happier on our trip.
So we continued on, arriving at a small, hillside village called Serillos where we were stopping for lunch. The simplicity of the town was unremarkable. The buildings were made of mud bricks and scrub brush roofs and dusty roads wound through town. The sleepy village, situated amongst snow-capped mountains, was both serene and eerie. I tried to imagine living in such a place, and wondered what the pace of life must be like. As I stood admiring the mountains, a little boy curiously inched closer to where I was standing, his foot anxiously kicking the dirt. I bent down, picked up a rock, and started drawing in the red dirt. He mirrored me, making pictures in the dust. Slowly, we started talking, chatting about our pictures and me commenting on how hard it was to draw in the dirt.
Lunch was ready, so I promised the boy I’d come back and subtly left, not knowing if he had food to eat for lunch. I ate quickly with our car and the other, the warm food tasting good in the cold mountains. Just as I finished, the little boy, now with a friend, peaked his head around the corner and began drawing on the rocks. We drew together, making houses, llamas, hearts and stars. And no matter how hard I tried, the little boy always drew better than me. But I realized that perhaps in this isolated town, he probably had had a lot more practice at drawing on rocks than me.
We then packed up the car and were lucky enough to just dodge the impending rain. We drove through the mountains, watching the hail beat the barren landscape.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town), the ruins of an ancient village. Although it was still raining we got out and explored the ruins, shivering as we peeked into abandoned rooms and under ancient arches.
The rest of the day was spent driving and chatting. We finally arrived to the park entrance at about 8pm, long after dark. We pulled up to the hostel sore from driving, tired and very hungry. Luckily, coffee and then dinner were waiting for us. We gathered around the table and quickly began bonding. Apart from us 5, there was Sean (U.S.) and Vanessa, Max, and Ahmad (Germany). As we laughed and the conversation moved fluidly, I realized we were a good group.
The next day we awoke early, ready for a long day of touring. Emma and I prepared our matés, christening them in. After breakfast, we took a short walk through town. We noticed an open courtyard, where it seemed like most of the village residents were gathered, eating breakfast together. Emma made an interesting comment: “People always look at places like this and notice what they don’t have. But look at this! Maybe we’re the ones who are missing out.” And as we walked though this village without electricity and running water, I realized she was right. What would the chances be that everyone in a neighborhood in the U.S. would get together for a Sunday morning breakfast? I was struck by admiration, and a feeling of yearning for this sense of community.
The rest of the day was spent stopping to look at incredible landscapes. We watched a llama migration, stopped at the Bovedales (incredible, lush, green swampland surrounded by mountains), flamingos at Laguna Omba, and explored the ghost town near Laguna Colpa.
Next, I was in for a surprise-my first hot springs! The water was perfectly warm and the surrounding landscape of mountains and lagoons was breathtaking. We splashed around and talked with the other car. The only bad thing was the heat in combo with the altitude all made us light headed!
After lunch we headed to the nearby geysers. They smelled absolutely awful but it was fascinating to hear the steam rapidly escaping.
After a few more hours of driving and dropping our bags off in the hostel, we headed to Laguna Colorada for a two-hour hike. However, just as we headed down the hillside and began snapping photos of the pink lagoon, we were hit by a downpour of rain and pounding hail. We quickly tried to make it back to the car. The hail hitting my neck and the backs of my ears was surprisingly painful. Screaming, we made it to the car, completely drenched. After some half-hearted contemplation about continuing, we decided to go back to the hostel to change into warm, dry clothes and nap.
I woke up from my nap completely disoriented. Perhaps it was the altitude, because even after coffee at merienda (a light meal eaten around 5pm), I still felt groggy. As the sun was setting, I decided to go for a walk with Sean and Ahmad in an attempt to wake up. We walked and walked aimlessly toward a nearby mountain; my heart frantically working due to the altitude. It was stunning to feel my pulse beating as quickly as if I had just done sprints.
As we walked, we talked about travel. Ahmad told me of a friend who lived in Ecuador and Sean about his travels to China and Southeast Asia. All of these ideas popped into my head-of backpacking South America, of living in Brazil, of traveling Europe. And I realized, no matter how difficult it has been at times, I really love traveling.
Suddenly, the sun had set and in the pitch black we decided it was best to return to the hostel.
We made it back just in time for dinner. Unfortunately, Emma began feeling really sick and had to leave the dinner table. Despite trying to drink lots of water and resting, she was really suffering from the altitude.
Not surprisingly, I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering with chills and a fever. Emma and I had been sharing everything-food, water, and even trips to the “bathroom” (aka the mountainside).
The next morning I awoke in a cold sweat and felt completely disoriented. Luckily, Emma was feeling better. I, on the other hand, had a pounding headache and felt sick to my stomach. I picked over breakfast, hoping tea would calm my stomach and water would kill the headache.
Unfortunately, I felt terrible all day. I attempted to sleep, but the jar of the car heading over rocky roads shook me awake and made my stomach turn even more. I also couldn’t feel comfortable-one minute I was hot, the next freezing cold. As we passed beautiful landscapes I felt bad; I knew I was missing out.
But each time we stopped, I put my sickness aside and made the most of it. We stopped in the Desierto de Sioli, an outcropping of oddly shaped rocks. We climbed to the top, taking group pictures and admiring the view. On the smaller rocks we struggled to keep our balance as we did yoga poses.
We proceeded to three more Lagunas, stopping at the third for lunch. Although I tried to muster the energy, it was hard to fully appreciate the view with an uncooperative stomach and head. I barely ate anything for lunch, instead trying to drink lots of water and keep it down. As we sat down to eat, incredibly powerful thunder sounded nearby and lightning streaked the sky. We could see the impending cloud of rain approaching. Although I was sick, it was so powerful to see the mountainous storm. It also seemed to be the theme of the tour: sunny morning, rainy afternoon.
I spent the rest of the day attempting to sleep in the front seat. I was startled awake once by the rip of lightning as it struck the desert floor a mere couple of yards from our car. Due to heavy rains, we were unable to continue on our regular route to the island in the Salt Flats. Instead, we headed to Uyuni, where we stayed in the original and rundown Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel). On the way, we stopped in the famous Cementerio de Trenes (Train Cemetery). It felt like a giant playground-we climbed the trains, played on the see-saw and swung on the swings.
As we returned to the Salt Hotel, Emma James and I decided to explore the town. We saw kids playing on piles of salt and I couldn’t even imagine how different their experiences were from mine. The town was so quiet. And slow. We marveled at the change of life pace. And, as usual, the anthropologist in me wondered what it must be like to live there. I tried to put myself in their shoes, but I realized my Western mentality-of success, being busy, always knowing the time-would make it nearly impossible. Together, we reflected on the town and solemnly watched the sunset in the plaza.
We came back just in time for dinner. I managed to eat soup, but barely touched anything else. Although I wanted to stay and chat, I went straight to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
I awoke feeling significantly better-the headache and upset stomach gone and the altitude sickness that had passed. We had set the alarm for 5am-today was the day to watch the sun rise over the Salt Flats. We sleepily piled into the car and began driving over the expansive Salar. Salt stretched endlessly in all directions: its expansiveness was incredible.
Just as the sun began peaking over the mountains, we stopped the car. Although it was beautiful, it was unfortunately cloudy, and the sun was difficult to see. But even as we shivered in the cold, we admired the cracked hexagonal pattern of the salt and crumbled pieces in our hands.
Warm coffee awaited us in the nearby Salt Hotel (the newer one), where we ate breakfast on a salt table, complete with salt chairs. In the cold and amidst the white blocks, I felt like I was in a ski lodge back in northern Minnesota.
As we left the hotel, we were greeted by a powerfully shinning sun and I knew, with a sun already shining so brightly at 7:30am that it was going to be a hot day.
We drove out to the middle of the Salar, where we proceeded to spend the next two and a half hours taking pictures. It was absolutely a blast. Harnessing our creativity, we took perspective pictures of people climbing out of our matés, of being stomped on by a giant foot, and of hanging from a laptop screen.
But by far my favorite photos were a series of group pictures taken by Ahmad. Using his nice Nikon camera, we lined up as a group, each person standing still until it was their turn to make crazy movements. In the end, the photos taken together formed a short movie, the movement traveling across our group. We had such a good time with the other car, laughing and enjoying our creativity.
In the end, we all ran off in different directions, taking a moment of silence. All I could hear was the whip of the wind across the treeless flats. The silence and the warmth of the sun were powerful, comforting, challenging, and so relieving after the chaos of Buenos Aires.
We all met back together at the cars, pensive and feeling refreshed. We drove back to the Salt Hotel, eating our last meal together on the official tour. Feeling better and finally having my appetite back, it was good to share a meal as a group.
After exchanging emails, we packed our bags and jumped in the car, heading back to Uyuni. Luckily, we would be spending the rest of the day together. In truth, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I had really felt connected to this group of wanderers from all over the world. We could joke together, had survived the bathrooms together, and had spent four full days together.
After buying our bus tickets to La Paz, we had almost a full day to kill. As a group we found a place to shower, and let me say, after three full days without one, a shower never felt so good. We then went to a nearby café, where we ordered beers and enjoyed the afternoon sun. This is the thing about South America-you can spend hours just having a drink with a friend. And that’s exactly what we did.
We then used the internet, and proceeded to eat dinner together-our last as a full group. Sean was the first to go-he was heading to another town. We said our goodbyes and then caught the bus to La Paz.
After a gruesome overnight bus, filled with rocky roads and flickering lights, we made it to La Paz. Finally, our group was splitting up. Ahmad, Vanessa and Max would stay in La Paz while we proceeded to Copacabana. Although I was too dazed for a proper goodbye, I still felt a pang of sadness as I watched the other car walk away. And although our Salt Flats tour was certainly filled with beautiful views, I think that perhaps the best part of the tour was getting to meet some really interesting people from all over the world.
From your grateful traveler,