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A trip to the moon: La Paz to Uyuni

The Southwest corner of Bolivia is a harsh and intimidating landscape. The Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia and the Southwest circuit (also known as the Lagunas Route) are on almost every Overlander’s bucket list. We tackled the Salar first. The largest salt flat on earth, the “Salar de Uyuni” spans more than 4,000 square miles at an altitude of 12,000 feet. It is an other worldly place - vast, austere, like being on the moon. This beautiful moonscape is where temperatures can swing 40 degrees in a day. You can fry, and you can freeze.

Supposedly the salt flat was created 42,000 years ago after the giant, prehistoric Lake Minchin dried up. It’s huge - four times the size of Hong Kong. The estimated annual output of salt extraction is 20,000 tons. The salt flat also holds 50% of the world’s lithium deposits, a mineral essential for all kinds of batteries from electric cars to iPads. The current president, Evo Morales, has resisted all efforts to extract the mineral. For now. But who knows what the future holds for this pristine piece of Bolivia if demand for clean energy continues to increase. There are always trade offs.

As we were preparing to visit this part of the world, the NY Times published a beautiful, haunting article on a lake not far from here. The vanishing of Lake Poopó threatens the very identity of the Uru-Murato people, the oldest indigenous group in the area. Once Bolivia’s second-largest lake, it recently dried up. Many of the Uru-Murato people had lived off its waters for generations but have had to leave to find work. Many mine salt on the Salar. They are joining a new global march of refugees not fleeing war or persecution, but climate change. It's an interesting, interactive article with stunning photos.

We left Lake Titicaca by way of a sketchy ferry, through small rural towns to meet our friends Janice and Gregor (in their van, Lucky) just outside of La Paz. It was there we would prep for our trip to the moon together.

I (sort of) chatted with this little lady as we crossed the water. She couldn't believe we lived in "that box".

We rushed out of Peru to catch up with these guys to caravan this stretch of Bolivia. I like the idea of caravanning with friends - particularly on this route. Other travelers told us stories of getting seriously stuck on the Salar by breaking through the salt. Under the salt is a mud/clay substance that according to some accounts acts like quick sand. The harder people tried to dig themselves out, the deeper they sank. Some people we talked to got stuck for 10 hours, others 30 hours, and a German family we met in Ecuador were stuck for 5 days out there before the Bolivian Army finally came to rescue them. So, I was very happy our timing worked out to be out there with friends.

We camped just outside of La Paz, a huge city of over a million people at an altitude of 12,000 feet. We hadn’t planned to drive in to this frenetic city but we somehow got stuck in its horrendous traffic by accident. Once it finally spit us out, we made our way about 40 minutes south and camped with Janice and Gregor at Hotel Oberland in Mallasa to get our prep done. We only ventured back to La Paz for one afternoon (by taxi) of walking around.

Traffic in La Paz. Ugh!!

Camping and prep at Hotel Oberland.

Back at camp, we fixed holes, repaired handles, and checked fluids. A big part of the prep was getting the camper insulated for below freezing temps. Not that easy with canvas walls. Nights were below freezing here already. Gregor suggested we use our yoga mats on the walls by the bed, and close off our bed from the rest of the camper with a beach towel. Both ideas helped us get a 12-degree bump in the sleeping area at night. John needed more insulation for the marine hatch so he used a windshield shade from an auto parts store. That's how we got a tiger on the ceiling. No Siegfried and Roy cracks, please....

More than a few dinner conversations involved math problems over how much extra fuel we would need. LoJo needed to travel 330 miles - at altitude and on dirt roads. Our normal range is 260 miles at sea level on pavement. So…we all did the math (and then we did it again) to calculate how much extra we needed to carry. A trip to the moon requires a well thought out plan after all.

Math problems and route planning over cheese fondue.

Shopping in 10 different hardware stores for supplies.

After vehicle prep was done and Janice and I shopped for more food than either of us could find room for, we headed to the town of Uyuni (where all travel to the salt flat begins). Our plan is to spend a few nights out on the salt flat, then come back to Uyuni again to provision for the 5 day trek farther south.

As we drove to Uyuni, the terrain became more barren, more desolate. It felt like we were venturing to the end of the world. We planned to camp half way through the 9-hour drive but once we saw the landscape, we decided to press on and try to make to Uyuni. Just as we made that decision, a sand storm almost blew us off the road. When we lost visual sight of Lucky, we knew pushing on to Uyuni was the right call.

Lucky got lost in the sand.

The town of Uyuni feels like a true frontier town. Windy & dusty, with a biting cold that goes right to your bones. As I watched the packs of skinny street dogs who live through the freezing night temps, foraging garbage for food, I wonder what evil they must have perpetrated in another life to come back as Uyuni street dogs. It seems the harshest of punishments.

Such a strange town...

The coldest time of year is late June to early July - the exact time of our visit. Aside from the military, there isn’t much other than mining and tourism. The local cars on the wide streets include lots of of older Toyota Land Cruisers, shuttling travelers out on organized tours. With no other option in town, we camped on the street across from a hotel that housed the Minute Man Pizza joint. It was a few feet from the entrance to the military outpost. We felt safe at least. Home Sweet Home.

This little guy was almost the one. He was so sweet. But I think he had friends in the military and we didn't want any trouble.

As Janice pointed out to us over pizza dinner one night, based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, our needs have changed. They have shifted down the pyramid. If we feel safe and have water in our tank, and coffee, milk and sugar for the morning, we can camp anywhere. It's easier now than ever to attain our needs, but not always easy to obtain them. In a town with permanent water rationing, we had to search hard for enough water to fill our big tank for the backcountry. We found a guy, followed him all the way across town to an ice cream shop where he sold us 4 big 5 gallon bottles.

We needed showers too. We looked at a few places in town that offer Duches y Banos for the townspeople, but they weren't even meeting our most basic needs. Many (most?) people that live in these towns don’t have a shower (or perhaps running water), so they pay for public ones. Janice did a little more hunting and finally found an acceptable option. We paid 10 Bolivianos (about $1.35) for 15 minutes. It was clean, had hot water, and was actually a bit nicer than some of the other camp showers we have used.

Finally. This is where we found big water bottles to buy.

Pizza Oasis. Good pizza! We celebrated Gregor's birthday (the 2nd time on this trip!!) and each ordered a large to take with us.

The nicest public showers in town. It was busy with families both times we were there.

Food was kind of a challenge too. Janice and I walked to 3 different stores to find milk in a box, not a plastic bag. Only one store in town sold them. We hit at least 4 stalls to find onions that were decent. We must have hit 10 little stalls all over town to find what we needed for our days in the backcountry. Eggs were sold at the tiny butcher shop, but I couldn't stand the smell so I had to go to the next place. At one point Janice commented, "It's a romantic notion to visit several stores for delicacies in not so much". Amen, sister.

“Shall we sleep at the train cemetery tonight?” Not something we have suggested to friends before. But Uyuni has a train cemetery just outside of town, and John wanted to take some night shots before we headed out. The rail cars date back to the 18th century when there was a rail car factory in Uyuni. At night it was a little creepy but they were fun to climb on. John spent the afternoon roaming around taking photos. We braved the freezing cold temps to do some night shots too.

At one point in the afternoon, John told us to climb on top of an engine for a group photo. He didn’t realize it, but he had the camera set to take a shot every 10 seconds. Once we heard the second “click,” we just stayed up there. We stayed up there for the third and fourth click too…we kept going all the way until the 122nd click!

I put all those clicks together, along with a little funky music. Here is your 2 minute Bolivian Train Cemetery Funky Flip Book:

The next morning it was time to leave for the salt flats. We had overcast skies and wind. Really cold howling wind. I rolled down the window as we made our way onto the salt. My already dry mouth now felt coated with a film of salt and I shivered right through my 4 layers of clothes. We drove over holes the size of bowling balls, where we could see the water only inches below the surface. We felt a little uneasy, not 100% sure the truck wouldn't break through the salt.

We stopped at the Bolivia Dakar salt sign and flags, and then made our way onto the tracks on the salt. It was surreal. With no sun, the white ground and the white horizon melted into nothingness. We did a chilly hike on the largest “island”, Isla Incahuasi, with giant 40 foot high Trichoreus cacti. They should be called Dr. Seus cacti. We camped just off the island, careful not to get too close for fear of breaking through. The four of us had dinner together in our camper, all bundled up. Then we hunkered down for the night; the rig shook back and forth in the wind but then died down for a quiet night.

Brrrr.. LoJo and Lucky huddled together in the wind.

The next morning the sun came out and we had the full 360 degree view. The evaporated salt leaves hexagonal tiles as far as the eye can see. Between the cold air and the blinding white ground, our mind played tricks on us – making us believe we were on ice, not salt. The sun was so blinding, I couldn’t be without sunglasses for even a minute. There is no way to look at the Earth this white without a filter.

We drove to the center, where when the mountains are no longer visible all directional intuition dissolves. We had a day long photo shoot thinking up crazy “perspective photos”. It’s just what you do when you camp on the world’s largest salt flat.

Spoiler alert: We did a LOT of perspective photos!

Little John can't see over the steering wheel anymore.... .

Our second night on the Salar we were joined by more travel friends. Philip and Tanya are from Italy/Canada respectively, and Ben is from New Mexico. His dog Lorenzo is from Old Mexico. They are friends of Janice and Gregor, who all met in Peru. We plan to go on and do the Lagunas Route together so we had a fun day on the Salar getting to know each other. We met up for a hike on another island, and then drove out to the middle of the Salar to camp. It was amazing to be out in the middle - with no "land" within miles. The night sky engulfed us. I have never seen stars so bright and a sky so clear. The Milky Way emerged behind the glitter of lights, and we all stood there silent for a while. The next day was warm and clear. We did a few more persecutive photos, threw the Frisbee, & shared our morning coffee together. It was a magical couple of days.


Ben's boy, Lorenzo

Philip chiilin' on the salt.

Lorenzo needs shades too...

Morning walk to no where.

Wrestling 4 days of sleeping bag hair. Thanks for so many of these photos, Janice!

One more trip back to Uyuni is required to provision again, get more gas, and take much needed showers before we head into the backcountry for 5 more days on the Lagunas Route.

We slept at the train cemetery again, did another cold, creepy group night shot again - John was trying to replicate a shot he had seen on DesktoGlory's blog. The next morning we headed out into no man’s land.

Up Next: If the Salar was a trip to the moon, the Laguna Route is a mission to Mars.

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