Three Days Through the Bolivian Desert

Bolivia – October, 2015

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While there wasn’t a large Welcome to Bolivia sign, you immediately knew when you entered Bolivia. Gone were paved roads, replaced by dirt and rock paths marked only by the tire tracks from decades of Jeep tours. I would spend the next four days jammed in a Land Rover with my girlfriend, a French couple, two Germans, the Bolivian driver, plastic jugs for all of the gas and water we would need, and seven oversized backpacks. Before getting in, the truck already smelled of feet and dust. This was the Bolivia that I remembered.

 The first day covered Laguna Verde (Green Lake), Laguna Colorada (Red Lake), and some natural hot springs.

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Llamas and alpacas grazed on the sandy plains, while rock cairns leading to nowhere adorned the landscape.

The reality of the tour set in at the hot springs. We arrived and were told that we had 30 minutes to enjoy them. There was a 10 minute line to enter and it would have taken another 10 minutes to dry off, change clothes, and store the wet clothes afterwards. This left 10 minutes to actually be in the springs. We all passed on the opportunity.

We stayed that night in a hostel with six other groups. Each group had one big room and a dining table. The hostel featured two toilets, no showers or heating, and electricity that was turned on for two hours during the night. We spent the evening drinking mate and chomping coca leaves to calm the elevation nausea (we were over two miles high), but the lack of light and heating made things worse as time passed.

Day two was a big improvement over the first day. The first thing we saw was Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), a 20 foot rock that’s been shaped by thousands of years of wind erosion.

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Next up came Laguna Honda, populated by hundreds of flamingos.

 

We passed through the Siloli desert, soon finding ourselves in the Uyuni Salt Flats. We got there just in time to catch the sunset.

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The second night was in the Salt Hotel, a hotel with the tables, walls, and beds made of blocks of salt. It was warm, offered one hot shower, one cold shower, and even had toilet seats! This was a pleasant surprise.

Day three would be our final full day. We got up early to see and play in the famous Salar de Uyuni, the highlight of the trip.

At 4,000 square miles, Salar de Uyuni took nearly 24 hours to drive through. There were no roads, no buildings, no signs. At times you could see nothing but salt in all directions.

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Next came Isla Incahausi, an island left over from when the sea here had evaporated. The island was full of giant cactii, with a handful of foxes and chinchillas that take refuge here from the salt flats.

Two hours down the road was the train cemetery. The cemetery was a perfect microcosm of Bolivia: a handful of rusted trains left in a barren desert, presented as a tourist attraction. The sign advertising the cemetery was cracked and unreadable as well, for good measure.

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Our final stop in the desert was at a Dakar Rally checkpoint. The Dakar Rally is a 5,600 mile off-road race, broken up in 13 stages. Thousands of competitors from across the globe race every year on bikes, cars, quads, and trucks.

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Originally held in Europe and Western Africa, Dakar Rally was moved to South America in 2009 for security reasons and has become hugely popular down here. Travelers from around the world placed their flags in the center, the faded colors and tattered edges hinting at their age.

Two hours later we were in the city of Uyuni, eating pizza and sending pictures to friends again. We would spend the next day speeding back to Chile, back to our normal lives.

Bolivia was just as I remembered it, though I was glad to leave the country with a positive perspective this time around.

 

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