Vagabond Tales: Salar De Uyuni, The Weirdest Place On Earth

Right now, as you read this, there are pink flamingos and wild llamas running amok on the shores of a red lake in Bolivia. In a land far, far away, people are watching the sunrise amidst steaming geysers while dodging puddles of boiling mud. There are hot springs where you can bathe nude at 15,000 ft, hotels made entirely of salt, and rocks that look exactly like trees.

No, this isn’t peyote week in the Vagabond Tales office. I’m speaking of a real place, a place where I’ve been. It’s a place I’m officially labeling as the weirdest place on Earth. In addition to all of the other oddities this is also the world’s largest salt desert, and, as you might expect, this is a terrible place for your car to break down.

At 4,633 square miles Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is a vast sea of salt larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Traffic is minimal and the roads are always shifting. If you get lost out here or lose your way you don’t simply call AAA or check your GPS. These don’t exist here in the southwestern hinterlands of Bolivia. If you get lost in the Salar de Uyuni, you start hoping that you aren’t going to die.

%Gallery-153780%Having booked a three-day crossing of the Salar with an adventure company out of the town of Uyuni it only took one hour before Juan Carlos, our driver, had donned a pair of faded blue coveralls to replace a flat tire on our trusty white land cruiser.

Diez minutos” he reassured us with with a slightly embarrassed mumble. “No te preocupes“.

Don’t worry.

Standing just over 5′ 5” and sporting a thin black mustache, Juan Carlos, like so many other men in the Bolivian town of Uyuni, has a job which involves shuttling travelers across this mountainous netherworld.

Even before the flat tire incident our troupe of six travelers had already made a pit stop at a place known only as the “Train Cemetery”. Located only minutes from the outskirts of Uyuni-a windy, dusty, 12,000 ft. outpost where lips chap and heads ache-many of the locomotives which once dominated the Bolivian rail lines now appear as metal phalluses left to rust in the salty mountain air.

Now, with our lone spare tire firmly affixed to a rusty axle we saddled up the mechanical horse and headed straight for the great white unknown.

After bouncing around the back of the Land Cruiser for a couple of hours Juan Carlos eventually brought us to Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered dollop of an island floating all alone in the endless sea of salt. Literally, as far as you can see in every direction is a white horizon of nothingness. Here, strangely enough, it’s possible to amble among cacti which have thrived for over 1,000 years in one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet.

Already awash in an alternate reality, Isla Incahuasi is also a place to tinker with the unique elements of perspective. Utilizing the endless horizon and deft usage of a digital camera it’s suddenly possible to take pictures where you appear to actually surf on a water bottle, sit in the palm of your girlfriend’s hand, or take a casual stroll down the handle of a guitar. The only thing missing is a smoking caterpillar and a smiling Cheshire cat.

As if the day hadn’t been strange enough already, that evening I somehow found myself licking the walls of my hotel room. In an empty basin where building materials are hard to come by, even the buildings are made from blocks of salt. So too are the beds, the windowsills, and the tables and chairs. Unfurling my sleeping bag onto a year’s worth of sodium I silently questioned if this place could get any stranger.

Never could I imagine, however, how strange it was about to get.

Not three hours after waking on a bed made of salt did I find myself chasing flamingos around a lake resembling an oversized peppermint. Fittingly known as “Laguna Colorada” (Colored Lake), the lake has a certain type of sediment which turns the water a blood shade of red. Blended with white islands made of borax deposits, the red and white color wheel almost seems to spin in the thin, 16,500 ft. air. Higher than any mountain peak in the 48 states, the altitude doesn’t seem to bother the flamingos, pink curiosities of nature who still sleep on one leg in spite of the 40 mph winds whipping across the plain.

Wanting nothing more than a restful sleep after a day spent navigating an environment straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, we instead were roused at 4am as part of a plan to watch the frigid sunrise. Though I have seen enough sunrises in my travels to warrant sleeping in through a 4am wakeup, never before had I been presented with the opportunity to watch the sunrise from the steaming caldera of an active volcano.

This is so strange I am going to repeat it.

The opportunity to watch the sunrise from the steaming caldera of an active volcano.

I’m not making this up. This is a place where you can literally jump through steaming geysers of sulfur which springs straight from the Earth. Don’t believe me? Look for the part where I momentarily appear to be on fire.

For as much fun as this might seem, when you are navigating the geysers of an active caldera there are nevertheless dangers intrinsic to such an activity. What dangers might exist inside of an active caldera you ask? What about accidentally stepping in a puddle of boiling mud?

Relaxing in a thermal hot spring after having escaped the confines of the active caldera I got to chatting with an Australian traveler who had also spent the last three days in the salt flats.

“You ever been anywhere like this before?” I casually inquired, the thin mountain air still having an effect on the ability to speak in long sentences.

“Never mate. This place is mental. It’s like I’ve gone to another planet and am afraid to return.”

Well said mate. Well said.

Want more travel stories? Check out the rest of Vagabond Tales here.