From Bolivia, we track to one of the most memorable and provoking locations of South America. Towards the end of August, we took an incredible Bolivia adventure to the Uyuni Salt Flats with kids. Uyuni is said to be the largest salt flat in the world, spanning more than 6000 square miles across the desert landscapes of southern Bolivia. Despite the mock resemblance to plains, the massive sheet of salt is actually tucked between mountains and volcanoes at nearly 12,000 feet in altitude.
The startling landscape is stunning and inspiring leading to an exploration of both unforgettable and enchanting. What seems to be a vast and barren desert is ultimately the final remains of a bygone lake and its salty drink of yesteryear. The sparkling crust of diamond-like minerals hosts nothing but jaw-dropping mirages and reflections. The terrain is mysterious and unforgiving, offering no respite to living things.
We had anticipated our trip to this remote region of Bolivia since the beginning our travels in South America. We thought we had carefully planned to arrive in the warmer, dry season. Our first glimpses of the flats both startled and confused us. Vast glistening lakes reflected the mountain fringes and the so-called “passes” were nothing more than half-drowned tracks. The piles of flaky glistening salt collected after a recent harvest looked like the slushy leftover mix from a snow plow dusting sand on icy roads.
The shock of it left us wondering how we’d been so wrong about the climate. Our confidence in crossing the wet, white maze was faltering. We stood at the entrance for some time, watching other caravans carefully pick their path through puddles several feet deep and into the stark expanse of salt. There were no apparent roads, no signs to identify a route, no park officials standing by to rescue wayward explorers.
In fact, we learned that if we did get lost or stuck, we ‘d be hard pressed to find sympathy from anyone. In an effort to monopolize tourism, most local guides take a rather discerning approach to dealing with independent adventurers. They simply leave them stuck and stranded to suffer through what can turn into several days of digging out accompanied by nights of downright frigid temperatures. Quite suddenly our epic excursion seemed like a frightening risk that could potentially result in very hazardous conditions, particularly when choosing to explore the Uyuni Salt Flats with kids.
We learned that the salts were flooded as a result of an uncharacteristic and unseasonable blast of winter weather. Several weeks prior to our arrival, Uyuni had been buried under several feet of snow. Since then, the weather had warmed up again leaving the snow to melt rapidly leaving large pools of standing water. We also learned that it wasn’t exactly unsafe…as long as we stuck to the right paths and didn’t take unnecessary risks. The information wasn’t very comforting considering there aren’t any actual maps or any distinguished roads in the flats. The only thing you see is a mess of crisscrossing tracks that lead in every imaginable direction.
Luckily, my husband worked his magic, as he frequently does in ways I cannot begin to comprehend. Next thing I knew, he had arranged to hitch a follow behind a guide that took mercy on us. They agreed to let us trail and promised not leave us stranded. Being able to make strangers into friends in a matter of seconds is a very beneficial skill when you find yourself in the middle of flooded Uyuni!
So we were off! But, we had decided not to take the risk of spending the night in the flats. This Uyuni adventure that we had once imagined lasting as long as a week, was going to have to be squished into the daylight moments of a single day. Following the path of an experience, Uyuni driver was likely the best choice we made. From someone who drives the terrain daily, it was a blessing to not have to guess how the deep water was, how slushy the salt was, and which direction actually leads somewhere.
We started at the Dakar monument, where the famous rally passed through Uyuni a few years back. It is from this point that it becomes evident we have committed to an excursion of epic proportions. Standing in the shadows of the massive salt-carved statue, it sets in just how big this place is. As far as you can see, the blank white slate reflects the sun magnifying the power of the solar system’s grandest star.
There is a spot where travelers from all around the world have stuck the flags of their country into a mound of salt. Although simplistic, the vibrant colors of the world flap vigorously in the wind. The ambiance is welcoming and brings a smile to the face. How wonderful to stand in the very spot where so many people have stood before. It feels like an honor to be among those who can say they have been here, too.
I had grand expectations about frolicking with the kids across the cracked, dry salt plains. In my mind I had seen it like the environment beneath a snow globe. Happy and sparkly and snowy, but more like a beach climate rather than snow. This is the big downer about expectations. They rarely transpire as anything remotely close to the imaginings. But, the good thing about traveling is that we have learned to shake off the bad vibes that shock can bring on. This not a good tip for traveling with kids anywhere, but it’s a particularly good one to keep in mind when traveling to the Uyuni Salt Flats with kids.
Most of the day we were in water deep enough, it wasn’t ideal to get out the car. But, in a few places the mess was reduced to a soft wet surface of salt pebbles. It is possible to rub it between your shoes or scoop it up in your hands, but the salt is as pure as nature made it. It isn’t soft and silky like sand, rather it’s harsh and drying to the skin leaving a white layer of burning film between the fingers. It’s look like piles of hail left in the crevices of the sidewalk after a bad summer storm back in Iowa. We were warned to rinse our shoes upon our exit or risk finding the soles disintegrated a few days later.
Much of our experience in Uyuni was from the car, which wasn’t quite what we expected or dreamed. But, nonetheless the drive was equal parts serene and surreal. It left for a lot of conversations and room for curiosity to breed. At times we wondered if we were really driving over the solid bottom of an ancient lake. Cruising over the chalky water, we could look out the windows and see giant pockets of teal pools that appeared to sink under the surface for several feet or more. It gave the eerie feeling of driving over a giant frozen lake.
In certain segments of the slat flats, there are double intentions in the earth that leave marks as if a fork lift has recently come for a joy ride here. At the end of the slug markings are small pyramids of salt pointing up at the sky. With the first few sightings, we imagined it was just over-curious people who had gone a little too far of course and left ruts in the minerals. But, later we realized that the disturbance is actually the result of salt harvesting. We didn’t see it in progress, but it led to a lot of questions about what happens to the salt.
Do they ship it to the States and sell it to the companies that maintain the winter roads? Do they filter and sanitize it before it winds up in a shaker on our dinner table? Does this make up the rocks of salt labeled as gourmet? How long has the salt been here? How long until it’s all been taken away? In these thoughts, for the time we recognized salt as a natural resource.
Just past half-day we arrived to the Incahuasi Island that lies in the middle of the flats. It’s most famous for the dense population of massive cacti. But, in all honesty, it’s a just place they manage to trap tourists who find a need for a public bathroom and a restaurant. It’s great place to catch a different view of the salts, from above rather than from the car window. We just had a quick picnic on the salt tables and took the opportunity to stretch our legs.
The island is also it’s a jackpot if you like to mingle with other overlanders. In just 30 minutes, we met people from all over the world. Including people from the USA. We don’t meet many people from our homeland on our travels. These kids made the tally go up to just 7 people we’ve met from The States since we started our travels 16 months ago. I guess it brought out a little nostalgia, as we felt compelled to grab a flag and pretend like we were astronauts posing on the moon.
Then, we continued into the last dry sections of the flat, to try to take a few fun photos. Uyuni is an iconic spot for taking silly, perspective shots. It’s a must-do activity in the Uyuni Salt Flats with kids or for anyone, but it felt really awkward and unoriginal to us. We abandoned the concept after a few photos. What I realized in retrospect is that people take these photos because Uyuni is incredibly difficult to photography. The brilliant white horizons and stark sunlight are a disaster for exposure and contrast. Not only did I come out with a surprisingly low number of good photographs, we also forgot to take a family photo!
After a few more hours of exploring, we chose to make our exit long before the sun went down. Our trail ended in a small indigenous village overlooking the salt flats. We stayed at a place that Carlos had heard about along the way. It was a small, hostel (without a name) made entirely of salt. Even though we were the only people there, it was a fascinating experience and a highlight of Uyuni.
The interior was all salt carpets and walls made of salt bricks. Even the bed frames, night stands, and window frames were made from salt. Above our heads was a thatched roof made of hay. It felt a bit like being in an igloo and we were astonished at how warm it was when we slept at night.
We couldn’t resist the chance to lick the salt, as the kids had been wanting to do all day. Yes, it does taste like salt. It is after all, SALT. Without any phone signal, TVs, restaurants, stores, or another soul to speak with..we holed up in our room for the night eating chocolate and drinking soda. It was the perfect ending to a memorable day to process the wonder of the Uyuni Salt Flats with kids from our tiny hostel in a deserted town.