Short answer: everything. Giant desert of salt? Yep but you already knew that. Red lakes, white lakes, green lakes, cactus islands, train graveyards, rock trees (or tree rocks?), big mountains, vast deserts, and so on. You can expect anything and everything on this excursion.
But seriously though, I’ve never had such a high concentration of otherworldly sights in such a short amount of time. Just one after the other like a Bolivian cholita throwing haymakers. You barely have time to reset your amazement from the previous place.
It’s like, one second you’re just in the middle of the world’s largest desert of salt. Next thing you know you’re on an island full of cactuses in the middle of the world’s largest desert of salt. Then you’re watching the most beautiful sunset you can imagine but suddenly realize that you are 12,000 feet above sea level and the sun setting means that it is now negative 6000 degrees (-3351 Celsius). So you go to sleep in your cushy hotel, but wait, it’s made of salt. And it is the furthest thing from cushy. You grab a blanket or twelve and sleep on your block of salt. Next, you wake up to discover that somehow the hotel made of salt has managed to discover a way to create hot water to make tea. Ahh, yes, hot water. Hot water that would have been useful for your shower the night before.
Whatever, you drink your tea, throw on your alpaca sweater that you thought was super unique only to discover that everyone has the same exact one. The tour guides gather all of the alpaca sweaters, pile you into the Jeep, and bam, the salt is gone. You’re in the desert now. But it’s not really a desert because there are a lot of mountains everywhere. And flamingos everywhere. Why are there flamingos in the desert? Is this the desert? Are desert flamingos a rare species only found in Bolivia?
You look around a bit, oh what’s that? Oh a laguna. Wait, but why is it red? There’s just a weird red and pink and white lake in the middle of this desert full of desert flamingos. It’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen in like… the last two hours. You’ve already forgotten how weird it was that you were just on an island of cacti in the middle of the world’s largest Salt Flat. I’ve already forgotten that you actually start the entire trip by going to an abandoned train graveyard. It’s like the Bolivians were extremely optimistic about conquering their literally untamable wilderness and made all of these trains only to realize that it was pointless. The desert flamingos are the dominant species here, where they live in peace with the vicuña (Spanish for nicer, cuter, and all-around superior llamas).
Anyway, you look at the Laguna Colorada for a bit while trying not to get blown away by the harsh winds. The winds literally almost knocked me over but those desert flamingos didn’t even flinch.
Hop back in your Jeep and it’s time for the next stop. Oh, a white lake? But the one we just saw was way bigger. And it was red and pink and also white. Those Bolivian tour guides sure don’t care about building up anticipation, do they? I mean, they advertise the three-day tour as ~ A 3-Day Uyuni Salt Flats Tour ~ and then take you to the Salt Flats on the very first day. It’s like if you were to hike the Inca Trail but started at Machu Picchu and worked your way backwards. You’ve just got nothing to look forward to anymore.
Lucky for you, you don’t actually know what else you are going to see or what else is even happening the entire time. You just kind of hop in the Jeep and get taken to some cool places and some less-cool-in-comparison places. Like there’s a big rock in the middle of the desert that the wind carved for millennia to look like a tree. I mean it was cool but at that point of the trip, the highlight for me was that there was miraculously an outhouse that I could use. I was plagued by food poisoning for every. single. day. of my Bolivian adventure. Trust me, being in the untamed Bolivian wilderness that has maybe one toilet per 500 square miles was absolutely brutal when you have food poisoning. It wasn’t even a good toilet. It would also be naïve of you to think that there would be toilet paper.
It was a rough time but at least I’m not one of those stupid desert flamingos that probably poop in the same water they feed out of. Enough on that tangent about poop, let’s hop back in the Jeep and go to the place we’re staying for the night. But not before we stop at some totally unsafe volcanic geysers that are literally bubbling and exploding every few seconds. You’d get kicked out of Yellowstone for this but when in Bolivia, right? This is a bit of foreshadowing for the place you’re staying for the night because guess what! Hot springs! This 5-star resort is not made of salt this time, nor is it actually a 5-star resort but guess what! Hot springs!
So now you’re chilling all happy and warm in these weird hot springs that is probably actually a volcano. But guess what! You’re still about 12,000 feet above sea level so it is still freezing! But this time, you are wet and half-naked! Oh, and now it is dark. And that 5-star resort I mentioned does not have electricity so you and everyone else just kind of blindly walk in a random direction and try not to fall in an actual volcano. Side note, the stars from this night were the most incredible I have ever seen in my life. Being so far away from any civilization means that you can see them crystal clearly. Take a couple of minutes to just sit and admire them before you waddle back to your room.
Whaaaatt there’s still another day to go? I’ll cut the schtick and just run it by you real quick. You stop in the middle of an actual desert which is quite beautiful. You might stop to see some wild llamas. You might stop to see some cool mountains before capping off the excursion at Laguna Verde. Some days, it lives up to its name and is actually green. Some days, it’s just like nah. Then you hop back in your Jeep and go back to Uyuni or you carry onwards to Chile if that’s where you decide you’re going.
In case you didn’t feel like reading endless paragraphs of unstructured rambling, this was basically an appreciation post for desert flamingos.
All jokes aside, for the brave, the adventurous, and the free spirits, this untamed Bolivian region is as rewarding as it is challenging. The elements battle you every step of the way. As your Jeep drives further and further away from civilization, it also drives further and further away from your comfort zone. Your showers will be cold, your nights might be restless, and your *gasp* Instagram feed might go a few days without being updated. My dad even texted me to make sure I was still alive because I had not posted in three days.
This intense excursion was among my most challenging stretches of traveling ever. The food poisoning that plagued me for my entire time in Bolivia definitely did not help. Neither did getting a cold. My friend even claimed that I was randomly yelling in my sleep one night. The toll that Bolivia was taking on me mentally is my only possible explanation for that.
Regardless, if you can put up with a few days away from civilization and your usual comforts, then the Bolivian wilderness will reward you with some of the most mind-blowing things you will ever see. Aside from the few big cities that litter the massive South American country, Bolivia remains largely undeveloped, a dream come true for adventurous spirits. Witnessing some of these natural wonders, you’ll come to realize that maybe Bolivia’s wilderness was never meant to be conquered but preserved and admired. It’s a wild ride. That’s the way adventures are supposed to be.
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