Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is an extraordinary place. You know that as soon as you walk off the plane onto the empty, small tarmac, and stand in a disjointed group of other tourists armed with trekking shoes and Lonely Planets, and you wait for a long, long time for your luggage to appear. The reason is soon obvious – the process is not mechanized, so the solitary luggage man strains to pull the heavy cart full of checked luggage and then carries each colorful backpack, each heavy suitcase off the cart and sets it into a line of luggage against the wall of the tiny terminal.
Soon, you are whisked off through the dust in a Toyota Land Cruiser – really the only vehicle you will see in many editions, colors, and levels of salt-incrustedness throughout your stay. Your stocky driver is your tour guide and is visibly relieved that you both speak Spanish. Through a dusty, salty haze he drives you to the town of Uyuni – a ramshackle collection of brown buildings centered around a street humming with tourists, their guides, and their guides’ Toyota Land Cruisers. A handful of hostels alternates with stores where “Se Vende Quinoa” (‘We sell quinoa’), the other staple of the region – apart from salt, of course.
Once your guide receives his itinerary and instructions from the tour company lady you will never see again, you rumble off to the first stop on your itinerary – the Train Cemetery. Your guide narrates the story of the once vibrant train hub, a 19th -century distribution center for minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The industry turned out not to be too profitable – and met with little appreciation from the indigenous peoples – so in the 1940s, many trains were simply abandoned.
75 years later, the rusty locomotives are an adult’s playground.
But one that doesn’t retain your attention for too long.
You take a few photos, jump on and off the carriages covered with graffiti, and then start wandering and wondering when your guide is going to come back and did he really have to leave you in this desert and drive away with all your stuff? You start anxiously peering at each approaching Land Cruiser and your hope slowly dries up as your throat gets more and more parched and then – that one specific Land Cruiser appears and you jump on board, grateful for the many bottles of water stowed in the back.
The next stop is a hotel made out of salt – your lodging for the night.
Who could say no to a warm welcome from a salty snowman?