About Us

Welcome to our blog, describing our voyage aboard Bravo, a Kelly Peterson 46 sailboat with homeport in Seattle, Washington. We headed south in 2010, destined for Mexico and beyond. Cheers, Adam and Cindi

"As for me, I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts." -Herman Melville, 1844

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The salty crew gets SALTIER in Uyuni, Bolivia

A day after our Death Road ride, we hopped a bus from La Paz to Uyuni, a small town in south central Bolivia famous for its proximity to the Salar, the worlds largest salt flats.  At 10,582 sq. km. (4,086 sq mi), the Salar is over 25 times the size of the Bonneville salt flats in the U.S.  Tours go out from over 40 services in Uyuni to check out the Salar and surrounding areas.

We picked one agency, pretty much at random, after hearing that they're all about the same.  With 6 people plus driver packed in each Toyota Land Cruiser, we headed out on a 3 day/2 night 4wd expedition to check out the sights.  All the rigs are identical, and basically beat to shit.  Ours had over 200,000 miles on the odometer, ALL off road. 

We started out with a big bubble on the side wall of a rear tire.  The driver said "no problema"!  This is before heading out for 3 days of constant gnarly 4 wheeling.  Amazing.  The driver was wrong.....

The first stop was a train cemetary, where old, 1920's salt transport trains have been left to rot away.  But they're pretty well preserved in the dry, high altiplano air. 

We next hit the Salar.  At an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft), and incredibly flat (the elevation varies by only 1 meter over the entire surface, and is used to calibrate satellite altimeters), it seemed to extend forever to the horizon, much like driving on an enormous snowfield.  Locals were harvesting salt in small drying piles.  They make approx 50 cents per kilo.  The salt is also estimated to contain 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves.  It is being extracted in small operations, but happily the Bolivian government has blocked any large mining operations.

Obviously, at a price of .50 per kilo for salt, and with no other sources of income readily apparent, the villages on and surrounding the salar are extremely poor, some of the bleakest we'd seen in Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America.  Those who can find an angle do benefit from salar tourism, but otherwise, they live and work as they have for generations, harvesting and selling the salt through cooperatives.

Local soccer field
Buildings are all built of rock and salt blocks.  Even a small restaurant we stopped at was totally built of salt, including the furniture.

Salt sanitation is a big deal!!

The salar is also home to several "islands", some with buildings and people living there.  We visited one to hike around and check out the amazing cactus, many over 1000 years old, before driving on over the salt.

As the afternoon of the first day turned to evening, things got a bit wierd.  Even though we were on a paid "tour", it became clear that our driver had no clue where we were supposed to stay for the night, and there weren't a whole lot of options.  We stopped at 3 small hotels on the salar shore, driving nearly an hour between the first and third, all with the same result....no room.  Actually the third had room....it was closed!!!  And it was now dark.  Not good. 

But our driver disappeared into the little village and found the owner, who was happy to open up for us.  And it was a sweet little collection of sleeping huts surrounding a kitchen/dining room.  Score!!!  We settled in for the night on our mattress set on a salt platform.  Our driver brought our food and propane tank into the kitchen, where the owner of the place cooked our dinner.  All good.  4 or 5 thick alpaca blankets kept us warm.

After loading the truck the next morning, we had breakfast and were on the "road" by 6:30.  Actually there are no real roads in this area.  Driving is all over the high desert, sometimes following tracks, sometimes just winging it.  And all the time our tire bubble grew larger.  Not good.

Waiting for another tire change.  Pretty safe, only 3 trains per week...
Finally our driver decided to change the tire.  Out comes the spare, and the swap made.  Uh oh.  No air in the spare.  And we're in the middle of the desert.  We're talking real desert.  Not good at all.  And we didn't change the tire before we started, why???  OK, back with the bubble tire, and we're off again.  Finally after a few hours more of rock and desert driving, we found another tour Land Cruiser with a compressor to borrow.  We pumped up the spare, changed again, and were off, now with a good tire.  Cool!!!

Actually, we came to find out that ALL of the rigs out here typically had their hoods up or were up on jacks nearly every day.  Desert driving takes its toll, and theres obviously no real maintenance done to the vehicles.  You just fix things as they break, and hope for the best.  As the saying goes...."Ya pays yer money and ya take yer chances..."  No one has a compass, a gps, or even a friggin' flashlight!!!

We spent this second day cruising the desert, stopping at a series of lagunas, or lakes, to check out the nesting areas of hundreds of flamingos.  This was amazing to see, so many in one area.  The rock formations, too, were extraordinary.

A prize if you can tell us what this sign means.  We don't have a clue!

Smoking volcano marks the Bolivia-Chile border

Park is closed....
 We were making our way toward a large national park at the southern end of Bolivia.  Unfortunately when we arrived, we found that a rumored strike had in fact been called that day, and we were not allowed entry into the park.  The drivers of the assembling tour trucks had a pow wow, and we took off into the evening dusk, following one other truck.

The others all took the main trail, but our boy decided to take a shortcut through the mountains.  Not sure why, but it proved to be a bad move.  We, along with the other rig, got quickly lost on the myriad of tracks through the desert.  Finally we seemed to be going in the right general direction, in the gathering darkness, as the other truck started to slow down dramatically.  Seemed he had both carbuerator and transmission problems.  The air cleaner was removed and cleaned of its thick dust, but it didn't make a whole lot of difference.

We finally reached a main track, and limped our way into a tiny town at around 9:30.  Our driver had been driving for around 15 hours, including changing 3 tires.  A tough days work.  And we just lucked out when we found a guest house with 4 or 5 other rigs in front.  They had room for us, just barely.  But again, all good, and we fell asleep easily.  I'm sure our driver was asleep before he hit the pillow.

Trucks lick their wounds after a punishing day of driving

Bolivia - Chile border
The third day we really had no plans, since the portion of the tour in the national park was called off.  First we had to drop one of our passengers at the Chilean border, so she could catch a bus into Chile.  This took a confusing couple of hours, and we weren't alone, as we showed up at the desert border outpost with around a dozen other tour trucks.  As the buses showed up, we dropped her off (with her surfboard!!!), and we were on the road again, making our way back to Uyuni across the Salar.

Waiting for bus at the Chilean border

All in all it was a really interesting three days.  A  bit cramped, and a lot of driving hours, but we saw some amazing remote parts of Bolivia.  For those thinking of doing the trip, don't agonize over which guide company to go with.  They're all the same, as far as we could tell.  The trucks are all in lousy shape, and a lot depends on keeping a good sense of humor as you break down across the vast Bolivian altiplano desert.  Enjoy!!!

Next up:  Off to Argentina.....


  1. I think it means dont scare the flamingos into flying off! Now the prize.. More of these wonderful pictures of you two's adventures!

    1. BINGO.....we have a WINNER!!! You're so smart, we should have known you speak flamingo!!! More pics are guaranteed...its the "wonderful" part that we're not so sure of, but we'll try!!! Cheers, and happy turkey day to you and Rich!!!

    2. Happy turkey or fish day to you and cindi. And btw your narratives really are great. Pix are not enough. Maybe a book? Lots to be thankful for!