“Going where no man has gone before” is every adventure traveler’s dream. Sadly though it isn’t possible. Unless you explore the deep seas, there are very few places a person can go and be the first. We travelers like to imagine ourselves discovering something new, doing something that has not been done before, but the reality is that we’re just going where others have stood before. While the places we go may impress our geography challenged friends or our ninety-year old Great Aunts, there are no roads not traveled. It’s awesome to be among the few to have visited North Korea and Antarctica, but as Shania Twain would say, “it don’t impress me much”. The most impressive places are those where you share experiences, make friends, which, consequently, draw many other tourists. The Salar de Uyuni, a must-see on the South American Gringo Trail is one of those over-touristed, wonderful, experiences.
Situated on Bolivia’s border with Chile, the Salar de Uyuni is a well traveled 3-day tour that typically starts in one country and ends in another. It is a common destination shared by South American backpackers as “everyone” does it. Why does everyone go here? Crazy photos created by the reflecting salt flats and the dry atmosphere. The curiosity that the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat doesn’t draw tourists…it’s the cool photos.
Americans have to pay a “reciprocity fee”, which can be done at the end of the tour. Until then we were the responsibility of the tour company, which found it easiest to put us all in one Landcruiser. Two Brits decided to come along with us, because, well, let’s be honest: Americans are pretty awesome.
No matter the tour company, the itineraries are the same, meaning you’ll get to know your fellow tourists no matter which Landcruiser they’re in. The vast landscapes though will make even a group of vehicles seem tiny compared to the surroundings. Things are bigger out here, giving scale to humans compared to the Earth’s landscapes.
The only mammals living out here are a South American tourist attraction must-have: alpacas. Let’s be honest, it’s not South America unless an alpaca is there.
The reason to come, the salt flats, is two days from Chile or are at the beginning of the tour originating in Bolivia. They are stunning, literally, as the sun’s reflection is blinding and the lack of perspective is disorientating. Due to the dry air and lack of objects it’s hard to comprehend near and far, where the horizon ends and the sky begins. There are few views like it, making for fun photos like people appearing to be the size of the Lonely Planet.
The Salar de Uyuni represents many “touristed” places the world over: it’s popular for a reason. Visiting is a great experience, there are few places like it, and better yet, it’s directly on the tourist route between Bolivia and Chile. As we all want to take the “road less traveled” there is a reason some roads become popular, because they’re worth taking. There’s nothing to be gained by trying to go your own way, just a lost opportunity to see amazing sights, make new friends, and have unforgettable experiences.
WHEN YOU GO:
-Be prepared for altitude. The tour crosses above 16,000 feet which is the highest altitude many people will ever go. It’s probably worth packing some diamox if you aren’t acclimatized.
-Bring a point-and-shoot camera. To take the perspective shifting photos requires exploiting a point-and-shoot camera’s flaws. A SLR will overthink the situation and focus on either the near (in example above the Lonely Planet book) or far object (our group), not try to get everything in the frame in focus, because anywhere else on earth that’s not possible.
-Go along for the ride. The Lonely Planet specifically states that it can’t recommend any of the tour operators as they get such mixed reviews. The reality is that this is a Bolivian tour and you just have to go along for the ride. Don’t expect too much and don’t worry, they’ll make sure you get to all the tourist sights, but it’s not going to be a National Geographic tour…