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4×4 To Bolivia

Uyuni, BoliviaI was ready to get out of the desert. My nose couldn’t handle it any longer. I was ready for a place a bit less refined than Chile and Argentina and place where the first thought is ‘anything goes’ and thoughts on safety standards come in a distant second. A place where things that [...]

Uyuni, Bolivia

I was ready to get out of the desert. My nose couldn’t handle it any longer. I was ready for a place a bit less refined than Chile and Argentina and place where the first thought is ‘anything goes’ and thoughts on safety standards come in a distant second. A place where things that make no sense are common place and everything is dirt cheap. I was ready to go to Bolivia.

At 14,850 ft and one and a half hours from San Pedro de Atacama there sits a lone building. There are no other buildings or any other sign of civilization other than the shell of an old bus in the distance left to rust in the brown rocky heights. The simple words of ‘Migracion Bolivia’ are painted on its front letting all who pass know that you have reached the southwestern frontier of Bolivia. I couldn’t help but laugh and feel that this is exactly the place I wanted to be.

From S.W. Bolivia & Uyuni 2011-05
Bolivian Immigration Building

This was my entrance into Bolivia. A bit odd and surreal but also what I would expect. At the border I was transferred into a 4×4 jeep that would take me on a three day off road journey to Uyuni taking in some spectacular sights along the way in a landscape that is simple, beautiful and harsh. Being transferred to the 4×4 the nights cold hadn’t yet given away to the day’s heat and the sting of a constant wind smacked me in the face. Nearby was a small fox posing picturesquely against the barren backdrop and hoping for some scraps of food. He had no such luck.

My bag was transferred to the roof of the 4×4 and I crawled into the cramped backseat to set off with five others and our driver, Andreas. On the first day there wasn’t much driving. Ten or fifteen minutes would pass and Andreas would stop for us to view some lake named for the color of it’s water, a geyser basin, or for a swim in a thermal pool. At each place there were three constants; a biting wind, the smell of sulfur and Borax. Used as one of the ingredients for glass making, borax is one of the many minerals that makes Bolivia the richest country in terms of natural resources in South America.

From S.W. Bolivia & Uyuni 2011-05
Mountains overlooking Laguna Verde

My first night was spent in a basic refugio with three to four hours of generator powered electricity each night and one toilet that was barely functional. The refugio sat at 14,200 ft and all signs of civilization were non-existent making the night sky light pollution free. With no clouds and no moon there were thousands of stars shining brightly with the haze of the Milky Way streaking across the sky. It was one sight my camera wouldn’t be able to capture and would be one image taken only by a mental photograph.

After a restless night sleep we continued the next day to take in more mountains, volcanoes and lakes. Pictures describe the views far better than any description I can write so I won’t elaborate. Only the smell of sulfur, the morning cold, wind and the coating of dust over everything can’t be shown.

The last day of the trip is meant to be the peak of the whole ride – The Uyuni Salt flats. How to describe the Uyuni salt flats? They are the highest and largest salt flats in the world sitting at 12,000 ft and 7,500 sq. miles. When dry they are blindingly white. When wet they cast a mirror image of the sky and anything around them. This time of year they are partly underwater and partly dry providing the best of both worlds.

Up at 5:00 am and out the door by 5:30 am we were making our way to the salt flats to view the sunrise. I should say most were up at 5:00 am. I was up at 4:00 am with the cold sweats and the feeling of two heavy weight’s duking it out in my stomach. Perfect timing. I was relishing the opportunity to spend seven hours on a salt flat with no bathroom.

When others were enjoying the sunrise that was casting a mirror image onto a thin layer of water over the salt flats and I was trying to fall back asleep. While others went for a hike on a mound of rock in the middle of salt flats covered in cacti I was sleeping. I manged to snap a few photos though and by 11:00 am I was feeling well enough to get out of the 4×4 and take in the blindingly white surroundings stretching out to the horizon.

From S.W. Bolivia & Uyuni 2011-05

While crossing over the varied landscapes in the past three days there was something about Bolivia that had me hooked. I had yet to see many of its people or any of it’s cities but I couldn’t help but feel I would thoroughly enjoy my time here. The first town I entered was deserted without a speck of greenery around. It didn’t do much to change my thoughts. The second town I was in has only been described by other travelers as ‘a hole’. I can’t really argue against them. The town of Uyuni is much like the first town except with people. There isn’t one speck of greenery here. The leaves on what few trees exist here are brown. Half completed buildings dot the city and all things are coated in a layer of dust. The only purpose this town serves is to cater to those who wish to visit the salt flats and as a graveyard for old trains. Still, this town does little to dissuade me from my original thoughts that I will thoroughly enjoy this country.

From S.W. Bolivia & Uyuni 2011-05
The salt flats provided some interesting photo opportunities

I’m ready for a place where anything goes and the people look and act differently from what I’ve experienced for the past three months. I’m also enjoying having a private room for less than $5 a night, dinner for $2.50 and where bus rides cost $1 or less per hour of travel.

Photos from Southwestern Bolivia and the Uyuni Salt Flats

Filed under: Bolivia, Cubicle Ditcher

About the Author:

Sam Langley left a comfortable and profitable job with an insurance company in the USA to travel the world. He has been going for years, and has not stopped yet. Keep up with his travels on his blog at Cubicle Ditcher. has written 147 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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