We dropped “down” into the isolated desert town Uyuni, Bolivia (3669m/ 12,034ft) from the mountains above. We arrived in town simultaneously with a huge sandy salt storm resembling a middle eastern haboob. Mini cyclones of sandy trash flew around us as we searched for our hotel in this outpost. Wow, we drove eight hours to reach Uyuni for the sole purpose of continuing our southwest circuit tour in the Salar de Uyuni. As far as we could tell, that would be the only reason to do so. Thankfully it began to rain calming the out of control sandblasting of Amelia and us. It would seem that inhabitants must spend half of their days endlessly sweeping and sweeping the ever present dust and salt. The piles of garbage they tirelessly swept into the middle of the streets (for collection perhaps?) looked purposeful only to be disheveled by street dogs and blown around haphazardly in the next wind.
For the next several days we would explore this otherworldly, bleak, solitary, exceedingly harsh, yet strikingly beautiful environment lying just outside the Uyuni town limits independently in our Chevy Suburban. Was that wise? There would be few signs, endless forks in the roads (or paths), extremely rough 4WD mountain passes, high altitude and no gasoline available. Most tourists take tours in 4WD Toyotas with suspensions capable if maneuvering the washboard and sand roads. Could we make it to the Chile boarder in four or five days without breaking down in the middle of nowhere without help in sight? I was skeptical but Jay was confident- until our bones and Amelia’s joints and springs rattled so hard at 9 miles per hour on the washboards we thought she would just give up and say, ENOUGH! Amelia is a tough old gal but she is old for an overland vehicle at 18 years with 188,000 miles on her. Hmmm, would we need to rethink this and exit the Bolivia Altiplano into Chile on the nearest possible road? If so we would miss highly sought sites which would most likely be our best memory of Bolivia if not our entire travel careers. By chance we met an extremely knowledgeable guide escorting a French group who generously educated us about the most favorable path ahead for us. With his advice we moved on to extraordinary sights and unknown challenges in the morning.
We were blown away by what we saw! It was stunning for us because it was so different. It felt like we were on another planet. From the expanse of the Salar with floating, cactus covered islands in the distance to the multi colored lakes (over 4276 m/ 14,025ft)with flamingos in flight back dropped by multi colored treeless mountains- it was spectacular. We can forget about our notion of flamingos basking on a balmy beach somewhere, these breeds hardily thrive in freezing and wind swept lands at altitudes many humans cannot tolerate. Continuing with the strangeness of it all, we needed to climb to 5033m/ 16,508 ft with the truck to cancel our vehicle import permit for Bolivia! This was a couple of hours from the border where we would exit into Chile and have our passports stamped. Has anyone gone to process government paper work at 16,508ft!? This leg of our trip was really tough on Amelia and us but it was well worth the enormous effort. Well done Amelia!