Out of the 365 days in a year, how many pass by without a second thought? How many are great days, but still ones that will likely be forgotten within a few months? How many leave such an impression that you know you’ll remember them a year, five years, even fifty years later?
A day on the mythical Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia falls squarely into the third category. And luckily for me, it also happened to be my 31st birthday.
Our group of 5 had already been traveling for a few days through the stunning Andean highlands of Bolivia. With our Bolivian guide/driver, we’d seen lakes filled with flamingos, valleys with roaming llamas, huge volcanic rock formations and even geysers in the middle of a snowstorm at 5000 meters elevation.
But Day 3 of our tour, the day scheduled for the salar, was always the big unknown in our minds. During the rainy season, vehicles often can’t cross the salt flat because the high water levels will damage them and destroy the wiring. It’s risky to cross in poor conditions because, at 11,000 square kilometers, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and not somewhere you’d want to be stranded. But until we arrived at the shore of the flat, we wouldn’t know if we’d be able to cross it. The alternative to crossing the flat was to drive around its edge on dirt tracks and potentially only be able to enter from a very touristy area – a Plan B none of us wanted.
So, on Day 3, we left our hotel at 4:30 am in utter darkness. As we approached the flat, we could see the sun just starting to rise. Our driver Mario parked along the shore and we all stepped outside into the fresh, cold air, ready to watch the sun rise.
After a few minutes and more vehicles arriving behind us, we heard Mario yell out ‘Vamos chicas, suben el auto!’ (Let’s go girls, get in the car!). And so, the 5 of us piled back into the SUV, confused because we still wanted to be outside to watch the sunrise. But next thing we knew, Mario started the engine, turned the SUV to the right and we were on the salt flat! And not only were we on the flat, we were the first.
After driving for about 10 minutes, Mario stopped and told us to change into our sandals to step outside. Even though the ankle-deep water was absolutely freezing, we had zero hesitation. The risk of hypothermia was well worth it as we walked towards the east, transfixed by the sunrise:
For the next few hours, we just soaked it all in. We had breakfast on a salt bank a bit further into the flat and got creative with the infamous optical illusion photos.
The salar absolutely lived up to its name, because all of our feet were utterly crusted with soft, flaky salt when they dried.
Even now, nearly a week later, I still shake my head at the memory of it, utterly filled with gratitude.
It’s impossible to do justice to the Salar de Uyuni with words, photos or even videos. It’s just a magical place that, if you’re lucky enough to experience it, will live with you forever.