The Salar de Uyuni is a dried out prehistoric lake, leaving behind the world’s biggest salt flat. The salt is (usually) firm enough to drive through the spectacular landscape. Most people do a day trip with a guided tour with a local 4×4, leaving from and returning to, the city of Uyuni. Of course we were doing things slightly different. We were driving across the Salar de Uyuni and continuing to the Chilean border.
Surrounded by nothingness
In the wet season, parts are flooded with a shallow layer of water providing amazing “mirror-images”. We were in the dry season, not that we had much to choose with our schedule. This is the time of the year with less risk involved. Getting stuck in the salt can be your worst nightmare, with no help around in the middle of nowhere. The dry season suited us better because due to the entire environment being as white as snow, we immediately felt at home.
Although it’s not quite a square, its size is roughly 100km by 100km. Across a flat surface, due to the curvature of the earth, we can see about 5km. So for the majority of time on the Salar de Uyuni, you can’t see the edges. There are virtually no bearings, which makes it very easy to get lost. Our only indications were Maps.me with and blue arrow in a wide open space and two darker tracks on the salt telling us some other vehicles had used the same path before.
It’s mainly a unique place to absorb and take some impossible pictures. Apart from a few monuments and islands, it’s an enormous flat space. We stopped in the middle of nowhere for the night, surrounded by complete nothingness under a clear sky with a beautiful sunset.
The whole time the surface had been easy to drive across, a little rough and bumpy but nothing to engage the 4×4 mode for. But when we approached the exit point the next morning in the south-west corner, the surface became softer. Although it’s a cold place, particularly at night, the surface doesn’t freeze like water/snow does. It was the fist time in more than 15.000km we engaged the “Allrad” (4×4) mode. Not sure if we would have needed it, but it made it easier to reach the pier bringing us back the solid ground.
After driving across the Salar de Uyuni on salt we were happy to be on solid ground. Unfortunately, we were welcomed with an unpleasant surprise. A toll gate, with no mention of needing to pay something anywhere before entering the Salar. And driving to the Chilean border knowing there would not be any places to spend money, we deliberately spend all our money in Uyuni. The guy operating the rusty toll gate couldn’t be bothered about our explanation. And of course he couldn’t take the cards we offered to pay with.
Since the situation was absurd and to blame to a lack of communication from the Bolivians, we refused to drive back. (Of course.) Knowing that we were blocking the only entry/exit at this point, we opted to be patient and wait until the gate had to be opened for somebody else to pass. But then there was a lady who appeared out of nowhere, walked to the gate, and opened it. Not awaiting any counter action, we quickly pulled up and we were on our way again.
The rest of the way to the border was probably the most remote corner of our trip we’ve been to. Driving through and endless moon-like-landscape over “roads” that were not more than two tyre-tracks. The navigation on Maps.me had dropped from orange/white roads to a dotted line. Eventually our path crossed with a large orange line on the map going to the border. The large orange lines indicate the countries main roads. Although we did pay attention and we had clear visibility, we still almost missed it.
The road to the border
The main road to the Chilean border was nothing more than a narrow gravel road. In front of us were two border crossing, and the one we were approaching wasn’t the one we needed. As we continued through this remote corner of Bolivia, we had to take a turn-off at some point. Based on Maps.me and iOverlander we weren’t exactly sure where the best turn-off would be. We decided to ask a local farmer, one of the few people we saw in a long time. And he, of course, pointed us in a direction from which there was no mention in any of the apps we used.
We decided to trust our Spanish having it understood properly, and therefore to trust the farmer. Another 13km down the road, and then a left turn. We did, and it turned out to be the very best option we could have chosen. From (as the farmer called it) the higher road, we could see the other options. Specifically not saying roads, because the other options would have been some off-road tracks through other salt-surfaces.
Driving across Salar de Uyuni and the area to the border was one of the highlights from our tour. A vast open wilderness, simple and pure freedom. Just before the border we had a snack on the side of the road, which turned out to be a good decision. Because our world was about to change..