Sunday, October 30, 2011

Locomotive Cemetery and the world's largest salt flat

The road to Uyuni
 ------A quick note: If you look above, you'll notice that there is now a link to our SPOT page, where you can see our current location, and get a better feeling for just how behind the blog posts are. Sorry I didn't do this a long time ago, it's a pretty fun little add-on...

After three days in Potosi, we were off to one of the most highly anticipated destinations on the trip, the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on Earth. It was a five hour ride on a mix of asphalt and gravel, and we got into the town of Uyuni in the afternoon, covered in dust and thoroughly worn out.

Jill finding us a place to stay in Uyuni. The poor bike had a rough day.
My fried Cory Gordon was mostly responsible for getting us so excited about Uyuni, and after unloading we headed straight for the locomotive graveyard he had shown me pictures of.

There are around a dozen locomotives sitting in the desert a few miles from Uyuni, all of which had split boilers or other terminal damage. They were originally brought in from North America and Europe to haul out the minerals from various Bolivian mines. In most places they would be scrapped, but the nearest city, Potosi, is a mountainous 120 miles away. The scrap value isn't high enough to warrant hauling a disabled locomotive that far, so they were left here, rusting in the desert for the last 100 years. It's quite a sight.

View from the top of one of the boilers
Some of them have been raided and the good sheets of steel cut out
After half an hour Jill had seen enough, so we went back to town and ate. Afterwords I went back out to get some shots at dusk.

The last section of the road from Potosi was badly washboarded gravel, and had slowed us down to about 20 mph for the last 10 miles. I had already read that the roads around the Salar were horrible, and that there are no real roads on the Salar, so I was having doubts about taking the bike. An e-mail to Cory put me in touch with his friend Sergio, who is a photography expedition leader and an expert on Bolivia. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that taking the bike out into the wilds of southern Bolivia was a very bad idea. At best we would take years off of the life of the bike, and at worst we would get lost in the desert forever.

A quick look around Uyuni revealed about 30 different companies offering three-day tours of the Salar and surrounding areas, all for around $90US each - "meals" and "lodging" included. At Andes Tours we met Gonzalo, a Bolivian who had spent much of his life in the U.S., and, consequently, spoke perfect English. We settled on a tour leaving at 10AM the next day, and set about packing up what we would take, and storing the bike and the other stuff. I had always wanted to ride the bike on the salt, so that afternoon we rode the horrible 20 mile dirt road to the Salar. The white, featureless landscape of the Salar was really strange; once you are out a few miles from the edge it is pure white in every direction. The lack of reference points robs you of perspective, so you can take some pretty interesting photos...

A "road" on the Salar. These would go for a while, and then just fade out, leaving you in the middle of the salt. Oh, and compasses don't work here because of magnetic mineral deposits. Good luck!

Our bike

No camera tricks on those last two, just good, old fashion irresponsibility!
We had fun playing around on the salt for a few hours, and then headed back to finish getting ready for our three day adventure. This post is getting a bit long, so I'll hand it over to Jill, and she can tell you about the amazing sights on the 4x4 tour.


  1. Sarah here: This comment is from my friend Audrey who reads your travel blog: "First off, the pictures are phenomenal (what kind of camera did they buy?). the adventures are amazing - and, honestly, those cute animal pictures are killer. i loved the caption about just taking Jill to the abilene free fair and saving $40K. :-) but, alas, i don't think they put baby animals in bonnets there- and the bonnet was the best!"

  2. Thanks for the complements on the photos, it's a horrible Thai Sony cybershot we bought in Columbia when my Japanese Sony died. It's a pathetic camera, and I curse it every time I try to make it take a decent photo. It will be our bar camera when we get home. Also, I know they don't put bonnets on the animals at the fair, but I did some research, and I think I could have constructed a knit bonnet for $36,136, which would have been a savings of nearly $4,000. Lesson learned!

  3. Sorry that response was a bit sassy, we've been getting our drink on in a gigantic Belgian RV - which will appear in a post in the (not so?) distant future. Thank you for your continous and nearly exclusive readership of this blog!

  4. I'm reading, too. You guys are living my dream!