Cruise Control on the Bolivian Salt Flats

The Bolivian border control was different than other border controls as Americans had to pay $135. Since I also have a French passport, I asked the Peruvian immigration to give me an exit stamp on my French one so I could present it to the Bolivian immigration. After a nice long chat with the locals while queuing up, we realized they had just increased the price to $165. You never know when people are trying to cheat you, especially since the official website said $135, but after about 30 min of me asking for something official, we gave up and chose to believe them.

As soon as we passed through, we were stopped by a man in uniform that called Ean into his little bungalow to see our papers. Ean comes back out with him and says to me that he doesn’t understand what the man is saying in Spanish, and that he keeps saying “colaboración”. We both knew what this meant: he wanted money. This must have been his first time extracting money out of people because he was so timid and unconfident. I asked him what seemed to be the problem, and he fidgeted and looked nervously around as he said in English but with a very heavy accent “Money.” “Manay?” I said “I must have missed class the day we covered that vocabulary word Sir, I’m so sorry. But the official at the border said we can go, so can we go?” He hesitated then said “Well technically you can but…” “So we can go?” I interrupted. “I suppose but…” “GREAT THANKS!” I shouted as we drove off.

Fatigue had struck us by this point in our trip. I was chasing sleep and I missed something familiar, just home in general. But where was home? This window seat had become my home. All our belongings were packed in a storage unit in NYC. The only thing I could think about was going to France to my grandmother’s place, where I was flying to once we had finished our trip to meet up with my family. The smell of fresh pastries and my mother’s cooking filled my nostrils and the idea of a nice comfy bed was so tempting but I had something to finish first. I never do things half way and Argentina was the country I had been waiting to go to for years, so I was not about to quit no matter how tired I was. The sight of what seemed to be a soft layer of snow in the distance snapped me out of my day dream. We were here, at the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni).

There were only two hotels on the salt flats, both made out of salt. There was a slightly cheaper version somewhere but there was no heat and it was -15°C (5°F) at night so that was not an option. Unfortunately the power was out in the nearest town which affected all hotels on the salt flats but we were promised it would be back by 4pm. So off we went. Walking on the Salt Flats felt like walking on the moon. We started hitting cruise control at 80km’h and even taking our hands of the wheel while blasting rock music. There was no one in sight. We were so happy to have our own car and to not be part of the jeep tours, as we had heard there had been accidents where people didn’t have seat belts on and the jeeps would drive at night with their lights off. Since we did not want to have the hotel buffet (we had been told again and again that the food in Bolivia is not the best) we picked a nice spot on the salt flats and started cooking out of our kitchen. We made soup and used real original salt of the earth, literally. It was there, I just had to!

By the time we got home, the power was obviously not back on, but their back up generator was and someone came to turn on our radiator. The problem was that by the time we wanted to sleep, it wasn’t working anymore. I called and a man said someone was on his way right now, but we waited so long we ended up falling asleep under the blankets that were not even warm enough for this temperature. I complained the next day and told them they were charging a lot for not having any heat and not having warmer blankets. I asked for a discount and after some convincing we were given one but as we got into the car the receptionist chased me down with a young man whom she said had told her he had been to our room the night before and had fixed the radiator. I just couldn’t believe it. I asked him to look at me in the eye and to tell me whether he had seen me or Ean around 11pm the night before, come into our room and fixed a radiator. He shifted nervously before saying yes. UNBELIEVABLE. I was so outraged that the receptionist clearly saw I was telling the truth and just let us go.

The next day, Ean and I played with perspective as we took silly pictures on the flats. We probably spent two or three hours doing that but it was so worth it. We would also just drive towards what seemed to be clouds in the distance but were actually glaciers. You could actually see the curvature of the earth which was pretty mind-blowing. We found a small island on the flats that was filled with cacti twice my size. We finally exited the Salt FLats and drove on the longest winding back country road we had ever been on. There was not a single soul in sight and the whole car was jumping for a good hour before we got on a slightly smoother road. Dry land surrounded us and soon enough we found ourselves in the volcanic area. The sun was setting soon and we knew we were approaching the Chilean border but it was too late to cross and we had to find a place to sleep.

Apart from the capital that we passed within one hour of the border crossing, we saw nothing else but small villages that looked like time had stood still since the 1800s. They seemed abandoned, except for one convenience store usually held by a teenage girl and her younger siblings. Where were the adults? And the hotels? “You have to go back to the capital.” They said. Well since that was not an option and we do not drive at night we decided to deviate from the main road and find a place to camp. We nestled ourselves into a crater, far away enough from the road that our lights would not be seen. It was a little unsettling to know that we were out in the open in the middle of absolutely nowhere and that the closest living town was hours away. I was also imagining that we had stumbled upon some villagers’ area for rituals so I didn’t want to offend them. Some trees would have reassured me but it was all desert. We made lentil soup and snuggled into our tent to watch a movie with hot chocolate. The chocolate helped us keep warm until it was time to sleep. Within an hour I was hallucinating, half-awake half-asleep, dreaming that I was waking up with frost bite and that we would have to chop off my feet. I tell Ean that I can’t feel my feet and that I don’t think I can make it through the night like this. He hadn’t realized he was also violently shivering. We migrated to the car and blasted the heat. The dashboard read -9°C and as the time went by it started going down. -10°C. -11°C (12°F). And then it stopped. The cold had broken the thermostat because it definitely got colder and the thermostat read -11°C for the next two days. This was my first time sleeping in a car. I am quite petite so it wasn’t so bad but I cannot say the same for Ean. I finally was able to sleep and just prayed that I wouldn’t wake up to a Bolivian staring at us through the windshield.

Clearly I have a lot of imagination.

And now for the head shots, one two three set POSE!

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