When I set out on what became my year-long trip around the world, I didn’t have much of a set itinerary or even an idea of how long I’d be traveling.
But there were a few things on my bucket list for the trip. And there was one thing that was always at the top:
I really, really, really wanted to take a tour of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats.
Well, from everything I’d heard, it seemed like an iconic travel experience. Climb into the back of a jeep with a bunch of strangers and spend three days together exploring rolling salt plains, Andean peaks, and some of the driest and harshest conditions on the planet. Sounds like it has all the makings for an epic travel experience right?
So pretty quickly into my trip I made my way to Bolivia from Peru, and convinced a friend to fly down from New York City and to join me for the adventure.
Fast forward a bit and my friend and I are waiting to board the plane from La Paz to Uyuni. The early morning flight has been repeatedly delayed. We have plans to spend the evening in the famous Luna de Salada “salt hotel” on the edge of the flats. But now I’m wondering if we’re going to make it there at all.
And then I get a WhatsApp message from an Australian group I had met in Peru who were already down in Uyuni:
“Hi Nate, there’s a protest going on in Uyuni and almost all of the roads are blocked. We had a 3 am tour where our drivers tried to off-road around the road blockade and then had their cars confiscated. You should contact your hotel to see if they can arrange a way to get you there cause no taxis will take you there right now.”
And that was it. No further responses from my Australian friend. I wouldn’t hear from him for days.
Uhhh… what do we do?
I am starting to contemplate skipping the flight (if it even leaves), when suddenly they call us for boarding.
The flight is finally taking off.
The Australian’s text had thrown me for a loop, but we still have a day until our salt flats tour is scheduled to leave, so I figure everything would sort itself out. My friend only has a week of vacation and we have to make it to Santiago, Chile for her flight home. I really want to see the salt flats, so if we didn’t go now I’ll either have to miss it or come all the way back to Bolivia from Chile.
So we hesitantly shuffle onboard the flight, not sure what to expect next.
“It was like landing in the middle of some Zombie apocalypse movie.”
Getting off the plane in Uyuni is a little surreal. Airports are normally busy, crowded, bustling affairs.
But not this one.
The entire airport is completely empty. There are no taxi drivers or buses or tour touts waiting outside. A couple of the flight attendants help pass out our luggage and that is it.
It’s like landing at a deserted strip in the middle of the desert on some Zombie apocalypse movie.
My Spanish isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure nowhere during the flight was there a mention of the protests or anything unusual on the ground. And, sure enough, most of the other passengers seem utterly confused as to why there are no buses or taxis to take people into town.
Though we had planned to skip Uyuni town altogether and head straight to the salt hotel (on the edge of the salt flats), there wasn’t much choice at this point:
We have to hike into town.
So we strap up our backpacks and started the 2 kilometer trek along a straight dusty road towards Uyuni town. Eventually the other passengers catch on and before long we have a plane-full of confused travelers marching behind us.
We still don’t really know what is happening but it becomes much clearer as we approach town:
A group of two dozen or so locals are standing behind a large line of rocks stretched across road.
There are no picket signs or chants, but it is clear that this is the blockade my friend had warned us about.
Should we cross it? Is it safe? These protesters were apparently in the habit of confiscating cars, so how will they take to pedestrians trying to walk past their blocked?
Ultimately we decide to softly push forward.
Fortunately, the protesters seem rather unconcerned with us and let us pass.
The last protests like this went on for a couple weeks.
But now that we are in Uyuni town another question dawns on us:
Where are we even going?
Ultimately we decide to find the tour company which is scheduled to take us out on our tour tomorrow, hoping that they can connect us with our hotel.
We show up to the tiny offices of Quechua Connection Tours and are immediately hit with some bad news:
The protesters have shut down every route in and out of town. No tours are going to be able to leave until the protests are over.
And the last protests like this went on for a couple weeks.
We trying ringing the salt hotel. They tell us they may have a driver who is able to run the blockade and bring us out to the hotel, but no promises and he won’t be able to get us until dusk at the earliest anyway.
Distraught, tired, and disheveled, we venture outside to at least find some food and to explore Uyuni.
Turns out there is not much to explore in Uyuni.
Imagine the most isolated, dusty, god-forsaken town from any Western movie you’ve ever seen.
Uyuni is kinda like that.
Only 100 times more miserable.
There is nothing to see here other than a handful of shops selling snacks, drinks, supplies, and bootleg movies. There are a few rundown hotels and hostels, but nothing that looks inviting. The entire town is the very definition of a way station.
Anyway, we finally find some cantina where I scarf down a questionable veggie burrito while chatting with the dozens of other travelers also trapped in town.
Everyone is scrambling to find one of the few entrepreneurial drivers who is willing to attempt a run at the blockade and get out of Uyuni and on to the blessed nirvana of the salt flats.
But those are few and far between because most of the tour operators won’t dare running the blockade for fear of having their vehicles confiscated or ruined by the rocks that protesters have been known to throw at the jeeps.
Throwing rocks?? That doesn’t sound great.
And what are they even protesting anyway?
After some asking around, I find the answer: apparently the government had promised to give some land to a bunch of people in Uyuni, but the protesters felt that promise wasn’t being fulfilled. They wanted their land.
But why can’t the police just clear out the road out of town?
Turns out the answer is because many of the police are protesting as well!
This is all apparently a fairly common occurrence in Uyuni. We aren’t the first travelers to face this, and we won’t be the last. And for all the stress it caused to the many tourists in the town, the locals don’t seem all that concerned. It’ll pass, they keep saying. Just wait it out.
But the last protest took weeks to end ….
Are we joining or not?
Back at the tour office, there is a glimmer of hope:
It turns out that one of the company’s jeeps had got out early in the morning before the protests were in full swing. But it broke down in the middle of the desert. The company will have to send a driver to try to run the blockade and deliver help to the stranded jeep.
And, if we want to, we can join.
We’ll have to skip the salt hotel entirely, but if the jeep gets fixed up and on its way we can continue the tour with that group. And, best yet, the jeep in question happens to be carrying my Australian friends!
But there are some real risks: it may take a long time to repair the jeep, and even if it is fixed up, it’ll mean we’ll miss out on most of the Salar de Uyuni portion of the tour. Which, if you think about it, is kinda the whole reason we came here.
But, on the other hand, it’s our first concrete way out of here.
And we have to make a decision.
The driver is just gassing up the car and has to leave ASAP.
Are we joining or not?
I hesitate but ultimately we decide to give it a pass. It’s risky, but I really have my heart set on seeing the Salar de Uyuni in full. And, while my friend has to get back to work in New York the next week, I technically have all the time in the world. So I sort of selfishly push to roll the dice and hope that we can figure out another solution.
We try the hotel a few more times. No answer.
“They’ll take our vehicle if we get caught. And they’ve set up spikes in the desert to pop tires.”
We wander the dusty streets of Uyuni a bit more, then head back to the office as the harsh Bolivian sun gives way to dusk.
And that’s when we finally hear some great news:
The hotel has managed to get a driver into a town on a supply run and he’s coming for us!
Soon enough, a dusty Toyota 4×4 pulls up with a driver and a English-speaking guide inside. The guide grabs our bags and carefully shoves our bags between the large stacks of eggs, cartons of milk, and huge boxes of vegetables that fully consume the back of the vehicle.
“Hey guys, I’m sorry for all the trouble. You came to Uyuni on a rough day,” says the guide.
That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.
“We’re going to try to run the blockade to get out to the hotel. Our driver knows a route through the bush that isn’t sealed off, but we have to be careful. The protesters have been getting more aggressive. They’ll take our vehicle if we get caught. And they’ve set up spikes in the desert to pop tires.”
By this point, the last bit of the dusk light is slipping out over the horizon. We plow ahead through the darkness and off the road through the desert.
The guide tells us to be quiet.
He turns off the vehicle’s lights.
The next 20 minutes drag on in excruciating silence as our driver slowly navigates his way along a dried up river bed, over abandoned train tracks, and through open bits of desert.
The driver and guide start arguing while pointing at a GPS. My Spanish is poor, but it doesn’t take much to understand:
And then suddenly there are some lights in the distance moving towards us.
The guide motions for us to duck.
And I realize what’s happening. We’ve been caught.
And they’re throwing rocks our way.
Just rocks, I hope.
As the lights start moving rapidly towards us, our driver kicks it into gear and tears off across the desert.
The protesters fall behind us. And, just like that, we’re free!
It’s like you’ve suddenly stepped off of this planet and are floating through the galaxy untethered to this world or any of the problems that come with it.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to check in to a hotel.
And not just any hotel: this one is made entirely of salt! Everything from the salt brick walls, to the salt floors. Heck, even the furniture is mostly made of salt!
Walking into the Luna de Salada hotel, our adrenaline still pumping from our escape, was like finding an oasis in a desert.
After settling in, the guide comes out and tells us that there’s still time to go stargazing if we want to. We’re now far away from the protests, and it’s a nice clear night on the nearby salt plains.
So we pile back into the jeep and drive far away from any lights, to one of the darkest places I’ve ever been on this entire planet.
When I finally step out of the jeep and onto the salt plains into the silent, dark night, I hear a loud crunching sound under my feet.
It’s just me crushing one of the hexagonal salt rings that form naturally on the plains.
And then I look up and there it is:
The Milky Way, in all it’s grandeur.
If you haven’t seen it before, it’s one of the most surreal sites imaginable. It’s like you’ve suddenly stepped off of this planet and are floating through the galaxy untethered to this world or any of the problems that come with it.
I’m still getting the hang of the Sony camera I bought for my trip. And I forgot a tripod, which is essential for astrophotography.
But still I manage to snap a decent photo or two of the salt flats. It’s hard to make something this beautiful look bad.
The next morning we wake up only to find out that our tour company has to cancel on us.
I book with another company right away.
And then an hour later they call back to cancel on us.
I scour the internet for every conceivable Uyuni tour company out there. We’ll take anything. But no one will take us.
We’re trapped. In the Bolivian desert.
Thankfully, the hotel has availability and is happy to have us extend our stay. There are worst places to be stuck, I suppose, than a salt hotel.
I spend the next couple days trying to find a way to salvage our tour of the salt flats. They are sooooo close. I can literally see them. But, while the hotel is able to take us out for a quick day trip to see the flats, it’s looking pretty unlikely that we’ll be able to find someone capable of taking us on the full three day trip that is supposed to end in Chile.
And then, in the middle of all of this, I suddenly sense that terrible feeling coming from my stomach that can only mean one thing:
I need to find a toilet. And find it fast.
I’m ill. Very ill.
I’ve come down with the worst case of food poisoning I’ve gotten anywhere except India.
It’s not a fun night.
At this point I’ve more or less given up on taking the full tour through the desert. I’ll settle for the day on the salt flats and a flight back to La Paz where we can find our way to Chile.
Except then I’m told that the protests have expanded and now even the airport itself is inaccessible.
And all of the buses in this area have been shut down as well.
If we can’t find a tour, we’ll just have to wait it out, as long as that is.
I spend hours more in the hotel lobby trying every phone number which has ever been listed for any tour company in Bolivia. But no luck.
And then suddenly a Canadian couple who had just lugged their bags into the lobby, mentions:
“Hey, if you’re looking for a ride out of here, we’ve found a guy that’s coming to get us in 20 minutes. Maybe he has extra space?”
He doesn’t. The car is overfilled already.
But he has a friend. Who just conveniently started a new salt flat tour company a few days before. They’ve got a jeep and a driver whose will to run the blockade tomorrow morning.
The company has no real name, no reviews online, and is charging 30% less than every price we have been quoted so far. We’ve been warned in advance about the dangerous safety standards of salt flat tour operators, who are unregulated and known to take to the desert without sufficient supplies and in shoddy cars that break down frequently.
But, still, it’s a way out.
The next morning we wait at the appointed time but no one shows.
Hours roll by, still no one.
And then suddenly there it is: a jeep pulling up to the hotel front!
We greet the driver and the three passengers inside, who immediately tell a harrowing tale of how our driver was the only one out of a convoy of seven jeeps who was able to successfully run the rock-throwing blockade that morning.
The jeep is beat up and lacks seat belts. And later in the trip we would find out our driver didn’t even have enough fuel to cross the desert (a problem he remedied by siphoning fuel from other jeeps).
But still, we have a way out — and it still involves going on the road trip I’d been so looking forward to!
As harrowing at the story was, it has a happy ending. The Bolivian salt flats tour was indeed one of the most incredible travel experiences of my life. I can’t believe we nearly missed out on it.
If you want to learn how you can take this adventure yourself, check out my guide to Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flat tours.
Or check out my photo diary with 19 of my favorite photos of the Salar de Uyuni.
And, if you’ve read this far without falling asleep, you might be interested in reading some of my other favorite travel tales: such as that time I went to the self-proclaimed nation of Abkhazia or my top 10 experiences traveling the world.
Lastly, if you’re on Pinterest, you can pin this story for later here:
Nate Hake has traveled to 65+ countries across six continents around the world and blogs about his travels at TravelLemming.com. He is from Denver, Colorado, and recently concluded a six month stint living in Mexico.