And so we follow.
To ultimately have found the perfect way of getting lost.
Travel, by necessity, is full of risk. We are thrown curveballs and decisions are made on the spot; often purely by gut instinct. Sometimes a painful lesson is learned: we’re left fighting back tears and a sickening knee-jerk reaction to pack up and go home. But other times…Other times those risks become the moments that define the journey, moments that bring different tears, moments we never forget. But how do we know? That’s the risk. And good or bad outcome what matters is that we take them. We remember the reason we left home in the first place. Then, and now, we take the risk of getting lost.
Arriving in the town of Uyuni after a 14 hour bus ride we emerge into a cold and quiet desert town. We stretch our tired bodies after being tightly coiled into hard seats crossing miles of rough, bumpy ground on a freezing bus. The road here is under (permanent?) “construction” and the giant transit buses have made their own paths nauseously off piste. It's 6am and we have hours to kill before the contingent of small tours head out across the flat lands to take in what southern Bolivia has to offer.
The town is asleep for the next few hours though the sun is already high in the sky; casting it's dry white light down on wide straight streets lined with low buildings. We find a simple cafe and eat eggs and ham, juice and café con leche and freshen up in the tiny bathroom. We came here on a word of mouth. All we know is we need a tour and the way to book one is in person and by cash. It's impossible to go alone: unpredictable and dangerous weather, difficult navigability and zero cars for rent. Tours, three days and two nights each, are offered by fifty or so small companies set up in the town, all pretty much identical: travel with seven other tourists and one driver/cook in a Toyota 4x4. A cramped, bumpy ride with several stops along the way so the whole troop can lumber out to snap photos. Not ideal. But - we hear its not to be missed. Our guts urge us on.
We set out late to book our tour. The streets have come alive with wandering travellers and market vendors. We have a few names of companies but no addresses and no map of the town; and no luck. Soon everything is booked. Jeeps are leaving in an hour and by now people - some young and some very old (way to go Austria!) - are gathering in clusters of eight, squatting on their giant backpacks at the side of the dusty road. The hubbub is alive and as we push past market vendors, locals, and eager tourists, we panic.
Just like that they’re gone! The Toyotas disappear into the distance and their clouds of dust settle onto deserted streets. There are virtually no tourists left: Uyuni is not a town you hang out in. You come the night before to book your tour (who knew?), wake up early and get the hell out. And after a peek around the dead town, this was one touristy tradition we wanted to keep. So do we give up? Turn around? We run around like mad until we find a company willing to take us - solo and late to leave - as long as we pay the full price of the eight person tour. Should we move on? Save what little money we have and forget about this tourist trap? Or should we take the risk? Follow our guts that pull us into this mysterious desert…
And so we follow.
There is something to be said about paying a premium - thus far a foreign concept to us thrifty backpackers. Listening to your favourite song, loudly, while speeding across flat desert may well be worth any sum. Lounging in the back seat without any goombas squishing you in, feeling the space of it all, and being able to stop on a whim absolutely take the cake. Not five minutes in and we are both kneeling in the pale dust outside of the car aiming for the perfect shot of a herd of wild llamas. They wiggle their long, furry necks to peek at us then clomp awkwardly across the “road” to graze on strange, sparse, alien shrubs.
Words, and perhaps even pictures, cannot do justice to how spectacular the landscape is. How vast. We are standing, barefoot, in crystal clear and ankle-deep water that stretches around us as if we are giants in an ocean. Our ocean is a perfect mirror of the perfect sky so that we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. We stand on ice cream puff clouds and powder blue glass. A figure moves in the distance; methodically digging and piling, digging and piling. Alone save for several small pyramids of white around him. Soon the parts of our skin that got wet turn white too and we dig our toes deeper into the salt. The blueness of the sky lulls us into childlike daydream: if we were smaller in this sea of salt, would we float?
We soon discover the pleasure of driving through the salar, or more so being driven. We are stretched across the back seat, listening to good music, lazily watching our surroundings shift and moult every hour. We are alone - save for our guide Carlos, more llamas, and the sweet, doe-eyed vicuñas that wander the plains. Tracks criss-cross ahead of us but since we’re technically behind schedule, we don’t see a single Toyota 4x4.
The desert surprises with several small, surface lakes - each one more stunning than the next. One is white, one green, one red; their colours determined by the concentration of different minerals in their soils. In fact this land is so mineral rich (in lithium, boron, magnesium…) that mass mining is ominously close. But for now, only pink flamingos mine the waters, pecking away at the strange myriad coloured earths underwater. When they fly, framed by a roiling dark storm cloud in the distance, it takes our breath away.
The weather here is swift and capricious with winds that sweep hard, cold gusts across the openness. We realize that altitude is the cause of the great barrel noised thunderstorms down here - we’re so much closer to the source. This particular storm is strangely intense, but it never fully reaches us - the flat ground playing visual tricks with the distance. For a while we almost race the storm in our 4x4 - always staying just ahead as we move onwards to lakes and mountains more beautiful than the ones before.
The storm is gone and in the heat of the sun we climb strange rock formations the colour of cinnamon. The wind has whittled them into caricatures with long necks and big heads that we scramble onto and stand staring out over this odd forest of rocks. We are completely alone up here, and once again, childlike. We could be the first explorers to land on Mars.
On our third morning we wake at 5am to climb to 5,000 meters and catch the sun rising over great sulphuric geysers. Giant, bubbling, multi-coloured holes in the earth emit clouds of hot air - some spurts reaching 30 meters. The smell is thick and pungent but the image is so breathtaking that we soon forget. In minutes the whole landscape turns from moody purple and blue to warm red and gold and the figures of the tourists we’ve caught up with look like phantoms in the swirling mist. We can't put our cameras down.
Now we are slipping into the Dali Desert. It’s colourful dunes and mountains reminiscent of surrealist paintings, its rock formations defying gravity and melting like clocks. The Licancabur Volcano towers up in the near distance: perfectly symmetrical and peaked with snow. As we drive silently towards it - a window each to hang out of - we slip away. Into this beautiful, naked, expanse; our minds empty and eyes wide. We are losing ourselves in the desert. And how fortunate we are to have chosen to not go back; to have taken the risk.
To ultimately have found the perfect way of getting lost.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.