After a 15 minute stop at the train graveyard, a place where old abandoned train carcasses spent their golden years rusting in the sun, we continued on to the obligatory “buy-stuff-here” stop. A small town at the edge of the flats hosting stall after stall of touristy items for sale at astronomical prices, where they sell everything from salt crystals to scarves and everything in between. While everyone shopped we leaned on the car and drank a beer we had hidden in our backpacks, eyeing the roving masses of tourists making purchases from the many vendors.
After another fifteen minutes, the hordes loaded back up into their various Toyota and Lexus SUVs (every tour runs at the same time and every car is a land cruiser or slightly higher end Lexus version of the same car,) and continued onto the next stop, an abandoned “salt hotel". The edges of the salt flat at this side are lacerated with tire tracks, the salt and pooled water creating a dark slushy that everyone drives through as they head towards the more pristine center.
Although becoming quickly disillusioned, I was still excited as all get out at the fact that I was fulfilling one of my top travel dreams, even if it was not turning out to be the rose colored experience I had dreamed up. We were allotted another fifteen minutes at the first salt hotel, although our little trio went no where near it. As we meandered away, we attempted to dream up some funny photo ideas, doing cartwheels and handstands on the crystallized surface. I had noticed a pattern in the salt as we were driving, something reminiscent of a honeycomb that spanned the entire surface of the flat. We hypothesized about rain evaporation and salt crystal structure as we hunted down our driver on the way back to the truck.
He had set out our lunch around the back of the hotel, a meal that was supposed to be a "buffet" of veggies and lunch items, with both vegetarian and carnivore options. The meal included rice, and another container that had French fries, meat and eggs all stuck together. Not the image I had conjured when were told of the delicious lunch buffet. When purchasing out tickets, we were also told water was provided for us, and it was, there was one liter for seven people for the entirety of the day. We hadn't brought any of our own after being reassured that there would be plenty, and by the time I saw the disappointing lunch fare, I wasn't all that surprised. Not all tours had lunches that looked like ours, most had fruit and veggies, as well as quinoa and a variety of other items. I think that one day trippers get the short end of the stick since our truck was the only one not on a three day excursion.
After lunch we were told to prepare for the one and a half hour ride to the Isla de Pescado, where we would then have an option to pay a fee to walk to the top of a unique hill in the center of the flat. We had already decided we would be skipping that, and opted instead on just walking around the back and exploring whatever we might find there. We ended up finding a cave, an unusual beach of sorts, and huge cactuses that were twice Joe’s height. There was evidence that someone had begun construction on a new salt hotel and then abandoned it, the discarded bricks lying around for people to play with. I climbed a crumbling wall, Naynay spelt out a message to her beau and sent it to him, and Joe climbed up on the island and snuck around taking pictures. After about 45 minutes there, we loaded back into the car and began the long drive home.
Reflecting back on the whole experience, I'm not disappointed per se, I just wish there were more options for exploring the unique place. There is a definite unusual energy to be felt here, an awe inspiring beauty that nothing can overshadow. I'm not sure I would have ever selected the three day trip, even if time and money weren't an issue. I'm absolutely happy I got to fulfill this desire I've been carrying around, but hope that if I get to visit again that I can organize a different experience, although who knows if this will be around for a next time.