Wasn’t expecting that

The Salar is notoriously cold at night, so we bundled up and hunkered down for the evening. We made lot’s tea and mate to keep warm – mostly just so the stove would keep running and heat the bus. We hung towels around the windows for a little extra insulation and it was definitely not a night to pop the top. We all huddled under 6 blankets and Bode actually complained of being hot in the middle of the night.

The next morning was a bit of a surprise. Snow. Lot’s of it. The thing about snow in a salt flat is that when it touches the salt, it instantly melts – so now we were stuck 100 km from anywhere in the middle of a lake. And, it was cold. Damn cold. Re-defined cold. Wet salty snow-on-a-llama cold.

We spent the morning trying to reason our next move while we made lots and lots of coffee. The water was about 3″ deep. It looked like more snow was eminent, so the safe bet was to drive through the water back the way we came and find shelter in Uyuni.

The weather cleared a bit around 11 and we made a break for it. The salt still felt hard-packed, so we plowed through slow enough not to splash too much of the corrosive saline up under the car. Still, there’s not much you can do.

A few minutes after we started, I made the call to turn around and head due south. This was the way we originally intended to go, and the weather seemed to be improving, so what could go wrong?

Two hours. Two hours in second gear going 10 mph through 3″ of salt water. This was like driving a boat. Steer towards a landmark on the horizon. Try not to get too wet. Go really really slow. Tedious and boring. There’s nothing like not being able to get out of the car to make you really want to get out of the car. Any daydreams I’ve had recently about a sailing adventure (I have) have officially been dashed for now.

It’s amazing just how flat the Salar is. Consistent depth the entire way except for one little high spot a few inches above the water line. I pulled up on it just so I could get out and look in the engine compartment to make sure nothing was soaked with salty stuff. It looked okay, but just then the engine died. Perfect timing. I poked around a bit and discovered that when the tachometer was disconnected from the coil, the engine would start right up. Connect it and it dies.

I had heard stories about the electronics on cars frying out here, so here’s my contribution to the lore.  The tach wire runs right under the frame and is exposed the whole way (I wired it), so it’s not too surprising that it found a way to short out in the highly conductive water.

When we finally made it to shore, I found out that it get’s a little deeper – and more importantly – the shore isn’t as hard packed as the rest of the lake.  We could see the outline of a raised gravel road on the banks through the snow, so I made break for it. I was eager to get out of the water. Too eager. Bad move.

The shore is a mix of salt, sand, and water. Like a 7-11 Slurpee. We sank immediately. I doubt even 4WD would help us here. I now know the strategy is to stay in the water and drive around until you find something like a dirt boat ramp.

By now, of course, the weather had changed and it was snowing. We tried to dig ourselves out and push for an hour with not much progress. Maybe we moved 1 meter. I was exhausted and the altitude and cold wasn’t helping. Only 9 more to go to get to the edge of the road. Now, I realize we should have tried to push the car back into the water.

The good news was that at least we had made it near a road. We knew we had food, could stay warm, and there was plenty of snow to melt and drink. Everything was fine.

Eventually, a truck came along. A tourist truck – they were bailing on the day and canceling their trip into the Salar. They got out and tried to help push us, but with no luck. Then, another came along – also headed back to Uyuni.  Nine people pushing and we could only go a few more meters. We pushed it far enough so that one of the trucks could attach a rope – no way they were driving down off the road to get us.

A few minutes later and there was much celebrating. We handed out all our beers and sodas to the helpful tourists who didn’t’ have much else to do this day, and propinas for the two tour operators for stopping to help.  Good times.

We were still in the middle of nowhere, so we just had to keep driving – now through the snow. After an hour or so we drove up on a older local guy sitting by the road with a blanket. He was cold and he said so. He wanted to go back 30 minutes behind us to the village of ‘Colca K,’ so we started paying back our karmic debt immediately and made a U-ey.

Then, back on our trek south. Eventually, we made it out of the snow and onto another flat. A mud flat. Fortunately, it was merely moist and made for some pretty smooth cruising across the existing tracks. Then some washboard. Then sliding around on deep sand. Finally, we made it to the town of San Juan and a graded gravel road. I’ve never been so relieved to hit a gravel road.

Weird Weird day.

And, please excuse the dirt on the lens. We’ll work on it.

14 thoughts on “Wasn’t expecting that

  • July 14, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    Absolutely fantastic. Best chapter yet.


  • July 14, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    You had me on the edge of my office chair with this one! So glad you made it out with a little help from your friends. happy travels!


  • July 14, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    Agree with Mitch. Amazing stuff. You should get stuck on lakes of slurpees more often! Great story. Awesome photos.

  • July 14, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Boy, you guys know how to have a good time!!! I can’t wait to set around the campfire with you and hear more about this one.

  • July 14, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    Loved the story and especially liked the picture in front of the hill. Ethereal, and the red of your VW makes the picture wall-worthy.

  • July 14, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    I read a few days ago about the freak incident of snow in the high Atacama – and now I find out that you were right in the midst of it. Unreal! But it made for some unreal photos, too!

  • July 14, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    So that’s how you spell U-ey!

  • July 14, 2011 at 6:30 PM

    Absolutely Amazing photo’s guys! What a story. So glad you all are ok! Hugs from ATX

  • July 14, 2011 at 9:31 PM

    Great post folks!
    Amazing photos too.

    ahhh..life’s experiences…

  • July 15, 2011 at 2:00 AM

    Oh Wow, what an adventure!!! What amazing photos as well!Glad everyone is safe. You can count on the fact that this day is a day that Bode will remember for YEARS to come!!!

  • July 15, 2011 at 3:57 AM

    In all your spare time you guys should totally do a Bodeswell Calendar closer to the holiday season. If you could work out a way to sell it online you’d probably make a few bucks. With your beautiful photography and the number of folks following your journey, you’ sell quite a few I’d bet.

  • July 16, 2011 at 3:53 PM


  • July 17, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    Find Bode in the group pic with that red vehicle.

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