One of my most epic yet awkward adventures was a trip through Bolivia’s Soleli Desert. For those who aren’t sure what this is, it’s where you’ll find the iconic Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni), the world’s largest salt flat at 4,086 square miles. For some reason, however, you never hear about the desert’s other attractions, like it’s hot pink lagoons and bubbling mud geysers. While the journey through the desert introduces travelers to some unworldly sites, it can also be a bit awkward at times, at least in my case.
As many people know, I enjoying traveling without a plan. Sometimes, however, I take this philosophy a little too seriously. When booking the desert tour, I was told I would be crossing the Soleli Desert. Never mind I had no idea what this place was like, the destination had the word “desert” in it, meaning it must be warm. And the morning of the tour when I show up in painters shorts, a tank top and light sweatshirt, I quickly realize I am mistaken.
Everyone else at the tour office is layered in alpaca sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves and thick pants. Not wanting to seem like an amateur traveler, however, I keep my illogical outfit on, telling myself these 20 other people must be over-sensitive to the cold.
Once my group is in the desert I realize I will need to swallow my pride. It isn’t cold, it’s blistering. I shiver and shake like crazy, actually in pain from the chill inside of me. Once we stop at a hut for bagels and tea, I grab my backpack and bring it inside to change into something a little warmer — AKA put on every piece of clothing I own. Unfortunately, lack of facilities make this difficult to do in private, and my 20 new friends will now get to see me naked.
“Sorry to be weird,” I apologize aloud to the group. “I’m freezing and need to get naked.”
Luckily a group of girls comes over and holds a towel around me while I strip. Wow, am I making new friends fast.
Once back in the car, we begin our exploration of the beautiful and bizarre Soleli Desert. Although the driver only speaks Spanish, I am able to pick up on some of the information he gives about the sites and their significance. While the hot pink waters of the Laguna Colorada mesmerize me, filled with flamingos and hot springs and spots of blue, yellow and white, the surrounding volcanoes make me feel small and humble. The enormous geyser of Sol de Manana has an eery beauty to it — most likely because it can kill you — while the strange rock formations of Rocas de Salvadore Dali bring me into a fantastical Dr. Seuss-like world.
The most inspirational moment for me — or at least the warmest — is dipping into the natural hot springs of Polques. Located at 15,000 feet, it’s a dizzying bath offering views of the endless landscape dotted with vibrant colors and humbling mountains. It’s also over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and will instantly make you sweat.
Once back in the truck after the dip, I can still feel the warming affects of the hot spring, especially with the midday sun beating down on the windows. Thinking my Spanish is good enough to make a request, I turn to the driver.
“Estoy caliente,” I smile, hoping he will roll down the windows or turn on some air conditioning.
Instead, he turns bright red and quickly looks away, windows still rolled up. Maybe he didn’t understand me because I speak fast.
“Eessttooyy ccaalliieennttee,” I say again, slower, letting it roll off my tongue.
Now the driver looks downright uncomfortable. In fact, he seems to be preparing to make a quick escape if necessary.
That’s when an Argentine traveler in the backseat speaks up.
“Ummm, Jessie. Why are you telling him you’re horny?”
I keep my mouth shut for the rest of the ride, going in and out of consciousness from the high altitude. I’m pretty sure the driver likes when I’m asleep as then I can’t solicit him for sex, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Once we get to our accommodation for the night — a freezing hostel with no electricity or heat — I decide to change into pajamas. That is, until I notice something has gone awry in my backpack.
“What’s wrong?” asks one of the other travelers, seeing the look of discomfort on my face.
I pull out a pair of rock-hard underwear. “My water bottle opened in my bag. My underwear is frozen.”
My life feels like a sick joke. That is, until the group bursts out laughing. We even get a game of Frozen Underwear Frisbee going to lighten the situation, which should make the situation more awkward but instead somehow makes it okay. Because as long as you can laugh at yourself when things go wrong, you’ll have no trouble facing the open road.