We sped out of town and quickly arrived at our first stop, “El Cementerio De Trenes” or “Train Cemetery”. We spent some time climbing through the rusted wreckage of turn-of-the-century steam engines. The sight of ugly, dirty hunks of metal transformed into art is particularly intriguing. Here in this train-yard turned grave-yard we saw the remnants of these machines, majestically engineered from raw metal, now left to rot in the dry, unforgiving Bolivian heat.

We tried to take photos conservatively since we were only minutes into our adventure, and would have to stretch our two gigabyte memory card to its limit. We drove off and entered the Salar.

Our first stop was a salt museum where we learned how the floor of the Salar is turned into everyday table salt. Salt farmers bike out into the flats and use their shovels to build mounds of salt. The salt is left in the sun for several days to dry before it is collected and brought to the factory to be refined. The raw chunks are heated over a fire to evaporate any remaining moisture before being processed into granules and iodized. Finally they are put into plastic bags and sealed with a blow torch.

You might think that the Salar is a great natural resource for Bolivia, but the sad truth is that, due to the forces of supply and demand, salt sells for mere pennies here. Since the country has no coast (the coast Bolivia once had was taken by Chile in the war of 1879), exporting salt is prohibitively expensive.

We left the museum and ventured deeper into the Salar. All we could see was flat, white plains and foggy mountain peaks in the distance. Two centimeters of water covered the ground and the tires of the 4×4 splashed through the terrain. We arrived at the salt hotel, a structure built entirely from salt. We attempted some clichéd perspective photos while Miguel, our driver, prepared a delicious quinoa salad.

After lunch, Dan and the other guys climbed up on the roof of the Toyota and soaked up the intense sun. We stopped once more to take perspective shots, but realized how difficult they are to pull off.

At the end of the day we arrived at another salt hotel where we spent the night. We met tons of backpackers, played cards at a salt table, while sitting on salt chairs, our feet buried in the salt floor.

Our fellow Irish passenger, who we’ll call “Scott”, was sitting at a nearby table gregariously entertaining other backpackers with stories of tourists who take pictures of absolutely everything, from the food they eat to the chairs they sit on. Feeling disliked, we assumed that his comments were about us.

Something came over Calina, she turned to Scott and said, for the whole room to hear, “We can hear you talking about us, you know, we’re sitting right here.” Scott became red in the face and rose his voice defensively. He denied that we were the target of his jokes and demanded that we retract our accusation. The whole room fell silent, listening to our confrontation. Calina wanted out of the situation as quickly as she had become involved. She turned away from the angry, red face muttering, “I don’t want to have a confrontation over this.” The awkwardness was too much to bear; we quietly slipped out of the hotel. We walked outside, venturing to the edge of the Salar, which looked like a dark, empty void, underneath the “Via Lactea” (Milky Way) densely populated with twinkling stars.

We commiserated while star-gazing before retiring to our beds… also made of salt.