Our four day trip into Salar de Uyuni is one of the big excursions we have planned whilst in South America and we have done our research. Reading stories on the internet we realise choosing the right company can make or break the trip. For four days we will be travelling in a Jeep with two other tourists, a driver and a cook. All belongings, water, food and petrol will be packed up on the roof whilst we enter deepest Bolivia, visiting colourful lagoons, towering volcanoes, smouldering geysers and deserts of blazing white salt. The terrain will be tough, as will the altitude, reaching over 5000m. We choose a company called La Torre, they seem to know their stuff, and for £120 each (plus £4 for sleeping back rental) it’s all inclusive – but not endless margaritas by the pool inclusive – we are told to expect the most basic accommodation and freezing nights.
Starting a salt flat tour in Tupiza has some advantages: you get to see a few more attractions, you save yourself an uncomfortable bus ride, but mainly you find yourself just slightly out of sync with the vast majority of tour groups coming in direct from Uyuni or San Pedro in Chile. You also get to acclimatise a little more, which is important – we’ve met many people who have spent their time on the flats with blinding headaches and nausea.
We meet our driver and cook outside the tour office at 8:30am. We also meet up again with the couple we are sharing this trip with, Lee and Maija, having bumped into them on the previous day. It’s a huge relief not to be stuck with a couple of drinking Aussies or teenage brats travelling on Daddy’s plastic. As it turned out we got along really well and it really made the trip (thanks guys!).
The first day consisted of around 10 hours driving, our first destination being Quebrada de Palala just outside Tupiza, an awesome formation of jagged rocks. This is where I realised that my camera had finally died. Over time our pictures have increasingly appeared washed out. Not a great time for a camera to go, but Lee and Maija have agreed to pool all photos from the trip, so some of these pics are from their camera – cheers!
Next stop is Awanapampa, a llama farm. Llama were traditionally used to transport salt and goods but are now mainly used for their meat (llama burger is not bad). They seem to like dressing them up with cotton and braids. Bit weird, kinda cute.
We also stop off at our first lagoon, a sulphuric pond, and it’s here I first realise that we are indeed in the middle of nowhere. The landscape is alien and for the rest of the day as we head up into altitude, increasingly the panoramas look like nothing I’ve seen before.
Passing through San Antonio is an eerie experience, we are told this village dates back to Inca times. It was abandoned about 30 years ago, the residents fleeing due to ghosts. Out cook tells us there are many bodies buried here but it’s only when I venture for a pee that I believe her, stumbling upon a pile of earth strewn with human bones. The Bolivians are a superstitious bunch and we can tell they take this seriously. We joke about the ghosts and staying the night but they don’t see the funny side one bit.
Our first night was intended to be at San Antonio de Lipez but for reasons unknown we continue for another three hours, stopping around 9pm in a tiny town where we are introduced to our accommodation for the night – a small room with four beds. We have a light bulb and toilet but no heating or showers. Benita cooks us up a meal and after a few drinks we sleep off the day. It’s freezing, I sleep fully clothed with a hat, sleeping bag, three blankets, gloves and socks. Still cold.
Kick-off should have been at 4:30am,but as we continued further the previous day it’s a 6:30am cold start. Breakfast is brief, we pack up the Jeep and off we go. I notice I’ve got a little headache and feeling a bit dizzy, it’s the altitude but nothing too bad. Myself and Leah have a big pack of coca leaves to chew on. This wakes us up and seems to clear my head.
After a few hours we arrive at El Desierto de Dali, not an ancient Bolivian name you may have guessed, but given as this area looks a little like a Dali painting. Amid a huge dry desert plain stand a number of large rock formations carved into weird shapes by the weather. Here you go…
Next onto Laguna Kollpa (with a few flamingos), this lake is mined for chemicals used for making soap in Chile, it stinks, but probably so do we, we have not showered for a while.
Next stop, Laguna Verde. This large lake stands at the foot of Vicancabur Volcano and is also on the border of Bolivia and Chile. The water is emerald green due to magnesium, calcium, lead and arsenic – not a good time to fill our water bottles. It’s windy as hell, but without the wind the lake would not have it’s colour, as it’s the wind that constantly mixes the minerals giving it its green tint.
Did I mention we smelt bad? Well we’re in luck, there be hot springs next. Here we meet up with the gringo trail, there are perhaps 15 other Jeeps all full of rancid unwashed backpackers, most of whom strip off and enter the springs. The water is around 28c and feels fantastic after a couple of days on the road. No photos of this, I felt a bit weird taking pictures as there were loads of people in a state of undress (some much more than others). I also would not want to scare you with pictures of my white flesh, it’s been a while since we have been in Brazil.
My highlight of the four days is next, an active volcanic area lying at around 5000m above sea level, Sol de Manana Geysers. This whole area is alive with sulphurous bubbling mud pools and geysers. Walking around this area is a bit of a minefield as all around are cracks in the earth seeping gases and noxious chemicals. If this were anywhere else on earth we would be 20 metres away behind a barrier but here we can wander around at will on what is effectively a thin crust atop a volcano basin. One guy died here recently falling into the geysers, another lost leg. Only heading back to the Jeep do we see the signs staying ‘stay out’. It’s a punishing climate, the altitude, high winds and foul chemicals in the air mean we only stay around for a little while before leaving. Here is another example where no health and safety means far more fun.
We finish the day a few kilometres from Laguna Colorado, a fiery reddish lake populated by flocks of flamingoes. It’s seems they have lakes of all colours here.
Our shelter for the night is a little better than last night’s, it resembles a cell but is a little warmer at least. Benita cooks up another meal from nowhere, although we start to wonder where the meat has been kept. We are travelling with no cold boxes!
We start the day driving through the Siloli desert, visiting the famous Arbol de Piedra, a tree like stone formation. We notice the climate is getting harsher, my headache is back and with freezing winds we only stop for a short while. I get back on the coca leaves.
For the rest of the day we make our way through a Mars-like landscape, passing a number of lagoons: Laguna Chiarkota, Laguna Hedionda (a foul smelling chemical mix) and Laguna Canapa. The plan for the third night is that we stay on the edge of the salt flats in a hostel made of salt, but news has spread that recent rain may mean we will have to make our way back to Uyuni as the roads may be impassable. Late in the afternoon we discover that we are in luck and at about 5pm we arrive at the salt hostel. It’s a small shelter made almost entirely of salt which we are sharing with a number of other Jeep groups (although myself and Leah manage to bag the only double room).
Over the past few days, we’ve kept bumping into a number of groups, one of which is a couple of French families who are dragging their five kids (aged 2-13) along on a world tour. All the children are suffering from quite servere altitude sickness, and I can’t help thinking it’s a little selfish of the parents to bring them along. I’m not sure they really appreciate the surroundings and they’re dumped in front of a laptop with cartoons at any opportunity. Not only that, but they seem to think that because they’ve got children it’s alright for them to completely take over the communal areas. So a piece of advice: if travelling in tour groups, avoid families with young children, it will be all about them.
That night at the hostel, as we settle down on a bed of salt, the heavens open. As I fall asleep I wonder how the rain will affect the next day.
It’s 6:30 in the morning and not only is it snowing outside but the salt flats are flooded. The planned pre-sunrise start is postponed as we have breakfast. The Jeeps packed up, we head out onto the salt flats – what was dry and hard salt yesterday is now about a foot under water. Soon the road disappears under us and after stopping for a short while to decide on what to do, the drivers hurry us back into the Jeeps and we head out into an abyss of whiteness ahead.
The salt flats were formally at sea level, salt deposits scattered about the surface were dissolved and transported to the lower lying areas by water courses and a series of flooding and drying cycles left the landscape as it is now, several layers of salt and water stretching more than 10m beneath the surface. Most brochures will show photos of blinding white crust as far as the eye can see with a sharp horizon and a deep blue sky with no clouds. Today there is blanket cloud coverage which means the horizon blends into the flooded salt flats, creating an eerie landscape of pure white with almost no point of reference. Our drivers tell us it’s about a three hour drive to the nearest island and we head out.
After a short stop on an island in the centre of the salt flats for a llama burger and some cactus photos we continue heading East towards Uyuni. The sky begins to clear as we arrive at another salt hostel, we are almost at the end of our amazing trip. But now we join the thousands before us and try and capture some ‘funny’ salt flat photos. The unique lack of perspective here means you can create some great novelty photos – standing on beer bottles or being attacked by toy animals. It’s the equivalent of having a photo taken with a donkey in a hat or poking you head through a board with a picture of a fat lady on it. It’s fun, and difficult to orchestrate, but I feel it distracts from the real beauty of the salt flats. It’s a shame if these photos are the only memories you take with you.
We only spend a few hours in Uyuni, we have an overnight train to Oruro followed by a short three hour bus to La Paz. There is only one ATM in Uyuni and there is a queue of about 15 gringos all with no cash looking to pay for accommodation and food. Halfway through the queue and the ATM is out of cash. Remember the French family? They withdrew £1000, leaving no cash for anybody else. Luckily it was filled later that evening but not before many were forced to get expensive cash advances on credit cards to pay for their tours. Grrrr.
Well all in all it was an incredible four days. We feel we made all the right choices, and got lucky with the weather, creating a unique experience on the flats that many would have not seen. We met some great people and saw landscapes so unique and alien it was a real privilege to be able to come here. Our driver and cook were great fun, even though language was an issue and there was much making up of Spanish words by adding o’s and a’s to the end of English words. If you’re in Bolivia, you absolutely cannot miss this experience and I just hope that you have as great a time as we did.