I had mentioned in previous posts that we weren’t fans of organised tourist tours, but after conducting a bit of research, it seemed like the only way to see the spectacular and very remote Salar de Uyuni, and one of the easiest ways to cross the border between San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, and Uyuni in South West Bolivia. It was a very enjoyable trip and ended up being a good way to see not only the salt flats, but also all the surrounding landscape that you wouldn’t otherwise know is there.
The first day began with being picked up in a minibus and taken to the immigration offices in San Pedro and then on to the Bolivian border. Passports were checked and stamped and then we had breakfast. This break was a first taste of what the three days ahead would be like. It was cold and windy and there were already patches of snow on the ground, a huge contrast from the sweltering heat of the Atacama desert. We were welcomed to Bolivia with the words “Welcome to Bolivia, the centre of South America, the land of the potato, where anything can happen”. After some food we split into two groups of six, met our Bolivian drivers-come-tour guides and loaded into the 4X4s that would herd us around for three days. I could imagine this experience could be pretty terrible if you had bad luck and were given a rubbish group of people. You do spend an intense three days with these strangers, and luckily we got a good bunch. We had Simone and Celine (Italian and French, respectively) and Robert and Bernadette from Holland, and of course Edgar, our Bolivian driver and Uyuni expert.
Our first stop was the Laguna Blanco, a half frozen milky lake surrounded by mountains. After a few minutes we couldn’t admire the view much longer and had to huddle together like penguins for warmth. The wind was bitterly cold. We then went on to Laguna Verde, a vividly green lake, in much a similar surroundings to Laguna Blanco. The colours were incredible, but the wind was still just as bone chilling. As if Edgar had read our minds, the next stop was a 38 degree hot spring, where we were encouraged to swim. We were very reluctant at first, was the warmth of the hot pool worth the horrible chill afterwards? Well we decided to give it a go and stripped off quickly and entered the blissful warmth. When we got out the wind was so strong it simply stripped the water off our bodies and we dressed quickly. We then made our way to where we were to spend the night, a hostel in the middle of nowhere with no hot water or heating and very limited electricity. We were due to explore the nearby Laguna Colorado, but Edgar advised us to see it the next day instead as the winds were exceptionally fierce. We sat inside and played cards with our new friends.
After a very very cold nights sleep (at minus 15 degrees), we woke, breakfasted and went out to see the Laguna Colorado. At that early time in the morning after a pretty broken sleep, we weren’t completely in the mood to see yet another lake, but fortunately it was picturesque enough to pull us out of our slumber. The lake offered an excellent reflection of the burnt red mountains and the blue skies above. We then drove for a while longer (the start point to the end point of our tour is a pretty long distance) and stopped for lunch in a building that used to be some sort of salt mine. After enjoying the fire and the food, we ventured back out into the cold to visit a rock canyon, a vast expanse of strangely shaped rocks which we were encouraged to climb. By this point we were pretty knackered and looking forward to some more rest and to finally see the salt flats, which is what we were all waiting for. That night we slept in the Salt Hotel (which was partly made of salt), which had hot showers and was considerably warmer than the night before. We had a hearty dinner and shared some wine and card games. The spirits were high once again. We decided, with Edgar’s advice, that the best time to head to the salt flats would be to catch the sunrise, so we went to bed early to be up and ready for 6.30 am.
The last day was by far the best day, we were better rested, and excited to see the famous Salar de Uyuni. Needless to say we were not disappointed and it made the fairly gruelling two days before well worth it. Edgar drove at speed across the salt flats in almost pitch black. It was fairly terrifying, but we kept reassuring ourselves he knew what he was doing. He said he used the mountains in the distance as points of navigation as he sped across flat nothingness. As the sun slowly began to rise we saw the strange landscape we were in. For miles in every direction was flat white salt. We got out of the van and lay down on the salt (just to know what it would feel like – rough is the answer), and then took some photos of the sunrise. As the sun rose even more the flats were bathed in golden light, and my photos just didn’t do it justice. We then drove about 20 minutes across the flats to a cactus covered island in the middle, Incahuasi Island. We climbed up the top of the hill of the island and admired the views of the flats from above, which gave us a real sense of its vastness. We then clambered back down for breakfast before we continued onwards. We drove out into the middle of the flats again to take the famously cliched perspective photos (where one person stands really far away and one person closer pretends to hold them in their hands etc etc). This was fun at first, but once you’ve got a few photos you don’t really need more. We went for a walk across the salt flats for about half an hour, to get an ideal of what it’s like to walk and walk and feel as though you’ve not gone anywhere at all.
The last stop on the trip was a train graveyard just outside the town of Uyuni. I have to say it wasn’t the most impressive part of the journey, and although the abandoned trains were quite cool, we felt as though we weren’t quite sure why we were there. We then arrived back in Uyuni in time for some lunch (which was a huge pizza), a hot shower and a warm bed before we took the bus to Potosí the next day.
The tour was gruelling, cold and very tiring (partly due to the altitude), but it was well worth it. You can’t be princes or princesses on this trip, you have to put up with tough conditions and bone chilling temperatures. But it’s all completely worth it for the incredible landscapes and was an excellent introduction to Bolivia.