Arriving in Uyuni
After Machu Picchu, the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) experience was what I had been looking forward to the most on this trip. We had heard great things about the tours across the largest salt flats in the world, but not so much about the operators. It is something that all tourists have on their bucket lists when in that part of the world, so there are a lot of operators vying for their business – some legit, some a tad shonky. Most of the tours hit up the same places, but they differ mainly in comfort levels – the condition of the 4WD, quality of food and accommodation, and apparently how sober or intoxicated the driver was. A few years back there were a spate of car crashes resulting in tourist deaths on these tours, mainly attributed to drink driving. I had done my research while in Sucre and knew who my preferred supplier was, and was feeling positive.
We traveled by bus from Sucre to Uyuni, which took up most of the day. When we arrived we checked into our hotel, chucked our bags in the room, and headed into town to suss out a tour to start the following day.
I made a bee-line for the operator that I’d researched, but was left disappointed after they wouldn’t come down on a price which was a lot more than we had budgeted for. So we headed down the street and into the first office that we saw bearing the “Credit Cards Accepted here” sign. They were called Blue Line Services, and the lady at the desk told us everything that we wanted to hear – route of the tour, inclusions and exclusions, pointed to the 4WD that we’d be taking, introduced us to the driver, and it came to 800 bolivianos/$150 AUD per person for a three day/two night tour including transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I signed on the dotted line, and handed over the old credit card, then was having heart pulpitations as I left the office, convinced that I’d just been conned, that our driver was going to be an alcoholic, and that I’d go back to the hotel, check the reviews and that they’d all be rubbish.
Pedro banned me from checking reviews given that it was non-refundable and pointless. We went out for a nice dinner at a little cafe where the waitress was a 12 year old, and her younger brother and sister scooted around the restaurant on miniature cars, almost tripping over their hard-working sister a number of times.
First Impressions & Tour Summary
The next morning we enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel before heading off to the tour office to kick things off. We met our driver, Ernesto, who spoke no English at all, and our salt buddies for the next four days: two female friends from Malaga, and a couple from Barcelona. Pedro and I were looking forward to being able to practice our Spanish (we had declined to pay extra to go with an English speaking guide), but were pretty appalled out just how little we understood when the other four were chatting to each other in the car. Turns out that they were speaking Catalan, the northern Spanish dialect, so we didn’t feel so bad anymore!
The car was a bit squishy if you were in the back seat, the only music we heard for three days was Bolivian folk, and the guide gave us zero information on what we were looking at or what our next stop was. The food was simple but plentiful, and the accommodation was very basic but did the job. On the second morning, our driver managed to take a wrong turn, tried to reverse back, and rammed into another 4WD that happened to be driven by his brother. It held us up for ten minutes or so while they assessed the damage, but the main concern was the possibility that our guide was still drunk from the night before. It didn’t fill us with confidence!
Other than that, it was a pretty standard tour, and we saw everything that was on the brochure. However if you want a more personal tour, where the guide learns your name, assists with perspective photos on the salt flats, and let’s you play your own music in the car, go with a tour other than Blue Line Services.
Below are some highlights!
Train Cemetery & Colchani
The first stop on our tour was to a train cemetery in the middle of the desert. There used to be a lot of mineral mining in Bolivia, and the train line was built in order to transport it to ports for distribution. The mining industry collapsed in the middle of last century, and trains were left in the desert to rust. These days tourists are able to explore the cemetery, and climb on top of trains for picturesque photos.
We then drove to Colchani, which is a tiny village that acts as a gateway to the Salar de Uyuni. Salt from the salt flats are processed here, and apparently the tour was meant to include a tour of the factory to learn about salt production, but instead we were dropped off to explore a street full of markets selling local crafts, food, and drink on our leisure.
Nothing but Salt as Far as the Eye Can See
For the rest of the day we explored the Salar de Uyuni. We ate lunch in the middle of the salt flats (pretty sure it was a llama steak), and seasoned the food with salt from the ground. I had expected it to be cold, but it was warm, and we had fun trying our hand at perspective photos.
We stopped to take photos with a commemorative statue from the Dakar rally, and stuck our head into an restaurant made out of salt for a sticky-beak.
Driving across the salt flats was really surreal, and felt as though we were on another planet. We raced along, dozens of other 4WDs heading the the same direction way off in the distance. And then seemingly out of nowhere, the Incahuasi Island appeared over the horizon, a place where cactus flourished on a small, rocky hill rising out from the salt.
At that time of year (April) there was only a small section of the flats that was covered in water. It was enough to provide some beautiful photos that reflected the sky onto the ground during sunset.
On the way to our accommodation that night, they sky grew dark and rain and lightning started falling further up the road. We were able to drive straight around it, and from the car Pedro took a stellar shot of a fork of lightning at the moment it hit the earth.
Our accommodation was in a salt hotel, where the walls, floors, and even the beds were made of salt. It was a strange experience indeed, but we managed to get some sleep that night, so it did the job.
Out of the Salar and into the Deserts
Day 2 was a lot of driving across some phenomenal landscapes. We stopped in the Siloli Desert where we saw the ‘Arbol de Piedra’ (stone tree), climbed rocky outcrops, and spotted wildlife including a fox and a herd of vicunas.
Pink Flamingos and Red Algae
In the late afternoon we arrived at the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, where we were able to see flocks of Andean flamingos in the famous Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon).
That night we enjoyed some beverages with our Catalan friends, played some table-tennis at a local bar, shared a very cosy dorm room, and prepared for an early start the next day.
Geysers, Hot Springs and Vocanoes
On the final morning of our tour, we woke-up at early and left the hostel 5:00am. We were driven out to a steaming geyser field, but while the other car loads of tourists strolled around, Pedro and I waited it out in the car, unable to bring ourselves to stay out in the bitterly cold morning for more than a few minutes. Once the sun started rising, it warmed up enough to venture out and take a few snapshots, but even though I was wearing about seven layers of clothes, I was still shivering uncontrollably, and soon returned to the car to defrost.
Next we visited some natural hot springs, and again while other tourists stripped off down to their togs and braved the cold morning air before sizzling into the warm water, our group decided to keep our clothes on, and enjoyed photographing the landscape instead. We late drove through the fittingly named Salvador Dali desert.
Our last stop of the tour was Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), but it wasn’t anywhere near as vibrant or impressive as the Red Lagoon.
Then Ernesto dropped us off at the Bolivian / Chilean border, and that brought an end to our Uyuni Salt Flats adventure. We said goodbye to the gals from Malaga who had a long drive ahead back to Uyuni, and we prepared to make the trip over to San Pedro de Atacama.