Road Tripping, Bolivian Style: Our Uyuni Salt Flats Tour (23rd – 25th May 2014)

It was undoubtedly the worst weather we’d ever experienced in our lives. For the first time ever I found myself wearing 2 pairs of pants! Not conducive to hopping out for beautiful photos of the views, the wind chill factor dropped temperatures drastically in the crazy dust-blizzard going on outside, but we pressed on in the mighty Toyota Landcruiser with Omar taking us further up, and futher in.

This was to be the last official highlight of our 3 months in South America, and we had caught the overnight bus from La Paz on Thursday night with a reputable company called ‘Todo Tourismo’, who ran a tourist bus service that provided the promise of reasonable safety and some measure of organisation with their 10 hour overnight semi-cama buses. They left at 9pm from La Paz and again at 9pm in Uyuni for the return trip. The route wasn’t rumoured to be the best around, and the fact that the southern half of the way was along dirt roads between the remote towns meant a potentially rough and bumpy ride, and some had even mentioned hijackers stopping buses along the way. So we decided to try play it as safe as possible with this tourist-geared service, and by God’s Grace all went just fine… It wasn’t even that rough a road at all.

We arrived in the Bolivian salt mining town of Uyuni a little late around 09h30, (we had been warned not to keep a tight schedule in Bolivia) but still in good time to make it to the Quechua Connection office before we started our tour at 11h00. We were here for a trip into the salt flats and surrounding wilderness in the deep south-western corner of the country. It was a really popular thing to do in Bolivia, and Uyuni had evolved into not much more than a launching pad for tour operators as the salt mining business rolled on wearily in the backround. With so many different companies trying to get in on a piece of the action, the resulting reviews on TripAdvisor unfortunately made for mostly scaring reading, and we were almost put off by people complaining about scams, drunk drivers speeding dangerously, substandard accommodation in the icy cold of the desert, disgusting food and more delights. The more we read, the more we realised that there were very few companies who hadn’t had such complaints lodged against them (but also, we kept trying to remember to take what people had written with a pinch of salt!). There were a few companies who stuck out above the rest with good reviews though, and whom people had told us about after having great experiences themselves. ‘Red Planet’, ‘Cordillera’, and ‘Oasis’ were a few, but there was one in particular that we liked the sound of, and that was a family-run company called ‘Quechua Connection’, who just seemed to have nothing really bad written about them and weren’t the most expensive in town.

The general idea of the tour, is that 7 people (more or less, depending on the company), pile into a Toyota Land Cruiser and head out from Uyuni to see the beautiful sights and landscapes in the area. Typically, tours start and end in Uyuni after 3 days and 2 nights, but there are alternative options including San Pedro de Atacama (in Chile) or Tupiza (in Bolivia) as starting or ending points, but these are either run by different companies (friends told us about Estrella del Sur and Cordillera who run services from San Pedro de Atacama, and Tupiza Tours from their namesake) or cost slightly more but can often be arranged from the companies in Uyuni, and tours of varying numbers of days can also be arranged.

At 11h00, we kicked off our standard issue loop from Uyuni for 3 days and 2 nights. We had had time to brush our teeth, grab some last minute water and snacks from the local shops, and even managed to buy train tickets from the little ticket office in the Uyuni train station across the road from the Quechua Connection office for the next leg of our journey from Uyuni to Villazon (on the border of Argentina). We were slightly grubby from the overnight bus, but all set, and soon settled in with the rest of the peeps who would be our little family for the next short while. Omar was part of the family who ran their company, and he and 2 brothers and a sister helped their parents with driving and managing it all for a living. He must’ve been in his late 20’s or early 30’s (could be very wrong though!) and spoke only broken English (the company had made it clear beforehand), but thankfully we had some translators with us! Natasja and Christian were Danish siblings who both spoke really good spanish. Natasja had been at school in Chile for a while on a kind of exchange, and Christian had been travelling around South America for the past 6 months. Last, but not least , was Naomi and Martin, the half English and fully Irish New Yorkers. Good times lay ahead!

First stop was the train cemetery, just outside town, where old steam locomotives imported from France and England now rotted away under coats of graffiti, along with other less glamorous wrecks that’ve collected over the years. A great playground!

On we went towards the salt flats themselves, which lay not far from town (after an obligatory stop at the local souvenir market en route – Michaela fell prey to the offerings and acquired her 3rd jersey of the trip… Ain’t no arguing! 😉 Now the salt flats themselves are actually a really impressive stretch of nothingness, called the Salar de Uyuni. It’s the biggest salt flat on earth, with an area of over 10 000 squared kilometres, and really incredibly flat – varying by a maximum of only 1m in altitude over its entire surface. Which is ridiculous. So much so that they use it to calibrate the altimeters of satellites that monitor the earth’s surface. It’s covered in a crust of salt of up to a few meters, and the biggest deposits of lithium in the world lie beneath.
It all used to be a giant lake, and we were to spot many of the remnants and evidences from those times, with fossilised banks of coral and rocks eroded into all sorts of shapes. But more on that just now – our next stop was next to a few little mounds of salt. They were part of the process the locals used to harvest the salt and involved drying it out over a few weeks. The rest of the process was pretty lost on me though.

Next stop was a little structure in the middle of nowhere. Beside it was a colourful nest of flags (no SA flag though!) and a massive token dedicated to the Dakar Rally – these parts were along their route through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – pretty suitable really! On closer inspection the building was built out of slabs of salt. This was supposed to be our spot for lunch but it was already packed up full of other tourists and the ubiquitous Land Cruisers that we decided to press on instead. We drove across the flat nothingness for another 40 minutes, spellbound by the simplicity of it all. The surface looked like a giant honeycomb pattern as the salt had dried into a weird homogenous pattern of hexagons, and we eventually arrived at what was known as the ‘Fish Island’, a little oasis of life in the midst of all the white. The rocky outcrop was named after it’s profile, apparently resembling a fish, and was a little hub of activity as an alternative lunch spot for the mass of tours coming through every day. We grabbed a spot and Omar started setting everything out on the salt slab tables as we suited up – the wind was pumping and it was freezing! In between the rocks grew these huge, fuzzy looking cacti. Apparently they grew at but 1cm per year, and the tallest was over 9m tall. Do the math and you can understand why they look fuzzy! 30 Bolivianos earned you a ticket to walk around, and a well signposted path led up to the very top of the little hill for beautiful views of the surrounds. It was at this point that I encountered a little problem.

20140530-120109.jpgCacti everywhere on the Fish Island (aka Isla Incahuasi).

Thus far in our adventures, we had managed to come through relatively unscathed by any serious health issues (besides a cold in tropical Brazil and some run-ins with the local fauna). It may be no coincidence that Bolivia was where the problems started. My first warning came in Copacabana with minor stomach aches, but nothing serious. This time, the timing was perfect. Up on the top of an island of rock, in the middle of the biggest salt flat in the world, and on day 1 of a 3 day road trip squeezed into a car with 6 other people, my stomach suddenly took a turn for the worst. I handed camera duties over to Michaela, and made a bold dash for the loo, dodging tourists, cacti, and the odd sleeping dog to finally get there in time. Now I was in for it.

Thankfully, a solid dose of loperamide and some blessedly well placed bathrooms along the way made for a smooth ride, but still wasn’t an ideal situation I had got myself into. Thankfully the road trip was well worth it though, and the rest of that first day continued just fine. Lunch was interesting, as we froze our tails off in the wind while trying to keep our peas from blowing off our forks while we ate. Contrary to reports from many other experiences with other companies on TripAdvisor, our lunch was huge and hearty – llama steaks and mash potatoes with veggies. We packed up the remnants and headed on to a great spot for the classic photos out here, where the salt is so flat and monotonous that you lose all sense of depth perception, making for some great photos! The opportunities for awesomeness were endless, and the only limit was your imagination really. Omar was obviously a pro with all his experience, and he set us up for some great shots with brilliant poses and all the perfect angles to tell the ridiculous stories. Sunset snuck up on us all too quickly and when we looked again, all the white had turned orange and we pulled ourselves together for some great group shots, before retreating to the warmth of the car and heading for our refuge for the night.

20140530-120026.jpgPhoto fun on the Salar de Uyuni.

We weren’t expecting much in terms of accommodation but stepped into a lively and spacious living area, complete with floors of snow-white course salt, tables made of smooth slabs of salt, and even chandeliers adorned with salt crystals. The building itself was built using bricks of salt, with fine salt as a basis for the cement. The salt theme was pretty popular out here I guess. Rooms were comfortable, with electricity and 2 single beds per room with warm blankets and good mattresses. Again, contrary to what we had read about and far exceeding our expectations! Hot chocolate and cookies preceded a solid dinner, and we braved a whole few seconds outside when we went for a short drive into the flats for some star gazing. The wind was still out of control and unfortunately it was mostly overcast, but we tried to make the most of it, this time much better prepared with a few extra layers. They even had showers back at the little salt hotel, and for 10 bolivianos each, Michaela and I finally thawed and enjoyed some long overdue showers!

20140530-115719.jpgAbove photos, order left to right, top row to bottom:
The train graveyard aka. tourist playground with swings, jumping opportunities and photo ops everywhere.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser. The shapes of the salt flats. Look at that height!

Sunset from the salt flats. The team. A torch and slow shutter speed equals magic!

Day 2 started at a reasonable hour after breakfast, and we headed out into the worsening weather. As for any roadtrip, music is absolutely essential, and the aux cable allowed for rotating iPods and iPads and iPhones as DJ responsibilities rotated through the car. It was when my turn came round that we made an interesting discovery. I had taken to keeping one of our bank cards in the cover of my phone, to keep it handy and negate the need for a wallet on me all the time. It had proved a brilliant idea so far actually. Now for the aux cable to fit into the phone I had to remove the cover, and as I did so my hand automatically moved to catch the card. Unfortunately for me, there was nothing there this time. I looked up at Michaela, and my heart sank with that familiar feeling of having lost something. I was in the dog box for the next few hundred kilometers after that, and rightfully so. Turns out that yesterday hadn’t been a good day for me at all. After forgetting the phone in the hotel in Rurrenabaque on Thursday morning and almost causing us to miss our flight back to La Paz, I then went on to forget the bank card in the ATM we withdrew from before we caught the bus. Naughty.
Nothing we could do about it out there though, so we (Michaela) had to set aside the growing panic of someone stealing all our money before we got back to civilization to cancel the card on Sunday. “So gaan die lewe,” I reasoned (quietly), and we tried to forget about it for the moment.

The day’s adventures took us past a few beautiful lakes. Unbelievably, there was bird life to be seen in these harsh conditions, and the flamingoes and little ducks and co all kept doing their thing, despite the hurricane like wind speeds and icy temperatures around them. Dust storms rolled past intermittently, forcing us to munch lunch inside the car next to one of the lakes. Stops for photos were cut short, and in some cases decided against completely, as we carried on through the day. The winds could almost blow you over, and the cold and dust in your eyes just made everything really unpleasant. And then it started snowing.

Dust storms turned into whirling snow, and behind each of the little shrubs of grass there grew a mini snow drift, to make the landscape look like a great big expanse littered with marshmallows as all the other snow would get blown away before it could settle. It wasn’t surprising then when Omar decided to turn around. The last bit for the day was supposed to take us into a national park to spend the last night , and see some of the more spectacular sites of the roadtrip, including the green lake, the Colorada lake and spending a morning in some lekker hot springs. Unfortunately, the way there went through a bit of a mountain pass and by the time we got there, the snow was already piling up dangerously. Plan B was to find a place in the closest town, but our first few knocks on doors proved that we were a little late in arriving and beds were already full at all the inns! We did eventually find a place, but we had to wait in the car first as they cleaned up rooms for us and made it habitable first. Naomi and Martin snuck in first for urgent bathroom needs, and when thy returned to the car they brought bad tidings. “You’ll just have to laugh, otherwise you’ll be crying when you see it,” said Martin in his thick accent with typical Irish optimism.

We bravely ventured in to find a place that wasn’t actually too bad, especially not given the circumstances. We all gathered in the dining room for tea and cream crackers, and pretty soon the bottle of wine we’d brought along was out and shared around. Dinner was actually more than sufficient, and to cheer everyone up we whipped out the scraps of paper and explained the rules of ‘The Most Amazing Game’, a version of 30 seconds with 3 rounds. It took our minds off the weather (it looked like an icy wasteland outside), and the newcomers showed some fine form in the competition! Let it be known, that the guys team were victorious on that cold night in the far corner of Bolivia!

20140530-115730.jpgAbove photos, normal order:
Our salt hotel. Even walls made of salt-Gees! Beautiful landscape views everywhere.

And then the bad weather hit us and landscapes turned wintery. Pink flamingos braving the cold. Good flag photo opportunity.

Our adventure-mobile in sea of snow drifts. Bad weather selfie. Our humble hostel on the second night.

We all survived the cold that night (some moreso than others maybe, especially Michaela who had her hot water bottle service boy on hand), and when we awoke on Sunday morning, it was to the most beautiful day. Our normal itinerary out the window, we were up at a reasonable hour and after breakfast we set off for a few quick stops before we took the other 4 peeps to the Chilean border to catch a transfer through to San Pedro de Atacama. We drove down a sneaky road in between all these crazily formed rocks that looked more like dinosaur bones than boulders, and came out in a little wonderland. It was something of a kind of wetland, with shortly cropped green grass half flooded with something of a poorly behaved stream, that had flooded the lower parts of grass. And frozen over solid. What was left was an icy playground, with little chinchilla-like dassie things bouncing around like acrobats and some llamas grazing in the background. We got out of the car and followed Omar as he took us along a path over and through and inbetween, as we daringly tested the ice for strength and chanced a few steps out over the frozen pools. Ominous cracks would send us scurrying back to the grass, as we noticed some patches where the stream was still flowing underneath a thin cap, whilst in other places it was frozen solid enough for even me to walk on. We felt like kids again, as we hopped and slid along, testing the ice and spotting creatures on the most beautiful Sunday morning stroll. It was made all the more special by the fact that we were the only ones there.

Well, as with most good things, all too soon it all drew to an end, and we were back in the car and on our way to the border. The normal border was closed by the snow, so we had to detour a bit to get to a place called ‘Ollague’ where Omar arranged the right bus and we saw the 4 guys and girls off. Once again, half the fun had been the people we had been with, and we were grateful to have scored such a kiff team.
The three of us headed back to Uyuni, and on the way we made another unfortunate discovery. It seemed I had lost our Bolivian entry cards somewhere… Strike three.

I survived the journey, and we thanked Omar for what had been a relievingly uneventful time; despite so many bad reviews with other companies he had been absolutely awesome and represented his team brilliantly. Indeed everything had exceeded our expectations, and of course the trip itself, especially the scenery, had been beautiful. Despite having missed out on a bit, and as rubbish as the weather had been, it had also added a lekker element of adventure, and at the same time had made us appreciate the beautiful calm on Sunday all the more as well.

20140530-115745.jpgAbove photos, order as usual: A beautiful Sunday morning-able to shed some of the layers. The Valle de Rocas (Valley of the Rocks). Rock climbing.

Dancing on ice! The viscacha. So scared that the ice is going to crack under her.

Middle of Bolivia nowhere. The Chile-Bolivia border crossing – chaos! Volcano Ollague in the distance.

We stood in the dusty road outside the Quechua Connection office. The sun was about to set, and we donned our salty packs and headed down the road to find a room and a shower (Hotel Julia) for the next few hours. Our train was to depart at 02h30 the next morning for the Argentinian border, and we weren’t about to be caught out in the cold until then! It was going to be an interesting time trying to make the jump all the way down to Buenos Aires, but all we had to do was take it one step at a time. And so with it all over, the final chapter in our trip had begun. The final stretch.

P.S. And when we got back to Wifi to check our emails, we were grateful to see that nothing had been stolen and we could cancel our card without anything bad happening. And we found the entry cards. Happy ending.

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