By: Jas Mitch
Salar de Uyuni - the Bolivian Salt Flats
With not too many days to go in our epic adventure, the final big ticket item on our list was a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian Salt Flats. The tour generally consists of 3 or 4 days in a 4WD travelling across the salt plains and the surrounding national parks, stopping for the sights along the way. We were a bit worried about all the crazy stories you hear coming out of these tours… drunken drivers, car crashes, people being abandoned at the Bolivian border with no where to go… just stuff like that. So we took our time, did a lot of research about different companies (there seems to be a thousand of them operating out of the small township of Uyuni!) and finally decided with Red Expedition. Definitely more expensive then a lot of the tours but we thought the extra expense would be worth it… spoiler: it was!
We arrived in Uyuni, which reminds me of something out of a western movie, and beelined past all the touts trying to sell tours at the bus stop, straight for the Red Expeditions office. Within about 30mins of arriving in Uyuni we were signed up for the next days tour leaving at the totally respectable time of 11am.
Having gotten a good nights sleep and collected all of our necessities for the trip (toilet paper, water, snacks) we met up with our group. There was two cars heading out 6 people in our car (a Dutch/Swedish couple who have since basically convinced us that we need to move to Holland, two awesome Irish girls who kept getting offered whisky at our accommodation because they were Irish and isn’t that what they drink… and us). The other car had our guide, Gonsaloz (a Bolivian born, American raised guy who was awesome!) a New Zealander/Aussie guy travelling for two years after working in the mines in Western Australia, a newly married English couple who had food poisoning the whole trip, poor things, and an annoying Swedish couple who complained the whole time and were never impressed with anything!). Our car was awesome and we all got on like a house on fire!
The first stop along the way was the train graveyard. Where they abandoned all the old steam trains back in the day… very cool, it was like a playground for adults with everyone clambering all over these old, rusting trains…
From here we headed to the original (and one of few left) salt hotels. These are made completely out of… you guessed it, SALT! The bricks, the beds, the tables and chairs, everything. Pretty cool!
Then it was onto the Salt Flats.
Unfortunately, despite it being the wet season, there has been a drought over the salt flats and so there was no rain… no rain meant no mirror like surface which would have been totally amazing to see… fortunately this meant we were still able to take “funny pictures” as Gonsaloz called them. He was a totally pro and helped us all with our “funny pictures”.
Next stop was the Isle del Pescado (the fish island). Absolutely covered in Cacti, this place gives you an awesome viewing spot for the Salar and you can see on for what seems like forever! Absolutely amazing!
We continued driving until we reached our nights accommodation, a lovely salt hotel. One of the perks of paying a bit more is better accommodation on this first night - private rooms, showers etc. It was a pretty cool experience to stay of a salt bed, in a salt hotel, eating dinner off a salt table.
The second day was filled with driving! so much driving! but thats ok as the scenery was incredible. Like nothing I had ever seen before and like nothing I expected to see on this tour. We went from a salt flat to lush green pastures filled with llamas! Which thankfully we were able to stop and wander around with for a while before our lunch break.
After lunch eaten from the back of our 4WD we headed onwards and upwards, leaving behind our lush green llama filled paddock and heading into a dessert area made of the reddest of red earth with little to no vegetation and massive rock formations, some of which I swear looked like llamas… The picture below is of the famous stone tree.. I preferred the llama rocks…
We headed on until the earth was just red dust and almost nothing else. In the distance we could see huge white lakes. As we got closer we realised these were lakes filled with water but the edges contained borax deposits which caused the colour. The lakes were filled with beautiful pink flamingoes! The were pretty amazing. It was the first time I’d ever seen them in the wild! But wouldn’t be the last as there were so many more over the next day and a half.
We eventually stopped at the entrance to the national park to pay our 150 Bolivianos. Whilst here we ventured to the Laguna Colorado, the coloured lake! From the viewing area up high you can see the many beautiful colours of this lake, greens, reds, blues. It was beautiful and complete with its own set of flamingos!
The best stop of the day was definitely at the geysers. I had never seen geysers before and thought it was so cool! They smelt terrible because of all the sulfer being released! We ran between them as the mud boiled and they pumped out gases! Totally amazing!
Next stop was the hostel for the night. This was much more basic then the previous nights, with our car load of people sharing a room, very little electricity, no running water at all and, obviously, no showers. The perk however was exclusive use of the natural thermal springs about a 50m walk away from the rooms! After a late dinner, in absolute darkness, we all headed to the springs. What an awesome way to end the day! We just hung out in the springs for ages, looking at the most incredible night time sky I’d ever seen (the stars were amazing!) and looked for shooting stars. I think we would have all stayed in there all night if we could… The next morning we came out to find about half a dozen cars all arriving with heaps of people… we were so thankful not to have to deal with that!
Our third day was a pretty short one, with most of us having to make a transfer to Chile at 10am. We headed off early at 7am stopping along the way a the Laguna Verde, the green lake, which was beautiful but due to the lake of wind, which normally mixes different minerals into the lake causing its green colour, wasn’t so green. The Laguna Blanca, white lake, next door which also feeds into it, was much more impressive.
By 9am we were at the border, stamped out of Bolivia and ready to head to Chile. There is almost an hours drive between the two borders so we jumped on a bus and headed onwards. The border into Chile was boring, despite being warned how strict they are, we flew through immigration (also didn’t have to pay the $130 US reciprocity fee that you have to pay if coming in by air!) and before we knew it we were hanging our having the best coffee we’d had in ages in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
We hung out in San Pedro for a few days, just relaxing in the heat of the dessert, as there isn’t much else to do unless you want to pay for expensive trips to the dessert.
The one tour we decided to go on was the tour to the El Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world. It was pretty impressive as the sun came up and you could really see the gases being released from all the geysers. It was quite a production with so many tour companies sending out buses every morning.