Although we went to The Salt Flats whilst still living in Jupapina, I decided the trip deserved its own entry. The tour, including the return bus from La Paz to Uyuni, was all sorted by Rolando and we paid a not too unreasonable 440 Bolivianos return for a full cama bus and 900 Bolivianos for the tour – including 2 nights accommodation and meals. This is roughly the going rate for tours, although a little can be saved booking on arrival in Uyuni. Again, the bus could have been booked for slightly cheaper at La Paz station, but having done none of the legwork ourselves we were happy.
Myself, Aisling and George headed off on a Thursday night bus and were immediately impressed with the cama service offered, proving far more bed-like than any we had so far encountered. My good impression was altered drastically when looking over to George and seeing that he had managed to bring what is apparently called a ‘snuggy‘ in his weekend bag. For any people not from Bristol, this is a long blanket/duvet with built in sleeves. I tried to get over my feeling of complete and utter disgust in order to get some sleep on the 12 hour or so journey and George offered an olive branch in the shape of apparently limitless Oreos.
We arrived in Uyuni at around 8am and with only a few hours until the tour began. We had time to grab breakfast and get acquainted with others that would be doing the tour. This consisted of a bloke from Brighton who declared he had read the infamous Marching Powder novel based on San Pedro prison whilst in prison himself, and told us details of his detox in preparation for a upcoming ‘spiritual’ stint with a Shaman. To add to the strange cacophony of people presenting themselves, a Polish girl called Marta from our Jeep, expressed an odd excitement when I told her that Aisling and I were a couple. She informed us she was a professional photographer and that her current project centred on nude couples. Such a photo from the world renowned Salt Flats was highly desirable for her work. Unsurprisingly, being that I am somehow both fat and skinny at the same time and not in a good way, and Aisling has no desire to get her kit off, we politely declined the offer of a girl we had met 3 minutes before.
The first day entailed a visit to the nearby Train Graveyard for some interesting climbing and photo opportunities, and then we headed to the main attraction of the trip, the worlds largest salt desert.
The first site we stopped at, although undeniably impressive, was similar to the pictures so often associated with the salt flats but with a vast amount of puddles on the ground. We spent around 30 minutes snapping away with the camera, but each photograph was adversely affected by the presence of puddles. We were slightly underwhelmed, and tired, after our lack of success regarding a clichéd photograph.
A small drive later and it became evident that we had jumped the gun in both our judgement and our efforts. We had reached the desert proper and there was not a puddle in site. Armed with a range of props, from a bottle of Fanta to a small dinosaur, we went in search of the perfect Facebook Profile Picture that would leave us inundated with likes. Credit to people who do succeed in a genuine looking perspective photo as most of ours were a little bit off, but a lot of fun is to be had. Although everybody is taking photos, a little time is also needed to allow the naked eye to truly appreciate the never-ending beauty that is provided by the Salar de Uyuni. ***
Happy with our lot, and after eating lunch in a restaurant made out of salt but irritatingly lacking in pepper, the highlight of the day arrived in the form of an unexpected treat. With sunset closing in, our Jeep and two others left the unofficial convoy of up to 40 Jeeps and headed to a rarely accessed haven. We reached a place where a thin film of water covered the ground and therefore acted as a mirror as the sun was setting. We were extremely lucky to witness this as any earlier in the season was too wet for vehicle access, and any later too dry for the mirror effect. This caused one of the most interesting natural environments I’ve ever witnessed with the array of effects and colours creating the feeling of being on another planet. Although our camera isn’t quite good enough to convey this, the pictures do it some small justice.
That night we stayed in a Salt Hotel, again made entirely out of salt, and were able to pay a small amount to have a warm shower – an option we gratefully accepted. Our philandering guide appeared to have a mistress handily positioned at this hotel, as well as every other conurbation or shop we passed through on the trip.
We set off early the next morning after breakfast and Aisling was yet again facing a battle against the altitude. Not long after we set off the Jeep pulled over and the breakfast she had recently consumed made a hasty reappearance in a nearby quinoa field. As we stopped off to view some interesting rocks it became evident that she had lost the battle. At lunch our guide arranged for another tour to take Aisling the four hours back to Uyuni,with me facing the dilemma of being a caring, gentleman boyfriend and going with her or remaining on the tour until the following evening…
As Aisling’s departing Jeep headed in the opposite direction, we headed towards one of two lakes that would be part of the tour. Obviously I was sick with fear, so I wasn’t fully able to enjoy the spectre of the mountainous lakes. This was aided by the fact that there was zero visibility due to adverse weather so we had to contend with the guides assurance that we were looking in the direction of a lake, and view the photos on his phone from a previous sunny day as proof. The second lake was slightly more visible, featuring copious amounts of flamingos but our vantage point wasn’t ideal.
After a day filled with a lot of driving and some interesting sites, not matching the standard of the previous day, we headed to the highest altitude of the trip for our second nights accommodation. Having been repeatedly warned of the basic standard of the abode we would be staying at, I expected to be sleeping on a bare floor in a sleeping bag. The room we were in had 5 single beds, with me and George almost required to spoon, but was a lot more comfortable than I had anticipated. There were even semi-functioning shared toilets. That evening we had a few drinks and some sociable card games with another tour group in the common area, with everybody was tucked up in bed by 11 PM, although myself and George had consumed significantly more Kohlberg than we had planned in preparation for our 5 AM wake up call.
After sleeping in and missing the breakfast the following morning, I quickly grabbed some of the pancakes on offer and made it to the Jeep at the same time as everybody else. Despite my ravenous hunger the pancakes were barely edible at this stage and I left them to roll around on the back seat of the Jeep for the remainder of the day – they were later gratefully received by a group of South East Asians on the Chilean border, who interrupted me as I was about to throw them in a bin.
The morning started off with a visit to some geysers, oddly enough starting with some man-made ones before heading the short distance to the genuine site. The smell was a little too much for my delicate state but they were unquestionably interesting nonetheless. In tandem with the Salt Flat aspect of the trip the geysers were an added bonus but I suspect there are better places in the world to visit them if they are the serving as the main attraction. We then headed to some thermal springs which were overly busy with other tour groups, but still certainly offered a refreshing feeling to be able to sit in a warm bath when the air temperature was so cold. The nauseating feeling when getting out a little too quickly was a lot less desirable.
Minus a few stops at more interesting natural landscapes, including an unexpected and pleasantly surprising visit to a canyon, the trip was essentially over but for a drive back to Uyuni. The first day had without a doubt been the highlight, with the majority of the most appealing aspects featuring that day. However, the second and third day are still thoroughly enjoyable and for the overall price paid, the 2 night 3 day tour is well worth the small price of essentially 90 GBP. The opportunity to see the unforgettable sunset is reason enough alone not to only do the one day tour. Although the guide was neither brilliant or terrible, I can tell from my lack of knowledge upon writing about a number of the locations we visited meant we weren’t really informed of any details or facts, in Spanish or any other language. Irrespective, we were very lucky on our tour to share the Jeep with a great bunch of people, Marta the Polish inappropriate photograph requester, and two native Spanish speakers whose names elude me now. I suspect the other people on the tour could really make or break a trip, and along with the unbelievable natural beauty of the Salt Flats, they definitely made ours.
***A friendly piece of advice, if at all possible try and ensure that the chances of you being desperate to defecate whilst on the Salt Flat proper, is minimal, i.e. don’t overload on Llama meat at the free lunch. Being significantly far from any facilities, lacking in any natural cover due to it being a desert, as well as being pristine virgin white in colour it is officially the worst place in the world I have needed to poo my pants. I didn’t, don’t worry.