The road from Tupiza to Uyuni was definitely a journey to remember, and not of the bad kind. It is only just over 200km, but took six hours. This was mainly down to the fact that there are no roads as such, and most of the journey was winding through valleys, canyons and hills. It was a spectacular end to our stay in Tupiza, and yet another great experience that Bolivia has brought us.
Uyuni is one of the most popular towns for tourists in Bolivia. This isn’t because it’s a nice place to visit (which it isn’t particularly), it’s because it’s the main point for visiting the Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats). We had originally planned to take the trip from Tupiza, but it was difficult to tie in crossing the border to Chile from there. So instead, after searching long and hard through the hundreds of tour agencies, we found a tour that came highly recommended and had a lot of activities that weren’t included in the normal tours.
- Quechua Tour Agency email (for those interested)
We were joined on our tour by some friends we met in Colombia, Matt and Kristin from Texas. They are doing a slightly different route to us, but we managed to arrange it so that we crossed paths again. When we arrived at the bus station we were met by our guide, Jose. There was some concern as Matt and Kristin hadn’t checked in with the agency, and we had received no emails from them. After an hour or so, and some frantic emails, we bumped into them on the main plaza, and it turns out we were staying in the same hotel, and had been waiting at the bus station with a little welcome sign.
The night turned into a wine drenched evening of catching up and cards. We had bought some supplies of wine to take on the salt flat tour with us, but the supplies were severely diminished by the end of the night. The next morning we were all moving slightly slower than usual, but excited about starting our trip. The first stop was a train cemetery. It’s a bit of a strange thing to find in the middle of the desert, but there were steam trains dating back to the 1880s. Uyuni used to be the place where trains would be brought for repair, but now they are just abandoned and begging for the attention of gringo’s cameras. There are lots of tours that do very similar routes, and it feels like a bit of a conveyor belt. So we left quite quickly to try and get ahead of the pack.
This didn’t really help though as when we arrived at our next stop, the salt mines; there were already dozens of 4x4s already there. As it was a Sunday there were no workers around, but we had a quick tour and Jose explained how they turn the raw material from the flats into salt fit for the table. All of this salt is mined from the salt flats, which we were introduced to next.
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 km², and it’s an impressive sight. Set against a clear blue sky, it looks like a giant ice rink, and even sounds like snow when walking on it. All of the other tours give you a couple of minutes to walk around and take pictures before loading you back into the 4x4s and driving you to lunch. We however were given bikes so we could ride around on the flats, and make our own way to lunch. The ride was probably about 5km at most, and the sun was helping us keep warm. Unfortunately a little too warm as that evening we were all very pink.
After lunch of llama steak served in a salt hotel (something you don’t get to do every day), we drove to a very remote area of the flats to take some funny perspective pictures. There are no reference points around you, so it’s the perfect place to do it. Jose asked us to come up with some ideas the previous day, but we weren’t really inspired. Thankfully he had some great ideas, and helped us with ideas and getting into position. Some of the photos were really effective and others not so much. But we had a great time messing around on the flats, and even had time for some frisbee.
When we eventually dragged ourselves away we visited Incahuasi Island in the centre of the salt flats. It is covered in huge cacti, and makes a very bizarre landscape against the backdrop of the salt flats. Some of the cacti are over 9m tall and 900 years old. Another island we went to visit had a huge cave where we escaped from the sun. The islands are the remains of volcanos that weren’t covered when the flats were formed by the uprising of the Andes.
It had been a long day, but we weren’t finished yet. On the way back to our hotel for the night, we stopped to get some pictures of the sunset. Jose told us that we must get a picture of us jumping in front of the sun, and we were a bit sceptical. We don’t usually take these cheesy type of pictures, but we were quite shocked at how good it looked.
After a very dodgy dinner of pique macho (one of Bolivia’s national dishes), we had barely gotten through our first bottle of wine before Jose was back. He took us out in the freezing cold of night to the centre of the flats to look at the stars. When we first got out of the jeep I was shocked. Back in the UK you don’t really get any decent views of the stars due to all of the city lights. This was totally different though. There were so many stars, and you could see the Milky Way really clearly. We just lay on the floor, enjoyed the rest of our wine and just took it all in. We saw loads of shooting stars, and it was a great end of a really good day.
We had been warned that the flats were really cold at night, but our hotel wasn’t cold at all. We had a good night’s sleep, and the next day we were primed and ready for more. Our first stop was a lookout over a volcano. We had expected to walk up to the crater, so we were slightly disappointed when we found that we were over 1km away from it. The rest of the day we saw lakes of various different colours. All of the lakes had flamingos…and lots of them.
After slowly made our way to just less than 5000m above sea level before we arrived at our hotel for the night. It had already started to get pretty cold, but as soon as the sun went down it dropped even more. So we layered up with as much alpaca as we could find, and enjoyed playing cards with Jose whilst enjoying some more wine.
We had a fairly early night as the next morning we were up at 04:00am to go and see the sun rise. I think we have said before that we much prefer sunsets to sunrises, but this was a sunrise with a difference. First on the agenda was a visit to the geysers. It was bitterly cold at that time of the morning, and Katy blankly refused to get out of the jeep. Matt, Kristin and I walked around them for as long as we could, before the cold got too much for us. We got back in the jeep and headed for our next stop, a dip in some hot springs.
This involved stripping down to our bathing suits (don’t worry, we weren’t naked) and jumping in the small natural pool that was about 35°. Everybody was a bit hesitant as it was so cold, so I decided to take the lead. After just a short jog to the pool it was a relief to get in. The problem was getting out and getting dry. There were no toilets or changing rooms, so it involved holding a towel around each other and trying not to get frostbite in the process. While all this was going on Jose had prepared breakfast for us, a hot drink and some food was perfect for warming us up.
The last part of our trip was our transfer to the Chile border. Matt and Kristin still had a few weeks left in Bolivia, so we said our emotional goodbyes before they headed back to Uyuni. We on the other hand were left in the middle of the desert waiting for our bus. It was absolutely freezing (around -10°) and we were stuck there for an hour. Let’s just say that we were not happy.
We were there with two Australian couples, Matt & Allie and Leo & Catherine. Once the bus had driven us to San Pedro in Chile, we all got off for the border control. We had been warned that it could take up to two hours to get through, but it was actually a really quick process. Just as our sprits started to lift, we were greeted with some bad news. It was Independence Day in Chile, and virtually everything was booked out. To make things worse, none of the cash points were working with our bank cards, so we couldn’t even get any money out. We had absolutely no money on us, so it looked like another fine start to a new country.
Thankfully after speaking to a few tour agents, we managed to find a hostel that had spare beds. We also borrowed some money from our new Aussie friends, so we could finally start to relax…or so we thought.
The next step was to work out how to get to Santiago. We knew it was a 24 hour bus trip, but because of the Independence Day celebrations all of the buses were booked out. Our next option was to check hire cars, but they were also all booked out. The final option was to get a flight. After searching for an hour or so, Katy managed to find a reasonable for $130 (only $20 more than the bus). Unfortunately they didn’t accept online booking with foreign credit cards. So instead we got chatting to a local couple that were staying in our hostel; Francisco and Penelope. Francisco kindly offered to try and help us by phoning the company and paying over the phone. After almost an hour on the phone, we finally had our flight booked, and decided to celebrate with a few drinks with our new Chilean friends.
This turned into a few more, and eventually they persuaded us to join them to a party in the town. There was a live Chilean Hip-Hop band that were really good, and we stood around a bonfire with a few beers and getting to know each other a bit better. Katy and I were the last ones standing, and we didn’t get back to our hostel until 04:30am. We had been up 24 hours, not eaten dinner and had drunk far too much rum and beer.
This morning we were both suffering, and we have struggled to do anything all day. We had a minor emergency when our flights had to be re-booked for more money, but it was all sorted in the end. We’re just about to enjoy a BBQ tonight, and hopefully we can begin to enjoy Chile without any more dramas.
We were a bit sad to leave Bolivia as we had really enjoyed our time there. There are so many different things to do, and it’s such a diverse country. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, and hopefully our last few stops will be as good as Bolivia.
Until the next time…