What’s the main thing you have to do when you come to Bolivia? (Since San Pedro prison in La Paz stopped being tourist friendly anyway) Salar de Uyuni of course. The world’s largest salt flat, visited in a three or tour day jeep tour. The main question is where to start it from, Uyuni or Tupiza. As I had my heart set on horse riding near Tupiza (like in Butch Cassidy) we chose the latter.
After settling into our hotel we went out to get quotes. The manager of our hotel had insisted on pitching his tour before we had even properly checked in, which of course wound me up, and meant we didn’t even consider his company as a potential candidate. After visiting three other offices we decided to book with the company we had been recommended, La Torre Tours. To be honest, I don’t think that there is much difference between the different companies, each operate on a nigh identical itinerary, charged roughly the same, and provided the same services. Each group is assigned a driver and a cook, and you just hope that they are friendly and helpful.
The next morning America arrived. We hadn’t seen her since Manaus but since then we had been in touch, wondering if she would ever leave Cusco where she was working bar at Loki hostel. We were both excited to be catching up with her again, and not just because her extensive Spanish ability meant we didn’t need to pay $100 extra for an English speaking guide.
That afternoon Liam, Rachel and I left Ilona and went out horse riding. The horses knew exactly where they were going, needed no direction, were impossible to stop, and barely went faster than a walk. On the other hand this gave us the opportunity to catch up on the last few months, and take in some of the amazing surroundings.
We had opted for the three hour trip, visiting Puerta del Diablo, Valle de Los Machos and Cañón del Inca before we headed back to town. Other than a short scuffle with a tree (when my horse insisted on repeatedly walking into it) and another destroyed pair of sunglasses (again courtesy of my horse) this time passed less eventfully than in Mongolia. We had beers on the roof of the hostel at sunset and an early night. Our hostel was situated on the outskirts of town, meaning we had an amazing view. It was one of the perks, along with the shower, that countered the terrible staff attitude at the hostel.
Bright and early we were out and down to the road for our trip pickup (business relations preventing being picked up at our hostel). Our driver Illario(sp?) was chirpy from the world go, once we had picked up our cook, Maria, we were on the road. Throughout the trip I was surprised by how much driving was involved. The maps we had been shown in the tour offices had not really made this clear. I quickly began to associate the deceiving distances with our Russia experiences. Things would seem close, yet take long periods of time to reach. This meant a lot of piling out of the car for a photo opportunity before scurrying back in before we got too cold. The altitude and wind were making Ilona and Rachel’s colds far worse than normal, even I was starting to feel a bit peaky, we all needed to acclimatise.
We saw some beautiful rock formations, dried rivers, a ruined Spanish settlement at 4,200m, and lakes before we stopped in Quetena Grande for the night.
It was here we discovered that the sleeping bags we had paid for had not made it into the jeep. Luckily, our helpful guide assured us he would guarantee we got warm rooms and extra blankets for the rest of the trip. Liam and I were also pleased to discover afternoon tea, Inca Trail stylee, was another perk of the trip.
Another early morning, and we were on the road at sunrise on day two. The day started very positively as well. We seemed to be one of the first vehicles on the road, and saw Laguna Hedionda (surrounded by naturally occurring detergent) and Laguna Kollpa (coloured white because of the borax) before disaster struck. We were driving along quite happily when all of a sudden the car was filled with dust. It was like a smoke bomb had gone off, and Rachel and I in the back were in stitches. Illario donned his jumpsuit onsie and started looking into the problem.
Time passed. Other jeeps stopped and their drivers offered help. More time passed. All the other jeeps carried on their way, and Illario took the middle seats out to start looking at the engine. It was now nearly midday and all we could see in every direction was sand, and more sand. Eventually a car of guides returned and they continued to try various solutions, which didn’t work. They then towed us ten minutes to the Aguas Termales, which we were meant to visit around lunchtime. The hot springs were essentially a circular pool of steaming water next to a frozen lake. Liam and I quickly took a dip, happy at the prospect of being able to feel our toes.
The day began to pass. We kept being assured the car would soon be fixed, that they had identified the problem, but nothing seems to be working. By late afternoon it appeared we were going to be split up into other jeeps for the rest of the tour, not a prospect any of us were thrilled about. We would also miss the rest of the day’s itinerary if we were quickly transferred to that night’s stop. Instead we convinced a local to drive us to Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca next the the Chilean border.
They sit in the shadow of Volcan Licancabur, a towering 5,916m tall. For this I had a three year old perched on my lap and was reminded of how much pleasanter children who don’t grow up with everything they ever want are.
Predictably this other jeep broke down on the way back to the hot springs. The engine kept cutting out. They say bad luck comes in threes and we were hoping between the flat tyre on the first day, the smoke bomb, and this mini disaster (in the middle of the Desierto de Dali) we were now red taped out. It was clear we were staying put for the night and decided to make the best of it by buying some vino tinto. We’d decided that nothing would be gained by hassling our guide, and it was nice to be told they were very impressed and pleased with our laid back attitude. Had they been at fault perhaps it would have been a different story, but there really was nothing anyone could have done.
The third day started well as Maria had made us pancakes. We didn’t know what the plan of action was, but at least we had coffee, dulce de leche and pancakes. Around nine, 24 hours after the smoke bomb, we were told we were carrying on with a different driver. Enter Arsenio. He and Maria would be taking us on with the itinerary as planned, though maybe at a quicker pace, in a different vehicle. In fact it was the same vehicle that had broken down the evening before, and less than 100m down the road the engine cut out again. Five minutes later two wires had been twisted together next to the ignition, and with a little jiggling around the engine started fine. A true solution.
Unfortunately we didn’t see the geisers, but our first big stop of the day was the red Laguna Colorado.
This beautiful location was our first flamingo spot of the day, and all around the waters edge were llamas. I can’t really describe it, so I have to hope that the picture will do it justice.
From there were drove north passing the famous rock tree, Arbol de Piedra, the four lakes; Laguna Hondas, Laguna Charcota, Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Cañapa. At the third we stopped to see flamingos up close, with an impressive backdrop of mountains, and have an equally impressive car picnic of chicken, potatoes, plantain, rice and salad.
Very different to the cheese sandwiches and crisps I had in cars as a child – Maria had outdone herself again.
From there it was a lot of driving to our final destination. The desert was unlike any scenery I have seen before, I even saw my first active volcano (semi-active anyway) Ollague. It was constantly changing yet eerily the same. We must have made time up somewhere as we managed to reach our accomodation by dark. It was at the edge of the salar, and actually made from salt. Definitely a first for everyone involved!
Finally the big day dawned. We were so glad we had chosen to start our tour in Tupiza, and I think if you went to the salar first the rest of the tour may be a let down. This would be a huge shame, as everything we saw was phenomenal in its own way. It was freezing out on the salt flat as we waited for the sun to rise.
The surface has a honeycomb like pattern, but even this doesn’t take away from the never ending illusion of the ground. A fellow traveller once asked me how often people take the time to see sunrise. He had a point, but it just makes days like this all the more special.
We had breakfast at Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the salt flat. This island is covered in cacti and climbing around it gives a great view point over the worlds largest salar. Rachel made a solid point about the flats. Imagine being the first Europeans to arrive in modern day Bolivia. You are just riding through the desert on your horse when *bam* you discover a huge expanse that looks like ice but isn’t slippy and appears to be made from salt. How confused would you have been?!
Once breakfast was over it was time to hit the salt and take all the cheesy and touristy shots that I’ve seen on my Facebook over the last few months. We rocked out a Now album and messed around as much as possible in the allotted time. I could easily have stayed longer, especially as the sun had put his hat on, but we had to reach Uyuni by lunch and were ushered on. Mucho disappointedo.
A couple more stops at the Hotel de Sal, the underwhelming Montañas de Sal and finally the tourist market in Colchani, and we had arrived in Uyuni. It definitely wasn’t what I had expected. As most tours start from here I thought it would be highly geared towards tourists, yet the town seemed rough round the edges except for a couple of streets selling pizza and llama wares. Before lunch we convinced Arsenio to drive us out of town to the train graveyard, a totally different but equally surreal experience.
This is where old fashioned trains in Bolivia come to die, and someone had turned it into a gringo photo opportunity. For an aspiring train driver it was definitely something worth seeing.
It must be said that La Torre Tours were very much about the “damage contro” l following our slightly disastrous trip. They had already told us that they worked on recommendations, so it was only to be expected they would try their best to mitigate the situation. Illario was waiting for us in Uyuni, and after refunding our sleeping bags he fixed mine and Liam’s transfers to Chile. I then took a phone call from head office to ensure we felt we had been treated fairly and that the staff had done everything they could. Which they had. From the hot wiring incident it was clear that nine out of ten times they can fix the jeeps quickly. It was just our luck that illario’s jeep still wasn’t fixed, though they believed they had identified the problem. We still tipped Maria, Illario and Arsenio, and I learned a few new Spanish words, including bomba – engine.