The white sea of Uyuni

Once again I have to start a post describing a bus ride, the one between Tupiza and Uyuni, and this time it’s not because of the beautiful scenery… The fun started as soon as we got on the bus. We thought the bus would be half empty because not many people take this route, but no. A group of 30 miners had to travel to Atocha, a dusty city in the middle of the way, so the bus was completely full. Until here all seems fine, right? What’s so strange about travelling on a bus full of miners? Well, if I tell you they all got on the bus being drunk and that “luckily” they had enough drink to keep them busy for a few hours… fun, uh?! But what it seemed at first a nightmare it was actually an opportunity to chat with the easy going miners and learn about their way of living. I will skip describing the state of the gravel road, I will just say that we named it Death Road 2 and that Isma kept praying all he knew. Specially when we stopped at a sharp bend beside a 30 or more meters fall, because a bus was coming on the other direction and the road was so narrow that both buses couldn’t fit. I’m glad I wasn’t sitting on the window seat. And if this wasn’t enough, El Ponderoso (name we gave the bus on honour of Che Guevara and Alberto Granado’s bike) was kind of old. The driver had to keep refiling the leaking water so the engine wouldn’t caught fire and he ended up putting on the mechanic overall to fix we don’t know what… After 8 hours, we couldn’t believe it when we saw Uyuni on the horizon!

Uyuni is on the route of most travellers visiting Bolivia. Not to visit the town itself, which doesn’t really have any tourism attractive, but to visit one of the world’s most unusual places, Uyuni’s Salt flats. On our first day in the rural Uyuni we didn’t really do much: recover from the scary bus ride, search for a tour, try to find a working ATM, a bit of offline blogging (finding a wi-fi was mission impossible) and taste llama steak which was surprisingly tasty.

We didn’t want to loose much time searching for the perfect tour. After asking in two of the hundreds of agencies we realized they were all offering a very same experience and that they all had the same price so went with the first one, just because the girl who gave us the speech was a bit nicer than the other one. As you can see a very important criteria! We had been told that with us they had four people for the tour and surprisingly that four were enough for it to go ahead, even though normally all tours are for 6 people. The morning after, when the jeep arrived to pick up us, we realized that we were not going with the same agency we had booked the tour with. But it didn’t caught us off guard, we had read that it’s common practice that agencies send you with a different one if they don’t get the 6. We even doubt the other two people existed in the first place.

The first stop of the tour was the train cemetery, probably Uyuni’s mayor attraction. Here we saw the old steam locomotives that used to take the minerals from the mines to Chile and Argentina. Many of the trains were abandoned because the mining industry collapsed and also because they were replaced by more modern ones. It was like a big a playground for adults, all of us climbing to the rusty trains and jumping from one wagon to another.

After the train cemetery we entered the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat with a 10,582 km² extension. Throughout the Salar there is between 1 and 1.5 metres of salt, and it keeps growing every year thanks to the rain. It was an impressive sight, the whiter than white Salar in contrast with a clear blue sky, it looked like a huge and calm salt sea. In the salar we visited first Colchani, a little village which survives processing the salt. By what we saw it is still a very manual process. We stopped for lunch at what is called Incahuasi island, a hilly and rocky outcrop of land in the middle of the salar full of giant cactuses. It was the perfect spot to play with the camera and the white background…

After a cosy stay in a salt hotel, made all with salt blocks, we started the second day of the tour. The landscape changed dramatically, we had left the white Salar and we were now driving through desert and in between volcanoes. We passed by colourful lagoons home to bright pink flamingos and we met some strange rabbit like creatures, called viscachas, as we were having lunch lost in the deep desert. Laguna Colorada (red lagoon) was were we stopped for the night. I know the salar is supposed to be the highlight of the tour, but for me the sight of the red lagoon with hundreds of flamingos head down eating or flying over was almost as impressive.

The lodge where we spent the second night was very basic. Unlike the first night, we had to share the room with Danielle, Lorenza, Jennifer and Irene, the four Italian speaking Swiss who were doing the tour with us. Not such a bad thing, because at 4300 metres above sea level, you can imagine how cold it was so a bit of human heating in the room wasn’t a bad thing. During the evening we combat the cold with a matecito and good conversations with our friends the Swiss. Thankfully just before dinner they lighted the wood-burning stove, this brought us good memories from the chilly nights in the Annapurnas.

It was 4.20 am when Marcial, the driver and guide, was waking us up on the 3rd day. Ahead of us a disappointing geyser, a road going over 5000 metres to visit the not any longer green Green Lagoon and see once again Licancabur volcano (we had seen it from San Pedro de Atacama), and a desert called Salvador Dalí as it apparently resembles some paintings from the Spanish painter. Just after a yummy breakfast of pancakes with dulce de leche we got ready for the highlight of the day, the hotspring! Still half asleep none of us was looking forward to stripping off our clothes but at the end it was so worth it. Bathing in a hot spring in the middle of nowhere surrounded by flamingos with a scenery that feels like you are in another planet was an unforgettable experience.

After the relaxing bath, back to the jeep again. A last visit to the Laguna Colorada to say goodbye to the flamingos before we stopped for a quick lunch at Villamar. Still we had ahead of us a long journey back to Uyuni. It was a very long day.

In all, the Salar de Uyuni tour was very enjoyable. Not just because the scenery was incredible but also because we got to share it with Daniele, Jenifer, Irene and Lorenza and of course Marcial!

Visit our flickr gallery to see all the pictures!

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Accommodation

Hotel Avenida – Although there are many hotels and hostels in Uyuni, most of them seem to be quite basic. We stayed at Hotel Avenida, near the town’s main square. The hotel is fairly big. We stayed in a double room with shared bathroom. They had hot water showers but only from 7.30 am to 8.30pm. There was neither wifi nor breakfast, but the good thing is that we had a chamber pot in the room and about 4 blankets for the bed. Basic but ok for a couple of nights in Uyuni, we would stay again. We paid 60 BOB per night.

Transportation

From Tupiza to Uyuni by bus (8h) – We took the bus with the only company travelling from Tupiza to Uyuni. It took longer than what we had been told (6h) because the bus was in a very poor condition and because the road was not paved. We paid 40 BOB per person.

Salar de Uyuni tour

We booked the tour with Expediciones Latitudes (in front of the train station) but we ended up doing the tour with Expediciones Alkaya (in front of the bus station). All the standard tours cost the same and offer the very same itinerary. The tour included the food for the three days, the drinks during the meals, accommodation in dorms (although the 1st night we slept in a double room), transportation, the guide, a matecito each evening and a surprise bottle of wine for the last supper. What it didn’t include was the hot showers (10 BOB per person), the drinks outside meals, the entrance to Incahuasi island (30 BOB) and to Eduardo Avaroa national park (150 BOB) and the tip to the guide. Overall we were pleased with the tour and the guide. We paid 650 BOB per person for a standard 3 days 2 nights tour plus 40 BOB for each sleeping bag. Note, check the sleeping bag before you take it with you.

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