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Published: September 16th 2013
I arrived in Tupiza with Mariano and a couple of Italians we had met at the border. It was immediately apparent my money would go a lot further in Bolivia, as we managed to find a hostel with beds for 25 Bolivianos per night (around £2.50)! We went out for dinner as a group and it was clear my Spanish had a long way to go, as I could barely follow the conversation.
Although my main reason for being in Tupiza was to book a tour to Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, I found the town pleasant and friendly. I spent a good few hours exploring the Valle de los Machos, which was walkable from town, and saw the rock formations "Canyon del Inca" and "Puerta del Diablo". Tupiza was also a place for trying new things: first, coca leaf, which I had in tea (it's supposed to be a pick-me-up but I didn't notice any effects and wasn't keen on the taste), and second, llama, which was very tasty and quite similar to lamb.
The standard Salar de Uyuni tour offered by all companies in Tupiza lasts four days and takes in mountains, lakes and
wildlife, concluding with the Salar on the last day. The price of just over £100, including transport, food and accommodation, seemed very reasonable. However, Mariano and the Italians were on a tight budget and left for the town of Uyuni to take a cheaper day trip to the salt flats. For me, it was a case of choosing a company, and I went with Shai Tours, who were recommended by friends and had a spare place the next day. Joining me on the tour were an Australian couple, Mark and Sherry and we were looked after by driver, Raul, and chef, Nelba.
We set off late, but it became clear our young driver was a bit of a racer and we were in the lead by lunchtime, having overtaken the jeeps from the other companies. While I always felt Raul was in control, he was clearly going too fast though the villages and after lunch, his luck ran out as he crashed into a motorbike at a crossroads. Thankfully the only damage done was to the bike's exhaust and the jeep's headlight, and after some remonstrations, we were on our way. We stopped off at a deserted town at
Salar de Uyuni tour - day 2
Laguna Colorado - llamas, flamingos and me
an altitude of almost 5000 metres (we were told it was deserted because it was too cold, which seemed reasonable). Sherry was suffering with headaches and nausea due to the altitude, and I found myself gasping for breath after very little exertion. Our first night was spent at 4300 metres and the accommodation was bitterly cold. Thankfully the sleeping bag I hired did its job and I was warm, although the weight of blankets and altitude made breathing difficult and so I didn't sleep well.
On the second day, the 4x4s were given their sternest test, as we had to negotiate a frozen river. While being in a convoy detracted a bit from the remoteness, it proved useful here, as some of the less well-maintained vehicles needed to be tugged through. Later, we bathed in hot springs while it was snowing. This provided a welcome respite from the bitter cold. The day concluded with the otherworldly Laguna Colorado, a rose tinted lake with flamingos of the same colour and llamas.
For the third day, snow forced a change of route, meaning we missed out on a number of lagunas that I wanted to see. We passed some interesting
Salar de Uyuni tour - day 4
Sunrise from Incahuasi Island
rock formations, including one that resembled the world cup trophy, before reaching our base on the edge of the salar - a hotel made almost entirely of salt! We were treated to wine with dinner, then headed to bed early, ready for an early start the next day. It was dark when the alarm went off at around 5 am and we quickly piled into the jeep set off onto the salt flats. The 45 minute journey was hypnotic, with the drone of the engine and only the small area of white in front of us visible in the darkness. Eventually, we made it to Incahuasi Island in the middle of the salt flats and waited. Soon, daylight began to appear and our location in the middle of a vast sea of white became apparent. We stayed while the sun rose, trying to comprehend our bizarre and amazing surroundings, before enjoying breakfast and taking a few obligatory perspective photos. The tour concluded with an anti-climatic visit to the train graveyard next to Uyuni town, after which we were dropped off in the town centre.
Despite the crash, I felt the recommendation of Shai Tours by my freinds was justified,
Salar de Uyuni tour - day 4
In the palm of Sherry's hand
particularly because of Nelba's cooking, which was excellent and had other groups looking at our table with envy. The tour will certainly go down as one of the highlights of my trip, thanks to the incredible and unique landscapes of which the Salar itself was just the icing on the cake.
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