Salar de Uyuni Tour

Published: February 16th 2016
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Bolivia 4x4 Trip

Bolivia 4x4 Adventure:

Going to Bolivia for an American is not exactly easy. For some reason the American government doesn’t like the Bolivian government and they make it difficult for Bolivians to come to America. Thus, the Bolivians make it hard for us to come to Bolivia. You can, you just have to pay $160 USD, provide 2 passport photos, a yellow fever card, proof of hotel reservations and full itinerary. Yeah, a bit different than going to Europe, huh? I wasn’t about to let this scare me away though. I did a lot of research and I was a bit worried that I didn’t have my yellow fever card with me, but I had the money and the photos so I wasn’t too concerned.

Bolivia was not on our original honeymoon itinerary. This came up after we decided we were through with Patagonia and decided to head up to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. The salt flat known as Salar de Uyuni is one of the most popular attractions in all of South America. And many people begin their trip there from San Pedro, as the Bolivian border is only an hour or so away. So we decided it would be worth it to go to Bolivia. We did a little research online and found out that it is almost impossible to do the sights on your own. There are basically no roads and getting lost is a serious concern. The only safe way to do the Salar de Uyuni is an organized tour. And luckily there are no shortage of tour companies that will take you there from San Pedro.

We ended up deciding to book with Lithium Travels after reading some reviews of them at the information center. They came highly recommended and even had someone who spoke English at the office. For a 3 night, 3 and a half day tour it only cost $170 USD per person. For three and a half days of meals, accommodations, transportation, and the actual tour itself that is quite cheap. That’s like $50 per day person. We could have easily spent that on lodging and lunch and dinner in San Pedro. We book for a Monday morning departure on January 18th. Bolivia here we come!

Day 1:

We are up early, as they said we need to be outside waiting by 7:20 AM. Nimarta figures they will never be on time, but I am more cautious. I’m ready at 7:20 when they bang on the door, but she is still making a cup of tea. Apparently sometimes South Americans are actually on time. I load up the stuff (we are just taking the large backpack, our two small backpacks, three 6 liter water bottles, and a plastic bag of food) while she finishes making her tea. She is forced to “borrow” the mug though. Looks like we will have to come back to this hostel after all! Our two suitcases are at the hotel we have booked for three nights after we get back to town on Thursday. We figured we needed a nice relaxing stay at a quality place after this trip. More on this later.

There are a few groups of people to pick up. There are a couple Dutch guys. A group of Germans, French, and Italians, a Finnish girl, a father and daughter from Alaska, and some Koreans. We wonder who we will be paired up with. Our bus driver is efficient and we make it to the San Pedro border and customs office only behind one other group. I find it odd that the office is in town and not actually near the border. I mean couldn’t anyone just skip coming here? We get our passports stamped and we have officially left Chile. It’s about an hour drive to Bolivia so we load up in the car as fast as possible so we can be one of the first groups at the Bolivian checkpoint.

The drive to the border is amazing in that it is straight up. There is not one downhill or flat portion on the drive. From San Pedro we gain almost 2000 meters in elevation by the time we hit the Bolivia immigration office. It is quite chilly up here at 4400 meters. We are higher in elevation than anywhere you can go in the continental US other than the peak of Mount Whitney. It’s sort of like being back in the Himalayas. We won’t be climbing any mountains but we will still get to 5000 meters on this tour, about 16,400 feet, at the base of a mountain. Yeah, we are in the high Andes. There are no trees here. Just volcanos and lakes and colorful mountains. This will definitely be a unique experience!

Luckily we are one of the first groups in the immigration line because I have to fill out forms. No one else does, just Americans. Nimarta and all the other people get looked over for two seconds before they get their passports stamped and leave the office. But I have two forms to fill out and $160 to pay. Good ole American international diplomacy huh? Luckily the forms only take me about 10 minutes to complete and they don’t say anything about a yellow fever card. I give them a $100 and three $20s and they check them over thoroughly. Apparently the Bolivian government does not like old bills with any defects or tears. Luckily I have a nice crisp $100 and some good $20s. You’d think a country as poor as Bolivia would take any American money they could get their hands on, but that’s not the case. Who knows… Either way, they take my forms and put a tourist visa in my passport. I can now come back to Bolivia for the next 10 years without paying the fee – woo!

By the time I am out of the immigration office everyone is eating breakfast. It is our only meal all together as we will now be splitting up into smaller groups of a maximum of six people. We end up with the European group: two French, a German, and an Italian, about our age, also couples. The tour agency introduces us to our driver, Carlos, who will be taking care of us for the next three and a half days. Carlos doesn’t speak English (none of the guides do) but the Italian girl is almost fluent in Spanish so she will be able to help translate for the rest of the group. Our big bags get loaded on top of the truck and tied up. We will only be able to get into these bags at the end of each day so anything we may need for the day we have to carry in our small backpacks. Luckily we don’t need much. It’s tight in the Land Cruiser. Nimarta and I hop in the back and there is not really room for our legs. The middle looks a bit more comfortable but still not much leg room. One of the French guys is like 6’-3” so he gets the front with Carlos. This will be a cozy ride!

Our first stop is the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Flora and Fauna. This is one of the largest national parks in Bolivia and it is known for its salt lakes and hundreds of thousands of flamingos. Entrance to the park is 150 Bolivianos (about $25 USD) and is not included in the cost of the tour. After paying they tell us to use the bathroom here because there won’t be one until we get to the hostel tonight. As I have mentioned Bolivia is a poor country, and this is evident when you have to pay to use a bathroom at a national park. There is also a toilet paper quota. Fun times in the third world!

Our first stop is right after the entrance to the park at a huge lake called Lago Blanco (White Lake). Many of the lakes here are named after the colors the water resembles. The colors in the lake are from different types of microorganisms that live in the water. This lake is pretty white, and the beauty of the pink flamingos makes a great contrast on the lake. These lakes are all very shallow (it does not rain much up here) and the flamingos just walk around, eating. All flamingos do is eat. They like to feast on a little shrimp-like creature that lives in the salt waters and apparently these things are so small that the flamingos have to constantly eat to survive. And they literally do nothing but eat, and occasionally fly somewhere else to eat. They rarely sleep but when they do it’s often on one leg. Eat, eat, fly, eat, sleep on one leg, eat, eat: the life of a flamingo.

The scene in front of us at this lake is gorgeous. There are some nice looking clouds in the sky and they make for some great photos. The mountains/volcanos around here are about 5600-6200 meters, so yeah pretty damn high up there. After enjoying the scenery for a bit we load back in the Land Cruises for our next stop, a hot natural hot spring. But by the time we get there it is so crowded no one from our group wants to go on. I have mentioned before that crowds can be a problem on this trip, and that is clear here at this spring, which is tiny, and stuffed full of people. We walk a little along the edge of the lake where nobody has really ventured to and it’s nice and peaceful, other than the random garbage everywhere. This will be a common theme of the journey and will touch more on it later.

The next stop is an area full of geysers and geothermal activity. At 4,950 meters this is the highest geothermal area in the world. I’ve seen a ton of geothermal areas before (Yellowstone, Rotorua, Iceland, Lassen Volcanoes) so looks-wise this is nothing special. But the difference here is that just walking around the boiling mud pools and colorful sulfur-infested hills I have to catch my breath. We didn’t really get to properly acclimatize so just walking around is tiring. There are no actual geysers here but one pool is spraying hot smoke, which everyone seems to enjoying playing in, including me. It is damn cold up here and this hot steam feels amazing!

After my steam bath it is time to head towards the hostel we will be sleeping at tonight for a very late lunch. It’s like 3:30 by the time we get to the hostel, though it’s not really a hostel. It’s more of just a big dorm-style accommodation in a really long, narrow building in the middle of nowhere. There is no town or village here. It’s a just a building in the park that operates solely for these tours. We are put in a room with six twin beds for the six of us. This is what you call a “basic accommodation.” The room is literally just six beds and a light bulb, though the electricity is only on from 7-10 each night since it’s by generator. This ain’t the 4 Seasons, but it will do for tonight. We unload our gear in the room then wait at the table outside the room for lunch. We are impressed with the lunch, it’s actually quite good. Now it’s time for a quick nap.

We aren’t done for the day just yet, as our driver gathers us in the room around 5:00. We have one more stop today: the pink lake. The lake is right by the hostel so it’s a quick drive over. By now, though, it’s raining. The skies had been darkening during lunch and now the storm is clearly here. A dark black cloud awaits us at the lake. There are only a few trucks left here, most groups went earlier. I put on my rain jacket and brave the conditions. It’s not too bad and we first head down to the lake to see if we can get a good look at some flamingoes. Most flamingoes are very shy and will move away the moment they sense humans coming towards them, but one species, the black and white one, is not phased by humans apparently. We follow this one guy around the edge of the lake as he eats away in the rain. The lake is very pink, but the lack of sunlight gives it a full hue and it doesn’t really show up in pictures. We leave the black and white flamingo alone and head off to try to find some others. There are thousands in the distance but they are too far away to really see well. Oh well. It’s raining pretty good now so it’s time to go.

Tea and coffee is awaiting us when we return to the hostel. But as I don’t drink either I just sip some water as we chat with the Europeans. Some of the other groups appear to be drinking whiskey aggressively. Dinner is around 8:00 and it’s disappointing compared to lunch: spaghetti with a crappy sauce. At least lunch was good. The group next to us drinking whiskey is starting to get rowdy and loud. Awesome. We want to get to bed so that our 5:30 AM wakeup call doesn’t catch us too off guard. But these ass-holes are having the time of their life, apparently, and they just keep getting louder as the night goes on. By 10:00 we are all in bed and would be asleep if not for these guys screaming at the top of their lungs. Do they not understand that other people are staying here? This one girl’s laugh is louder than a Metallica concert. I feel like going out there to tell them to shut the hell up but I resign to putting on my headphones and listening to some music as I fall asleep.

Day 2:

The ass-holes are up at 4:30 and again making a ton of noise. Or maybe they’ve just been up all night and I slept through it. Either way they are annoying again and I curse them as I fail to fall back asleep. Finally they leave and after a while it is time for us to get up and have breakfast. After a mediocre breakfast we pack up the car and hit the road. Today will be a long day on the road, and by “on the road” I mean off-road.

Our first stop is the other side of the pink lake. It stopped raining overnight and the skies are almost nearly clear now. As we get out of the car a huge herd of flamingos flies by. For as awkward as they look they are actually graceful fliers. They are gone before we know it and we turn our attention to the flamingos in the lake. The lake isn’t as pink from this side, but all sorts of shades of green dot the edge and it is quite spectacular as well. The crisp morning air chills us as we try to get close to some flamingos. Of course, they scurry away as we get near, afraid of us as normal. Silly flamingos.

Back in the road we zoom across the dirt towards a place called Tree Rock. As mentioned, there are no actual trees up here, but someone thought this one rock looked like a tree, so here we are. This area is more than just one rock though. There are all sorts of boulders dotting the barren, dirt landscape. People are climbing the rocks all over the place. I pick a big rock that seems to be empty and scale to the top for a great view of the volcano in front of me. It’s amazing that these rocks are here in the middle of nothing but dirt. How did they get here?

After Tree Rock we are back in the truck and back on the dirt. We zoom through rolling hills of dirt and sand as snow-capped volcanos appear on either side of us. We stop by another lake full of flamingos and pass by some llamas that appear to be attempting to mate. It’s quite awkward though. Apparently llamas aren’t the smoothest lovers. Moving on from the mating llamas we stop by another lake. But this lake is different because it’s actually like… a lake. It’s deep and therefore there are no flamingos. There is a rocky ledge by the lake and it creates a gorgeous scene. This is where we will have lunch. Not a bad view.

After lunch we continue heading north. We are getting pretty close to the salt flats now. We don’t have many stops this afternoon. Our main stop this afternoon is in a little village called Villa Martin. The only reason we are stopping here, though, is to get some quinoa beer. Quinoa is the main source of income in this part of Bolivia. There are quinoa farms all over the place now that we are near a town. Little Bolivian mountain ladies tend to the farms in traditional clothing. It’s a simple life out here. The quinoa beer is not cheap compared to other things in Bolivia but it’s worth a shot. It’s not bad!

As we drink our beer we wander around the village a little bit. There are a ton of llamas roaming around but we try not to bother them too much, unlike the South Korean girls, who decide that chasing them is a good idea. Ugh. We try to explain to them that they shouldn’t chase wildlife but they don’t seem to understand. One of the llamas tries to run through some buildings but all of a sudden a dog comes out and barks so loud it scares the llama away. That is one mean dog – no llamas allowed! I decide to try my luck and thankfully the dog lets me pass. Back here are four giant cacti that look just like saguaros! But they are not saguaros, as that particular species of cacti are indigenous to the Sonoran desert in Arizona. They are clearly some sort of close relative, though. The only real difference is the color. These are a lighter shade of green and have hints of yellow and brown. Other than that they look almost identical. I had no idea Bolivia had this type of cactus. Bad ass!

We finish our beers and load back into the truck. Soon enough we are at our destination for the night: the Hostel de Salta. This hostel is built almost completely of salt blocks. So instead of concrete masonry units, or rocks, the walls are literally built from salt (we will learn later that this is a popular method of construction in this part of the world). And it’s not just the walls. The tables, the beds, the chairs… it’s all made of salt! In fact the only thing not made of salt is the roof (probably a good idea). What a crazy place.

After settling in we are served some light snacks and drinks. We are hungry but apparently dinner isn’t coming any time soon, so we head back to the room for a quick nap. Dinner isn’t till about 8:30 and we are starving by the time the chicken is served. It’s not bad, but for six of us there is barely any chicken. We are still a bit hungry afterwards and snack on some cookies. At least they gave us a bottle of wine tonight. Split six ways you don’t get much, but hey it’s better than nothing. We retire right after dinner. Tomorrow will be an early morning because it will be a big day. Tomorrow we go to the salt flats!

Day 3:

Our wakeup call is freakishly early, like 4:30. We are loaded and on the road before 5:00. The reason we are getting up this early is so we can see the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest and highest salt flat in the world and it is the main attraction of this tour. People come from all over the world to experience this place and we have been excited about this moment from the day we decided to go to Bolivia. As twilight peaks across the sky we speed across the solid white earth towards a cactus covered island in the ancient salt lake.

This little island once actually an island but it is no longer surrounded by water. It is now surrounded entirely by an endless salt flat. So technically it’s not an island anymore, but we still call it an island. It’s covered in the saguaro-like cacti. In the early morning light it’s absolutely stunning. There are a ton of trucks here, as every tour group is doing the same thing, but we are one of the first here. We pay a small entrance fee to enter the island and we head up to the top of the hill to watch the sunrise. The hike is short but exciting and reminds me of hiking Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, except it’s not freakishly hot. Soon enough we are at the top of the hill and claim a spot on some rocks to wait for the sunrise.

Soon a bright red sun appears on the salty horizon. Sunrise is fast and soon beams of light are gleaming on the cacti. It’s a marvelous scene unfolding before us. We stay at the top of the hill for a while taking some photos and enjoying the scenery. The sun shines on the salt flats and now they are glowing in a brilliant white color. We stay at the top as long as possible before having to head back down for breakfast. Back at the truck we can’t find Carlos. We wait for a while then decide he must be cooking and go for a walk around the side of the island for some different views.

Back at the car we finally find Carlos and breakfast is ready. After some coco puffs and yogurt we are back in the truck. We are heading now for an area of Carlos’ choice where we will spend some time in the vastness of the salt flat. After about a half hour we stop in a sea of white. Walking around, the first thing I notice is the hexagonal pattern of the salt flat. It’s flat, but not exactly smooth, as there are hexagons of thickened salt (hard to describe – refer to the picture). I try not to step on the hexagons but it’s hard not to. Oh well. We have some time here so Nimarta really wants to take some perspective pictures. With the land so flat and white you can easily create illusions in photographs. We use hats, water bottles, and plastic dinosaurs as props. I have to admit we take some pretty cool photos. Carlos helps us create some nice shots and Nimarta is extremely pleased. Refer to the pictures here for ideas of what we did.

We are on the salt flats for nearly an hour before Carlos tells us we have to get going. We wouldn’t mind staying here a bit more but when the man says it’s time to go it’s time to go. As we approach the edge of the salt flat a little town comes in to view. This is where we will eat lunch but we have some spare time before we eat so Carlos suggest we walk around the shops to see if we want to buy any gifts. This town clearly survives solely based on selling gifts to Salar de Uyuni tourists. We walk up and down the market looking for some good deals and finally settle on some little llama magnets and some hand-sewn tablecloths. So cheap.

Lunch is basic and we have some more time to kill afterwards as Carlos isn’t ready to go yet. There is a dirt soccer field right by the market and there is a little boy kicking a soccer ball around by himself. It’s dusty and dirty but he looks like he is having a good time so I decide to go play with him. I say “hola amigo” and give the international gesture for “pass me the ball.” He kicks it over to me and I do a few quick moves and pass it back to him. We run around the dirt field passing it back and forth for a bit as a herd of stray pigs crosses behind me. Eventually we move to shooting on each other in the goal. I give him some easy shots he can save then decide to score so I can boast a bit. “Gooooooolllllll!” Then I go in goal and he shoots on me. After a few shots he scores and celebrates. “Gooooooolllllll!” He’s pretty good for a 4-5 year old. After a while I’m tired. I’m so out of shape and we’re at like 13,000 feet. I ask the little man his name and he says “Santiago.” I thank him for playing with me and give him a high five.

I feel bad for Santiago. He clearly loves playing soccer, but due to his family’s economic situation he probably will never get a chance to play anywhere other than this dirt field in the mountains. There is garbage everywhere around the field and broken glass he might accidently step in. It’s quite a sad situation and I hope the few minutes I kicked the ball around with him gave him some excitement, however briefly it may have lasted.

After leaving the little town we see something that we have not seen this entire trip: a paved road! It’s like a mirage in the desert. Our smooth ride doesn’t last long though. To get to the city of Uyuni we have to get off the main road; something about a construction worker’s strike. Back on the dirt road it is. We bump around passing piles of garbage everywhere as we head towards the city. There really isn’t any sanitation system in this part of Bolivia. It seems like everyone just goes outside of the city limits to dump their garbage. It’s pretty depressing that they have no sense of protecting the environment, but that comes with poverty.

We stop at a little place outside the city called the Train Graveyard. It’s exactly how it sounds: an area of abandoned old trains. It’s all steel and some of the local kids like to play on the trains. There is a lot of scrap metal here but the people don’t have any resources to salvage it. So it’s just more trash. Giant steel trash. There is a little place to get fresh juice at the parking area though. We get an orange juice for like 75 cents and the guy literally squeezes the juice out of seven fresh oranges he cuts up. Talk about fresh orange juice!

Our tour has officially come to an end. The ride back to San Pedro is considered just a ride and not a tour. Carlos parks by his office in Uyuni and tells us we have about two hours to explore Uyuni before we get back on the road and head back towards San Pedro. The downtown area is decent looking enough but it’s nothing to get excited about. So we decide our time will be best spent sitting outside at a bar drinking some Bolivian beer. We find a little dump that has a bunch of beer choices and get a seat in the shade. A bottle of beer here is either a 650ml or a full liter. Good thing I didn’t order two. We chat with our new friends from the tour as we pass the time in Uyuni. Soon our time is up and we head back to the office to meet Carlos so he can take us back to San Pedro. But first we stop by a fruit truck and buy four giant mangos for like just over a dollar. What a deal. Back at the car Carlos tells us that we can’t bring fruits into Chile. Looks like we will be eating a lot of mango tonight!

We make pretty damn good time on the way back. This is what happens when you don’t stop at every lake you pass. That, and we are finally driving on something that resembles an actual road. There are even a few towns on the road. We stop at a little town called Villarmar for the night. We are one of the first to arrive and Nimarta and I get our own room again, and it even has a double bed and a bathroom. This is Bolivian luxury. I utilize the bathroom right away but after I come out the owner of the place comes knocks on the door. He doesn’t speak any English but he comes in the room and puts a deal bolt lock on the bathroom door. WTF!? There is a bathroom in the room but we specifically cannot use it? What is the purpose of that? Turns out there are only two toilets for everyone staying here. And the lines are huge. What a jip.

After my initial disappointment about not being able to use the bathroom in our room we settle in for a decent dinner. Carlos has cooked steak for us, which is amazing because everyone else seems to be having crappy spaghetti. This is when we realize that Carlos is in fact the best driver and we got really lucky. The other group from Lithium did not have the same experience as us. We feel thankful that we got in Carlos’s group.

Day 4:

We are up at the ass crack of dawn again so Carlos can get us back to the Chilean border by 9 Am so he can pick up his next group. No days off for Carlos. We speed down the dirt roads and reach the border in no-time. There is breakfast waiting for us by our bus that will take us back to San Pedro. We bid farewell to Carlos and tip him well before going back through Chilean immigration and boarding the bus back to town.

Back in San Pedro we get dropped off at our hotel after going through customs. Good thing we ate all that mango last night – they are strict here. This hotel is a whole other story you can ask me about. Terrible experience. But one thing that was not a terrible experience was the Salar de Uyuni tour. I suggest this to anyone visiting this part of the world. Even if you are American and have to pay the fee it is worth it. The tour is so cheap that you don’t have to fret too much about the $160 fee. The sights are beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. Bolivia is a very poor country but rich in natural resources and beauty. I may never go back to Bolivia but I will never forget the magical three days we spent there.

For more information on the Salar de Uyuni tour don’t hesitate to contact me.

Additional photos below
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16th March 2016

Fabulous pictures in this blog Christopher...beautiful.

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