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Published: December 21st 2015
Teo eats the rest of the crew for breakfast.
I had met a group of British girls in Mendoza who were basically doing the same trip as me but in the opposite direction.
“You’ll find things will get less and less developed the further you go north”, they told me.
As our tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats crossed from Chile into Bolivia, this statement became apparent. While you got to continue on the asphalt road towards the Argentinian border, the turnoff to the Bolivian border was a dirt one. It was symbolic – it was time to go to a place less developed.
Getting into the Toyota Landcruiser at the border that would be driving us across to Uyuni over the next three days, it was good to have our Mendoza crew together for the trip – me, Sybe, Fleur, Teo and Nicola. Taking the last seat in the jeep was Chris, a typical happy-go-lucky chap from Northern Ireland.
As well as the salt flats themselves, the tour also passes through the natural phenomena that exists in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve Of Andean Fauna. Laguna Blanca was scenic, Laguna Verde too – but the most outstanding view of the morning came at the thermal baths at
The best lagoon I saw on the whole trip. My favourite.
Aguas Terminales, or what the locals like to call “Gringo Soup”. The view on show here however was spectacular; so beautiful.
In between stops, we were all having loads of laughs in the car – I was glad that we had a group of friends together for the trip. The coca leaves I was chewing and inadvertently swallowing may have helped contribute to the atmosphere however – they sure kept me awake and enthusiastic!
At our next stop at the Geiseres Sol de Manana, we saw more geysers in addition to the ones we saw in San Pedro
except this time with even less safety precautions. None of this would have had a hope in hell of passing health and safety in the UK. I had never quite seen landscapes like the ones I was seeing – like a mix between Mars and Mad Max.
By far the most stunning view of the day however, was Laguna Colorada where algae makes the water a clay shade of red. I had never seen anything like this before either. To round things off, there were hundreds of flamingos in the water as well as loads of alpacas grazing nearby. The surrounding
On Lake Colorada.
mountains also provided the perfect backdrop – the mix of colours from the red of the lake to the blue in the sky to the green, gold and brown of the hills…it was a photographer’s paradise.
Now at 4,300m altitude, any sort of physical activity had you gasping for air. What also didn’t help was the wind. So. Windy.
As night fell, it was also cold. So. Cold.
Our accommodation for the night was a freezing refugio
. There are no showers or hot water here but I was warm enough sleeping in the clothes I was already wearing, a sleeping bag, and two blankets.
In the absence of the wifi that sadly keeps every backpacker glued to the phone, actual socialising takes place. We did this in the underrated form of card games – more specifically, Scum. Introducing the simple-to-play-and-explain game to my new foreign friends, I suddenly had a group of converts. We would have played for hours were it not for the power being shut off at 9.30pm. Wherein lies the appeal of camping or getting away from it all, getting off the grid – things become way more fun when wifi is taken away.
The first of many lakes that we visited on the tour.
weren’t fun the next day however, as I woke up with an altitude-induced headache that just wouldn’t go away. Combined with nausea, it meant I didn’t really enjoy the morning’s sights which included Lagunas Honda and Chicharcota, which were also stunning – but having already seen three lakes the previous day, the wow-factor had worn off, especially when you’re suffering from a bout of altitude sickness. We also visited some cool rock formations including the “Tree of Stone” in the middle of the Siloli Desert.
More laughs in the jeep plus sing-a-longs to Aqua, Backstreet Boys and the Beatles kept my mind off my sickness temporarily as did our passage through “Mad Max Valley” – a valley used for filming in the latest Mad Max flick with Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.
I felt much better after lunch and some time out of the car and its bumpy rides. Some fresh air helped too and I enjoyed the rock formations that we visited that afternoon.
My headache however returned when we arrived in the dusty one-street village of San Juan. Just outside the village was our accommodation for the night – El Hotel Sal, a hotel built almost entirely
The Tree Of Stone
Cool rock formation in the middle of the Siloli Desert.
from salt. It was cool but weird – the floor is like a salt beach so your feet never feel entirely clean. I did feel so much better after a hot shower though, the first in two days.
The night’s entertainment was Scum again – it really is a fun game. Board and card games are really underrated. Combined with a 1.5L bottle of red wine, it was another fun if curtailed night.
Curtailed because the next morning was the big morning – it was time to enter the salt flats.
I was glad that we had the salt flats last – it would provide the best climax to a fun trip.
Our driver Hernan had up until this point done a sterling job. He didn’t know much English – which after seven years of doing the same job every week with gringoes seemed a bit strange – so I had to do most of the translating in terms of everything he was telling us. Nicola could also understand a little Spanish and was able to ease the burden on me on occasions. Hernan was fun and very accommodating – he even helped us arrange a surprise birthday cake
Could Be New Zealand
If it weren't for the red water.
to be made for Nicola – and had a good sense of humour.
“Is there an ATM in San Juan?” asked Sybe.
Hernan cracks up. ”Si! Hay wifi, discotecas y centro comerciales tambien! San Juan tiene todos! Hahahaha!”.
Hernan also had his own taste in music – Bolivian music involving a lot of flutes, which when heard while cruising through the desert, made you feel like you were in the middle of a spaghetti Western. Hernan knew when to put on the Western tunes however – and by that I mean contemporary pop music – to add some variety to the soundtrack and to get us singing.
Hernan’s primary job however – his driving – was highly impressive. There are no roads out here in the desert – just tracks from other 4x4s. Only an experienced driver would know which ones to follow – and when there were no tracks at all, where to even go! In the dark! Often, we would be on a solid track and then Hernan would just suddenly turn off onto a random, little-used track seemingly leading nowhere. He even joked once to us that he was lost, which initially sent a wave of anxiety
Grazing by Lake Colorada.
down our spines – I guess the joked worked. But to us, it seemed like a miracle that he didn’t get lost – not because of doubt in his ability but simply because of what we were seeing around us.
We set out at 4am to try and catch the sunrise and about an hour later we finally entered the flats – and it was probably the highlight of the whole trip. After weaving through some tracks and desert, suddenly we were in open space – miles and miles and miles of it. Just space, as far as the eye could see. An agoraphobic’s nightmare. It almost felt like we weren’t even moving. But Hernan still had a trick up his sleeve; he turned off all of his lights and suddenly we were completely in the dark and still speeding through the flats at 80km/h! We just knew that there was nothing at all in front of us – or either side of us, or behind us for that matter – for miles. Such a cool feeling! Until we whizzed past a tent about twenty metres to our left. That could’ve ended badly.
It was a surreal experience.
To Infinity & Beyond
The Uyuni Salt Flats.
Our destination in the middle of the flats was Isla Incahuasi, literally an island in the middle of the flats. Once there we had a hard thirty minute climb/walk at altitude to the top of it to catch the sunrise. I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of sunrises or sunsets unless there are spectacular shades of orange and pink in the sky, but this was probably the most unique place I have ever seen the sun rise, even if it wasn’t a great one. It was so weird that it was solid salt rather than water surrounding the island that we were on. The cacti on the island only added to the scene I was witnessing.
We then had breakfast on the salt flats which was another unique experience and Nicola had a birthday she’ll never forget after receiving her surprise birthday cake from us on the salt flats.
A random game of football then broke out on the salt flats between guides and tourists – it didn’t look like it was easy controlling the ball as it rolls much further at this height and it also bounces really high off the salt.
I give the others a kick up the arse.
then time to do what every tourist does on the salt flats – perspective photos.
It was much harder to pull off than you might think and we initially struggled – first with ideas and then with execution. Luckily Hernan was on hand to lend his toys and experience – I will let you judge how well we did with the photos, which are on this page.
The last stops on the tour were a visit to the ready-made tourist-trap village of Colchani for lunch, before we stopped at the Cementerio de Trenes – a graveyard for old trains. In the middle of the desert just outside Uyuni, it certainly felt like a place where anything, let alone trains, would come to die. It certainly made for a scene.
With the lack of health and safety that exists in Bolivia, other than being a photo spot the train cemetery also acted as a kind-of adult playground as some of us climbed, scrambled and swung like monkeys all over the old trains. Good fun, but hard work at altitude.
We were a little perplexed to find Hernan had gone missing with all of our stuff at the train cemetery, having
Nicola & Teo
And the stunning background of Lake Colorada.
seemingly left us stranded there – but we soon spotted our familiar white jeep coming back towards us in the distance. Apparently he had driven off somewhere to go pee-pee.
Anyway, Hernan brought our tour to an end in the town of Uyuni where conveniently, our hostel was right around the corner from the tour office.
There isn’t much to see or do in Uyuni – it is a shithole of dusty, dirty streets and crumbling, incomplete houses. Our hostel was decent though, situated in an old wooden colonial building.
Walking around town, we noticed that the people here are darker than the people in Chile – it was also much poorer, which meant that things were also much cheaper.
At the “bus station” – in reality a couple of streets where buses pick up and drop off passengers – we encountered the rather unusual selling technique where mainly women would shout out the destinations that they are selling to any passer-by who happened to be walking past. I say unusual because it would be unusual for a random person walking by to suddenly hear one of these women shout “Potosi!” and then think “Actually, yeah, I think I
Chiguana Salt Flat
Smaller salt flat that we visited en route to Uyuni.
quite fancy going to Potosi right now – let’s go!”.
A plethora of bus companies sell tickets to different destinations at different times at different prices – you do need to shop around to find what suits you best – so perhaps there is some method in the madness.
With nothing much doing in Uyuni and with us being knackered from our trip, we had to make out own entertainment – which for us meant making and eating guacamole, and then of course, playing Scum.
However, if you are Irish and called Chris, you need a bit more action. So with everyone else having gone to sleep, Chris decided to head out by himself to find a bar in a town where he doesn’t speak the language, subsequently talk to the locals with the two words of Spanish he actually knows, before buying the whole bar a drink. So typically Irish – a lad from Armagh who loves a drink or five. You had to love the guy though, a great laugh.
A highlight for many on their journey through South America, I have to say the salt flats of Uyuni were the same for me – a
At the Cementerio de Trenes.
fun trip with beautiful, surreal scenery and good times with a bunch of friends – you couldn’t ask for more. You could say that the trip was definitely worth its salt.
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