Three of the most unforgettable days of our trip

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As mentioned in our previous entry finding a reliable tour operator to the salt flats can be as challenging as a finding a Mc Donald's in Bolivia. Since we were planning on taking the tour over Christmas we wanted to be sure we wouldn't be eating raw turkey next to a broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere. So we carefully selected a tour operator and satisfactorily ticked off all the important questions like; do you take more than seven passengers per vehicle, what type of accommodation do you offer, what food is served and is the drivers able to speak a little English?
To get to the little town of Uyuni, which is where the tour starts we caught a semi-cama (aka; almost flat bed but not flat enough) night bus. We each popped a sleeping pill and tried our best to get a little sleep on the ride down to Uyuni. Early the following morning we were rattled out of our 'semi-cama' sleep to some spectacular views of wide open plains and distant snow capped mountains, and every now and then when the bus went over a little rise in the road we got a glimpse of a distant white shimmer on the horizon which we knew meant mighty salt flats were near!
There was only one narrow single track dirt road leading across the plain into Uyuni and due to the heavy rain the night before a smaller bus had managed to get stuck trying to cross a stream that had turned into a river.  This brought all the traffic in both directions to a grinding halt and gave us a good opportunity to stretch our legs and answer the call of nature. Eventually our bus driver got impatient with all this waiting around and took the bus off road passing the waiting vehicles. He steadily ploughed through the mud and at one stage I though we were going to meet a similar fate as the little bus but he expertly powered the bus through the river and we were back on the road. We arrived in Uyuni a short while later.
Uyuni is not a particularly beautiful town with its rustic buildings, dusty roads and is unflatteringly decorated with thousands of plastic bags which from a distance look like some sort of bizarre plant. The town, judging from the amount of tour agencies, only seems to exist to channel the hordes of tourists arriving every day destined for the flats. We were met by lady representative from the tour company arranging our trip and led to their office at the other end of town. We had a few hours to get our passports stamped, hire some sleeping bags as we were told it was bitterly cold at night and grab a quick breakfast of yummy saltenas.
The plan was to leave at 10:00 but by 10:30 there was no sign of the lady working at the office or any 4x4, and we were wondering if she's done a runner? She fortunately arrived 15 minutes later in an old blue Toyota Land Cruiser. I had a quick flash back to when we booked the trip in La Paz and asked, "so ALL your vehicles are new?", reply "yes sir, very new". I guess 'new' in Bolivian terms this was relative and a 1990 model was still fairly new? Sadly the tires on the Land Cruiser look as if they were the original set the car came out with and I started to get a little nervous.
Joining us in the 'new blue Bolivian' Land Cruiser were two friendly Japanese girls (Yuka & Misa) who were kind enough to offer us the middle seats. This meant they had to climb over the middle seat every time they got in and out of the car, no flip forward seat in this 90's model. For a while we were holding thumbs that it would only be the four of us as we'd seen many other 4x4's passing us jam packed with up to 8 people and their luggage in one car. But usually this would be six passengers, three per seat and a cook and driver who would all share the car for three long days.
Our driver started loading our luggage onto the roof rack of the Land Cruiser and I went over and introduced myself and gave him a hand with out heavy luggage. His name was Oscar and it soon became evident he could not speak a word of English. Flash-back once again, "so can the drive at least speak some English?", "oh, yes sir, he speak very good English". The only thing that could still go wrong was that they would pile another three passengers into the vehicle and we'd be squashed in like sardines for the next three days. That's almost what happened!
What the tour company did to fill the vehicle was call other agencies around town looking for extra people so they could send a full vehicle. When they'd found more passengers we headed across town where we picked up two more passengers, fortunately a lovely brother and sister couple from Columbia. This was great news as they could obviously speak Spanish but also spoke very good English and were soon reluctantly given the official title of translators. Another bit of good news was that the driver could multi-task! Yes, he was going to be both the driver and cook! This meant that we had an extra seat in the car and I could move to the front seat (great for the long legs) which meant everyone in the back had more than enough space.
After the initial delay we set off to the first stop which was the train cemetery where loads of old locomotives which from what I could understand where just left to rust. Apparently there wasn't money to maintain them and soon they fell into total disrepair and slowly started disintegrating. I'm sure this would have been a very sad sight to any locomotive fanatics. We spent a few minutes taking photos, hoping in and out of these big machines and wondering what these beasts must have been like in their day.
After the short visit to the loco cemetery we finally headed towards the salt flats, which I couldn't wait to see but of course not before a stop at the obligatory salt curio's shops. The last thing I wanted to do was shop but there were a few interesting little salt carvings and even a salt museum which was entirely built out of salt blocks. It was worth a peek but that was it for us, the whole group were back in the car after only a few minutes while eagerly waiting for Oscar, who was doing a little shopping to return. You could sense everyone was eager to get into the salt flats.
The Uyuni salt flats were created roughly 40,000 years ago when a massive pre-historic lake was created by the rising Andes dried up, creating the world's largest salt desert. Estimates have it that the salt flats contain more than 10 billion tons of salt and that the Uyuni salt flats are almost 25 times bigger than the salt flats in the USA, so pretty big. And this soon becomes evident the minute you drive onto the flats when all you can see, for as far as you can see is white salt, until it finally dissolves into a hazy mirage.
When you enter the salt flats its hard to comprehend how amazing this place really is, it might even be compared to someone who sees the ocean for the first time! I'd never seen anything so flat and so white; it was almost blinding but was beautifully contrasted by the clear blue sky. At this altitude (3600 m.a.s.l.) the air is clean and incredibly clear with ideal lighting for photography. You could just look at it forever!
The incredible flatness of the salt flats are only disturbed by a few piles of salt at the base of the flats that were pilled up by local residents' obviously to sell. I though the salt would be something similar to what we use in the kitchen but it was compact, rock hard and almost sharp to the touch. Walking barefoot across the salt would leave nasty little cuts. Because it's so flat and white there is no contrast or depth in the surface so it great for taking amusing photos where people or objects at different distances seem to be at the same focal length.
We could have spent hours simply admiring and playing around on the salt flats but we had get a move on to our lunch spot at Fish Island. Fish Island as the name suggests is simply an island in the middle of salt sea that is covered with hundreds of ancient cactus plants and fossil rich hills. From the top of the island you get amazing panoramic views of the salt flats and from the peak the enormity of this phenomenon can be clearly seen.
After a scrumptious lunch we had a little more time to further explore the area before we set off once again. It took a good few hours to cross the salt flats and we stopped a few more times for photos and to stretch the legs. Our first night accommodation was in a salt hotel on the perimeter of the salt flats and was entirely built out of salt bricks. From the walls, floors, tables, chairs and even the bed frames were constructed entirely out of salt. It was amazing to see and had a very charming atmosphere and the beautifully decorated Christmas tree got us right into the Christmas spirit and we were going to have a white Christmas after all.
We were also thrilled to find nice clean and showers with ample hot water which was just what we needed after a long hot day on the salt flats and the previous night on the bus. After a much needed shower we got into some clean clothes we settled in with some drinks music that were being sold by the staff of the hotel and some Christmas tunes while dinner was being prepared by Oscar. We were joined by another group of travellers who were also spending the night at the hotel we had a wonderful Christmas dinner. We had a lovely meal, some good wine and enjoyed the company. We often though of our families back home but were glad we had the opportunity to spend Christmas in such a magical place.
The next morning we set off soon after breakfast and headed for the Ollague Volcano driving through an ever changing but breathtaking desert landscape. The colours of the surrounding mountains were spectacular and the view of the active volcano with its smoke pouring out was amazing. The highlight of the day came a little further down the dirt track when we arrived at the first, of four beautiful lakes we'd visit throughout the day.
The four lakes each contained a different combination of minerals and salts, resulting in each lake having its own unique colour. These ancient lagoons were a haven for flamingos that thrived in the shallow saline mineral rich waters feeding on algae. It was fascinating seeing these birds up close and together with the coloured waters, clear blue skies and mesmerizing mountain ranges made it a surreal experience not soon forgotten.
Our day ended at the hostel on the shores of Laguna Colorada a beautiful red colored lake filled with flamingos and that occasionally spouted steam from its many volcanic vents. The hostel unlike the lake was nothing much to write home about and our group all had to share one of the many extremely basic dorm room and sadly there were no showers at this stop tonight.
Needless to say we didn't linger in the hostel for too long and set off on a walk around the lagoon. Although it was a clear day the wind at this time day was howling and it was quite difficult to stay upright when it really got gusty. The flamingos seemed to be used to it and would face directly into the wind so as not to blow over. The view from along the shores were spectacular and we could do nothing but admire the sight before us, we really were privileged to be able to experience this!
It was early to bed after a final dinner of soup and spaghetti as we would set off at 4am the next morning so as to reach the Sol de Manana geysers the following morning. Apparently the geysers are only active for a few hours after sunrise so it was important to get there early to witness the spectacle. And it sure was worth it not just to see the geysers but the sunrise over the desert was one of the most spectacular we had witnessed.
Since the previous nights hostel didn't have any showers we were relieved to find out that the stop after the geysers was at a hot spring on the shores of Laguna Challviri. Although it was still icy cold at that time of the morning the water was a warm 40 degrees and had a perfect view over the lake and the feeding flamingos. After almost an hour soak and a yummy pancake breakfast we set of once again to what was called the 'Salvador Dali Valley" to see the strange rock formations and the famous rock tree.
Before our amazing trip came to an end at the Chilean border we passed by yet two more the beautiful lakes. I think both Inge-Marie and I agree that the three days were some of the best we'd had in the past 12 months and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, we were extremely lucky to have travelled the three days with a wonderful group of people and great driver and even the 'new' Land Cruiser ran as if it were new. I would strongly urge anyone travelling to South America to look into this tour as it will truly be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life!! It certainly was for us.
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