Monday 24th July – Friday 28th July 2017
My backpacking adventure to South America lasted a mere three weeks. This was already an inordinately short amount of time, which I could easily have spent entirely in Peru but my friend and I decided to duck out of the country, between our trips to Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain, for a few days to visit one of Peru’s neighbours: Bolivia. We had a specific destination in mind that made it worth a whirlwind visit: the Salt Flats in Uyuni.
We caught a flight from our Cusco base to La Paz on a Monday morning. Our plan was simple: we’d find an agency, book a tour and an overnight bus and spend an afternoon exploring La Paz. The problem was that a spanner can find its way into the workings of even the simplest plan. We made it to La Paz and we made it to an agency who could arrange overnight bus tickets and a 3 day/2 night tour that would leave the following morning from Uyuni, the problem was money.
My friend and I had both got debit cards from the same travel agency in London that would supposedly make it easier for us to access our money abroad. They didn’t. I’d already arranged a higher spending limit for my card but my friend had not. She tried contacting the agency but they would only up her limit with certain information and documents – documents that were currently buried in some pile in England, not in with her in South America. Not exactly the most helpful response in relation to a card that was designed to be used whilst travelling.
Thankfully, between my multiple bank cards, we were able to stump up enough cash for our tour and bus tickets – although my daily withdrawal limits did threaten to throw us off course again. However, after all the faffing and the now very limited access to funds, we had minimal time and means left to explore. We wandered around some streets in the town centre, filled with shops we would have blown all the cash in bank accounts in had we had access to them and found somewhere we could split an affordable pizza. Then it was straight to the bus stop.
One bad night’s sleep and many, many hours later, our bus was pulling into Uyuni in the dim morning light. The first thing that became apparent to us was that it was absolutely freezing. We had all our stuff with us but nothing we had was going to be enough. Thankfully the new day meant I could withdraw cash again and, as we had some time before our tour began, we wandered around the town and the local market on the lookout for snacks and alpaca jumpers and socks (all of which we were able to find).
We left most of our stuff at the tour company’s office and after our group had all arrived we set off in a fleet of 4x4s out onto the salt flats. The first area we stopped at wasn’t quite what I had imagined. I’d pictured miles and miles of pure white salt, whereas here it was dirty with brown pools of water bubbling out of the ground. But then we hopped into our jeeps and continued the drive. Soon enough it was whiter than white as far as the eye could see and there were polygonal patterns across the ground that made the place look other worldly.
We drove up to the Playa Blanca Salt Hotel, by the Dakar Rally Monument and the array of international flags that blow in the wind on the salt flats. We stopped here for lunch and – not knowing if we would have the chance again – we borrowed a plastic dinosaur from another group and tried to take some of the famous photos that seem to be a regular feature of social media feeds everywhere. Our attempts were unsuccessful but, as it was, we would get a better opportunity later.
Our destinations for the day included the Colchani village (a street lined with market stalls), a train cemetery (basically an adult playground full of old trains you can climb all over) and Isla Incahuasi, aka Cactus Island. Here, in the middle of the salt flats, is a hill covered in cacti. It is a random but awesome sight. We spent a while wandering around the hill, taking photos of the cacti against the backdrop of the salt. At one point I put my hands out to balance myself and put my hands on one of the cacti. I didn’t notice any pain at first but when I pulled my hands back I saw the blood. Thankfully the island has a tourist centre and bathroom where I could mop myself up and hide my mishap from my fellow travellers – I didn’t want to make myself known as the clumsiest person on the tour too early on.
After exploring the cacti, we spent what felt like an age driving across the salt flats, which seemed to go on forever. At one point our guide stopped the vehicle and we all piled out. This was the time for our photoshoot. Our guide took on the role of our photographer. This was clearly not his first rodeo – he knew what he was doing and directed us as necessary. He even pulled a bottle of wine out of the car (which we’d later drink at dinner) to use as a prop. He had us mock fighting, getting stamped on and jumping up in the air “on top of” the wine bottle.
When we had our pictures, we got back in the car and continued on our way. We had opted for a Spanish speaking guide, as this was cheaper, but unfortunately, due to my inability to actually speak Spanish, I couldn’t understand the majority of what was being said. So, apart from that the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and was once a giant lake, I can’t really tell you much about the place other than how incredibly beautiful it is.
In the rainy season, the place essentially turns into a giant mirror, with the flat ground perfectly reflecting the sky above. I might not have been able to experience this during my dry season visit but I have no issue with the idea of going back.
We were out on the salt flats long enough to see the sunset over the white plains before we continued onto another salt hotel where we would be spending the night. Here everything was made from salt, electricity was limited and hot water was also in short supply. The hotel itself was pretty cool – as were the showers, but in a different sense. I’ll admit to avoiding them as much as possible.
My friend and I had had the inspired idea to bring hot water bottles with us on our trip and the kitchens kindly obliged us in filling them up. Considering that temperatures on the salt flats can drop as low as -20°C during the winter nights, I really cannot explain to you just how magical this hot water bottle was as we huddled in our sleeping bags. Other people were jealous.
In the interests of being honest, I’ll admit that I had no idea what to expect for the next two days of the tour. All I’d wanted to do was book a tour of the salt flats and we picked one that slotted neatly into our timetable. Other that seeing the salt flats and staying in a salt hotel, I couldn’t tell you what else we would be doing for the rest of the time. I probably should have asked. As it turned out, we wouldn’t actually see the salt flats for the rest of our trip.
Instead we would spend the next couple of days exploring the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. We found lakes (one of which was the Laguna Colorada, with its red waters), mountains, volcanoes and rock formations (like the Arbol de Piedra, tree of rock) We spotted flamingos and llamas. We saw both snow and desert and we stayed a second night in some basic accommodation that had even less hot water and electricity than we’d had on our first night – even our hot water bottles were cooler and we slept in layers of our clothes until we had to wake up in the early hours to set out for our final day.
On our final morning (which was particularly cold) we visited geysers that throw steaming air out of the ground and thermal pools. Getting undressed in a freezing shack and running out into the cold outside air felt so incredibly wrong but the hot waters felt so incredibly right. We pretended to lose track of time so that we could stay a bit longer and put off the inevitable moment when we’d have to get out and return to the freezing cold air, with the added bonus that now we were all wet. I’d like to say that, after the salt flats, it was the incredibly scenery that was the highlight of the tour but I’d be lying. It was the thermal pools.
At the end of our trip, we dropped off some of our group at the Chilean border for their onward travels and returned to Uyuni. En route we stopped off at a little town that was having some kind of parade and we watched for a little while before our journey resumed. Back in Uyuni, we had some time to kill before it was time to catch our night bus back to La Paz, which we spent wandering around and buying cake.