Bolivia 5: Uyuni (Salt Flats)

Despite being one of the shorter bus journeys I have taken on my travels, the leg from Potosi to Uyuni was possibly one of the worst for me. And it wasn’t even a night bus. I spent most of the 4 hour journey trying to fight the diarrhoea that had been haunting me for 2 days since my night of drinking in Sucre, battling a headache and sickness from the altitude and struggling to doze off despite being exhausted because I was absolutely freezing. I was relieved to just get to Uyuni, although dreading the diarrhoea-filled night ahead and having to wake early to book a salt flats tour for the following morning.

I pounded the streets to try to keep warm and quickly get to my hostel, Piedra Blanca Backpackers, arriving at 10:30pm to a fast asleep dorm room where I had to climb up to my top bunk without any sort of ladder attached to the bed. Using the sides of the lower bunk and the bunk bed next to it, I heaved myself up; a physical activity I had to repeat 4 more times during the night as my bowels continued to get the better of me. It wasn’t looking promising for a 2 day tour inside a jeep.

I woke up at 7:15am the next morning (more accurately, my bowels woke me up) and got dressed before heading out to scout tour agencies. It turns out not many tour agencies offer 2 day tours (which I wanted due to time restraints and having seen geysers/lagoons in Chile) and nor do many offer tours in English (which I generally needed if I wanted to learn much at all about what I was seeing) – not for at least double, if not quadruple, the price anyway. I eventually settled on a 2 day tour with Salar Camel, where the “guide” (more on that later) only spoke Spanish but there were other English-speaking travellers taking the tour so maybe they could aid with translation if necessary. I managed to get the price down from 400 to 380 bolivianos (£45), knowing I would need to pay approximately 60 bolivianos more for things that weren’t included in the price, and was told to return to the office at 10:30am.

I went back to my hostel to pack for my 2 days and to have breakfast; although 70 bolivianos (£9) is more than I was paying in other parts of Bolivia they obviously feel they can increase the price as you need a night before the tour, and the breakfast of toast, butter, jam, scrambled eggs, cereal and yogurt was actually pretty decent, especially on a cold morning before a long tour. Back at Salar Camel tour office at 10:30am – where they kindly let me leave my main backpack while I was on the tour – the 6 of us (me, a Costa Rican, a Peruvian and Dutch couple plus a Canadian and Swiss couple) jumped into the jeep with our driver Luis (who, rather than being a tour “guide” that gave us information, was more of a driver/DJ/photographer for our trip) and set off for our first destination.

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Along with all the other tour groups in the world – whether on a 1, 2 or 3 day tour – we stopped at the Train Cemetery, where the train track that used to run from Bolivia into Chile is still firmly in place surrounded by the remains of the trains that collided in the crash that stopped the use of the track in the 1990s.

It’s crazy to have these rusted, desolate, hollow carriages scattered across the open desert, and while the graffiti that has since splattered the carriages is quite apt for any train system and the opportunity to climb atop or inside the carriages was a cool experience, it did feel a bit like tarnishing and climbing over someone’s grave. Like so many other things I visit as a tourist myself, I kind of wanted there to be no other tourists. This was the first of many stops where we got little information from Luis – even in Spanish, so I had to slyly eavesdrop into the the explanations given to other groups.

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Our next stop, again like everyone else, was at Colchani Town for the markets – where I purchased my magnet for Bolivia – and the Salt Museum, before heading out for a drive across the salt flats. It is hard to describe how incredible it is just cruising across this large expanse of flat, white land with the bright blue of the sky as a stark contrast, the sun causing the salt to shimmer and sparkle.

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We stopped the jeep at Playa Blanca, near to the first ever Salt Hotel, and it was here that we took our first lot of photos in the salt flats, greyish mountains in the far distance offering the only perspective of this otherwise never-ending, undefinable stretch of white land. We took the obligatory knobby salt-flat photos, abusing distance and perspective to make the impossible look possible (well, not really, our photography skills weren’t that great, but we tried) while I also pranced around on the salt, doing cartweheels and generally being a dick. 

It was then time for lunch in the Salt Hotel, where we had typical Bolivian food of fried hamburgeser, fried egg, quinoa, vegetables and potatoes, dressed up with mayonnaise of course, washed down with coke and followed by a banana. We then went back outside and took more photos round the corner of a sort of salt-shrine to different countries around the world, with around 30 flags jutting up out of a salt stage in the middle of the salt flats. More than anything it was just amazing to be outside in the heat from the sun, yet cold from the wind, and take in this beautiful, vast landscape that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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Back in the jeep we drove for maybe another half an hour/40 minutes before reaching an island in the middle of the slat flats that was covered in cactuses. It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it was a rocky, mountainous island that had the biggest cactus I have ever seen in my entire life and offered incredible views of the endless salt flats.

You had to pay 30 bolivianos (£3.60) to get in – and they even wouldn’t let you walk the perimeter of the base of the island, despite being free-to-the-public salt flats, without buying a ticket for the island – but it meant you got to use their bathrooms, and you never know when your next toilet stop may be in the middle of solid, flat salt. Plus it was a peaceful way to spend an hour, and when we came back down there was a group of male Bolivian drummers playing local, energetic music and eventually a group of female Bolivian dancers joined in the show.

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We then drove to Thunupa Volcano where we watched the gorgeous sunset over the salt flats, taking in the incredible array and changing colours of orange, red and yellow. 

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We also took some standard sunset pictures, a few jumping shots plus a video of us walking across the salt flat water where the camera was spun and you couldn’t decipher what half was us and what half was our reflection in the water.

It was one of the most incredible sunsets I have seen on my travels and, with Uyuni being my last “new” place on my travels, it was really wonderful to experience it here. I could have spent hours out here, dancing in the sunlight.

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It was then a 5 minute drive to our accommodation for the night at a Salt Hotel at the base of Thunupa Volcano. It was really cool to stay in a place where Salt lined the gaps between the bricks and the floors in our rooms were carpeted with salt. We had dinner at the hotel – vegetable soup followed by spaghetti Napoletana, washed down with a bottle of red wine between the six of us, before having a shower and then heading to bed for an early night at around 9/10pm.

I was surprised, having been warned about how cold it would be, to sleep really well, waking up naturally around 6:45am to get dressed, pack and have a “breakfast” of bread rolls and cold cheese empanadas at 7:30am. Not the best meal on a cold morning before a hike, but I guess I shouldn’t really complain.

We then purchased our tickets to Thunupa Volcano for 30 bolivianos (£3.60) each before driving the first part up to the site of the mummies, discovered within the mountain around 30 years ago and with which we had to access by crawling through a small door into the inside of the mountain. With my basic understanding of Spanish it was hard to decipher the exact details but it seemed they were being kept there for conservation purposes and, while all deaths were naturally, some skeletons were those of children.

We then began our uphill climb up the side of the mountain, the sun beginning to beat down on us and the altitude taking up the space in my throat, making it hard to breathe properly as I hiked. Fortunately the view of the surrounding salt flats below kept me motivated and, once at the Mirador about 45 minutes later, I was so glad I persevered; the Crater of the Volcano and the surrounding multicoloured mountain (similar to pictures I have seen of Rainbow Mountain in Peru) was absolutely incredible, and I sat there just taking it in with the Canadian and Swiss couple, marvelling at how incredible our world is.

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It took about half an hour to walk back down where we drove back down the remaining part to return to our hostel for lunch; chicken Milanese with pasta and vegetables, as always flavoured with mayonnaise. There was another group staying in the same hostel and each meal they seemed to get something slightly better than us; pique macho the night before, scrambled eggs for breakfast, and now chicken on the bone instead of deep-friend flat chicken steaks, which they also got with tomatoes and cucumbers. We never did find out how much they paid to get better food – plus an actual guide whom seemed to speak English – but our food envy was an irk alongside not having an actual guide. Oh, and the fact that the women working at the hostel were really rude to us, despite us paying them to be there. 

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We began our journey back to Uyuni at around 1pm, making our first stop about half an hour in to take more knobby photos in a completely desolate stretch of salt flat; it was amazing to have literally no one around other than the 7 of us, plus our jeep, and to be surrounding completely by pure, sparkling white.

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We spent a while here taking photos and silly photos before driving on for another 40 minutes to stop and taking photos of what I like to call “salt boulders” before driving the final stretch back to Uyuni, arriving at Salar Camel at around 4pm. Despite not getting quite as much information as I would have wanted on the tour, Luis had impeccable music taste and was relentless and determined when it came to taking our perspective photos on the salt flats, plus it was just such an incredible and peaceful place to be that it almost didn’t matter. I loved it.

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“Salt Boulders”

I had to start my journey back into Buenos Aires, Argentina, that evening, knowing it would be a long haul and that my diarrhoea – still in full, stubborn force – would make it even more fun. However this was still my last “new” place on my year long travels around the world (I literally cannot believe it has come to an end) and I want to finish on the wonder and beauty that was the salt flats in Bolivia; probably one of my favourite countries in South America, despite it clearly not being a fan of my bowels. Farewell, Bolivia, you have been dynamic!

LS.

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