Day Four started off dreadfully early, at 4:30am, as we wanted to get to the salt flats by sunrise. We had gone to bed early though and were all excited, so getting up wasn’t too terrible. We packed up and were on the road, which was only a road for a few miles, until we reached the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Our driver seemed a bit bewildered by the fact that the first section of driving over the salt flat involved plowing through about two feet of water. Too much rain recently! This slowed us down considerably, and led to the first disappointment of the day: we didn’t make it to a stopping point by sunrise. Instead, we watched the sunrise out of the car windows and snapped photos as we drove. Still beautiful, but not quite the dramatic experience I had been hoping for.
Once we finally got to our destination, the Playa Blanca Hotel de Sal (Salt Hotel), we got to take more pictures as the last few sun rays crept over the horizon. This area was still covered in a couple inches of water, and it was freezing outside, so despite our waterproof hiking boots our toes still got numb pretty fast from the moisture. The lady at the tour company had told us before we left that in the rainy season some parts of the salt flat are covered in water and others are not, so we were all expecting we’d go to a dry section eventually. When we went into the Salt Hotel to eat breakfast we got a disappointing piece of news; our guide told us that the whole Salar was covered in water and there were no dry areas! This was quite a bummer to all of us and we felt kind of gypped. We were expecting to be able to take the famous funny-perspective pictures on the blinding white salt flat that we had seen so many of.
Oh well, after breakfast, we went out to do our best in the very wet scenery. Taking the funny pictures was harder than we imagined, especially because we couldn’t put anything we didn’t want getting wet on the ground. The Salar was still amazing, though, the water making trippy mirror images of everything. After spending a few hours taking pictures and videos, we drove off the Salar to a small village selling crafts, then returned to Uyuni for our last included lunch. We tipped our guide and cook, then headed off with Jasper and Annemarie (the Dutch couple) to another hostel since there were no buses out of Uyuni that afternoon. Our epic jeep tour finished, we all needed some showers and some naps!
For some reason, I was expecting to be more stunned than I was by the Salar de Uyuni. I think it’s because I heard so many people rave about it. It was super-impressive, but I wouldn’t put it way above everything else we saw on the tour. To me, the whole four day adventure was full of beauty, and the salt flats were an equally beautiful end. I’m definitely glad we splurged for the full four-day circuit and got to see so much of this rugged and remote section of Bolivia!
We used LaTorre Tours, based out of Tupiza.
We paid 1200 Bolivianos apiece ($176) for a 4-person group. If you go with 5 people, the cost goes down to 1100 Bolivianos.
Extra costs included 150 Bolivianos each to enter the national park, and a total tip of 100 Bolivianos.
Day Three stated off cold. It had continued snowing during the night and the first section of the drive, that would ordinarily have been desert, was completely white.
The first place we stopped was at a famous rock that is on all the postcards around here. Our driver said it was the first time he had seen it in the snow. It’s called the Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Rock).
Soon after continuing on our way, the sky cleared up and we drove out of the snow. The temperature started to warm up and before long we were in our t-shirts. We came to the main road from Uyuni to Chile, and, although still dirt, it was a great improvement. This section of the trip turned kind of boring, so I took a short nap.
We stopped for lunch in a area full of AWESOME rocks. Our driver stopped next to the Condor sin Cabeza rock (Condor without a head) and I ran off to do some quick bouldering on a couple of the thousands of possible rocks.
After lunch was more of the same; llamas, llamas, and more llamas. At this point, I think everyone in the car fell asleep at some point. You just don’t expect how tired you are going to be after three long days bumping around in the wilderness. When we woke, we looked to the left to see nothing, just flatness, as if there were an ocean in the distance. “Salar de Uyuni” said our driver, pointing in that direction. Soon the town of Uyuni came into view and, since it was only around 3 in the afternoon, we had the evening to rest up before driving out early the next morning to see the salt flats at sunrise.
The town of Uyuni was an absolute DUMP. All the roads were dirt with horrible huge holes full of water. We walked to the center of town to check on bus tickets for the next day and to use the internet. There were only a few expensive internet cafes that wouldn’t even load Gmail, and when we asked the bus offices if they had tickets for the next day to Potosí, their response was “No hay bus a Potosí mañana, mañana es Carnaval aquí!” No one works during Carnaval, which makes travel a big problem. So we bought a ticket for the day after, determined to tough it out in what was probably our least favorite town so far this trip.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s conclusion to our four day saga!
Day Two of the jeep tour started off a little early after not having dinner until 11:30pm the night before. Breakfast was a little shabby too- just bread and literally one scrambled egg for the four of us. What? But luckily the rain had stopped and we were soon on our way with a patched tire. We climbed and climbed through gorgeous snow-capped peaks for a few hours, until we reached the Laguna Verde, at the jaw-dropping altitude of 5000 meters (17,000 feet). That’s the highest altitude either of us has ever been at (not counting being in airplanes of course) and I’m willing to bet a lot of our readers have never been higher! At this point we were in the far southwest corner of Bolivia, mere miles from either Chile or Argentina. Our country-counting instincts kicked in and we really wished we could just drive across a border really fast to say we’d been there. but there was too much to see in Bolivia!
Laguna Verde was dotted with a few flamingos, which I always thought of as solely warm-climate birds. But in reality every lake of this corner of Bolivia has a large flamingo population. The lake was gorgeous and I could have stayed to take pictures for several hours, but we hopped in the car to head to another lake to eat lunch. This lake changed colors as the sky did and at one point was actually even greener than the Laguna Verde. After lunch we got a great treat…a dip in the natural hot springs right on the lake shore. This pool was the best hot spring I have ever been to as it had continuously flowing water, was a perfect 98 degree temperature, and was mostly natural with just a simple stone wall around the edge. We soaked for a long time, staring out at the snow-caps and distant lighting over the lake. It was a surreal experience.
After a long soak, we were off again, finally feeling warm again! Good thing, because a mere half hour later, it was snowing hard! They really aren’t joking when they say that seasons can change in an instant at this altitude! Of course once we saw how much snow was accumulating fast we had to get out and have a snowball fight. I threatened Zach with severe consequences if he threw snow down my neck and thankfully he dared not try it. Jasper, our Dutch friend, had a very good arm though, and got a couple good hits in. I called it “Christmas in February” because it was the most holiday-like weather we’ve had in South America. Better late than never!
A couple more hours of driving took us through the blizzard, which literally went from all to nothing in one turn over a hill. All of a sudden there was ZERO precipitation, just the red earth and no vegetation, a very Mars-like landscape. At about 4pm we finished our drive for the day and after dropping off our bags at the hostel, took a quick trip to the Laguna Colorado. This lake had a ton of flamingos, as it contains a type of algae that they eat, which is also what gives it it’s red color. A walk around the lake was a great way to stretch our legs after being in the car all day.
When we returned to the hostel, we were greeted with hot drinks and crackers, just what we needed after such a cold day! The snow eventually caught up with us and we watched it fall all evening as we relaxed and chatted before dinner. It was nice to arrive earlier and have time to chill! We were repeatedly warned about all the hostels on the tour being “extremely basic” but that’s probably for people whose standards are higher than ours, because we found them perfectly fine. They all had minimal electricity, shared bathrooms with cold-water showers (not that any of us dared!), and comfy beds with plenty of blankets. There was no heating, so we always sat around with our coats and gloves on, but we also had much colder weather than most times of the year. I have also never slept with so many thick blankets in my life, but believe me, I was glad to have the five or six that I did!
After reading our guidebook and some blogs we concluded that the best option for us to see Bolivia’s most famous sight was to take the full four-day jeep tour of southwestern Bolivia, ending in Uyuni at the largest salt flats on the planet. We started in Tupiza, where we spent two nights before leaving on the tour. This area of the country, considered the “wild west” of Bolivia, was where the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their final gun battle–only 100km northwest of the town. It did indeed have the feel of the southwestern United States, only set back about 50 years.
Our tour left around 8:30am and as soon as we were outside Tupiza the scenery was amazing. Huge red rocks, open plains full of grazing llamas, and the snow covered peaks of the Andes towering to heights over 6,000 meters.
Our “jeep” was actually a Lexus 4×4 and we traveled with six people total: Carrie and I, a cool couple from the Netherlands, a driver/tour guide, and a cook. Two jeeps traveled together so that one could help out in case the other broke down or got stuck (this turned out to be a very good idea!). Spending almost all of four days in the car can be rough, but we had good conversations with the Dutch couple and became good friends.
Every time there was a cool sight our driver would stop for us to take some pictures. Around noon we stopped for a lunch of rice, potatoes, and beef. It was filling and we were soon on our way. We passed thousands more llamas, wild vicuñas, and a large rare bird, a suri, that is in the ostrich family.
At the start of the journey the road was in pretty good shape and we probably bragged a little too much about how awesome our vehicle was without knocking on wood. Eventually the landscape started getting more and more wet. There were many rivers across the road, some of them deep enough to make our driver a little worried, especially the couple times that we hit bottom.
The highest point on this day was a crumbling old Spanish city that sat around 4,600 meters. There were funny rabbits with long tails that were climbing all over the ruins.
This is when the weather started to turn really bad. First there was rain and the rivers started getting higher and we eventually took the wrong path, getting our truck stuck in the mud. The other driver (our driver’s brother) came with a shovel and with six of us pushing we were soon back on our way. The precipitation turned the road soft and it was hard going through deep muddy ruts. The rain quickly turned to sleet, though, and then snow. We had heard that there could be snow, but we expected more along the lines of flurries, not an all-out snowstorm. It got freezing cold and the road got worse and worse until the driver called back to town to tell them not to send any more jeep tours out for a few days. We were supposed to get into the small village where we would spend the night around 6:30, but after 7 we had the feeling that we were still a long way off. It got dark and the snow came down harder and harder, but the road got a little better once it froze over. Just as our driver told us “una hora mas” we saw the lights of the jeep behind us flashing and we stopped to wait for them to see what was wrong. They needed to refill their gas so our driver got out to help them syphon the gas from a container on their roof. As soon as he was out of the car he noticed that we had a flat tire. Great. So out came the air compressor and we sat for about 30 minutes waiting for our tire to fill up, hoping it would hold air for the rest of the journey. At this point we were all someplace between “this is awesome!” and “what did we get ourselves into!” But we had faith in our driver and the vehicles were in pretty good shape. Soon we were on our way again. After about 30 more minutes we came to the edge of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, where there was a ranger and we had to pay an entrance fee of 150 Bolivianos ($22 each). “22km mas” said our driver. Our spirits picked up and we started to actually believe that we were going to make it. The lights of the town came into view and we got excited about what we would get for dinner. The driver must have thought he was home free and stopped paying such careful attention, because just then we hit a super muddy patch and were stuck again. We looked out the window to see the mud almost up to the top of the tire. There was no getting out of this hole without some serious work. We grabbed everything we would need to make dinner and walked about 1km down the muddy road to our simple hostel in town.
The drivers did eventually get the truck out of the mud using wood that they pulled off of a house and a whole lot of digging. Around 11:30pm we finally ate dinner and got to go to sleep. What a first day! Oh Bolivia…