Whilst only situated 50m higher than La Paz at 3,700m, Uyuni is like stepping into a totally different climate zone, probably not helped by the fact the temperature control on the bus was on max until midnight, before being switched off completely. Stepping off the bus it was a mad scramble of feet-stamping-hand-rubbing frozen gringos grabbing bags off the bus in order to throw on everything they own as quickly as possible, beneath a sunrise quickly turning into crystal clear blue skies.
Hunting out a cheap deal which would still allow a hot shower before heading into the wild, we settled on Hotel Aveninda (100B for a double, shared bathroom, nice chill out area at reception). After catching up on some sleep in a warm bed and taking a disappointingly tepid shower, we hit the pavement to find a tour company. With the huge amount of competition in town, you’re best to do some research before you come or just pick a few you like the look of and choose your favourite, which is what we did after waiting for the 4WD’s to turn up so we could compare these too. Settling on Blue Line Service with their newer, bigger cars, we handed over the cash then headed to a small market in town for some last minute necessities.
Gloves, legwarmers and some cheap salteno’s later (Bolivia’s answer to the Cornish pastie) we headed over to the local food market in search of some cheap eats. Strolling through the fresh produce, we found a few dirty local haunts tucked out back but opted to head back to a cheap joint on the main road for some cheap beef ribs at a cheaper price.
Packing our gear into one backpack (there’s limited room with 5 people and a driver crammed into a 4WD) we hit up Minuteman Pizza inside Tonito Hotel. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss it! Spend some time to chat to the friendly American owner, Chris, who’ll also whip up your pizza, create your custom made side salad to go with it (complete with imported American goods!) all whilst making you feel right at home….so much so that you may just end up here for the buffet breakfast, like we did. Only 50B for all you can eat fresh cooked waffles, home baked bread, granola, pancakes with blueberries, cream, fresh fruit and real espresso coffee why would you skip it?
At 11am our 4WD arrives and along with three Canadians from Halifax and Vancouver and a bottle of limited edition Dakar Rally red wine, we climb aboard our Lexus with it’s comfy leather seats and head off into the desert. A short drive out of town the first stop is the Train Graveyard where you’ll join all the other 4WD’s for a photoshoot.
After getting excited about our first llama sighting, a quick stop at a nearby craft market lets you pickup anything you’ve forgotten including cheap beanies and plastic dinosaurs for all your photography trick needs. Just skip the toilets, they should really pay you to use them!
Most Salar de Uyuni tours cover the same route, including the salt flats themselves, unique Isla del Pescados, an overnight in a hostel made entirely from salt, views of Chiguana the Ollague volcano, numerous lagunas including the picturesque Colorada and Verde, geysers and hot springs. You can find all of this information online so we’ll just show you the pictures.
The salt flats themselves are the highlight of the first day, and it’s easy to see why. Flat white hexagons as far as the eye can see create a surreal landscape and provide the perfect backdrop for perceptive photos. It also provides the perfect opportunity for an overtired driver to fall asleep, drift a little off track and wake up without hitting a single thing, as ours did. Ruben, no hard feelings!
A hot lunch of llama, potatoes, rice and veg later we climbed Isla del Pescado for some fantastic views then raced across the salt flats for a night in our salty double room in the small village of Agencha. With low ceiling and bed, walls and nightstand made of salt, the place was warm and inviting. After a day spent taking the piss out of each other, we joined our Canuck friends for some wine in their room before enjoying a cooked meal. The evening was spent admiring one of the clearest views of the Milky Way we’ve had since Utah.
A chilly early morning we hit the road for five small lagoons before reaching Laguna Colorada. Wild vicunas tick the wildlife box and crazy green moss which turns out to be tiny little succulents add some colour to the otherwise luna landscape.
Laguna Colorada is stunning, with it’s orange, white and blue tones against a dark blue sky. A full days driving through spectacular landscapes, with one Canadian down for the count with severe altitude sickness, we spent the night in another small village playing cards and being entertained by Ronnie, another of our Canadian friends and manager of the countries biggest security company Source (check them out, they’re great guys!) as he ducked in and out of the kitchen teaching the local women how to spice up the typically bland food. The guides were less impressed but we were all left in stitches, especially when the head chef approached us with a smirk to ensure they’d done a good job. Skipping the high altitude soccer match taking place under headlights that night, we turned in early between freezing cold sheets.
After spending the night all dressed in everything we owned, we ate breakfast in the dark (cold pancakes cooked the night before and hot coffee) and hit the road for an early morning dip in the natural hot springs Aguas Termales. Sunrise is the best time to visit as the steam rising from the pools gives and ethereal air, whilst a few local flamingos made for some spectacular shots, though the freezing temperature meant most people only watched, Sarah and Jimmy excluded.
After spending a little time entertaining ourselves by jumping through hot steam vents and exploring boiling bubbling geysers, we headed for Laguna Verde. Currently frozen over with the imposing 5,920m Volcan Licancabur rising from the Chilean border, this was one of the highlights of the trip. The air is thin yet the view is full.
Passing through Dali’s Rock Garden (though sadly our driver didn’t stop for photos) we continued through more other wordly landscapes, passed a half dozen crazy dudes with full beards on bicycles then descended from the heights for lunch in Ville Mar after a brief stop to explore some eroded rocks.
Back in reality, we stopped in San Cristobal for icecream where we took a trip around to bloke to prank one of the Canadians we’d left before, before finishing the long drive back to Uyuni. Kind enough to offer us a hot shower, we grabbed our bags from the office, enjoyed a luxury bathroom at Jardines, then invited them all along with our driver Ruben for dinner at, you guessed it, Minuteman Pizza.
Dinner was much better than our overnight train to Tupiza. After being delayed for over an hour (due to Bolivia playing in the Copa America that night we’re sure) we boarded our carriage to find no lights and even worse, no heat! With no sign of the promised blankets, we rugged up as best we could and spent one of the worst nights of the trip to date rattling our way across Bolivia.
Check out Flickr for more pics of Bolivia
TIPS FOR UYUNI
1. There’s plenty of reviews both good and bad for the overnight buses between La Paz and Uyuni. All we can say is you never know what you’ll get. Our Trans Omar seats were comfortable, the temperature was not, on TV and it was full of gringos. Oh and you don’t want the full cama seats downstairs…only a curtain separates you from drivers full volume music…all night.
2. Some tour companies claim you’ll be on the salt flats for sunset, several people including our driver told us this is (usually) not possible. If this is offered to you, ask questions.
3. Most people head to Noni’s for breakfast but we tried Sal Negra instead as Noni’s was full. 35B got you full breakfast with coffee, though the decor wasn’t as nice.
4. Bring enough water and extra snacks to cover the three days, it’s cheaper in Uyuni.
5. Altitude sickness can be a real issue, make sure you acclimatise. One guy in our trip spent most of the second day sleeping on the back seat.