07.05.2016 - 10.05.2016
The salt flats tour of Uyuni is probably Bolivia's premier tourist draw card. One unfortunate consequence of its popularity is that every man and their dog in southern Bolivia offers a salt flats tour. Some of the operators are excellent. Some are terrible. Some are outright scammers and some may like as not actually kill their guests. Reviews in Tripadvisor detail many incidents of drivers being continuously drunk and aggressive; of appalling conditions at the hostels and food poisoning. There is also the ever present risk of altitude sickness and hypothermia as the tour passes through altitudes up to 4300 metres above sea level. Unfortunately, choosing a responsible operator is difficult as the tour companies seem to pool customers with whomever has availablity at any given time. We went through Gisele Tours and our driver was Rudy and he was excellent.
There were 6 of us on the tour, which is standard, as the four wheel drives used can't (should not) carry more. Joining us on the tour was Marie from Geneva, Quentin from Paris, Danielo from Santiago and Nadia from Mexico. And what a great bunch we were! We all got on well and had a great time. That's another factor for a great tour - the quality of your companions.
The tour lasts 3 days, leaving Uyuni in the morning, visiting the train graveyard just outside town then its on to the vast salt lakes of Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake on earth, covering an area over 10,000 kilometres and is dead flat. The Salar is in fact a real lake, part of a chain of lakes including Lake Titicaca in the north of Bolivia that have been trapped by the rising of the Andes high in the Antiplano with no route to the sea. The lake is incredibly deep, up to 120 metres. The surface is covered by a crust of salt that varies between one to twenty metres floating on a lake of brine.
The lake's vast size and lack of features mean you can mess around with perspective in photos, which is great fun (but harder than it looks).
After hours and hours driving across the featureless lake we stopped at Isla Huaca Inca, which really highlights the marine character of the
As dusk fell we drove for another couple of hours to a salt hostel on the 'land' (that really isn't as exotic as it sounds). None of the hotels have hot water or heating and temperatures at night are very , very cold so we were thankful we hired sleeping bags in Uyuni.
The second day we were up before dawn at 4.30am and set off through the mountainous, volcanic region near the border with Chile. Bolivia, is now landlocked but once had access to sea through this area. In the 1870s phosphates were discovered in the Atacama desert bordering Bolivia and Chile which would have been a boon export for Bolivia. However, British corporate banking interests considered this a threat to their investments in Chilean phosphate mines further south, so they lobbied to Chilean government to invade Bolivia. In the war that followed Bolivia lost its entire coast line and port as well as its share of the phosphate rich Atacama. Bolivia remains unreconciled to this loss and still includes the lost provinces on official maps. Relations with Chile remain tense.
The tour then swings south through a series of colourful volcanic lakes which are home to flamingoes and borax mining. At this point the tour passes its highes altitude point of approximately 4600 metres at Laguna Colorado before descending to the little village of San Juan at 4300 metres. As we bid adieu to Lake Colorado a storm from began to flow over the mountains bringing snow and dropping the temperature even further.
The hostel here is very basic with dorm accommodation and no hot water. Meals were basic but included Bolivian wine and although I'd sworn off alcohol while at altitude we were soon having a very happy time. We broke out the last dregs of the tequila we'd bought at the Auckland duty free, which was then followed by beers from the local market. A couple of French girls from another tour came and joined in the fun. They were not having such a good time with their Israeli companions, who barely spoke to them or acknowledged their existence. shortly afterwards someone from another tour group came over and asked us to keep the chat down as they were trying to sleep. We agreed - we had. 3.30am start the next day - and everyone began finishing their drinks. A little over 15 minutes later the guy was out again, insisting a little more forcefully that we pack it in, which we duly did. It 7.45pm.
On the morning of the last day we were driving by 4.30am (one of the four wheel drives' battery was flat and needed recharging). Ruddy and the other drivers skills in navigating this trackless wasteland is amazing. There are no roads only the tracks of earlier cars to follow. The route wound us through mountains in the pitch blackness until we reached a series of geysers. It was too dark for photos but the sound was like jet engines in the inky blackness. It was so cold that the stop here was calculated in milliseconds.
Then we drove on to a lakeside hot springs where everyone piled into the water, except us. It was just too cold to contemplate stripping down to bathers and making the dash. We sat in the cafe nursing a warming coffee. From there it was pretty much a long drive back through the mountains back to Uyuni. The scenery was as dramatic as ever, but it was a bit familiar by now.
We arrived back in Uyuni about 6pm. Sadly it meant saying goodbye to our new friends as we had a flight that night to La Paz. It was a terrifc tour, with great people and certainly the highlight of the trip to date. Special commendation must go to Rudy, our excellent drive, guide and cook. Fantastic work!!