After an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, that is meant to get in at 7.30am, not 5am I was beginning to feel really awful. I hadn’t really slept even though we got a really nice bus with proper Salon Cama chairs – I’d highly recommend them as they are much comfier. I think I’m just now resigned to the fact I just don’t sleep on overnight buses. When we arrived it was bitterly cold and none of us were really prepared. Make sure you have extra layers in your hand luggage on the bus! The company I chose to do my salt flats tour with was Quechua 4wd – they were really good. They came recommended to me and I’d highly recommend them – driving was good and safe! As was the food.
The company picked us up at 5am and took us to a local cafe until we got picked up at 8 when the shop opened. I was arriving and doing the tour the same day. Lots of people I met stayed a night in Uyuni. I think you have to weigh it up; there’s not a lot to do in Uyuni but it does mean you aren’t exhausted on the first day of the tour.
At 10 I was introduced to my tour group and after frantically going to buy an alpaca jumper/socks so I didn’t freeze, we were on our way. A group of 12, split into three jeeps – all our stuff loaded on the top with military precision and our driver who was really sweet but didn’t speak any English. Well a bit but not a lot.
First stop, the train cemetery! Somewhere my old boss would have loved. I think every tour stops here at the beginning as it’s just 5 minutes out of Uyuni. An abandoned set of engines, carriages and tracks just smack bang in the desert. Unfortunately at this point I’d already lost a lot of my voice which made making friends quite tricky. Luckily for me I had a really good group and great jeep. A couple from Ireland, not far away from where my family are from and a Belgium couple, both surgeons and very kind to me when I had to share a room with them and was struggling to breathe. Mixing a cold with Altitude, when you are can’t breathe anyway is not a good idea. Especially when this was the one place you were most looking forward to on your South American trip. I didn’t let it ruin it for me and I powered through – potentially irritating my whole group we set off into the desert.
From the train cemetery, our guide Fernando took us to see how they manufacture the salt. Which apparently isn’t exported at all – it’s all for internal use.
After the salt factory, we headed out into the salt flats for the first time to grab our bikes and cycle 4km along the salt flats to our first pit stop for lunch. The bikes had seen better days and didn’t really have brakes or gears but I suppose you don’t need then when cycling on the flat with serious space around you. Did you know, the salt flats are bigger than Hawaii! Thought that’s more useful than telling you the size.
After we cycled along the salt, which felt weirdly like we were cycling on hard snow we met the jeeps again. The drivers had cooked us a yummy lunch consisting of veg, potatoes and Llama. It was the first time I’d tried llama meat and I’m not sure to be honest. I really liked alpaca but llama was really tough. It has a nice flavour but it’s hard work.
After the lunch had been devoured, whilst the drivers cleared up Fernando, showed us how to take the perspective photos. These were just practice ones apparently as the salt wasn’t perfect here. Later, after visiting the flags placed by people from all over the world we moved on to the perfect salt and it was pretty impressive. Vast expanses of white salt stretched as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t stop just staring at it. I’ve always wanted to visit here and when I got there I was pretty stunned – I’d also taken a lot of cough medicine so I’m not sure how with it I was.
I took my perspective photo with the Moomin mug the polish team at work had given me. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to use it. I was the only single traveller in my group, and Fernando bless him spent ages with me taking photos.
After a long time taking photos we moved onto Cactus island. It has another name but I can’t remember what it is, all I know is that it is covered in cacti 🌵 . Walking to the top was really hard work for me and at this point I was really struggling but I walked up. Pretty proud of myself for going and not staying in the car, also definitely glad I did as I bumped into Dan and Lucy who I’d for the bus with. They were on a day trip
The last view of the day was sunset. Wow! Wow and ummm wow. It was cold, bitter and the wind was harsh but it was worth it to sit out on the salt and watch the sun go down behind the mountains. Sadly my writing skills aren’t good enough to really justify this moment so I’ll add some photos instead.
That night we were staying in a salt hotel. I’d expected it to be cold but actually it was really warm. The sun had been shining all day so it had heated the salt which was a great insulator. Dinner was a yummy and quiet affair for me as by this point my voice had gone completely. Poor Fernando was stuck sitting opposite me and was trying so hard to talk to me and nothing came out! As some of my friends I’m sure would say ‘ it was bliss to have peace and quiet’ 🙄
The next morning, bright and early at 6 we set off into the desert. Firstly to visit an area that had previously been coral and millions of years ago under water, and the second a view of a volcano whilst walking on old lava fields now calved into rock beds. Our guide was really interested in understanding more about how it had all happened ( he was reasonably new to guiding) so I gave him a few books to read and whispered to him (ha) what I knew. I was properly geeking out!
When we got to our final spot before lunch it was beautiful and the first time we’d seen flamingos. They were feeding on the algae at the waters edge and the mountains in the background reflecting into the water. Absolutely stunning and some of the best photographs I’ve taken this trip. The panoramic view was incredible and with barely anyone around I watched the flamingos as they went about their day. Strange yet fascinating creatures with no care in the world. Well at that moment maybe but actually sadly their habitat is being affected by climate change and they are seeing fewer and fewer birds each year. If the lagoons that they feed from dry up there will be no flamingos left. Apparently they try to migrate but a lot of them fail and they’ve seen a few turn up in Uyuni lost. Just another consequence of climate change in a part of the world few people are lucky enough to see and be a part of – really makes it feel real and also quite scary when there are world leaders who refuse to believe it’s happening. Ok climate change lecture over.
After a delicious lunch with the backdrop of the lake and flamingos we got back into the jeep to our next stop. More lagoons and more flamingos! Great day
In between lagoons we had a pitstop at over 4000m above sea level in a desert. The highest desert in the world. Whilst everyone else was clambering on rocks for cool photos I was walking around trying to take in as deep breathes as possible.
Our penultimate stop of the day was maybe the most breathtaking and at that point I didn’t have much left to steal. The Red lagoon, a lake made red but certain types of algae and apparently because it was ridiculously windy it was even more red than normal. We didn’t stay long as it was freezing, super cold and we had to go up to 5000m to see the geysers before getting to our home for the night.
The geysers were pretty cool and I did have a brief look around but I was wheezing and struggling so for back in the jeep pretty sharpish. By this point we had a couple of altitude sickness casualties. The Belgium guy in my car was really sick, I felt so sorry for him and a couple of the girls had really bad pressure headaches. Altitude sickness is most definitely not something to take lightly. Be careful and try to acclimatise as much as possible. Luckily we were staying at only 4300 so it wasn’t as bad. It was cold, very cold and pretty much just a brick shack but it would do. Plus the view was pretty epic.
One of the great things about this particular tour is that they go to the thermal springs at night, not in the morning when most of the other tours go. We went down about 9.30 at night for a couple of hours when the stars were said to be incredible. I’m sure they are but we nearly had a full moon so we weren’t lucky enough to see them. We did however have wine and it nearly to ourselves at the end. Plus I was a happy bunny as the steam was making it much easier to talk. We were all so nervous about getting out and being ice cold but actually it wasn’t too bad. Being back at our abode for the night however was freezing so we all jumped straight back into bed.
Another early morning, and this time we split up. Some of us were going to Chile, to San Pedro and the rest back to Uyuni. My car were all heading to Chile so we stuck together. Before we headed to the border we went to the Dali desert and the green lagoon. I think the green lagoon might be one the windiest places I have ever been. I could barely stand up but we managed to get our team photo before we split up – cheeeeeese
As I left, Roland, one of the hilarious Germans in my our group who had both made fun of me for my voice but also looked out for me said ‘ hey British girl ( my name apparently!) make sure you go home and tell the British us crauts aren’t too bad’ 😂😂 My response was just laughter as guess what – I couldn’t speak!!!
The final hurdle was to get over the border, from the Bolivian side it was super easy as we’d already had our passports stamped to say we were leaving that day back in Uyuni so we didn’t have to queue in the wind and cold. Which I’m not sure is allowed but was a great touch. Chilean side wasn’t too bad either other than they are very particular about food so I umm’d and arghh’d about declaring my peanut butter for about half an hour, then I saw the scanner and panicked and declared it. Why is it that borders/immigration and customs makes you feel super guilty and like you have something to hide…. or is that just me?