Escape from Uyuni, and a Three Day Salt Flats Tour.
I get the impression that there is very little that happens in Uyuni, and that there is very little reason to visit other than to start and/or finish a tour of the Salar. The local protest and subsequent road block were definitely a welcome change of pace for the locals, and gave them something 'exciting' to talk about.
The first we heard of the problem was at 5:30am as our bus parked up on the road a couple of miles out of town and we were told that we would have to walk the rest of the way. The dispute was over land and housing, the mayor had made promises and had recanted on his word.
We crossed the picket line which was little more than a few bricks and a few old tyres in the road. Shortly after we were picked up by a taxi who offered us a free lift into town if we brought a coffee at the cafe he would take us too. Not a problem. We needed a coffee.
The coffee-taxi-cafe deal was little more than a ploy to get all the new arrivals in one place so that the ticket touts, and tour operators could swoop in and sell their wares.
Fortunately we had booked in advance and so didn't have to engage in the early morning bartering. Our tour began a few hours later at the Red Planet Tour Office, and so all we really had to concern ourselves with was enjoying our breakfast.
Our tour was made up of 4 cars, each with an English guide, driver and enough room for 5 or 6 other tourists. We were paired up with two sisters from Bolivia, and a one of their boyfriends, Sean from London. Our buddy car was a Family-of-five Kiwis. We clicked immediately.
The first stop was the Train Graveyard, a couple of miles out of town, where disused trains and carriage were discarded in the middle of the dessert. While I was expecting little more than a glorified scrap yard, the setting and views were stunning, and it was a pretty nice place to begin our trip.
Out next stop would be a Salt Factory another few miles away. Our driver described it as looking like the type of factory that Pablo Escobar would run, and he wasn't wrong!
The road block would mean we would have to take the more scenic route to the Salt Factory, however the protesters had gotten to all roads in and out of Uyuni and as we headed down the road less traveled it became apparent that THAT road was also blocked.
The Train Graveyard, Uyuni, Bolivia.
Our convoy decided to go off piste. Getting our full Bolivianos worth out of the 4x4 we had hired, and testing our drivers off-road skills, and nerves, to the MAX! As we raced across the desert at top speed, through the clouds of smoke, the protesters themselves raced across the plain to once again try to block our path. It was exhilarating!
The first two cars in our convoy made it through easily, the second was a squeeze, but our car was not quite quick enough and was cut off by the protesters at the last minute. Threatened with having rocks thrown at our car, the driver and guide negotiated, and agreed, that we would follow them back to the town. The protesters started to lead the way, but at the last minute our driver pulled a u-turn and headed off into the desert to join the rest of the team. Leaving the protesters, quite literally eating dust.
We would worry about how to get back into the town in a couple of days.
The Team regrouping after escaping Uyuni.
After lunch we spent the remainder of the first day on the Salar, the Salt Flats to you and me. And it is just incredible. Literally miles of nothing but white, honeycomb salt crystals paving your way. A horizon that melts into the road and hangs in the distance like a mirage. You are after all in the middle of a salt desert.
After the obligatory silly-perspective photos, we headed to one of the cactus island that pop up out of nowhere in the mystical white nothingness. From a top the island you really do feel like you have washed up on a beach of salt in the middle of a White Sea. It's like being in another planet.
The stunning Salar.
The sunset on the Salar is also of another world. Watching the red, orange, purple lights reflected on the white landscape as they disappeared behind the mountains is incredible. The photos do not do it justice. You really have to see if for yourself.
Day two was another stunner. The landscape changed completely from one hour to the next. Green marshlands that looked like something out of a Children’s TV show, wild llamas, pink mountains, blue valleys, lakes full of wild flamingos, golden sand dunes…
We ended the second day by driving into the crater of a semi-active volcano. I did have my reservations about this. My feeling were that volcanoes are either active or not. It turns out they can in fact be semi active/semi dormant. It was a little driving onto the surface of Mars. Red sand, deep pools of bubbling clay and a steaming geyser that was like dancing in the clouds. It is not due to irrupt for another thousand years we were told by our guides. I guess it would be pretty poor PR to tell us anything different.
The breathtaking landscapes of Bolivia.
Accommodation, Altitude, and Thermal Pools.
The accommodation on the tour was pretty good. On the first night was stayed in “The Salt Hotel” that sits inside the Salar. Everything is made out of Salt, and I mean everything (except maybe the bathroom sink). The beds, the tables, the walls, there is even a not unpleasant salt-gravel carpet. We had dinner with our now adopted family, ALL the food on the tour, I will admit, surpassed all my expectations. Especially the hot lunches we had on the road.
My sister and I had smuggled a bottle of red wine on the tour with us and after one glass, immediately felt the effects of the altitude. Not sickness, not at all. Complete and utter giddiness. One glass was like two bottles without the lazy head or the stained lips. We ended up calling it an early night, as I’m pretty sure that our giggling and silliness was annoying some of the other guests.
On the second night the accommodation was pretty basic. No running water, electricity only between the hours of 7pm and 10pm, BUT within walking distance of outdoor thermal pools where we took the remainder of our contraband alcohol and chilled out in the warm water and freezing air, under all the starts in the entire galaxy. There was zero light pollution out in the National Park, and maybe it was the altitude that was literally taking my breath away, but I'm sure the sky that night had more stars that I have ever seen in my entire life.
Getting back in (and then out) of Uyuni.
On the final day we drove close to the ABC boarder, Argentina-Bolivia-Chile. It was a long ride back to Uyuni, passing through more stunning landscapes, the Salvador Dali rock formations and pink lagoons. We had got word that the protest had turned ugly. That all roads in and out of the town were now blocked and that the protestors had taken over all the petrol stations in the town making it almost impossible for people to leave.
As is often the case in a small town where there is very little to do, people like to talk. Getting back into Uyuni and to the Red Planet Office to collect our bags was, at best, uneventful. And after the exhilarating escape from the town, a huge anticlimax.
We took the back road into the town and there was absolutely no trouble or signed of the protest. We had a bus booked for later that evening to Sucre, and although we were assured by the company that the bus would be running, 15 minutes before our scheduled departure time there was no sign of our bus, or the company office opening. We just got another, and also later a refund from our original bus company.
The Three Day Salt Flats Tour.
As someone who is currently backpacking their way around South America, and attempting to recover/relapse into my hippiedom, I am always a little bit skeptical of organised tours. Given that I do not have all that much to compare to, what I can say is that the three day tour of the Salar de Uyuni that we booked with Red Planet absolutely exceeded any expectation or preconceived ideas that I had about package tours.
We had such a good group, in addition to our now adopted family we spent a lot of time with our now adopted distant cousins, the family of Kiwis. The food was amazing, the accommodation: no complaints, and sitting on the hostel steps on the final night, wrapped up in a towel, looking at the stars and sharing a cigarette with my sister is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Five stars! And NO BUSES!!