Country Bolivia | City Salt flats Bolivia (various) | Dates June 3-5 | Tour Company World White Travel [see my review]
The Bolivian Salt Flats, also known as Salar de Uyuni, have been on my travel list a LONG time. To visit the salt flats, you can start in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and end in Uyuni (Bolivia), or you can do a full loop from Uyuni. We choose the former. After a few days in San Pedro, we were picked up at 7am for our tour. We crossed the Bolivian border without much to-do, and met our driver for 3 days, Johnny, as well as the other 4 people in our group with whom we’d get up close and personal as we were in a tiny car and shared rooms for the entirety of the trip. Luckily, we all got along great!
We ate a breakfast outside in the frigid temperatures, having bread, hot tea and some ham and cheese. Then Johnny loaded our bags on top of the Jeep with a giant tarp and bungee, we piled into the rather small jeep and were off! Johnny introduced us to cocoa leaves, common in Bolivia, that you chew to stave off altitude sickness. We cautiously tried them as began our ascent to high altitude. Johnny was not so cautious, and appeared to be overdosing on cocoa the entirety of the ride, the leaves a huge wad in his right cheek at all times. We each had a few, not sure if it was a placebo effect of they were actually helping, but we felt less ill.
Day 1: Lagunas & More Lagunas
First stop, Laguna Verde, a green lagoon as the name implies, with a beautiful mountain vista. We saw multi-colored mountains in the background on our drive to Laguna Blanco (white lagoon). Next up, a lame geyser, which wasn’t shooting water. “Some people get too close and die,” said our guide. We piled back into the car in less than 3 minutes.
After this we had an amazing stop at hot springs. Although it was about 20 Fahrenheit, we changed in a ramshackle changing room and hopped into the water which was, actually, totally hot.
At this point we were freezing-ish, but we were driving to our “refuge” where we enjoyed a nice lunch (vegetables and what we later determined was llama meat…Johnny assured us it was beef but it wasn’t brown and also there were llamas outside) and got to know each other. We saw our accommodations for the first night which were quite meager; cement blocks with mattresses, only 4 hours of electricity, yellow walls with peeling paint and some very basic facilities.
After lunch our guide warned us to bundle up as we were heading to…another laguna! And a cold one, at that. Laguna Colorada was incredible. A lake of 6 colors in concurrent rings, lined by deep black rocks with flamingos in the middle! The other side of the lagoon was blood red in certain light and seemed unreal. We accidentally went off the path and got yelled at by the lagoon man, who proceeded to realign the rocks of the “path” so others wouldn’t go off road. Sarah felt out of breath and I loved the flamingos.
After this we went back to our accommodation, where we enjoyed hot tea and cookie and crackers, and were freezing and feeling pretty unwell from the altitude (4,000+ feet). Some people took naps, while we hung talked to some girls from another group going the opposite direction. Eventually, we all migrated to a small bar/billiards place in the “town” (50 permanent residents, only built around tourism) where we stood by a fire and did not buy anything. After a dinner of quinoa (local to Bolivia!) soup, spaghetti and sauce and fruit for dessert. We hung out in the main area enjoying the 4 hours of electricity, charging our devices in a dangerous clump, and talking by the sole heat lamp in the place.
We enjoyed a sleepless night freezing on our concrete beds. Refusing to use the unsanitary sleeping bags provided, Sarah and I slept in our jackets and full outfits from the day (yes, we wore them the next day too). We all secretly wondered if we were going to suffocate under the blankets, a fear we discussed at breakfast. In the night, we awoke at various times with numb limbs from the concrete bed.
Day 2: Sights & Salt Hotel
We got up at 7am for breakfast – bread, eggs and cake with no plates, rationing our one bottle of instant coffee to last all 3 days. First to Piedra Arbol, a weird rock/tree no one really liked. We saw more (lame) Lagunas, Lagunas Altiplanicas, white with their mix of borax and salt. I dipped my finger in and said I could “smell the salt” and was mocked.
Next up…a lagoon with LLAMAS! And flamingos! It was a highlight as the wildlife was exceptional. We followed the llamas and it was a great day. We also saw a viewpoint for an active volcano, but it was cloudy so we couldn’t see anything …except a graphic sign about not peeing on the ground. Sarah used the public toilet and wasted money again.
Today we were introduced to the viscacha, a weird rodent like rabbit creature. Johnny attempted to feed it a carrot and I had fear as it laid in wait with rabies. Johnny told us to walk around, but instead we watched him prepare food and looked at the rabbit-rodents, including an old scraggly one. For lunch veggies, rice, tuna and potatoes, plus mayo apples and coke! The rabbits stalked us.
We then saw baby salar, our first view of the salt (not that exciting) and took some photos on the tracks. Johnny was suddenly more friendly/animated after consuming large amounts of cocoa.
We were sold on a “salt hotel,” but when we arrived the outside looked suspiciously like our accommodation from the previous night. It was not a hotel. But a small shelter with walls of salt bricks, floor of salt, and tables of salt, too. Johnny disappeared at 3pm, so we just waited in the main area and eventually someone brought us tea and cookies. We expected other groups to arrive as there were many rooms, but alas no one did. A while later, someone dropped off some firewood for the small stove in the main room. We then took turns in the HOT SHOWER until dinner, a nice array of soup, chicken wings, french friends and wine.
It was then the fun started. While we were all hanging by the fire, 2 psychotic children (those of the people owning the hotel) entered the room. They jumped on the tables and began to do an alarming fighting / dragon ball z performance, with weird sounds and hand motions. One pretended to repeatedly murder the other. Then they laughed, uttering incoherently, and pointed at the poster on the wall of a nearby ruins with the skull. It was about this time our joke about “this is how a horror movie starts” became more real. The children continued on for a while, bringing toys, throwing items aggressively at us, and laughing evilly. We all headed to bed when the fire went out (We were not allowed to have more wood) and hoped we would stay safe in the night in the empty place.
Day 3: Icy Feet & Unreal Salt
We got up and piled into the jeep around 5am to catch sunrise on the flats, although it was cloudy and our view was not ideal. Johnny told us not to wear our sneakers as the salt was corrosive, so we put on flip flops to go into the icy layer of water on the salt and WAS IT PAINFUL. Worse than an injury. Next we drove to an unexpected cactus island in the middle of the salt flats, for a 30-minute walk and 360 view of the flats. We had our final breakfast on benches by the island, enjoying a heart cake.Then to the salt! As we approached the sun came out for the first time in days, we put on upbeat music and took our jackets off and it was amazing. There are no words to describe the salt flats, so here are photos:
To finish out the tour we stopped at a former salt hotel turned museum (too much pollution), bubbling salt water, a market where we met our driver’s nephew (and he forgot said nephew’s name). Then to the train cemetery, where all trains in Bolivia that crash are sent. It was rusty, smashed, abandoned and an all-around tetanus hazard.
Our final stop was in Uyuni for our last group lunch, then we said our goodbyes at the tour office. It was a great 3 days, although freezing, and World White Travel did not disappoint.