Everyone says the Salar de Uyuni is an ‘other worldly’ experience. I won’t deny it. The blinding salt crystals forming hexagonal patterns as far as the eye can see in every direction are something else. But my trip to the Bolivian salt flats was unique for a few reasons, namely, bumping into one of the craziest people I’ve met on my journey so far, and a government protest leading to national park blockades.
My first error was failing to pay attention to the details of my tour group. I’d asked around for information on who would be going with which company, shamelessly trying to engineer a group with some hot guys for me to gawp at.
Only later did I realise that one of the guys on my hand-picked tour was a quintessential software geek with few social skills and the other was 56! At the last minute, I was saved by the late arrival of a friendly couple from Brighton.
One trip highlight came shortly after setting off from town. Our tour group was getting to know each other, exchanging stories about our time so far in Bolivia. I’d just been telling them all about Sam, one of the guys on my trip to the Amazonian pampas, who’d been pretty unique.
I won’t go into the crazy stuff he told me, because he might not want it published on the internet, but he was incredibly entertaining the whole time. I was in a constant state of shock, and the whole of our group would try to coax new information out of him, casting glances at each other to portray the question ‘Is he for real?!’
As our jeep pulled up to a small souvenir market, my new pals agreed that he’d been one of a kind. We wandered over to a stall to inspect some alpaca blankets, and I heard someone call my name. Turning round, I saw a guy jogging my way, dressed in a full-body chicken suit.
He came over to us and explained that ‘Mick from Loki hostel had bet him he wouldn’t do the whole tour dressed as a chicken’. I nodded, smiled and turned to my friends. As if they hadn’t already put two and two together, I said ‘And, this would be my friend Sam’.
Before reaching the salt flats, we made a few short stops, including a train graveyard, where old parts of trains have been turned into swings and seesaws, and a massive expanse of salt mounds. I ran into Sam again and helped take perspective shots of him ‘raping his toy dinosaur’, which by the way is called Sippy and appears in almost all of his travel pictures.
When we reached the centre of the salt flats, I hoped our driver would give us some inspiration for the essential perspective photo shoot. Friends who’d done the tour before me had been supplied with numerous toy animals, but we were abandoned and left to our own devices, while Oscar, our driver, went to prepare our lunch.
It’s harder than it looks to take photos where everything aligns properly and is in focus. If you don’t believe me, just check out this hilarious post by Lateral Movements. Add to that a number of misunderstandings, limited props, and a guy who complains he can’t see the screen of my camera for the blinding sun, and you end up with this kind of picture…
I said I wanted to ‘lean on the toilet roll’!
After a lot of trial and error, we came up with a few average shots that pretty much accomplished what we were going for, but by no means are they the best I’ve seen.
On the way from the salt flats to the first hotel, we stopped at a small island with giant cacti, which, remarkably, can support life. There were numerous giant rabbit-like creatures bounding around. I later learned from a BBC documentary that the only reason life can be supported in this region and the adjacent Atacama Desert is because of a current offshore in the Pacific blowing mist overland every morning.
You have to pay an extra 30Bs for a wander around the island, and without it you can’t use the bathrooms, so I’d say it’s probably worth it. After all, there’s not much to hide behind if you think you’d rather go ‘au natural’.
After a night in the salt hotel, which isn’t as impressive as you might imagine – you just end up bringing salt into bed with you from the floor – we spent day 2 driving through a range of incredible landscapes. There were huge boulders of interesting shapes that reminded me a bit of Bryce Canyon in the US.
Most impressive of all were the multi-coloured lagoons that were speckled with thousands of flamingos. Each time we approached another body of water, the salt would be a different vivid colour, depending on the minerals it contained.
Unfortunately, as we approached the entrance to the national park, we realised there was a blockade. It turned out that the locals were protesting against the fact that the tourist park entrance fee of 150Bs was being kept by the government rather than going towards road maintenance and other necessities. Fair enough, but it meant we could go no further.
To rub salt in the wound – excuse the pun – we got a flat tyre, and had to sit by the blockade getting sand blasted by the harsh wind, while Oscar did a sterling job of replacing it.
Because we couldn’t pass through the park, we had to drive back north to find alternative accommodation for the night, and we only arrived at about 8pm. With all the tour companies doing the same thing, we were lucky to even find a spare bed.
This also meant that, as well as missing out on the sights of day 3 – some thermal baths and a geyser among them – we had a long journey to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile the next day, passing over a remote border hours further north.
Despite the problems though, it was an amazing trip. For anyone in northern Chile or Bolivia to miss it off their itinerary would be plain madness.
A few small tips:
- They all say it’s better to start the salt flats from Tupiza than Uyuni, but if you’re heading into Chile, you’ll have to come back down again, probably independently from the tour. This makes starting in Tupiza a lot more expensive and a lot more time consuming. While I always prefer to save the best till last, I just don’t think it’s worth it in this case.
- Bring extra cash for the island tour, snacks and a warm shower on the first night (10Bs).
- Try not to have too much Bolivian currency left over if you’re crossing into Chile because the commission they take to convert it to pesos will make you want to cry. If you have a lot left over, the exchange rate is better in Uyuni than San Pedro. This also means you’ll have Chilean money in case you need food or have transport problems when you cross the border.
- Make the most of the cheap meals and single room accommodation, because Chilean prices are a big shock to the system.
- Don’t wear your best clothes for the salt plains. You will end up with a thick layer of salt encrusted on your backside.