Journeying across the Salt Flats

There is absolutely nothing to recommend Uyuni other than its proximity to the salt flats. Many people walk straight off the plane and on to their salt flats tour and the rest stay for one night before heading out again. We could easily appreciate why; it isn’t the prettiest of places.

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Nonetheless, we actually stayed for two nights. We needed the time: hair washing, laundry, a bit of sleep and a lot of admin were required. We were also back up at altitude (yay) and we wanted to give ourselves a little bit of time to re-acclimatise. In the end, it took us the full two days to get in any way organised for San Pedro de Atacama, and that’s solely because it is really bastard expensive, but more on that later.

Anyone who has been to the salt flats has “heard horror stories of drunk drivers” on some of the tours. We suspect that this isn’t necessarily true. More likely, like us, they have read blogs about people who have heard horror stories, or read reviews written by people who have read other reviews. We certainly didn’t talk to anyone who had experienced a drunk driver or even knew someone who had had this problem. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps we were just lucky but, regardless, for comfort and peace of mind we went with one of the best rated companies in Uyuni, Quechua Connection 4WD and everything went very smoothly, if a little steadily. We were picked up on time on the morning of day one, but from there on out we were definitely on South American time. After a 45-minute wait for no apparent reason, we set off and then stopped again 150 metres down the road to clear immigration two days prior to actually leaving Boliva, as we were ending our tour in Chile. It appears commonplace to pay a fee whenever you leave a town, city or country in South America, so we stumped up the 15 BOB each to leave the county and were finally off.

Technically the cars fit 6 passengers each, as well as a driver and a guide, we were lucky to be in a group of 8, so we were 4 to each vehicle and therefore had loads of space. We were a bit of a motley crew in our group, one German, one Dutch, two Luxembourgian, one American, one Mexican and us. Two of our group, whose nationalities shall remain hidden, were…. frustrating. Both were late back to the vehicles at every single stop and late for every meal and they really didn’t seem to care that we were all sat waiting for them. They were both also very rude to our guide, walking off whilst he was in the middle of talking because there was just one more perfect selfie to get, or talking over him because they had something more important to say. James was able to take quite a detached attitude to this whilst Caro’s blood boiled and she scowled at them, not being someone who can control her face that well. When you read the below bear in mind that we were delayed at every, single, stop and it was infuriating. We did our best to ignore it and enjoy what was an awesome trip.

Our first stop was the train graveyard, 10 minutes outside of Uyuni. Our groups lackadaisical approach to time keeping meant that a good majority of the other tour groups, and there were many, had already moved on. Incidentally, every stop we had throughout the day was busy with other groups, but at no point was it a problem. We were given a 10-minute, slightly bias though still very interesting history of Bolivia from our guide, Renee, and then let loose to play among the rusting trains. Yet another big kids’ playground.

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After the train graveyard, it was time to make our way out on to the Salt Flats. There isn’t a definitive line you cross and then you are on the flats, the salt and the dirt sort of stretch into one another. There were still puddles all around us, the dry season was just starting and our route across the flats had only re-opened a week earlier.

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We made a brief stop in a town, ostensibly to see a salt factory but really it was just the usual tourist trap of tat markets. And then we were out on the salt and all we could see for miles and miles and miles was an endless expanse of flat whiteness.

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Our feet crunched as we stepped tentatively out of the cars and on to the salt for the first time. We made our first attempts at the compulsory perspective photos, which, for the most part, were epic fails.

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We did ok on a couple.

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We were at the Salt Hotel, which no longer functions as a hotel but more as a lunch stop for all of the tour groups. There is a large collection of flags that have been there since the hotel was built, symbolising that everyone, regardless of nationality, is welcome on the Salt Flats.

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We too stopped here for lunch, the team set up a table and chairs out on the flats and we had an enormous lunch of beef and quinoa and veg.

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After lunch, we pushed on into the flats, stopping an hour or so later for the official perspective photo stop. On this occasion, Renee and the drivers helped us out and they are truly the experts.

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We spent an inordinate amount of time taking these photos every which way; they basically indulge every whim that you have for pictures which, in a bigger group, could take hours. Eventually we moved on though, and joined the convoy of cars spread out in a line, speeding across the flats. For once, we didn’t mind that there were lots of cars around us, it allowed us to appreciate the sheer size of the place.

Next up was Isla Incahuasi, commonly known as Cactus Island… any guesses why?

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Incahuasi is a bizarre place; a literal island in the middle of a vast flat expanse of salt, it feels more remote and desolate than if it were in the middle of the sea. The cacti that thrive all over the island grow at a rate of a centimetre a year, the tallest are over 6 metres tall, those are some pretty old plants.

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We were chasing sunset and hurriedly piled back into the cars (all except our two friends who, as ever, were operating on their own timetable). As we mentioned earlier, we knew that our route across the flats had only been re-opened the previous week. We also knew that the wet season is the time to get the famous mirror photos when the flats are flooded, and that had just finished. So, we were a little bit surprised when we found ourselves driving through 20 centimetres of water. When we stopped for photographs we were completely and utterly mesmerised, it felt as though we were walking on the sky.

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This was probably the most beautiful stop of the whole three days and also one of the shortest as we were losing the light.

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We jumped back in the cars and crawled our way towards the edge of the water, it was only just passable.

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We stayed on the edge of the salt flats that night with the relative luxuries of a private room with an absolutely scalding shower. We ate dinner together, Pique Macho, a traditional dish of chips, sausage and onions.  The next morning saw the very welcome return of breakfast cake as one of our group was celebrating their birthday.

Day two was the busiest day. We drove south all day with many stops to take in the rapidly changing scenery. We left the salt flats behind us and found ourselves in a lunar landscape.

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This very cool plant is in fact a group of teeny tiny trees.

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Next was a succession of lagoons with loads and loads of flamingos.

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After another surreal lunch spot, we ventured in to the stunning Siloli desert. It was starting to get really bloody cold again so we shared the tent blanket.

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Everything sounds more romantic in Spanish; our next stop was the Arbol de Piedra, which sounds sort of exotic but means Stone Tree.

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Our last lake of the day was definitely the best. We’ve seen a few coloured lakes now but we’d timed our arrival at the Red Lake perfectly to see the colours. (Note: we left the other half of the group behind in order to get there in time)

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The very last stop was a very quick one, it was now bone chillingly cold and the wind was absolutely brutal. We leapt out of the car, took pictures and leapt back in again. The steam from the geysers did absolutely nothing at all to warm us up.

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Our accommodation for the second night was at 4400m and we each had single beds in a dorm. It was absolutely bloody freezing so we piled sleeping bags and blankets on our beds. At dinner that night we were treated to a bottle of Bolivian wine. Not a winner in our opinion. Renee provided some light entertainment on a flute type instrument which, like the wine, is something of an acquired taste.

A couple of hundred metres from the accommodation were some hot springs so James headed down armed with beer for a post dinner soak, Caro got in to bed and tried to keep warm.  This was probably the best choice as James’s swim shorts froze on the walk back.

We had two more stops on our last morning. First up was the Dali desert, so named for the abstract rock formations reminiscent of a Dali painting. We probably weren’t there at the best time of day for the light and we also weren’t allowed to go any closer due to some dispute with Chile about proximity to the border, but it was still cool.

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Followed by the Green lagoon, which, at the time, wasn’t green. We did see another Andean fox though.

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We split up here, we were heading to Chile and the other half of the group were going back to Uyuni. We took a quick group photo before parting ways. (Caro had become inseparable from the tent blanket by this point)

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This last leg of the tour was pretty agonising as we spent two hours waiting at the Chilean border, but on the plus side the handler chose our van for a bit of sniffer dog training so we got to coo at the dog for a while.

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The trip across the salt flats was an incredibly beautiful journey with a huge array of landscapes and environments. We’d contemplated just doing a day trip from Uyuni but we would have missed out on seeing the amazing desert landscapes. It is certainly not the most comfortable journey but we would say it’s a must-do on any itinerary of South America.

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