Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama- the world’s most gorgeous and inhospitable landscapes 

Salar de Uyuni is probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist attraction, and for good reason. The area is located in Bolivia’s extreme southwest corner along the Chilean border. The Salar is the world’s largest salt flat, and is so white and flat it’s used to calibrate satellites! In order to visit the Salar and the stunning landscapes that surround it, you have to take a tour with a licensed guide. Most tours last for 3 days and 2 nights, with the option of ending in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the border into Chile.

I arrived in the little town of Uyuni at around 4 in the afternoon after taking a noon bus from Potosi. Once I found a cheap hotel for the night I went out in search for a good and reasonably priced tour agency. There are tons and tons of tour agencies in Uyuni, especially along the main street near the train station. A lot of agencies have had problems with drunk drivers so it’s best to get recommendations from other travelers or sites like tripadvisor before arriving in order to book with a good company. I used World White Travel, which was recommended to me by some friends that had used them a few weeks earlier (I’d recommend them as well). I paid 800 Bs(~$115 USD) for the 3d/2n tour with transfer to San Pedro de Atacama and a sleeping bag was included. Be sure to ask about the sleeping bag because neither place I stayed had heat it was really needed the second night. It is possible to bargain the price down a bit depending on your skills – I got 50 Bs for mentioning my friend paid 750 Bs for her tour, but others on my tour paid 850 Bs, so it’s always worth haggling a bit. All the tours are the same route and prices (except Red Planet, they are way more expensive but seemed to have really high quality services and English speaking guides from what I saw). All tours are conducted in Spanish by default unless you pay a lot more for English, and the quality of the guide seems to be mostly the same for everyone at the usual price range.
After booking, I had dinner at this amazing American-run pizza place in the Tonito Hotel, called Minuteman Pizza. The owner is from Boston and makes perfect American style pizza, which is impossible to find in South America. I had the Heart Attack special which is essentially a pizza shaped calzone stuffed with tons of meat. Every pizza also comes with a fresh salad, another impossibility in Bolivia. I chatted with the owner after eating and he ended up giving me a free piece of cake as a graduation present, which was awesome for breakfast the next morning before the tour began.

The town of Uyuni

The tour started at 10 AM in the tour office, conveniently located around the corner from my hotel. Soon after I arrived, the American family I met in Potosi joined in the office as they had booked the same tour. I ran into them the previous evening when they were looking for a tour company and told them where I booked, so they joined so I could translate the tour (which sounds awful but was actually quite fun). Two German cousins joined our group and then we packed up the car and headed to the first stop with our driver/guide, Herman.
The first stop on every tour is the Train Cemetery, located on the edge of town. This is where the old and broken trains from the country have been put for decades, since Uyuni is the center of Bolivian railway. All the trains are rusted over but are solid enough to climb around on, which is pretty great for photos and stuff. The stop here is for about a half hour, which is really about all the time you need to see everything and take a bunch of pictures.

Train Cemetery

The second stop is the main attraction, Salar de Uyuni. We stopped first at a series of salt mounds set up for photos before continuing to a salt hotel for lunch. Just outside of the salt hotel were a giant salt statue for the Dakar Rally, which goes through the area, and a bunch of flags for every country that participates in the rally. Lunch was mediocre, but really every meal was and no company had anything different to eat – no one goes for the food anyway. At some point around this time we stopped at an “artisanal village” which sold generic tourist junk and some salt things but the stop was so short I barely remember it.
After lunch we headed to the middle of the Salar for more pictures, like the stereotypical “giant dinosaur” picture and general pics of the hexagons of salt. We then went to Isla Incahuasi, which is a giant cactus-filled “island” in the middle of the Salar. The place is called an island because the entire Salar used to be a sea, so it’s used to be an island. For some reason the island is full of giant cacti, which only grow 1 cm per year so they had to be really quite old. There’s a nice trail along the island with the option of going into a giant cave made of dead coral, which was really cool to go into. The island also had free bathrooms included in the ticket price (yay toilets!). When we finished at the island our driver took us back to the Salar for sunset, and we were seemingly the only group to do so, which was nice after spending the whole day with a bunch of other people who get into photos and are generally in the way. It was a bit too cloudy for a spectacular sunset, but it was still pretty.

Flags from the Dakar Rally
Salar de Uyuni
Colin the Alpaca looking unamused at Salar
Isla Incahuasi

After sunset we drove another 2 hours to our hotel. The hotel was on the edge of the Salar and was completely made of salt. The floor was ground salt, the table and chairs of salt bricks, even the bed and end table were both made of salt (thankfully the bed had a real mattress and pillow!). Since we stayed for sunset on the Salar, we were the last group to arrive and as such we had no room to plug our phones/cameras in as there were only 2 power strips for the whole hotel. Most of us managed to get stuff charged during dinner or after and then we went to bed early in preparation for the 7 AM breakfast the following morning.

Salt hotel from the first night

Breakfast was the standard Bolivian fare not worth talking about, so I won’t. We headed first to the Ollagüe volcano. Along the way we stopped at a tiny village cemetery with a nice view of the volcano before heading to the proper “mirador.” The mirador was a crazy maze of bizarre rock formations, all overshadowed by the distant volcano. The wind there was brutally cold and the air had a tinge of sulfur to it from the volcanic activity. We left the mirador after about an hour and went to the first of a series of lagoons with wild flamingos.

Cemetery in the desert

 
The Hedionda Lagoon was a stunning dark grey lagoon full of wild flamingos wading through thick black mud. The surrounding landscape of snow-capped mountains and barren hills combined with the general existence of flamingos really made the visit feel otherworldly. After spending a while here we moved on to the nearby Cachi Lagoon, where we also had lunch. It was insanely windy here but the view was spectacular. Here the water was a light green-blue color and there were even more flamingos than the previous hill. At this point the trip got a bit less fun for me as I started feeling the symptoms of food poisoning. Suffice it to say that that is not pleasant on a day spent entirely in a car.

Hedionda Lagoon
Cachi Lagoon

I honestly don’t remember most of the trip involving the desert as I was trying to sleep and avoid vomiting (did not succeed), but felt moderately better by the time we arrived at the arbol de piedra, a large worn stone randomly sitting in the middle of a desert landscape. Not far from here was the day’s final stop, Laguna Colorada. This lagoon is a deep red color due to algae which live in the water. There were flamingos at this lagoon too, and the general area was gorgeous. However I started feeling awful again so I spent most of the visit laying in the car. We spent the night in one of the coldest places I’ve ever slept (this is why the sleeping bag is needed) and started really early the following morning. This hotel had electricity for only 2.5 hours and no heat.

Arbol de Piedra
Laguna Colorada

The last day of the tour began at 5 AM with a sunrise trip to a geyser field. The amount of geysers shooting out of the ground and giant pits of bubbling mud was incredible. The weather was bitterly cold, though the steam from the geysers made for decent hand-warmers. We stayed here a bit longer than expected due to a second case of sickness in the group, but then moved on the the natural hot springs. This lagoon was volcanically heated and a small pool was placed next to it for visitors to enjoy the warm waters in such a cold place. Half of our group got into the waters to get warm while the rest of us took some pics and went back to the car and out of the wind. Once we left, we continued south toward the Chile-Bolivia border. We drove by the Salvador Dali desert, likely named for its similarity to his works. We didn’t spend much time here as we were running late for the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. We had to skip Laguna Verde because of that, though we got to see it driving by. We barely made it to the transfer in time, and thankfully the Bolivian exit process was super easy so we didn’t miss it. There was a 15 Bs”exit tax” to leave the country, which is clearly a scam because I only had 6 Bs on me and he took it and shoved it in is pocket anyway and said good enough.

Geyser field
Geyser field at sunrise
Natural hot springs
Salvador Dali Desert

Crossing the border into Chile is like crossing into a parallel universe. Right at the border the road goes from bumpy gravel to perfect asphalt and road signs. The trip to San Pedro de Atacama only took about an hour, and the Chilean border control was fairly easy to get through (just don’t have fruits or vegetables!). Right after we arrived the German guys in my Uyuni tour and I booked a tour of Valle de la Luna for later that afternoon before going to our separate hostels.
San Pedro de Atacama was so much warmer than Bolivia it was incredible. When I finally found my hostel I had to change out of pants and jackets to shorts and a T-shirt because it was so hot. It was a welcome change. The tour for Valle de la Luna left about 3 hours after we arrived, which was just enough time to charge everything up and walk around town a bit.

  

SPdA Plaza de Armas

Valle de la Luna is located just outside of San Pedro and is an absolute must for anyone visit the town. I paid 9000 CLP ($13) for a 4 hour tour in English and Spanish. The guide was great and took us trekking around the valley for a few hours before watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. He described the history of the area and the various minerals in the valley and volcanic activity that shaped it. The views from the top of the peaks in the valley were amazing. By sunset, we were at the main viewpoint which allowed for a perfect view of the mountains for sunset. The colors gradually changed from pink to red to purple before the sun finally went below the horizon. When we returned to SPdA, I went back to my hostel to get some rest before the 24 hour bus journey that was to occur the following morning.

Valle de la Luna
Death Valley
Volcano and the Andes at sunset

First thing in the morning I went to the bus station and bought a salon-cama ticket to Santiago ($60, 24 hours) and then had breakfast, which was my first meal since being sick on the Uyuni tour. By the time I had finished the meal and bought some supplies for the bus ride, it was time to head to the station and go to Santiago.
(The bus was actually quite comfortable, other than the baby in the seat next to me that screamed the entire night).

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