Jumping in a 4×4 and burning across the desert for a few days sounded like a pretty solid idea. Coupled with the rugged landscape of the southern Bolivia salt flats and you’ve got the ingredients for a sure fire adventure. Our mate Bill was in town for another 5 days so we wanted to see him off with a bang. Countless travellers we’d met on route had said this was the best thing they’d done in Bolivia by far. Getting the rickety night bus down from La Paz to Uyuni wasn’t too bad thanks to the mega strength sleeping pills acquired from a dodgy pharmacist the day before. We awoke surprisingly fresh and alighted from the bus into a light but persistent drizzly 5am rain.
Uyuni is in the middle of nowhere, a dusty old mining town that time would have long forgotten if it wasn’t for the salt flat tourists pouring through each day. They arrive hoping catch a ride south through some of the most extraordinary terrain on the planet. In the January wet season each year the white flats are covered with a thin film of rain water, making the horizon seem an endless mirror as the blue sky is reflected back on itself. It’s this amazing phenomenon that attracts so many people and one we were keen to check out.
Finding shelter from the rain, we found a breakfast stop and saw groups of other young travellers gearing up for their adventure. Ideally we would have left the same morning as we’d arrived, but didn’t realise that was an option until it was too late. With 24 hours in Uyuni until our departure, we consulted our guide book for things to do in the meantime. This turned up exactly jack-shit. There’s no treks, museums, talks, walks or activities worth mentioning in Uyuni. We just had to sit it out and wait. A brief circuit of the town uncovered a dodgy goods market which Bill perused no less than three times. We were so bored by the afternoon we even attempted exercise. After a farcically short jog around town (we blamed the altitude) where Bill and I were chased by wild dogs and stared at in unbelief by most of the locals, we retired to the hostel. In the end we did what most people would do in that situation. Got drunk on cheap beer and played cards.
The next day we shook off our hangovers and went down to meet our car, driver and fellow passengers for the trip. We’d be spending 2 days and 3 nights with these people so were hoping for a decent group. Frank, a German heavy metal fan (with a secret penchant for Euro Disco), and a couple, Nathalie and Charlie, medical students from northern France. Johnny, our driver would be ensuring we got where we needed to safely. He was also the de facto car DJ, much to Bill’s chagrin.
Our first stop was the train graveyard, just outside Uyuni. Over thirty huge engines were left behind when the mining boom ended abruptly in the 1850’s. I guess it was too expensive to transport them anywhere else so they remain there to this day. Massive rusting pieces of tin left over from a bygone era. Now people piss about climbing on top of them, taking selfies and scrawling profound graffiti on the sides.
We travelled for a few hours south through dry and arid desert. Huge sand dunes flanked us for much of the way which soon morphed into rocky volcanoes. The landscape flattened out as we approached the salt flats and soon all we could see for miles in every direction was an ever lasting expanse of white salt. The car slowed right down as we crunched over the snow like salt deposits. Soft pink lithium pools leaked into larger expanses of water giving an oil slick effect that reflected the white clouds and blue sky above. It was like nothing we’d seen before and everyone was quiet as we crept through the alien terrain.
Out of nowhere we arrived at a long white one story building where we were to have lunch. This was the worlds first salt hotel where everything is constructed using the local material. Despite its cold appearance it was toasty warm inside and we settled down to a decent lunch prepared by Johnny.
Keen to explore the surrounds we finished up quickly and found various salt sculptures and an international flag tree where various nationalities staked their respective banners. Frank bought his local football team flag from Berlin and found a good spot to string it up amongst the others.
Soon it was time to try out some photography. The wide open salt flats are an ideal place to play with perspective and so we set up a few scenes making each other variously big and small, fitting in the palm of each other’s hand or being crushed by a giant foot. Trying to get the best angle, Bill absent mindedly lay down on his front and was soaked through by the fiercely alkali salt water. Immediately it crusted and started eating away at his clothes, progressing through to his underwear and then beyond… At least the pictures came out well.
We drove for a long while to reach our digs for the night in a tiny town where nothing much happens. In fact it was comatose and took us about 4 minutes to explore. We discovered a small basketball court inside a locked compound and as luck would have it a kid ambled past bouncing a basketball. In his best Spanish (ie none) Bill magically managed to commandeer the ball with a promise to return it later. We hopped the tall mesh fence and played until the light dimmed and dinnertime beckoned, all the while with dramatic snow capped mountains as our backdrop.
Driving through jagged valleys of rock and sand we made our way further south, stopping periodically for pictures. The valleys were vast and wide with improbably shaped stone that’d been whipped into various forms by the elements. Johnny our driver would point one out and say in Spanish “there’s the condor” or “there’s the wolf” but to be honest I had trouble visualising much more than weird shaped rock. Nonetheless we had good fun climbing the biggest ones and then trying to get down without snapping a limb.
Before lunch we’d reached an impossibly beautiful lake with scores of flamingos feeding upon it. The water was serenely still and again we had an almost perfect mirror reflecting not only the birds but the mountains and sky above. It’s at times like this I wish I’d brought my DSLR camera on this trip. However watching others lug an extra bag around the continent is enough to put me off most of the time. Flamingos are a frustratingly timid bird and as soon as you start walking near enough for a decent picture, the whole flock starts moving away in unison. I considered just taking a run at them and seeing what happened, but thought the others with their telephoto lenses and patient demeanour might not appreciate that.
On we drove passing through changing scenery. The road gave way to gravel tracks and we were bounced around like bunnies in the back of the Toyota Landcruiser. Johnny seemed only a little concerned with the not insignificant spider web of cracks creeping across our windscreen. They’d been there from the start but I was sure they we getting larger. In addition, every now and again he’d stop and strap up a part of the car with Duck Tape. This was only day 2 and we’d drove deep into the rocky interior – I wondered if we’d make it back out again.
We arrived that afternoon at the famous Arbol de Piedra, or Stone Tree. As you can see from the picture below, it’s a rock that kind of looks like a tree. Very nice. Nearby, we met a French family that’d travelled in a tank like lorry for 3 years from France to South America. Their eight year old son had literally grown up driving around the world, being home schooled inside a massive truck. If travelling really is the best education then this kid’s got off to a flying start.
That evening we pulled into a sparse compound in the middle of nowhere – everything was in the middle of nowhere – and were shown our quarters for the night. We had a dorm like room with 6 beds cramped together, each made out of stone with a thin mattress on top. It would be a cosy night. Strangely (and thankfully) the compound had several booze shops which I thought odd for a town with next to no one living in it. We bought supplies of the local beer, cobbled together a table and chairs and settled in for the night to play cards with our crew. To make it more interesting we decided on a losers forfeit involving eating three of the driest crackers known to man all at once. Poor Frank hit a loosing streak and munched more crackers than I thought humanly possible, while Bill and I got our fair share too. Somehow Liz and the frenchies managed to come away uncrumbed, much to their own amusement.
A 4am wake up call meant we got to the steaming geysers for 6am sunrise. These things spout huge plumes of hot steamy gas into the air at a rate of knots. They also stank of rotten eggs on account of the sulphur. Next door there’s cesspools of bubbling mud that look like life on earth could have begun right there. Getting up close was a gamble as they had a tendency to ejaculate a hot grey liquid over your trousers, leaving a suspect stain that was hard to remove.
We pressed onto to the thermal springs to get cleaned up. After being folded up in a 4×4 for 2 days with 6 other people, I was ready for a relaxing hot soak. There were a few groups there before us but still plenty of room for everyone. The setting was stunning with mountains and lakes surrounding us as we wallowed in the warm flowing water with the sun barely stretching over the mountains in the distance. With swimming costumes on we floated on the surface, stretching our muscles and breathing in the steam. It was one of those blissful moments where nothing else matters and you just give yourself over to the universe, closing your eyes and taking it all in. Or something like that at least. We took pictures, pissed about and didn’t want to leave. However Johnny was keen to press on and so we gingerly picked our way over the rocky steps and dried off in the morning sunshine that had risen up overhead.
Sadly our time with Frank had come to an end as we were dropping him off at the Chilean border to continue his journey south. The border was nothing more than a hut with a makeshift barrier, but many people were queuing two hours to get through. Luckily Johnny our driver knew a man who knew a man and for a couple of dollars and a secret handshake got Frank the Bolivian equivalent of a FastPass.
We now had nine hours in the car to get back to Uyuni to make our connecting bus back to La Paz. This is where Bill broke down slightly on account of Johnny’s traditional Bolivian music choices. It seemed Johnny wasn’t a fan of Bill’s more up-tempo selections such as Daft Punk and Sub Focus, so a consensus had to be made. Once that was established and Bill had control of the stereo on the condition he’d play a more ambient mix of songs, things progressed smoothly.
The car itself was now in a bad way with rattles and cracks appearing out of nowhere. We stopped often for minor repairs and checks wondering if we were going to make it home at all. Our pace slowed right down as we rumbled and crumbled through the off road terrain as other 4×4’s thundered past. Once we’d got back onto a proper (ish) road things sped up somewhat and we began picking up some pace, albeit somewhat cautiously.
We had a few stops on the way back where we ate lunch and chased llamas – it’s surprisingly hard to catch the buggers. There was the Laguna Verde and Laguna Rojo – none of which were particularly exciting after the salt flats, especially as the wind was blowing a gale making it hard to even open our eyelids. In the end the time passed quickly on the way back to Uyuni. We chatted and played games with the laid back Frenchies and the music choices seemed to please Johnny which in turn pleased Bill.
We arrived back that evening shattered and hungry but in good spirits after an incredible three day adventure. There really is no place on earth quite like the salt flats in Southern Bolivia and seeing it via 4×4 cruiser is the way to go. It pays to have a good group of people especially as you’re spending A LOT of time cooped up in a car with them, so in that respect we were lucky. I’d recommend this tour to anyone travelling to Bolivia or even South America in general, it really is that good and something everyone should try to experience in their lifetime.
Bolivia Salt Flats, The Finer Details.
There’s countless tour operators in Uyuni, some better than others, so choose carefully. We went with Blue Line Tours who get terrible reviews on Trip Advisor (we only saw these afterwards) but were actually really good. Johnny the driver had the patience of a saint and couldn’t have been safer. Our only concern was the battered 4×4 which had seen much better days. Luckily there were no major issues, but it was a bit touch and go at points. The best thing to do is ask for recommendation from other travellers who’ve done the tour recently. Be prepared to rough it for a few days with basic accommodation (shit beds, smelly rooms) and limited bathing facilities. There’s usually a shower on the first night (10 bolivianos) but the next time you’ll see hot water is on the last day at the thermal springs.
Hostel in Uyuni: Piedra Blanca, Av Arce 27. No frills backpacker hostel. Decent showers, communal lounge. 75 bolivianos pppn in a 6 person dorm. Breakfast included.
Agency: Blue Line Tours – Celina the local owner speaks Spanish, French and English.
Cost: 750 Bolivianos. ($108 USD) includes all transport, accommodation and food. Bring extra snacks for the car. Beer and wine available at the accommodation.
Distance: 1000km over three days.
Vehicle: Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 or equivalent.
Max Number of passengers: 6. Ensure this before booking!
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