Uyuni and the Salt Flats Tour

Hope you’ve got a cuppa as this is a long one….so much to say!
Taxi pre booked, luggage in storage and just me and as many warm clothes as I can fit into my day sack. Feeling pretty rough TBH. Headache and the shakes! I look at my legs and see I have been bitten alive at the bike ride, what a plonker getting bitten on day one! Lets hope they were just sand flies as wolf said and I don’t now have Zika or Malaria. But you can bloody dot to dot on my legs!

 Momentarily I think about not going due to sheer exhaustion but of course I am, who needs to sleep?

The city is bustling at 6.30. And as I’m not running around lost this morning I can watch in awe at their hard work. Street corners filled with stalls from food to clothes, toilet tolls to hot food and some with dead animals hanging. Locals dressed in traditional hat, shirt, knitted cardigans, blankets worn as shawls over their shoulders and down to their waists, thick coloured tights, colourful skirts and large aprons covering most of their front to those in more western dress (particularly the men) with track suits and trainers. Babies curled up in colourful slings, traffic weaving in and out of each other, no idea how they dont crash!

So off to Uyuni with no excursion booked but hoping my research (it was recommended to get a good deal on the day) finds me an affordable company to hop in with. I have one hour from landing to get onto a tour! 

Oh dear god. Taxi to Uyuni centre was really easy (and only £1) but it’s complete market fever when I try and get out. I must of had five people around me bartering for my custom!! After four different shops and some haggling I found an English speaking tour guide with space and managed a whole £10 saving, wow. I used all my cash to pay for the excursion as more expensive than I had been led to believe and no card payment accepted so I had to go to a bank. No cash point would accept my cash passport (from Thomas Cook) or credit card so was down to changing up the dollars i brought in case. That’s a good 15 min job just to change the dollars up as they need your passport and to sign the exchange forms. Wandering around Uyuni was interesting, live music playing in the main street, dogs wandering and being very road savvy, tourists and locals milling around. Really quite a relaxed town. 

Back at the shop I met my four Irish teaching travel companions (well three as one of the girls had food poisoning poor sod, having been in her position three years ago I don’t envy her at all). Seem a good bunch (all teachers so we can talk shop) so will enjoy the three days with them. I introduce myself, as I’m not backward in coming forward, and have a good chat. I wrongly assume they are two couples, probably better that it’s one couple and two friends rather than me being a complete gooseberry! I’m the oldest by seven years, lucky I act like I’m still in my twenties.

I have my Guinness World Record hoodie with me on this trip, one as a talking point and two to show off I suppose! It works as One of the group as me about it so it helps break the ice, although the cheek of her to say ‘did you actually do it or just buy the hoodie?’ Ha ha, quite amusing really.

We left late, 11am in the end and had a 5th member join us. An English dude, been travelling for seven months which makes me quite jealous. From Reading and previously an accountant although you couldn’t tell from his travel look, chin length hair, inner ear piercings, goatee and moustache. Has that Johnny Depp look about him, and poor bloody sod having to spend three days with four teachers!

First stop is the train graveyard. It is literally lots of rusty old British trains left in a deserted desert like area. We can hop on the rusty wrecks for some selfies, never one to take the easy option I climb in, around, up and over the trains just because I can. The Irish girl Louise offers to take some photos for me, saves me doing to many selfie stick poses, but then I climb up another train and do use the selfie stick. The group were looking for me and spotted me high on a train with my selfie stick at large. I must of looked like a right plonker!! Our guide tells us some history about the reason for the graveyard (which I have forgotten already) before we head off to the salt museum.

The tour so far is however, like an ants trail of jeeps going across a salt desert, all stopping at the same points for these photos, toilets and souvenirs. Slightly disappointing. Anyhow we saw how salt is manufactured, all got to shovel salt, primarily for a photo (what are we tourists like) and as you do I bought a pack of local salt to take home. In the museum there are random salt statues some really rather rude but funny and we took some more pictures. There is one statue which we think was a lady on all fours, the lads really go to town and pose behind the statue, need I say more. Let’s hope it was in fact a lady statue. 
The drive onto the salt flats is amazing. Endless white salt, mountains in the distance, so peaceful and beautiful and the sun beating down. We stopped for lunch at an amazing, no longer used, salt hotel for steak and quinoa. We sat at a salt table, in fact everything around is made of salt. It’s closed as a hotel due to pollution issues but used as a lunch stop as everyone takes their rubbish with them. There are flags from many different countries flying outside the hotel, from Ireland to Scotland, China to Brazil. The cusco rainbow flag, an American football team flag. Kind of feels like you’re at the North Pole or something warranting the flags rather than just a day or three stop off point. 

Next stop stupid photos on salt flats! Louise was so excited by this, she’s been buzzing for days apparently. We had so much fun because our guide is awesome at ideas. I had loads of props at the ready from my orphanage stash, but he just used us. Fortunately all five of us are photos freaks (well Johnny Depp -AKA Another Sam the least motivated but he still got involved). We have us eating each other, stamping on the group, hovering in the air, a fun video where we all jump in a hat. Really good laugh had staging them all. I’ll be boring my Facebook friends with all the amazing pictures. 

The sun is at full strength now feels like at least 20 degrees and with the sun reflecting off the salt it’s just baking, so from the hundred layers we all put on this morning we are rather hot now and as the day progresses we strip layer by layer. We continued our journey after lunch and some chill time and headed to the cactus island. Bizarre place that popped up in the midst of the salt lakes. More fun photos, climbing up the island was tough going and reminded me of the Inca trail but with more beautiful, actually not more beautiful, more contrasting and therefore awe inspiring scenery and obviously cactus everywhere you look. Salt flats stretching forever, the other islands from a tectonic plate collision making a mountainous horizon, and cactus by the dozen sprouting up. Did you know the straight cactus are male and the ones with more than one prong are female? Every day’s a school day. Even in plants females are the more complex species!!

The final part of the day was to stop for sunset pictures on the salt flats. We have fire balls thrown into stomachs, standing on the sun, and the sunset itself was just beautiful. The colours in the sky were amazing, a plethora of yellows, reds and blues, the salt flats looked blue, the mountains silhouetted in the distance. I could loose myself just watching the sky. Then the cold sets in!! Layers back on and back in the jeep to get to our hostel. We pass a broken down jeep and our guide stops. They apparently all help each other out irrelevant of companies or rivalry. As the sun is still setting we go outside to pass the time, warm up and play an impromptu game of frisbee. Louise, Johnny, me and then two Americans from the other jeep join us. I mean who else can say they have played frisbee at sunset on the salt flats!! 

We leave the broken vehicle as its being sorted and arrive at the salt hostel. They try and put us all in two rooms, which being British/Irish we would all of done to save arguments, but the fact the Irish group had paid for four people and specified a double and twin room they quite rightly want what they booked. They get their wish and then the man in charge tries to put me with Johnny. Some might jump at the chance but I declined and have my own double bed to snuggle in.

There is a hot shower available for a cost but to be honest at -5 degrees I’ll keep my clothes on! I did the whole Everest trek shower less so this is nothing. 

As its a salt hotel even the bed is made of salt, everywhere you look you realise the whole building is made of salt. Our Bolivian meal this time is luke warm soup first but then Bolivian version of sausage, egg and chips. One of the other groups at this hostel had been here for three hours by the time we arrived. They must be frozen and bored. We can only assume they have paid less and have a driver but no guide! (We shall ask in the morning) They haven’t done half the photos we have. My GWR jumper provides a talking point over dinner again, with lots of questions about it which is nice.

Bed at nine as quite frankly it’s freezing and nothing much to do and we are up at 6.30am. Into my silk liner, sleeping bag, duvet and blanket to keep me warm whilst fully clothed, hoping for a warm night.
Apart from needing the loo at 1am and being thirsty throughout the night (is that the salty air?) I slept well and even took my socks off as my feet were too warm.

Breakfast was amazing considering we are in the middle of nowhere (although still no tea but I did steal the powdered milk they provided so I can have tea at my hostel) and sets us up for the day ahead. Very cold once more but the sunrise sky is again amazing to see. We chat to the English people in the other group to find out they were told there are no English speaking guides when they booked it in La Paz. Bit annoyed they were lied to as they would of paid a bit more to have the English guide. The companies do try and push the Spanish speakers first even though it’s the cheaper option (by 400 bolivanos which is about £40) must be less popular. They said their guide is a bit miserable but the others have translated for them so is been fine. The fourth Irish girl is being taxi’d to us this morning so she doesn’t miss the whole trip, so we await her arrival at 7. Whilst we wait we play frisbee once more, as you do, and it at least keeps us warm. Katie arrived looking relieved but still a tad poorly and off we head. The first stop is another salt flat although nowhere near as pretty. We stop on the Bolivia to Chile train line for photos, (lucky most of us like stupid photos), and with a call of Mother Nature I can now say I’ve pee’d beside this train line and head off into what looks like the abyss. Lamas and Vicuña roam free (well lamas roam but are not wild), and with six in the jeep today it’s really rather cosy particularly in the back seats. Our lovely driver Louise (male name out here) plays music through his USB device and bizarrely in this amazing scenery we are admiring on the drive, over the speakers comes Sam Fox and touch me. Rather surreal.

An American campervan is doing same route as us as we pass it en route and these roads are so rocky and hard to manoeuvre so it’s quite an achievement. They have an Instagram site set up as it’s advertised on the back of the van so must be travelling lots. @where_we_go I think. Very jealous, what an awesome experience. We pass the Chilean border, slightly tempted to head across for a stamp in the passport but will have to resist and return properly one day. 

Again the sun is beating down at full strength by midday and we are all sweltering in our winter clothes.

Next I manage to tick off a bucket list item. We stop beside an active volcano, steaming but not erupted for 100,000 years. I am in awe at Mother Nature and could just sit and watch it for ages. I find tectonic plates fascinating. The crater is in the Chilean side but we are viewing the steam from the Bolivian side. 100,000 year old lava rock formations all around us.

The next views on the road are the beautiful lagoons. There are many in this area and only started to defrost in the last few weeks so we are fortunate to have such views, half water and half frozen. Flamingos all around either feeding on the sludge or walking on the ice looking rather drunk, and the scenery is just a complete contrast to the salt flats of yesterday. We drove across a desert and it felt like Star Wars could of been filmed here.

There’s a mountain range called the 7 coloured mountains and it’s just a beautiful view.

Our lunch stop looks like a scene from a Caribbean catalogue as we sit at benches with straw roofs and have the view over the lagoon, flamingos all around and the sun beating down. You can even get wifi for a relatively small cost here, however we all refrain from being drawn into our western ways.

The toilets have taken a new twist and have two sections to aim in. Front for liquid and back for solids. Ha ha. Classic, and even had running water and hand wash. Such luxury. 

The dust from the desert landscape is everywhere, clothes filthy, arms and legs really dry but the weirdest thing is that there’s piles of snow around the desert, I mean what is that all about? Just shows you how cold it is and the desert scenery is deceptive in its appearance. We pass the stone tree which the sand and wind have carved out, along win some other weird and wonderful landscape shapes. Again not one to take the easy option I climb (with the help of some English men due to my lack of any upper body strength) up the top of one such shaped stones and have the obligatory photos, and our fabulous guide sets us another picture up that shows me leapfrogging the stone tree. 

We head on to more lagoons where we watch the beautiful sun set before getting our beds ready for the night. No single room for me tonight but all six of us in a dorm with electricity only on from 6.30pm until 9.30pm. Two toilets are already blocked and it’s bloody freezing. Nothing really compared to Everest base camp trek though so can’t complain. One of the Irish lads buys some cards so we can entertain ourselves, the log burner is put on and our table is right beside it fortunately. Vegetarian spag bol for dinner very welcome and a complimentary bottle of Bolivian red wine. Don’t mind if I do! As electricity is limited we all race to charge various electrical devices although the freezing weather is affecting the iPhone’s from charging. Sorry to say that by 8.30 I was ready for bed so snuggled into the sleeping bag/duvet/blanket combination (pretty much fully clothed again) and hoped for a good night sleep. One of the Irish men talks in his sleep and he did shout a few times. I’ve since learnt it’s because he thought one of the girls was being strangled by a snake. How funny, (well not if you’re afraid of snakes but the whole situation was).

I managed a night without the need for the toilet which was a long walk in the freezing cold and darkness, so relieved with myself although we were up at 5am for a 5.30am leave. No electricity in the morning so we all had to dress and pack by phone light. The only bonus of this was the absolutely breath taking night sky. The stars were so clear, hundreds of thousands of them twinkling in the dark blue sky. It was -7 at this point so we were all absolutely freezing. I even got my hand warmers out to try and warm up. I mean you know it’s going to be a cold morning when your guide shows up looking like Super Mario in a jump suit to keep warm.

First stop today was to see the Geysirs and hot springs, we passed our highest point en route 4920m. As a geographer I was in my element, I love plate tectonics. Picture the view, small mounds of land undulating around with some holes gurgling mud, other spurting out hot steam. The air smells of sulphur from the hot lava way beneath the land and the popping sound from larger holes spouting out mud. The mud is what you can put on your face for a kind of cleansing pack, although we all refrain. 

We also stopped to see the Salvador Dali scene he never saw but painted and made famous and then onto a green lagoon that has arsenic in it and therefore no wildlife. Now who do I want to give arsenic to I wonder?? The lagoon isn’t that green as its not windy this morning and it’s still early but the section that is does look lovely, very Caribbean like colours water. Louise and me get chatting to the English girl who’s in the Spanish speaking group. She’s from Norwich but her boyfriend is Aussie. We learn she’s been travelling for five years pretty much, two years before she met the boyfriend then worked and travelled in Oz with him, then New Zealand and back to Britain for just 5 weeks before the crap summer we just had put them off and they are heading back to Perth. How cool to do all that. Louise is off to work in Oz in 7 weeks for hopefully a year, teaching or maybe bar work, whatever she decides, the world is her oyster and I am very envious but wish her well. So although being friendly chatting to the others she was fundamentally getting tips off them!

Now for one of the highlights. A hot spring swim. Now unfortunately I didn’t bring my swim wear (maybe if I had booked before the morning I may have known) so have to go in, in my knickers and thermal top. Can’t miss out on that opportunity, but as the two other girls come out looking stunning I’m feeling every inch my age as I feel frumpy and ugly all in one. I’ve realised that Louise has the Minnie Driver look about her and Katie very much an Anna Kendrick vibe, and both stick thin and glamorous even walking freezing in to the hot spring. I didn’t realise how cold my feet were until they felt like they were burning in the warm water. What an awesome feeling though, feeling clean, warm, relaxed and with volcanic scenery all around. Couldn’t ask for more, well swim wear obviously, but we all loved it and feel clean and warm for the first time in three days. 

Onward journey, well the start of the route home takes us towards another lagoon. The sun is up now so we are all warm, too warm in a car that we can’t open the windows due to the awful dust that comes in so we are sweltering. But anyhow, to pass the time Anna Kendrick AKA Katie, starts us in a variation of the riff off from Pitch Perfect. Very apt that I realised she looked like her today, our singing however isn’t a match for the movie, mine particularly but a fun way to pass the time, wouldn’t get that with a non English speaking group! The next time filler was then a quiz between the two lads, Daithi and Tommy and Katie. When Tommy loses he gets rather annoyed, calls Katie a sore winner which I’m not sure she was in all honesty, but all to the amusement of the rest of us.  

We stop for lunch in a lovely local village called Soniquera. I walk around to see the school and football grounds. It’s simply built houses and dirt tracks surrounded by jagged salt rock formations I think is quite a lovely location. Such a simple life they seem to lead, although I did see a young lad on a mobile phone so not that simple a life. The lunch was a tad disappointing for the first time so most of us pop into the local shop to see what’s on offer. Toblerone, M and M’s, sweets by their weighted amount is why was brought. Tommy and Louise then discussed their OCD habits on the next part of the journey. They struggle with odd numbers of each colour and need to even them out to eat them. I will never think of M and M’s the same again. Each to their own hey, we all have weird and wonderful traits.

I realise all my clothing I have brought with me seems to be sport related as today I have my marathon t shirt on. Do I look like a show off, cheap skate or just someone who likes a challenge? Hopefully the latter. Tommy asks me about it anyhow so another talking point.

We also talk about other people they have met on their travels and we realise they met a girl who volunteered at the orphanage I am going back to. She was spot on in her description in that the volunteering is not organised well, as you have no structure. But the kids are great and if you can put the extra effort in to the volunteering, you’ll get more out. Small world indeed though. 

We are all pretty knackered and bored of the constant driving now. There’s a four day trip you can do, no chance. Three is absolutely fine, and my only change would be that I’d probably head to Chile and then fly back to La Paz from there rather than the long drive back to Uyuni. Didn’t think about it, and that’s very unlike me as I would have got a stamp in the passport! 

Penultimate stop was one of the most beautiful landscapes. The black lagoon. We have to drive through a very uneven dirt track, over sand stone rocks, then walk over wetland before finally climbing over sandstone to see the lagoon. Amazing views. The surrounding rocks are just a sight to behold, varied height, shape, density. There are mountains in the distance, the sun is baring down and it’s so peaceful. We have a go at rock skimming, the lads are pretty good and not wanting to cause upset I let them be the best 😜. Louise the guide share stories, apparently a Brazilian tourist last month fell off the Rock and died because an ambulance wasn’t available at the nearest town and Uyuni had no doctors available at all due to a celebration of the town going on. How awful. He died from his injuries and to know that medical help could of prevented the death is just awful. 

On our walk back we see a Viscacha which looks like a large rabbit but their version of rats. Funnily enough we were just talking about them when one jumped out in front of us.

The car journey back provides more laughs at the expense of the lads in general as they wind each other up. And the couple starting to dig at each other now Katie (Anna Kendrick) is on top form following completely cure from previous illness.

Been a great bunch to do the tour with even if I’m old enough to be their mother (if i started young mind!).

Final stop at another lovely village called Saint Christobal, built due to silver mining in the area. You can tell there’s money available as the houses have been made to a much better quality, there are street traders wearing more colourful clothing and it just looks wealthier even without comparing to Soniquera. We treat ourselves to an ice cream for a whole 20p. Now back to Uyuni.

I’m in the very back seats for the last leg of the journey with Johnny. Not sure if he’s absolutely knackered, had enough of us teachers or just wanting some alone time as he’s not very chatty. The four others are full of high spirits as they know they are very near the end and a luxury hotel awaits in the morning. 

As we near Uyuni you can feel the mood change. Suddenly civilisation is near, wifi and phones will become part of life and it just changes your perspective. I start to think about who’s messages me, what’s gone on, what will I message/what’s app/Facebook. Sad really but unfortunately how life has become. And true to form, after unloading the jeep, tipping our amazing guide we are all on wifi, and engrossed in the world we left behind back home.

It’s been a fantastic three days and I’ve thoroughly loved the weird and wonderful dynamics of our group. Johnny is off to book a bus to his next destination, Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid land, the Irish bunch on the night bus to La Paz and me on the plane to La Paz. Three days of intense time spent together then all over in a flash. I finally manage to get my cash passport to work in the cash point and we all have a drink and/or food before we leave. Good luck to them all, I love travelling you meet such amazing people from all walks of life!

Alone again and off to the airport that is one building with four check in desks and two gates. Wifi doesn’t work, but there’s patio heaters to keep you toasty. My plane is boarding early and leaves 20 mins before scheduled, so mid flight I absolutely crap my pants and wonder if I’m on the wrong plane? I reassure myself that there were no other planes about so it had to be the correct one, but then upon landing it looks nothing like La Paz. Where are the hills? Really bricking it now, what on earth could I do as I have a flight at 8am?

Just as the sweats and sick feeling starts, I hear La Paz over the announcement and breath again. Dear god what am i like! Now I’m a regular at La Paz airport and therefore an expert I head to the taxi rank (not some random man) and get a cheaper than expected taxi! Hot shower and clean clothes await, hoorah! Next stop Peru!!


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