New Perspectives in Uyuni

Another overlander crossing the desert

We’ve just got back from an incredible 11 days in Antarctica on the Ortelius. We saw some incredible wildlife and scenery and got some great photos. That will have to wait for now though as we have a lot to publish first! In the meantime here’s one we prepared earlier….

Back during our Spanish course we’d been told about a “must see” place in Bolivia called Uyuni. We didn’t know much about it but saw some amazing photos of what is apparently the world’s largest salt flats, and we knew we wanted to go. A few weeks later we bumped into a couple who told us we had to travel there before Christmas (due to partying locals being dangerous on the roads over the festive season, and also the Dakar rally in early January). So we started to do some research along the way, and as has happened with most things here, in the end we booked a tour just the week before going. We booked a place for me, Chris and the three Dutch girls and managed to get a great deal with a recommended company (Al Extremo) by having five of us together which almost filled a van. The company was also about $100 cheaper than their rivals as they only offered Spanish speaking guides.

Uyuni - view across a salt lake
Uyuni – view across a salt lake

Al Extremo don’t have much of an online presence and we were a little nervous about whether the booking had worked, but they turned out to be fantastic. We showed up on a late evening bus to the small town of Uyuni in the middle of nowhere in Bolivia. We wandered through town to the hotel with all of our belongings. We’d emailed the hotel but not had a response, and had been unable to call as all of the numbers provided online and in guidebooks were incorrect! When we arrived the manager was just turning away a couple as he had no room. This is where our tour company turned up trumps, as they had reserved our rooms for us after we’d mentioned in an e-mail that we were going to stay. Very grateful, we checked in and unpacked. We’d heard pretty bad things about Uyuni and it’s hostels from other blogs and reviews, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a clean and freshly decorated room with a nice bathroom (with a death shower, but hey it was Bolivia and we couldn’t expect too much!).

We’d just unpacked when there was a knock on our door. This turned out to be our contact from Al Extremo, Jorge. He wanted to check we’d arrived ok and to invite us to come for a briefing that evening, once we’d had time to settle in. We grabbed the girls and headed over to the office (conveniently only just across the street). Jorge only spoke Spanish so Chris and I translated as he ran through the itinerary for the next three days. We worked out what we needed to bring and paid up, all ready and excited to go the next day.

Another overlander crossing the desert
Another overlander crossing the desert

The Monday morning we headed across the road and loaded our bags onto the roof of the waiting 4×4. Our driver Fabián wrapped everything in a big tarpaulin to protect it and we climbed into the car. Fabián turned out to be able to speak English, so we’d had our discounted tour but still got an English speaking guide, very lucky! The sixth tourist on our tour was a lovely Australian girl called Wendy, who was doing a University placement year in Buenos Aires. As the smallest two, (the disadvantage of travelling with Dutch girls!) Wendy and I ended up crammed on the back seats.

We set off to our first destination, a train graveyard. Every stop on the Uyuni tour was just an amazing photo opportunity, and we had fun getting pictures of us climbing in and out of abandoned train carriages and engines. The biggest shock on the trip was just how many other tourists were there, and this was low season!

The next stop was the Uyuni salt flat, a huge expanse of cracked white salt stretching to the horizon. We played around getting fun distorted-perspective shots with various props we’d brought along. We had a basic lunch of chicken and rice in a hotel made entirely from salt.

After lunch we headed to Isla Inca Huasi (which translates to ‘Inca house’ but is also known as Fish Island for some reason), in the middle of the salt flats. The island had some fantastic tall cacti and more amazing views across the salt flats. Cue even more photos!

Our room in the salt hotel
Our room in the salt hotel

The end of the day was a longer drive across the flats to our hostel for the night. We’d been told the first night was the most luxurious, but also that the whole tour was very basic, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect! The hotel was entirely made of salt, including the floor. Our room was plain with a salt block bed (with a mattress on top!) and no curtains. We had showers but could only get hot water after dark when the generator was running. But it was comfortable and we slept well as the salt walls meant it was very well insulated and warm at night.

The next day involved more driving to various sites in the national parks of the area. We passed through some incredible landscape on the way. Everything is just so remote, and the landscapes so alien and beautiful. It’s hard to describe so I’ll let some of our many photos do the talking:

Our final night of the tour was at an even more basic hostel. Fabián informed us we were running late and needed to hurry as we didn’t actually have a reservation at a hostel for the night. It turns out the hostels are all grouped together and are of varying quality (all incredibly basic) but all so remote they don’t have mobile reception so you can’t book them. The later we arrived, the worse our hostel would be. We picked up the pace a bit at that, and Fabián put on some rally worthy driving and last minute overtaking manoeuvres to secure us a room in the best hostel. The best meant we had showers (they didn’t look clean enough to tempt us), sort of working toilets (no seats, paper or locking doors and in most cases the doors had big holes in where slats were missing meaning that anyone could see in!) and electricity for three hours after dark. We had one room for the six of us, with concrete bed bases, thin mattresses and sheets that definitely needed sleeping bag liners to sleep on. The room was pretty small for six, with our bags on the floor in between the beds and Chris and I on the one double concrete bed block. We had a fun evening in the common dining area with lots of loud Spanish speaking groups either side of us, we played cards and ate dinner and Fabián even gave us a bottle of wine, then we were in bed by 9pm as there was not much to do after the electricity went off and we had to be up very early the next day. We didn’t sleep very well and had alarms set for 3.30 the next morning, groggily emerging for a quick breakfast and pack up then back to the car. We’d been warned we couldn’t be late that day or we’d miss our bus to Chile!

We had another fantastic morning of landscape and driving. There was a thermal pool to help warm us up from the cold high altitude morning at some amazing geysers. This was followed by some more stunning lakes and volcano views on the way to the Bolivia-Chile border.

We arrived on time and passed through the border easily, although as usual with Bolivia there was a random charge for foreigners. We’re not sure if this was actually official, but at £1.50 we didn’t bother to argue. We said goodbye to Fabián, who had been such a great driver, chef, tour guide and (dubious quality) DJ over the tour, and boarded a rather plush looking bus to Chile.

Bolivia had been a fantastic country, amazing countryside, genuinely friendly locals and lovely fun travellers, with some great activities to try; but also more challenging with some very basic facilities and infrastructure. We’d really enjoyed our time there but were also looking forward to our next adventures in Chile.

Author: Alex Greenwood

Traveller, muddy gardener, sustainability consultant

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