Salar de Uyuni, making it across the salt flats
I don’t know about you but we tend to do quite a bit of research when it comes to making decisions on where to go, where to stay, who to book buses with, which tour companies are the most reputable, where to eat dinner etc. whilst traveling, most of our research being done online or by word of mouth when we can get it. However as the guidebook says when it comes to the Salar de Uyuni tour even the “good” tour companies have bad reviews and it is more commonly in the eye of the beholder as to whether this trip will be the worst or best experience of your life, for us it was the later.
You may be asking what is this tour that I am talking of, and why all the hullabaloo when it comes to booking. Well here is an outline of what this tour is all about and what you can expect from this notorious pilgrimage across two countries and the multitude of natural wonders you will see along the way.
(Note: This is the Chile > Bolivia version of events, should you opt to do Bolivia > Chile this information will slightly differ)
What: This tour is 3 days/2 nights and begins in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and ends in the very small, Southern Bolivian town of Uyuni. You can alternatively opt to begin the same journey in Uyuni and end in San Pedro, however we felt the tour would be best in the direction we chose to do it. We did hear that beginning in Bolivia is slightly cheaper, but as the pinnacle of your trip (for most) is the Bolivian Salt Flats which is one of the last stops when you begin in San Pedro, instead of it being among the first going the other way.
How: The entirety of the trip is done via 4×4 7 seater Land Cruisers. All big luggage goes on the roof of the vehicle and will remain up there until the end of the day once you get to your accommodation for the night. You and five others will join one non-English speaking Bolivian driver who will basically double as your tour guide, but be reminded even if you do speak fluent Spanish driving the vehicle is his foremost task. We had a lovely man Omar, who even though we could not converse with seemed like a good guy. You’ll find that when reading reviews others have had some shocking complications with drunk drivers or ones that simply don’t show up when they say they will.
Why: This is a great way of taking in about 15 different incredible natural sites that you simply could not see all in a one day tour and is also a wildly exciting way of crossing the border into another country.
Where: The tour includes your accommodation which is not in a tent on the salt flat, which is what I originally expected. Your first night will be in a very basic hostel/hotel/building. It seems different groups will frequent different buildings, ours was probably the most basic. No hot water, no hot or cold shower on offer (some offer these at an additional cost), no heating and only one light bulb that hung above the table we ate dinner at, which meant following dinner all there was left to do was go to bed (at 7pm). The 2nd night once again different groups will head out to different “Salt Hotels”. The buildings are part thereof made of salt, furnishings (bed base, tables, chairs) are all made of salt and the floor is made of salt (loose salt, meaning you will need to give your feet a good dust off before jumping in to bed). Here we had hot water for showers, and electricity that were both turned on at 6pm. The town you will stay in this 2nd night has one shop and is basically desolate, there is not much to do but chat with your group, and perhaps any additional groups that are heading in the opposite direction, eat your dinner and once again turn in early for the night.
What are the conditions like?: Cold! At no point during the 3 days did we not have thermals on, towards the end and nearing Uyuni temperatures did warm up however the majority of the time we were not warm. At night time (although we had no thermometer present ourselves) temperatures can drop to -20° . Neither accommodation we stayed at had heating, however the 1st night we were lent (at no extra cost) what seemed to be industrial strength sleeping bags which did the trick. The altitude and dry atmosphere can be really hard on the body too, it is compulsory to bring at least 5L of water along on the trip, and regardless of this we were both hit with severe headaches on the 2nd night even though we both naturally drink plenty of water. This trip is no five star adventure, it is truly basic, as the tour agencies will repeatable tell you.
What did you eat?: We were told to bring plenty of snacks, and it sounded as if our included three meals a day were perhaps going to be rather sporadic, however we were fed well and I was pleasantly surprised. On day one after we were picked up and had crossed the Bolivian border a couple of hours later we were given a late breakfast of ham,cheese, bread, hot drinks and biscuits, lunch saw us dig in to soup, sausages, mash and an avocado, tomato and cucumber salad with a banana for desert, this was all served at the first nights accommodation before we headed out to check out the Red Laguna. Dinner came shortly after the hot drinks and biscuits that were set out for us once we returned from the Laguna and this was a vegetarian pasta sauce, spaghetti and half a tinned peach for desert. The next morning was cold pancakes that had been cooked the night before, jam and hot drinks (lucky I fished some fruit and oats out the food bag). We then had rice, tuna, cheese, tomato and cucumber that was prepared from the back of the 4×4 for lunch and (we think) lama steak with chips, deep fried plantain (yum!), tomatoes and a bottle of red wine to share around. Early next morning we headed to the salt flats for sunrise and after exploring the Fish Island in the middle of the flats, breakfast was set-up (table cloth included, I just love the effort put in) and was strawberry yoghurt, cereal, cake and hot drinks. Our last meal was a decent peice of chicken each, pasta, boiled potatoes, carrots and beans with a mandarin each. Each meal came with a giant bottle of Coke if you fancied that. Funnily enough there seemed to be about 15 – 20 other vehicles doing the trip with us, all eating very, very similar variations of the above.
What will I see?: It is unbelievable how much you will see on this trip. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to believe that I wasn’t in some man made theme park, these are natural wonders almost strategically placed along the route. There isn’t more than an hour of driving before you hit something else gobsmackingly awesome! Wild geysers, serene lagoons naturally ranging from blue, white, green and red in colour, some with merry pink flamingoes and their bashful grey chicks, some with goofy looking lamas dressed in brightly coloured carnival attire. There are bewildering rock formations and air just randomly bubbling out of the ground and of course the actual salt flats and it’s obscure Fish Island perched on the flats with its thousands of cacti. Simply life changing.
Is it safe?: You are basically driving across a desert for three days, pretty much no designated roads nor traffic so the trip feels very safe. Our driver even looked left and right when he did do turns, even though there was no other vehicles in sight. You are told when booking that the vehicles do have oxygen on board for emergencies (should the altitude severely affect your breathing, eg: you aren’t!) but I highly doubt this was actually on board.
In conclusion, we traipsed around San Pedro talking with various agencies and ended up choosing a middle of the range agency White World Travel for CH$85 000, whom then gave us a discount on our other two tours, but whether you go for the CH$75 000 or the CH$95 000 tours you are most probably going to get the same experience in the end, it mainly depends on your driver, that he isn’t a lunatic and the group of six that you end up with for the three days.