Boliva Pt V: Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni was the main reason why we visited Bolivia. I only learned about it through Milesglu’s excellent trip report and Ying was sold immediately after I told her about its existence.

Our tour operator Red Planet Expedition had arranged a taxi to meet our flight (30 BOB) but its office wouldn’t be opened until 8am. The taxi driver dropped us outside a cafe where we would spend the next hour or so. I noticed quite a few familiar faces from the flight.

Breakfast (35 BOB for both of us)

After breakfast, we made our way back to Red Planet’s office.

Weird sculpture in Uyuni

Red Planet’s office

We paid the tour fee (1200 BOB each) and were told by the staff that the tour would leave at around 10am. We had the option to explore the town but chose to stay indoors due to the low temperature outside.

Ying getting some warmth

Ying managed to entertain herself by playing with the staff’s daughter.

Pic 1

Pic 2

When the temperature became more bearable, Ying and I went out to pick up some supplies at the supermercado. By then more tour participants had arrived and the office was getting packed. Those who traveled by bus had an interesting tale to share; there was a blockade and the bus couldn’t be driven into the town. The passengers had to trek around 15 minutes to reach the office. Our decision to fly was vindicated.

At the end of the tour, the tour participants could either choose to travel on to Chile or return to Uyuni. For those returning to Uyuni, they could store their bags at the office. We were traveling on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile so our bags got up to the top of the vehicle instead.

Preparing the vehicle

There would be a total of seven of us in our jeep. I would get to know them better over the next couple of days.

  1. Ever, our Bolivian guide/driver
  2. Babar, Lucknowi chemical engineer based in Houston (who used to work in Singapore)
  3. Sanaa, Babar’s Mumbaikar other half who’s moving to Detroit
  4. Kelli, American graduate student in Rio de Janeiro
  5. Johannes, German graduate student from Munich
  6. Ying
  7. Yours truly

Ever hard at work

Selfie

The first stop of every tour was the train graveyard located just outside Uyuni.

Setting off

There used to be a railroad which connected the silver mines in Potosi to the Chilean port of Antofagasta but it was no longer in use. The locomotives were all rusting in Bolivian altiplano now.

Abandoned trains

Abandoned trains

Abandoned trains

Of course there were obligatory tourist pictures.

Trying to break Olympic record

Swinging

Swinging

Standing on the tracks

The next stop was Colchani, an hour or so away. We passed through Uyuni again and got chased by wild dogs just outside of it.

Outside of Uyuni

Wild dogs

We also saw vicuñas

Crazy gringos cycling through the inhospitable terrain

We were given a tour of the salt-refining process at Colchani before settling down for lunch.

Colchani – the buildings were made of salt

Colchani

Ever explaning how salt was processed

Local man demonstrating how to seal the packet of salt with open flame

The man would take a long time to pack this hill into packets

While Ever went to prepare the food with the other guides, we spent some time wandering around.

Wares for sale

The cyclists had caught up with us – respect!

Old truck

Honestly we were blown away by the quality of our lunch. There were pasta, potatos, chicken and we even had cupcakes for dessert. The food turned out to be consistently good throughout the entire tour.

Pretty awesome lunch

Minutes away from Colchani was the beginning of the salt flats. We stopped at the mounds of salt where tourists would stop for photographs.

Entering Salar de Uyuni

Checking the salt out

Kungfu panda impersonation

One leg standing

Driving through the salt flats

The next stop was the abandoned salt hotel. There was a giant Dakar Rally logo made of salt that was built to commemorate the event which took place in January 2014.

Dakar Bolivia

Salt hotel

Flags

No Singapore though

The next part of the tour would be pretty fun; we could do all the funny pictures that all tourists would take.

Crystallised salt

Apparently there was a sandstorm not too long ago and the entire salt flat was covered in sand. Hence the colour of the salt seemed a bit off.

More brown than white

Ever helped us take some group photos before letting us to experiment ourselves.

Jump shot

Chased by dinosaur

Holding hands with Patrick

The making of the following picture:-

End product:-

Thanks Babar!

Ying balancing on my head

The final stop of the day was at Isla Incahuasi, a former island in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. It was famous for the giant cacti which grew on it. There was an entrance fee of 30 BOB and we spent around half an hour exploring the place.

Incahuasi

Incahuasi

Lots of cacti

Give us a wave please

Prickly

Direction lady

Salar de Uyuni from Isla Incahuasi

Salar de Uyuni from Isla Incahuasi

Hole

Toilet

We were rotated to the rear of the jeep and it was really tight. All of us would take turns sitting there.

Rear

Photo stop

Sunset

We would reach our accommodation for the night shortly before dark. Ying and I shared our room with two other tour participants.

Basic

My bed for the night

There was an attached toilet in our room but the showers (10 BOB) were outside. Both of us would utilise it and Ying was shivering after that.

The rest of the evening were spent chit-chatting over meals (tea and then dinner) before we turned in for the night.

Dinner

The thermal sleeping bag from Red Planet worked well and I had a relatively comfortable sleep. We were also introduced to dulce de leche, a ubiquitous South American confectionary.

Accommodation for the first night (taken next morning)

Poster for Dakar Rally

The scenery was different from the previous day’s.

Mountain

Mountain

A view point overlooking Ollagüe volcano was our first stop of the day.

Playing with filter

Jeeps all parked

Ollagüe

Portrait

The guides suggested that we had an early lunch because the original location would be too windy. Lunch was awesome as usual and we had new friends who joined us.

Rocky outcrop where we had our lunch

Vizcacha

Bird

Lunch – chicken and pasta

The next stop was Laguna Canapa, the original place for lunch. It was indeed too windy.

Laguna Canapa

Like out of a painting

Brrr

Vicuñas

Another lake: Laguna Hedionda or smelly lake.

Flamingos

Patrick’s happy to see other pink animals

Windy!

Sign

Out of this world

There was a hotel near the lake and there was even an advertisement for WiFi. I recalled that the fee to use the toilet was exorbitantly expensive.

WiFi in the middle of nowhere

Hotel

No idea what’s what

Giant Bolivian flag

We were back on our way through the desert and even saw a furry friend.

Culpeo

Desert

Snow from two weeks earlier

Like a painting

Árbol de Piedra or Stone Tree was our next stop.

Tree with no leaves

Portrait

Messy hair

Shadow play

Back on the road

After more time on the road, we would reach Laguna Colorada, where the entrance to Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve was located.

Laguna Colorada

Patrick excited as usual

The white stuff on the surface was borax

Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve

View point of the lake

Inside the building were some information on the flora and fauna of the region.

We had seen some of the animals

After enough photos, we were driven to the park office when we would pay the entrance fee of 150 BOB to the nature reserve. We were also asked to indicate if we would be moving on to Chile or returning via the same way.

With the sun low, Ever informed us that we would be visiting the geysers before going to our accommodation for the night. The geyser wasn’t much to see though.

Geyser

Geyser

Somehow I didn’t manage to take any photographs of our second night’s accommodation. I did take a picture of the sunset outside the accommodation.

Sunset

There was a hot spring outside the accommodation and Ying and I went to check it out before dinner. There was this guy of African descent already in the hot spring and he joked that he would have to charge us 10 Bolivianos before we could go in. Funny.

Ever suggested that we could go to the hot spring after dinner and we did just that. It was amazing dipping inside the hot springs while looking at the stars. Definitely one of the most surreal experience that we ever had. The wind was really brutal though when we were getting out.

The accommodation on second night was newer but there was no water in the toilet and was pretty disgusting to use. The six of us shared a room and Ying complained that it got stuffy in the middle of the night. It wasn’t so bad though since the next day would be a short one.

It was really cold the next day and there were stops where all of us were fine with taking pictures from the car.

Salvador Dali Desert

Mountains in the background

Beautiful

The final stop of the whole tour was Laguna Verde, with Licancabur in the background. Apparently it was very toxic with lots of chemicals in the water.

Laguna Verde

Enthusiastic despite the early hours

Covered with chemicals

Group photo

It was a short drive to the Bolivian border post. We bid farewell to Babar and Sanaa who were returning to Uyuni with Ever.

Migration Bolivia

Both Johannes and Kelli had gotten their exit stamps at Uyuni; we hadn’t and needed to go to the building to get them. There was a stamping fee of 15 BOB and it caught the tourists in front of us by surprise.

Sign indicating it’s Chile

There were no toilet facilities at the area and we would need to do our business in the open. Just as we were done with it, the buses from Chile had arrived. The price of the ticket was included in our tour fees and we were soon on our way.

Bus to Chile

The facilitator informed us in Spanish about the Chile’s customs requirements; apparently one couldn’t bring in agricultural products and drugs into Chile. He told us that if we had any, we would have an hour to consume these items before reaching the Chilean customs.

Referring to where the governments were leaning?

There was a world of difference between Bolivian and Chilean roads. After two days of bumpy Bolivian tracks, we were all happy with awesome Chilean tarmac. I saw quite a few Paraguayan trucks which were transporting cars from Chile’s Pacific ports to Paraguay.

Paraguayan trucks transporting cars

An hour later we would reach San Pedro de Atacama, our only stop in Chile.

San Pedro de Atacama

The tour with Red Planet was pretty awesome. Ever was a reliable driver and a great guide and at no time I felt unsafe. While the accommodation was pretty basic, the food on the other hand was really good. The sights were amazing and I was really glad that I managed to see them with my own eyes.

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