We are currently sitting on a 7-hour bus towards Sucre, Bolivia, that smells like a mixture of empanadas, spicy red pepper, dirty diapers, and gym socks, but somehow I'm inspired to write. Definitely due to the unimaginable landscape we have witnessed the last three days, and not due to the spicy moldy gym scent lingering in the air.
After the last week spent oohing and aahing all over the Atacama desert, we stuffed ourselves inside a small minivan with 6 other fellow passengers and headed towards Bolivia, specifically making our way to the salt flats of Uyuni. We didn't manage to get very far at first since we had to pass both the Chilean and Bolivian passport controls (dun dun dun!). Crossing the border is never fun for anyone, and even if you aren't guilty of smuggling a few kilos of cocaine, there is a small part of your body that is constantly perspiring in panic. The Bolivian border control is infamously known to be amongst some of the toughest, along with Ecuador and Colombia. But I'm sure if you had coca plants growing up the wha-zoo in your country, the border control would be just a tad bit strict too. And by strict, we mean "alright fine, here's a couple of dollars so you can stamp my passport and let me in". If you are an American citizen, well you can thank Nixon and his War on Drugs, because you will now have to cough up $170USD pp to enter the country. Luckily, both Marco and I being European citizens, entered with smiles on our faces and money still in our pockets.
After passport control we switched cars, and as we waved goodbye to our cramped minivan, we were met by our Bolivian guide Andres and his 4x4 Toyota Landcruiser, ready to take us through the dirt roads of his country. Andres spoke few words of English, amongst them being "oh my god" and "yeah", but loudly jammed The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen, and Bob Marley all the way to Uyuni. Marco and I, along with four Chilean medical students, strapped ourselves in what would be our mode of transportation for the next three days, and off we zoomed over the surface of the moon. I've never actually been to the moon, but I imagine it's something like the roads in Bolivia.
A NOTE ON PICKING YOUR TOUR COMPANY
Before I venture on, how does one go about choosing a tour from Atacama, Chile to the salt flats of Uyuni? It seems when you walk around San Pedro de Atacama you are constantly bombarded by tour agencies, as we mentioned in our previous post. Although it can be very overwhelming, we forced ourselves to hop around the different agencies until we were content with one. So before you set out here's a little guide-line when picking agencies:
- Price. Duh! You definitely want a great price and preferably something within your budget (tours range between 85,000- 180,000 Chilean pesos pp).
- Number of passengers. This all depends on your choice. You can choose a private tour, which will obviously be more expensive, or you can squeeze in like a bunch of canned sardines inside one car with your luggage strapped to the top.
- Ask about your driver and vehicle. You are driving through deserts and volcanic jungles. It pays that your driver is safe and your vehicle can handle almost anything. It would also help if your driver speaks English (incase you don't speak Spanish).
- Extra fees. Although food, bed, and transport are covered, there are several hidden fees that not every tour company wants to go over. Make sure you ask so you can budget accordingly.
- Read the reviews. The way we narrowed down the search, is by reading many different reviews online before we headed over in person to get our questions answered.
The winner for us? Cruz Andina. We had no idea what to expect, and although the price was the main factor, if not one of the most important ones in making our choice since we are on a budget, Cruz Andina just felt right. There was no sales associate half-answering our questions while watching her novella, or another that seemed to have no clue where Bolivia was even located on a map. And if that wasn't enough for us to make our choice, Cruz Andina informed us that we would always be sleeping in hostels on lower elevations. Now I know that doesn't seem much to you at first, but trust us when we say that you wouldn't want to spend the night at 4,500m above sea level, while your head feels as if it will detach from your body and float away. Think about this? 500 more meters and you'd be at the base camp of Everest (yikes!).
So day one with Andres and Cruz Andina began with colorful geological wonders and dizzying stops. Literally. We were constantly climbing up and down between elevations of 3,800 and 5,000m above sea level. But when in Rome, do as the Romans, by chewing on coca leaves constantly throughout the day. Driving through the southwest Altiplanos we made stops at Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde (where you can even take a dip in a hot spring over looking the lake), Desierto Salvador Dali, Geiser Sol de Manana, and Laguna Colorada. It seems as if this part of the world is devoid from any human civilization, and one can only seem to spot vicunas, llamas, and the three types of South American flamingoes.
As the evening started to approach, so did the Amazon rains we had been experiencing since we arrived in South America. The last hour of the drive was spent watching lightning bolts as wide as our car light up the sky, thunder roaring through the desert, and hail falling as fast as you could say "whaaaaat it's actually snowing in the Bolivian desert right now?". We felt as if we were on an episode of storm chasers, and trust me that is definitely not what we had signed up for. Especially me, who when it comes to thunderstorms and lightning, I side with the dogs on this topic, and can be found hiding under the bed or in the closet. But Andres drove us through the slush and small rivers that had happened to form, and we safely made it to the tiny town of Villa Mar. And as we finally lay down our heads to rest, the rains beat against our window until the early morning. Quick side note on sleeping arrangements- expect to be roughing it while on the tour. Soo, you aren't exactly camping in the middle of the desert, but depending on the tour you choose, it's a simple bed requiring you to bring your own sleeping bag, in a shared room with shared bathrooms with no showers, which are probably located outside in an outhouse. Lucky enough for us, Cruz Andina provided us with blankets and even had private rooms to choose from if they were available once you booked. If so, you could also pay 10Bs for a private bathroom (still no shower though). As for going to the toilet while on the road, one will succumb to using the Inca facilities- behind a large boulder or rock, by a small bush, or next to a cactus. It is here where I was lucky enough to spot two vischacas staring up at me. Best described as Bolivia's rabbit-kangaroo-rats (Google it, you'll see).
With all the rain came lots of changes to our tour, due to over-flooded rivers and road closures. Now I know that you are probably thinking that we deserve what we get choosing to travel during the rainy season, but what the freak is happening, hailstorms and all? As we climbed in the Landcruiser, we all shared the same feelings of disappointment and defeat. Unfortunately for us it meant not being able to see the Laguna Negra, Isla Inca Huasi, Museo de Sal, and sleep in the Salt Hotel on the flats. In all honesty by this point, we were not even sure that we would get to see the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Although all our weather setbacks, Andres still managed to show us more of his country's desolate beauty. We climbed up high in the the Valle de Rocas - Llajta Khaka, looked down the impressive Canon del Inca, and ate lunch close to Laguna Catal, amongst the wild llamas and donkeys. Believe me when I say, I felt as if I was a Bolivian princess in a Disney movie and was singing with all my llama, bird, and donkey friends. By the evening hail storms gathered again and thick rain followed us all the way to the town of Uyuni, where our change of plans had brought us to stay for the night.
Waking up not knowing if the weather had ruined our chances to see one of the worlds most unimaginable landscapes, definitely added a couple of grey hairs to our head. If you aren't really familiar with Bolivia, I am pretty sure you know of or at least have heard about the Salar de Uyuni. As the largest slat flat in the world, it spans around 12,000 square kilometers and contains 10 billion tons of salt! Barren and spectacular, the landscape here doesn't leave you wanting more. As we drove in and the sun was finally shining down upon us, a layer of water gathered on the flats, that would take a month to dry according to Andres. This layer of water created a magical mirror effect, reflecting the sky back at itself and bending the law of physics. The horizon didn't exist as we walked on water across the perfectly shaped hexagonal shapes below us. We were in a real-life Salvador Dali painting, and time stood still.
SO WHEN SHOULD YOU VISIT?
Although the tours and especially the Uyuni flats are accessible throughout the year, the time really depends on you! There are two seasons in Bolivia; dry and wet. The dry season ranges from April to October and the wet season ranges between November and March. Now if your main concern is to see the salt flats in their driest form with perfect hexagonal shapes sticking out, then the dry season would be ideal. But if you are looking for the mirror effect then planning a trip during the wet season is your best choice.