What’s flat and salty and dusty all over? San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia

July 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm 3 comments

For a while it seemed as if it would never happen. It felt like we were doomed to spend eternity bumping and crawling across a barren wasteland, forced by protruding rocks and roaming livestock to take the longest route across the desert plain. Then just as we started to give up hope there it was, glimmering on the horizon. For a moment we admired it from a safe distance – the way it played with the senses, creating reflections where none existed and the way it seemed to stretch forever. An instant later it had absorbed us completely, sucking all the colour out of the world and leaving just the vibrant blue of the sky and the dazzling white of the earth’s crust. Everywhere we looked was white – just miles and miles of smooth, flat, sparkling white land joining the distant mountains that surrounded us. We had finally arrived in Salar de Uyuni – the world’s most famous salt flats.

As momentous as our first sighting of Salar de Uyuni was, every ounce of wonder and happiness had been hard earned. The first indication that this was a less-than-wise decision came when we arrived at the Bolivian border crossing and were ordered out of our minibus. Barely had we pressed a toe against the ground before gale force winds hit us hard in the chest sending us staggering, clutching our hats with both hands, towards a tiny shed in the middle of the desert. Surely that couldn’t be immigration? It was of course the immigration office and 30 minutes later we had defrosted, had our passports stamped and were once again trying desperately to bridge the 20m gap between the shed and our jeeps without being blown away.

Back at the jeep we met our driver Felix who laughed and joked as he climbed on top of our jeep (in those winds?!) and strapped on our backpacks. After hearing countless stories about the drunken cowboys who often drove 4×4 tours through the desert, we were pleased to find out that our driver for the next three days had a solid head on his shoulders – especially since there were no seatbelts in the backseat. Things were definitely starting to look up and our first stop to the beautiful frozen Laguna Verde left us feeling a little more hopeful.

It’s a good thing that we were feeling so positive because our next stop was a little more trying – a quick dip in the local hotspring. Our affinity for hotsprings and hot water in general is no secret but it has to be taken into account that at this particular point in time we were in the middle of a desert, the air temperature was hovering way below 0°c and windspeed was around 40 km/hr. Still, we were hardened backpackers used to cold showers and a bit of dust (argh!) so we stripped off and sprinted as fast as we could towards the pool. Inside the hotspring it was absolutely divine just as long as we kept as much of ourselves as we could under the water, turned our backs to the ever-changing wind and ignored the sand that was quickly coating our scalps. Heaven.

The only problem with the hotpools was that we had to get out eventually and this we did with as little grace and as much speed as possible. Chasing towels as they blew across the desert and shoes as they caught in the wind we struggled to get dry and clothed as quickly as possible. In all it couldn’t have taken us more than 3 minutes and 35 seconds to get dressed yet as we reached for our swimming togs we realised that in that time they had frozen solid – some even had small icicles hanging from the strings and ties.

Unfortunately the hotspring turned out to be our last stop of the day. Since morning the wind had become more and more violent and Felix had decided that it was unsafe for us to get close to boiling water in unpredictable winds. Never mind, we had packed 6 litres of wine between us and we were looking forward to getting to know the rest of the people on our tour – especially Kiwis Matt and Sarah. Even if they didn’t say “Sweet as, bro!” as much as we would have liked them too.

Little did we know that that night was to prove a turning point in our trip. After drinking more of our wine than we should have we climbed into our sleeping bags and under our six blankets and settled in for a long sleep. A few hours later those of us who had been sleeping were woken by a huge bang that shook the hotel. And that was just the beginning of it. For the next five hours a vicious desert storm raged outside, beating our roof until it groaned and screeched in pain, threatening to cave at any moment.

Up at 7am for breakfast and to assess the damage. As it turns out, while the winds were a little quieter they were no less fierce and a cursory look outside the hotel windows revealed a thick haze of dust covering the entire world. The hotel was out of food though so we had no choice but to make tracks. Not such a great idea. Within minutes all three jeeps were lost in the storm, engulfed by thick clouds of dust and sand that sometimes broke to offer glimpses of the road we had veered off or the lake we had narrowly avoided but which mostly muffled out every single sound and sight.

This went on for almost the whole day. Once or twice we did see a real attraction – visiting a valley of stones carved into faces and shapes by the sand or spotting a live flamingo struggling against the winds. Mostly though we were lost in an endless abyss, unable to move more than a few inches at a time in case we drove off a cliff. Lunch was a worst-case-scenario affair, put together at the last moment in somebody’s mother’s kitchen while we sat and shivered in what could have been a classroom or a bedroom. For the next four hours the enterprising hostess charged us 1 boliviano every time we needed the toilet as we tried to wait out the storm. If it didn’t stop we would have to spend the night here and there probably wouldn’t be any dinner – plus we were going to run out of bolivianos soon. So we sat and waited.

Fortunately the sandstorm finished just before dusk so we piled back into the jeeps and started to make our way across the desert towards the salt flats as the dust-laden sky revealed the most beautiful and unlikely sunset.

And so it was with dust lacing every inch of our weary bodies that we leaped out of the jeep at the salt flats on day three of our epic journey into Bolivia. Our first salt flats stop was to an island in the middle of the white desert where cacti grew up to a startling 20m tall. The island is made mostly from coral, reminding visitors that the salt flats were once underwater and housed an entire eco system.

Of course we made the obligatory in-the-middle-of-nowhere stop so that we could take a hundred photographs that played with perspective – Gary standing in my hand, Swati balancing on a bottle, Paul and Sophie balancing on Paul’s shades… It’s not as easy as you would imagine though.

Before we headed to a nearby village for lunch we stopped at one of the old salt hotels for a gander and also at the edge of the flats where they extract salt from the earth for processing nearby. I could talk forever about the wonders of Salar de Uyuni and the immense fun that is to be had on any visit but Gary’s pictures would always do it far more justice so I’ll leave it to him.

More pictures from our salt flats tour are available in the gallery

Note to anyone considering the San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni tour:

Lonely Planet warns that tour operators working this route are notoriously dodgy and that has definitely been our experience of it. We booked through the only company they recommended – Cordillera – and paid a little extra so that we would be more comfortable. Our list of complaints is endless and starts with bad organisation (eg. the bus driver forgot to collect Swati and we had to argue for ages to get them to drive to her hostel), not nearly enough food, almost none of the food we were promised, no hot showers although we were guaranteed at least one, not enough sleeping bags on the second night for all the people who had already paid for them, the staff refused to light us fires although they had firewood crackling away in their lodgings, the guides refused to bring us to see sunrise although it too was promised etc.

All in all it was hardly worth the extra cost apart from the fact that our guide was very good (although other guides in the same group weren’t). That said, this seems to be a reoccuring theme with all Bolivian tours and San Pedro is actually a really good starting point if you are going that way anyway. In other words, I would still recommend the trip to a friend but I would warn them to bring extra food with them and if possible, a sleeping bag.

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Snowboarding in the world’s driest desert. San Pedro de Atacama, Chile This town ain’t big enough for the eight of us. Tupiza, Bolivia

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. intrepidtraveller  |  July 31, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Awesome photos guys! The ‘playing with perspective’ shots remind of the ones I took at the Pyramids..great fun! :)

    Reply
  • 2. unstranger  |  August 10, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Yep, excellent photos

    Reply
  • [...] 1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth. [...]

    Reply

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