After the mine tour of Potosi, the four of us took a 4-hour bus ride to the dusty town of Uyuni, arriving at our cosy little hostel around midnight. Exhausted, we crashed out, then up bright and early for breakfast, chatting with other backpackers before heading to the offices of Red Planet Expeditions who would look after us for the next three days on the Salar De Uyuni.
In our group of 11 people, we had representatives from Australia, Scotland, Germany, Holland and ourselves from the UK. We were then split into two comfortable 4×4 vehicles with a driver each and a guide for the duration, and transported to the outskirts of Uyuni for our first stop at the train cemetery.
Many disused trains lay in ruins at what used to be the train yard at the turn of the century. It was a fascinating sight to say the least. Bolivia had a freight train service which successfully ran for many years, beginning in 1892 and serving many Pacific Ocean ports transporting minerals and mining machinery. When the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s, the rail network became redundant as a consequence shortly afterwards.
Since then, there have been several attempts to reinstate the train service but each government has failed to find the funds to make it viable again. With Bolivia’s economy on the up, it could become operational again within the next ten years, but this is just my opinion.
We tried to help move this for them …
We piled back into the cars for our next stop, lunch! No less than a roast chicken dinner, such a treat! Then onto the salt hotel, which had outside many flags blowing in the wind from many nations, no Union Jack or St. George’s Cross to be seen though. We couldn’t go into the original hotel as we weren’t paying guests.
Following on from this tourist hotspot, we headed out onto the breath-taking salt flats themselves. This vast wasteland spans 10,582 square kilometres – about the size of five Luxembourgs! Here we had plenty of photo time, to play and absorb the sheer majesty of this amazing landmark.
Important tip: ALWAYS put sunblock inside your nostrels, the sun’s reflection from the salt flats WILL burn the inside of your nose. True story.
We then travelled a short distance to “Inka Wasi” which is an island situated in the centre of the Salar, inhabited solely by cacti large and small, and maybe the odd vizcacha – but more on that later. Looking round from the highest viewpoint and you can see nothing but flat white landscape and the mountains of Uyuni in the far distance.
As the day rolled on in our jeeps, our first night’s accommodation arrived and was very pleasant, again well fed and we chatted for a good few hours to the rest of our group comparing notes and talking about what we had seen on day one. The beds were comfortable mattresses on salt block supports but with a private bathroom, this was more luxury than we anticipated. Fortunately, I was not kept awake by the snorer in our room unlike everyone else. Oh wait…
An early start greeted us as we needed to be up and about after a tasty breakfast of cereal, toast, tea, coffee and fruit juices to head out towards the Parque Nacional Eduardo Avaroa, with the promise of flamingos. Brig was very excited!
There were plenty of photo opportunities on the way to the park including the local quinoa grain which I’ve only seen in chocolate before now. And it’s good! Within the park itself, we stopped by another disused rail line, which seemed to just disappear into nowhere… surrounded by another incredible mountainous landscape.
Further on up the road lies the impressive rock formation of Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree) which is surrounded by many other rocks (it seems) just for gringo photos to take place. En route to flamingo lake, we made an unscheduled pit stop to see a local animal called the Scrabbit. Actually, it’s called the vizcacha but looks like half squirrel, half rabbit. Hence scrabbit. They came in close and even took food from one of the group. Surely, they must be used to the tourist trail by now!
Finally, flamingos and lunch arrived! Not a lunch of flamingos… that would be weird. The lake did not disappoint in the slightest, we had great vantage points to take plenty of photos of the flamingos, the lake and its surroundings. Another deliciously filling lunch was presented to us by our guide and drivers, Ruth is missing from the shot as she’s busy handing out the drinks.
Next up on the tour was a trip to the Sol De Mañana, the natural springs (not gesyers, although this is what they’re commonly referred to locally), located not too far from our lodgings for the night, this impressive geothermic activity from the earth in this chilly high altitude region is rather fascinating to watch, almost hypnotic. Sadly, photos do not do them justice, just looks a bit misty, right?
We make it to the hostel by nightfall and as our jeep was the first to arrive, we got first dibs on the nicest room in the place. We got settled and had another tasty meal before heading out to the promised hot springs. The air was bitterly cold, but we braved our way across the 100 metres or so down to this natural hot spring and bathed under the stars for many hours, having the odd cheeky beer and taking in the beautiful night sky including the Milky Way in all its dusty glory. Spectacular way to round off the day.
The last day was a sad one. We did have a good night’s sleep and more of the same in the way of a satisfying breakfast. We hit the road relatively early to get down to the Chilean border where we then had to say goodbye to Dan and Brig. However, on the way we stopped at Lake Verde which is just by the border of Chile, not too dissimilar to any we’d already seen on this tour. After some more photo opportunities, we headed towards the border and said goodbye to our friends who we’d only met about six weeks prior but with whom we had gained some great memories in Sucre.
The rest of the day was pretty much a long 7-hour journey back to Uyuni, which was broken up by a hearty lunch of rice, salad and pasta within a local little community. We made one more stop one the way back which was in San Cristobal and enjoyed a welcomed toilet break, plus a refreshing ice cream.
As we were in the middle of nowhere for the most part and vehicle breakdowns were common, each tour operator stopped if someone had broken down to help. Some had more mechanical knowledge than others, but our driver seemed to be the king of the spanner when it came to this sort of thing, so during those three days, we did stop to help many a stranded 4×4 and get it up and running again!
Back in Uyuni, those of us that didn’t go to Chile were all booked (by coincidence) on the same night bus up to La Paz, which was possibly the bumpiest ride we’ve experienced so far. Ruth describes it as what it must feel like being in a washing machine!
We finally rolled into La Paz at about 7:30am, and without much sleep we reluctantly jumped on the 8:30am bus to Puno, Peru. The Uyuni tour and the visit to Potosí were both demanding but rewarding experiences. We were sad to leave Sucre and say goodbye to our friends, but we were looking forward to starting adventures in a new country. Goodbye Bolivia, it’s been a hell of a ride!