It’s difficult to write anything original about a three day trip to the Uyuni Bolivian salt flats. Look online and there are literally hundreds of horror stories about it.
My favourite is the one about the guy who fell in to a boiling hot geyser, was rushed to a medical bay in a mine shaft and escaped with second degree burns. My second favourite is the one about the guy who fell in to a boiling hot geyser and then took two days to die.
Then there are the stories about drunken drivers – the tour guides in 4x4s that escort you from one end of the salt flats to the other – who charge across the terrain at terrifying speeds with as little regard for your life as their own.
Others report being stranded in the middle of the desert for hours when the 4x4s break down. Others report being left in the middle of the desert after an argument with the driver.
Add on to that sub-zero temperatures, altitude sickness, food poisoning, vomiting and explosive diarrhoea, and you can perhaps understand where the literary challenge for a budding travel blogger lies.
Our story started in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile – a Mos Eisley-esque outpost slap bang in the middle of the driest desert in the world.
You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than in San Pedro – there are literally dozens of tour companies offering to take you across the border to Bolivia. No amount of research can guarantee your safety. It seems everywhere we looked we found examples of the above mentioned nightmare scenarios.
The tour companies can be set up and shut down over night. We soon found out it doesn’t really matter which one you pick, they all offer exactly the same route and most of the time they subcontract their work out to each other.
We decided to entrust Lithium Tours with our lives. The nice lady behind the desk in the travel agency told us they were a new company set up by a former employee of one of the more established firms, hence why their price was 20,000 Chilean pesos cheaper than everywhere else.
Riding Shotgun With Jesus
There were 13 of us in our group. We knew we had arrived at the Bolivian border when we saw this bus…
Immigration was a simple affair. Stepping in to passport control was like stepping in to a 1980s dole office.
We hoped that breakfast was a sign of things to come. The selection of salamis, hams, cheeses, cakes, cookies, tea and coffee was as hearty as it was tasty. But perhaps this was just Lithium Tours’ way of lulling us in to a false sense of security – we all knew the worst was on its way.
From here our group of 13 was split in to three, each one with its own driver and Toyota Land Cruiser.
Our driver was called Jesus, and for the first day I got to ride in the passenger seat up front. In the back was my girlfriend and two sisters ten years our junior, Rachael and Ruth from Surrey.
There was a huge crack spanning the windscreen of our Land Cruiser. Also, the left rear wheel arch was slightly rusting. I thought about mentioning this to Jesus as a matter of concern, but it turned out he didn’t speak a word of English.
We set off in to the great unknown…
Safe In Jesus’s Hands
Jesus cruised through the desert at an impressively sober pace. After ten minutes I no longer felt it necessary to clasp on to the seat edge and door frame.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanco, a salt lake filled with borax – a compound used in everything from detergents to enamel glazing to make-up to silly putty. The lake was perfectly still and perfectly white, covered in a thin layer of ice.
Five minutes further up the trail was Laguna Verde, which we were told should be bright green because it’s chock full of arsenic, but was instead an everyday transparent blue because the winds weren’t high enough to mix together the minerals in its waters.
Supposedly the temperature can reach -50 degrees C at Laguna Verde but it never freezes over. Still, Volcano Licambur in the distance reflected nicely off its surface.
Next on the list was the Dali Desert, so named because its surreal shapes and colours are reminiscent of paintings by Salvador Dali. He never actually visited Bolivia, and I question the Dali estate’s complicity in allowing the mad Spaniard’s good name to be used in Bolivian tourist propaganda.
Having expected a cacophony of melting clocks and long-legged elephants, the reality turned out to be significantly less fantastical.
In the back seats the passengers began murmuring. A group decision was made to hijack Jesus’s car stereo – but what music to play on it?
If you’ve ever been stuck in a car full of middle class strangers you will know how trickily political this game can get – everyone wants to listen to their favourite band but no one wants to admit who that favourite band is through fear of revealing too much personality. Stalemate ensues for an hour or so before eventually compromise is reached with what everyone outwardly agrees is a solid crowd pleaser, but inwardly thinks is a load of old tosh.
We settled on a chill out compilation featuring Jason Mraz, Lighthouse Family and Morcheeba.
We marched on to the Termas de Polques hot springs. At 40 degrees C, the water was toasty, but when combined with a height of 4,400m above sea level created a perfect storm for altitude sickness to kick in. We bathed and admired the view whilst choking back the nausea.
Heading even higher to 5,000m above sea level, we arrived at the Sol de Mañana sulphur springs. There were bubbling mud pools and steaming fumaroles sprouting through the Martian terrain. Eggy warm air washed over us.
There were audible sighs of relief amongst the group after it emerged no one had fallen in to a geyser.
The next hour was spent listening to Jack Johnson and Kelly Clarkson. We arrived at ‘Hostel Ildayllajara de Confort Limitado’.
‘Confort Limitado’ this hostel was indeed – fully embracing the concrete chic which seems to be so in fashion everywhere in South America.
Having been fully briefed beforehand that the hostel had no showers or electricity, we had been bracing ourselves for a truly rustic experience. In fact, it turned out to be quite pleasant, with two out of four fully functioning toilets and confusingly Chinese-themed duvet covers on the beds.
Jesus and the other drivers rustled up lunch – hot dog wieners with unexpectedly cheesy mash, lettuce and tomatoes.
Altitude sickness was in full swing now. It felt a bit like a shitty hangover mixed with lethargy.
At about 2,500 metres above sea level and over, altitude sickness occurs when the air becomes so thin that the lungs cannot absorb enough oxygen. Ironically, breathing faster or more heavily is quite tiring, which exacerbates symptoms.
Having a wheelchair has its plus points at times like this. The rest of the group was told they were about to embark on an hour long hike to the lookout point over Laguna Colorada.
My girlfriend and I jumped in to Jesus’s 4×4 and five minutes later we arrived at the lookout point.
We learned that there are three species of flamingo in Laguna Colorada, one of which is called the James Flamingo. There was no need to find out the names of the other two species.
The white bits of Laguna Colorada are borax, the red patches are pools of algae. It is eating these algae which colours the flamingos pink.
Back at the Hostel Confort Limitado we settled down to an entirely meat free dinner.
The vegetable soup for starters was surprisingly passable. The follow up spaghetti went cold before it even hit the plate.
As night fell, the temperature dropped to -12 degrees C. At one point I was convinced someone had left the outside door open, but no, it was -12 degrees C inside too.
The thin air made everything exhausting. There was no energy left to open either of the two bottles of wine my girlfriend and I had brought with us. The lights went out at 9pm. We slept with our mouths open to allow in more oxygen.
The Path Of Jesus
The alarm clocks sounded at 6am and we were summoned to breakfast – cold pancakes and hot tea.
With no showers to slow us down, we were back in Jesus’s 4×4 in under half an hour.
First on the agenda was the Árbol de Piedra, or ‘Stone Tree’, which as its name suggests is made of sandstone and looks like a tree, sort of.
The wind has eroded the base of Árbol de Piedra more quickly than the top, hence its distinctive shape. One day in the not too distant future it will fall over and presumably this part of the tour will be missed out.
We stood around for 15 minutes waiting to get an uninterrupted photo. This is a much neglected detail of most Uyuni tour write ups, I think – the scenery is undoubtedly stunning but there are so many other people doing the tour along with you that 80% of the time your view is less like this…
…and more like this…
What followed next was a long succession of lagunas. Non-descript dance music thumped through the car stereo. This is Laguna Honda…
At Laguna Honda, my girlfriend decided to see how thick the surface ice was. Her foot went right through in to sulphurous mud, and for the next hour she reeked of egg. Meanwhile, Jesus refilled the car with petrol…
We had spent too long faffing around at Laguna Honda, and so Jesus sped us past the next, slightly murky green looking laguna without stopping the car.
We arrived at Laguna Hedionda, literally ‘Stinking Lake’, home to literally hundreds of flamingos. This sign informed us of the dos and don’ts when looking at flamingos…
We spent about an hour looking at flamingos…
…even more flamingos…
As laguna-flamingo fatigue reached fever pitch, we lunched whilst looking at the flamingos in Laguna Cañapa.
Lunch was a tuna and pasta salad. Dessert was a lollipop.
We ploughed on through the toughest terrain of the adventure so far. The car slowed to a snail’s pace as Jesus manoeuvred us over boulders and down ravines. On the stereo we switched to a compilation of 80s classics. Jesus seemed to particularly enjoy ‘Footloose’ by Kenny Loggins.
I envied Jesus in the driving seat. He wasn’t restricted by roads or signage or crossing school children – the landscape was his to conquer, and we were merely spectators of the conquest.
But very rarely did Jesus stray on to truly virgin ground . Everywhere you looked there were tyre tracks from salt flats tours of the past and usually Jesus would follow in their wake. The tracks split off in to five or six different directions across open plains then convened at choke points through narrow canyons and tourist hotpsots. Each time we came to an open plain he got to pick the next adventure.
I considered the hundreds of different paths we had passed already – it added up to millions of possible routes from one side of the desert to the other. This kind of driving could never get boring – it went at least part way to explaining how being stuck in a car for three days with four foreigners with bad taste in music might not necessarily drive a man to madness.
We sat on solidified magma at the base of Volcano Ollague, laid down some time around 150,000 years ago during the last major eruption.
The lava was smooth and sepia toned, like frozen waves that made excellent natural seats on which to perch oneself and watch the still smoking funnel.
Looking down to the ground was a less pleasant experience. There was shitty paper as far as the eye could see. Again, this is an oft omitted detail in most Uyuni tour reports – there is very little in the way of plumbing facilities out in the desert. In the absence of actual toilets, the landscape becomes the toilet, or ‘Baño Natural’ as it became euphemistically known throughout our trip.
As we left the volcano we stumbled upon an upmarket Lexus 4×4 with its bonnet open. Jesus pulled over to offer help, chatted to the driver for five minutes, got back in the car and chuckled to himself. The Lexus was chock full of too much new fangled gadgetry to be repaired on the road, he explained, not like his trusty Toyota.
We thundered past quinoa fields. Muse’s seminal album ‘Absolution’ made it on to the car stereo but we skipped all the good tracks.
We stopped in a small town called San Juan de Rosario that looked like this…
In the time it took us to buy beer in the local shop, well over 100 flies (no exaggeration) had taken up residence inside the car. They clung to the underside of the roof and refused to be swatted.
We spent the last leg of the day’s journey with the windows fully open, gently ushering our new insect friends back out in to the wilderness. Without warning, the car stereo went dead, the engine cut out and we cruised to a halt.
Jesus hopped out, opened the bonnet, thumped the battery and we were on our way again.
Home for the night was Villa Martin Hotel de Sal – a hotel entirely made of salt. The floors were made of salt, the tables were made of salt, the chairs were made of salt, the beds were made of salt – the mattresses, duvets and pillows were not.
Here we found luxuries like electricity and wall cavity insulation.
We had hoped for flamingo for dinner but alas we were instead served another bowl of vegetable soup…
…followed by a main course of barbecued chicken, slightly too hard roast potatoes and a mysterious blackened banana. It was accompanied by a fair to middling bottle of Bolivian wine.
No one in our group had showered for at least 48 hours and the smell in the dining room was ripe. The time for ablutions was upon us and we salivated at the thought of hot water hitting our crusty skin.
Those that wished to wash had to part with 10 Bolivianos and join the queue. Showerers had three minutes each to get clean before the camp commandant knocked on the door and told you to move out.
In a bold display of anti-authoritarianism, the majority of the group decided instead to finish off the wine, play cards and stink. The last of the rabblers turned in around midnight.
Jesus’s Last Supper
The 5.30am start felt brutal. We charged on to the salt flats like a sleepy Light Brigade.
At last, my turn to pick the car soundtrack had arrived. I chose Nine Inch Nails’ 2009 comeback album ‘With Teeth’ – clearly not Trent Reznor’s best work but epic enough to suit the mood and angry enough to keep everyone awake.
We briefly stopped to admire day break. The sun was low enough in the sky for my girlfriend to jump over it.
We stopped again on an island full of giant cacti to eat breakfast.
Here we dined on sugar puffs and cake with coffee.
It was at this point that Jesus pulled rank over the in-car audio. Our tunes all sounded the same, he explained, and without drastic action he would fall asleep at the wheel, flip the car in to a ditch and kill us all in a horrible ball of fire.
Jesus’s music choice (a mixture of 80s hair metal and traditional Bolivian midi keyboard classics) pulsed through the Toyota as we rode in to the great salty void.
The Uyuni salt flats cover 10,582 square kilometres and it all looks exactly the same. We had no idea where or what Jesus was driving towards – only that when we got there we would finally get the chance to take ‘hilarious’ photos.
‘Hilarious’ photos are without doubt the number one reason why 99% of all Uyuni visitors visit in the first place. The completely flat surface and lack of anything on the horizon offers a unique opportunity for camera trickery.
As Jesus eased his foot off the accelerator, we primed our lenses.
This is a hilarious photo of my giant girlfriend stamping on a tiny me…
This is a hilarious photo of a giant me chasing my tiny girlfriend…
This hilarious photo shows us being chased by Godzilla…
This hilarious photo shows us being chased by a giant Toyota Land Cruiser…
In this hilarious photo we joined together to form a wonky human snowflake…
This hilarious photo shows me being under my girlfriend’s thumb…
There are infinitely funnier ‘hilarious’ salt flats photos floating around on the internet than the ones posted above. Very few Uyuni visitors also post their salt flats photo ‘fails’.
What often seems brilliant in concept can fall down in practise due to frustration, time, boredom or dwindling memory card space.
This salt flats photo fail is supposed to show my tiny girlfriend leaning on a giant stuffed Totoro toy (actually about an inch high). It was impossible to get the two in focus at the same time…
This salt flats photo fail is supposed to show a giant me eating my tiny girlfriend, but we couldn’t angle the lens so that my tiny girlfriend fit inside my giant mouth without her disappearing from view…
And this salt flats photo fail is supposed to show a tiny me on a giant can of beer, but the position of the horizon makes it look like the can of beer is close to the camera whilst I am sitting a few dozen yards behind it…
We were at the heart of one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, and we spent our time there arsing about like school children.
Nothing lives or grows on the salt flats. This place never really changes. It’s not that we didn’t appreciate its magnificence, but salt tends more to act as a seasoning than a tourist attraction in the main.
It is the complete absence of everything BUT salt that is the allure of Uyuni, rather than the other way around. Were it instead, say, made of gold or boobs or custard, we would perhaps have spent more time focussing on what was there, instead of what wasn’t.
Jesus started getting tetchy. We boarded the Toyota back towards civilisation, stopping first to use this toilet with magnificent views of the sky…
We stumbled across a monument to the infamous Dakar Rally, which in 2014 for the first time passed through Bolivia. We noticed Jesus had many a Dakar sticker plastered over the back of his Toyota, and asked him if he’d taken part – he said the competition was too expensive for Bolivians to enter.
We passed piles of salt, left over from lithium mining. Uyuni provides between 50% to 70% of the world’s lithium supply.
The ground turned from pure white to a mushy grey. For some reason we had been expecting the salt to come to a dead halt before normal ground resumed, rather than peter out.
We pulled in at a small town with a market for tourists. Here there was much tat made from salt on sale.
At long last we were back on a dusty trail. Jesus picked up the pace and tore through a herd of stampeding llamas.
Our final stop was the train graveyard. This is where Bolivian trains come to die.
Most of them had been covered in arty(ish) grafitti. I particularly liked this one with a swing.
We pulled in to the town of Uyuni (not to be confused with the Uyuni salt flats) outside the office of the tour company that had escorted us for the previous three days. The name of the company escapes me, but they were not Lithium Tours of course, it was another firm subcontracted on Lithium’s behalf.
“Papito! Papito!” shrieked two prepubescents in school uniform. They ran up to Jesus and hugged his legs. These were Jesus’s kids, and it became clear that this office was also his home.
As we yanked our bags out of the Toyota, Jesus went inside to prepare our final meal – chicken milanesas with pasta and an assortment of steamed veg.
The adventure was over. We had survived sub-zero temperatures, altitude sickness and fair to middling food. We had avoided food poisoning, vomiting, explosive diarrhoea and death. For this we were grateful, but not surprised.
The amount of tour groups that go through the Uyuni salt flats every single day is roughly equivalent to the total number of complaints there are online about the tours. It’s no wonder that every now and again someone might fall in to a boiling hot geyser or get left in the desert.
It is difficult for a budding travel blogger to come up with anything particularly original to write about a successful journey to Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats. Regardless, the trip will always make for a story worth telling.