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Visiting Salar de Uyuni

We just returned from a four day excursion to visit the Salar de Uyuni. It was an incredible trip, one of the best that we have had one our trip so far.

We started from Tupiza, which turned out to be a better town than the hellhole of Villazon, Bolivia. That little town wasn´t much of an introduction to Bolivia; thankfully Tupiza was better or we wouldn´t have much of an opinion of Bolivia. Honestly, though, it is a different kind of experience backpacking here versus a country like Chile or Argentina. It is much more difficult place to travel through; road conditions are subpar, transportation much slower and inconvenient, and everything here seems to take a much longer time. For example, when we found that there was no ATM in Tupiza and none likely in the next destination, Uyuni, we got a cash advance from the bank, but it literally took over two hours and two visits to the bank. Efficiency is an unknown here.

On the other hand, the tour went quite well. We paid more than we would have if we had started in Uyuni, but we got an extra day of touring in, we didn´t have to go to Uyuni first (it doesn´t have much to offer), and there was only another couple in the vehicle with us, which was really great. Even better, we had a cook with us, whereas a lot of tours starting in Uyuni double the driver as the cook, which can lead to some seriously bad food. So, we had a good setup from the beginning, and despite the many horror stories on the internet about tours gone bad, our tour only got better.

We set out in the morning, our bags stacked on the top of our Toyota Land Cruiser, heading out of Tupiza into the cactus covered hills, through the red and orange valleys of eroded stone and steep hillsides that reminded us a lot of Arizona. We climbed well up over 4000 meters, where we remained for the rest of the tour until we dropped back down to 3700m (about 12,000 ft) in Uyuni. Actually, we were up over 5000m (16,500 ft) for quite a bit of the tour; our driver had us chew some coca leaves when we became dizzy and disoriented just getting out of the truck to look at some ruins of a mining town.

In comparison to the route that we would have taken from Uyuni, we started first by heading into the southwest circuit, which had our route travel over absolutely stunning mountain vistas. Vegetation in such a high, dry environment was sparse, and so the hills were vibrant in ochre and orange colors. The weather was very cooperative, we only had a few hours of cloudy weather as we crossed over a pass on the first day. That day we headed south for the border of Chile, crossing over some incredible mountain passes. We stopped in the ghost town of an old mining village dating back to the 1600s. The next day we went nearly as south as the border, visiting some beautiful lagoons of various colors (due to the high mineral contents). We had lunch on the shore of one such lagoon, where we enjoyed the warm waters of a natural hot springs; getting out was tricky, because of both the altitude and how dehydrated the water seemed to make us. That afternoon, we stopped by an area of open fumaroles and boiling mud pools; we were able to walk out among them, to see the furiously boiling mud and hissing steam coming from cones up close. They´d never let you get so close in the States. Then we visited the famous Laguna Colorada before finishing for the day.

The third day was spent visiting various lagoons with lots of flamingos and other birdlife. That day we also saw a lot of rock formations, created by erosion. Our first stop of the day was to visit the much photographed Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree), which was among many other great formations. We had lunch at the Mirador Volcan Ollague, which is the lookout of the Ollague Volcano, which is semi-active. The mirador is set among an area of amazing gullies and sheets of rock that have been carved into many shapes by the elements. We spent a lot of time driving through this area, eventually arriving into the Salar Chiguana, which is a salt plain that isn´t as famous or as extensive as the Salar de Uyuni; it was still impressive, driving on the flat, white surface. That night we stayed in an excellent salt hotel, a structure that had walls made entirely of salt blocks, a beautiful building.

Our final day started at 5 am, as we set out to cross the Salar de Uyuni. We headed straight across the flats, a massive area of more than 1200 square meters. We were able to get to a little island called Isla de Pescado, which was covered with beautiful cacti, for the sunrise. We spent the morning driving along on the salt flat, which became brilliantly white as the sunlight became more bright. We stopped to take pictures, using the optical illusions of the endless white horizon, before heading to Uyuni to conclude our tour. 

It was really a great trip, one of our favorites. We had heaps of great food, the driver and the cook were terrific, and the other couple, from Holland were very fun to talk with and play numerous games of Rummy500 with. The hostels that we stayed in were very, very basic, but that was certainly part of the adventure, and wasn´t nearly the nightmare that many stories online would have us believe. Of course, the landscapes were spectacular, I´ve never been to such a place. It was worth the trouble entering Bolivia, as well as the money we spent on the visas. It was certainly worth every penny.

Until next time, be safe.


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