We arrived in Uyuni the day before setting out with Perla da Bolivia - our choice of the many Salar de Uyuni tours.
Uyuni is a desolate town – a far cry from the glory mining days many years ago. Added to the dust and desolation there was a biting cold wind!
3 Day 2 Night Salar de Uyuni Tours
This was one of the highlights of 9 months travelling around the world. The totally unforgettable experience. The natural beauty with dramatic variation in the landscapes, the ruggedness and the freezing temperatures.
The first night’s accommodation, in a hotel made from salt, was outstanding. The second night, six to a dormitory with the only toilet and basin outside was worse than I remembered from boarding school!
The food was good considering the conditions and resources available. Victor, our guide was excellent. A native of the region he’s passionate and knowledgeable and added to the enjoyment of the, at times, slow and rough trip.
The only negative … the toilets at the National Park are a disgrace! With a BOB150 (USD 21.79) per person entrance fee a little more could be expected!
In many Central and South American towns and cities a “banos” (toilet) becomes a business. At most bus terminals and bus stops and odd locations in remote spots there will be someone to pay. The facilities vary. Sometimes they may hand you a few sheets of toilet paper. The prices, facilities and cleanliness vary a lot. With prices usually increasing the further they are from a town!
We had decided on Perla da Bolivia as it’s a local business and had very good reviews. As more and more travel companies are corporatized internationals I like to support small local businesses. Run by locals they have an affinity for the land, the culture, and a passion trying to build their business.
Day 1: Uyuni - Colchani - Incahuasi Island - Pia Pia Island - Ajencha
The tour began at 10:30 am … as do all other Salar de Uyuni tours … the convoy departs!
The first stop is the 'train graveyard'. This is one of many scattered around Bolivia – the legacy of failed systems, wars and depleted resources. Apart from being a site for some pictures and selfies it’s hardly worth the time.
From there we visited (with the Salar de Uyuni tours convoy!) the small settlement of Colchani, a community salt miners’ workshops next to the salt flats. There are many stalls with handicrafts made of salt, and textile products manufactured from llama and alpaca fiber.
De Uyuni Salt Flats
The tour continues into the magnificent Bolivia salt flats. These are at an altitude of 3 650 metres (11 800 feet), the vast white expanse of salt as far as the eye can see in every direction
We stopped at Los Ojos de Agua Salada (‘salt water eyes’) the abandoned hotel made of salt! The hotel closed when all commercial developments were disallowed in the flats. It currently serves as a museum and place to have groups to have lunch. There are also some salt monuments to the Dakar rally 2014.
After lunch our group was entertained making fun perspective- and proportion-distorted photos and videos, taken against the backdrop of the striking white surface of the salt flats.
Isla Incahuasi or Fish Island
From here we traveled to “Isla Incahuasi” (Fish Island). Another meeting of the convoy!! After paying the BOB 30 (USD 4.50) entrance fee we joined the line of people hiking to the top of the stark island. Passing incongruous looking giant cacti. In these harsh conditions they grow at 1 centimeter a year and as some were over 10 meters high must have been growing here for over 1 000 years. The island also features some fascinating rock formations of petrified coral.
We then moved on to watch the sun set over the salt flats to an area near Pia Pia island. There was hardly any water for reflection photos and the cloud formation didn’t add to the sunset.
The day finished at the village of Ajencha. Here we enjoyed the unique experience of spending the night in "Santiago Jukil", a hotel made almost entirely of salt. It's new and very comfortable with electricity and hot water and private bathrooms.
In the rainy season (from January to April): the hotel is changed as there is no access to the this hotel during these months.
Day 2: Chiguana Desert - Caves - Lagoons - Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve - Red Lagoon - Sol de Mañana Geyser
After breakfast the journey started into the Chiguana Desert, located on the south side of the Uyuni salt flats. The area is surrounded by volcanoes. The still active Ollague Volcano which at 5 840 metres can easily be seen from the lookout.
The next stop was the Cueva del Diablo (Devil's Cave). The Cueva Galaxia (Galaxy Cave), where you can see mummies, stalagmites and stalactites was closed as the last custodian of the area had recently died.
After the caves, it's continue slowly along a rocky road - Pasito Tuntun - to the beautiful Andean lagoons. These lagoons are inhabited by 3 species of Andean flamingos. The lagoons are different: at ‘Cañapa’ we spotted the first pink flamingos, ‘Hedionda’ (Stinky Lagoon) where we saw more flamingos and had lunch, and ‘Chiarcota’ where we saw a variety of birds and altiplanic fauna.
We then entered the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, and visited the Desert of Siloli, at 4 550m (the highest and driest desert in the world).
The next short stop is the 'Rock tree', an unique lava rock formation. The “convoy” arrived and I waited for about 15 minutes to get a photograph without any people!
We then stopped at the view point at the Red Lagoon. The colours are unbelievable – bands of white and maroon across the surface. Here we saw more pink flamingos in their natural habitat.
Sol de Mañana Geyser
Our final stop for the day was to visit the Sol de Mañana Geyser, at an altitude of 5,000 metres you expect snow not boiling mud! The weather was fearsome – as we climbed out of the car the doors were ripped from our hands, strong freezing winds penetrated the layers of clothing. In an instant your hands were frozen while all around you the earth boils - fumaroles, and steaming craters filled with boiling pots of mud at 150-200 Cº.
Accommodation on the 2nd night is at "Los Polques" described as a "basic lodge" it has 5 dorm rooms each with 6 beds. A shared bathroom outside the front door. No electricity after 9:30 pm, no hot water and no shower redefines "basic". The only hot water available is at the hot spring (agua calientes).
For all their attraction we gave them a miss. To get there you have to navigate a few hundred metres - in the freezing cold - in the dark - first to pay and then to the pools. For all their beauty and attraction, bed calling was a winner!
Day 3: Dali Desert - Green Lagoon - San Pedro de Atacama
We set off the next day and stopped at the Dali Desert. The place where Salvador Dali found inspiration from the scattered boulders in the middle of the desert.
The final stop is a few kilometres from the Bolivia-Chile border. Lying at the foot of the 6 000 metre Licancabur volcano is the Green Lagoon – the green colour coming from the toxic copper water.
However it is only green on windy days and we arrived before the wind so it was just a deserted lagoon!
Border Crossing to Chile
Instead of going back to Uyuni we crossed the border and finished at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Our guide assisted us with the Bolivian border crossing. We joined a line to pay our exit fee and then transferred to a shuttle bus for the 45 minute descent into San Pedro de Atacama.
The end of an awesome, really awesome, and unforgettable few days.
The rest of the group headed back to Uyuni, passing by the Valley of the Rocks, the Alota settlement, and the San Cristobal Village before arriving back at Uyuni in the early evening.