Reached Uyuni – a small town that serves as a tourist jump-off point to the famous salt flats – at just before 8am. This was after some delayed departure of the bus from La Paz due to a puzzling police “investigation” which took at least 1.5 hours. Thereafter, there were some rumours that the route to Uyuni may be closed due to some farmers’ protest, and if so, the bus may take an alternative route and only reach at 12 noon! This wouldn’t go well with most passengers as the Uyuni tours usually start at 10. And as the bus travelled in the night, by 4am there was still that possibility of an extended delay when the bus conductor chased us down at a rest stop, in the cold, to stock up on supplies in case the journey takes longer than estimated.
But all that precaution was just precaution, and the bus reached Uyuni just before 8am. But the early morning cold at that rest stop was a sneak preview of what was to come.
After an unintended hearty breakfast (how was I supposed to know that when I order bread and eggs, that comes with THREE eggs?), and a somewhat delayed start to the tour (the driver’s timing is very “elastic” as we soon found out), we were off on our tour. All the tours are done on 4-wheel drives, because of the unpaved terrain. Most cars are Toyotas but ours is the odd Lexus.
The first stop is the cementry of trains, old rusty tins left abandoned on old rail tracks which now serve as perfect photo-snapping opportunities for tourists.
After a brief stop at a town that processes raw salt, it was the famous salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, reputedly the world’s largest salt flats. One big pile (50kg) of salt is worth only 8 bolivianos (US$1.14) but so much work goes into it, often involving a whole family. Beneath the salt flats is a lake, and we were standing on / driving on a thick crust of salt with jagged hexagonal edges.
While salt is abudantly cheap, it is indispensable, as Shakespearean as that sounds. And for lunch, we had table salt as condiment, although scraping off some salt from the ground is not impossible (yes, it is just as “salty”). Lunch was a picnic at Isla Incahuasi, the “island” in the middle of the salt flats, with giant cacti and strange coral-like stones. This was to be one of my favourite spots during the excursion and the midday weather was pleasant with plenty of sun. Spent the whole afternoon after lunch walking on the island and taking in the vast white salt flats surrounding the island.
Thereafter, we checked in to a “salt hotel”, more like a hostel that is mostly made of bricks and a little bit of salt. It is a very basic hostel with only 4 electric outlets in the entire hostel for charging electronic appliances, and electricity is only switched on for a few hours during dinner time. While waiting for dinner, some of us played cards and we were also served hot drinks and biscuits. Also darted out of the hostel once in a while to capture the pink hues of the sunset. But nobody could stay outside for long in the windy cold.
As starters for dinner, there was home-cooked quinoa and vegetable soup that was very tasty. For mains, it was a big platter of grilled llama meat. I had opted for vegeterian meal but nonetheless had a piece of llama meat from one of my group mates just for taste. Very chewy and rather tough! There are showers and hot water could be turned on for Bs. 10. But most of us were either too cold or out of Bolivianos to go for a shower. This was to be the only shower facility for the entire 3-day trip.
Overslept until one of my group mates came to wake me up. Was too comfortable in the rented thermal sleeping bag, plus I was making up for the lack of sleep on the overnight bus from La Paz.
On the second day, we cruised on the 4-wheel drive through more dry flat lands – the Salar de Chingara – and passing by Volcan Ollague, mountains on the Bolivian-Chilean border as well as the famous rail tracks to Calama in Chile and sightings of graceful vicunas. But before all that, a flat tyre happened, followed by a swift tyre change by the driver.
Stopped at Laguna Canapa for picnic lunch. But it was so windy and cold that all of us ate inside the car to hide from the wind, while the gulls and flamingos frolick in the semi-frozen lagoon in the background. There is no toilet facilities and finding a big bush in such dry lands where plants are typically low-lying is impossible. But if you have to go, you have to go, even if the wind is blowing in your behind.
The next stop was Laguna Hedionda, where even more pink flamingos pottered around in the icey lagoon in near distance, against the perfect backdrop of a conical mountain. How do these slim and fragile-looking creatures withstand the cold remains a mystery to me.
By 4pm we reached Laguna Colorada, also known as the Laguna Roja (because it is supposed to be red) and inside the national reserve. Checked into one of the infamous basic hostels in the national park, where there isn’t even running water, just a big barrel of stale water for washing down the toilet which does not have a flush. There is also no electric outlet, so make sure you bring extra batteries. It was only 4pm but very cold and windy so we huddled inside to play cards as well as killed time with tea, biscuits and beer. My groupmates are a fun bunch and laughter is really a good relief in the cold. Our group consists of a Frenchman, a German guy, a girl from England, a Japanese lady, 2 girls from the Basque country and me. Talk about multi-nationalities! A Brazilian from another group gate-crashed, but all the more fun.
In such basic conditions, dinner was rather basic too: spaghetti with tomato and onion sauce. But at least there was a comforting hot vegetable soup to go with it. And one of our groupmates remembered that the tour promised a bottle of wine and reminded the driver about it… otherwise who knows, the driver may just have taken it and drank it himself!
Tried to get some sleep at around 930pm but it was so cold that I was shivering even in the thermal sleeping bag. Perhaps it is the altitude as well – 4278m – that it took me some time to fall asleep. Before turning in, I stepped outside to brush my teeth with my bottled water (since there is no running water of any sort inside the hostel). And up there in the clear skies is the bright streak of the milky way. How lovely, and yet too cold to be outside admiring for long. I will remember this image for a very long time.
The next morning, we were supposed to get up for breakfast by 530am, but those of us who were awake noticed some commotion going on amongst the drivers. Eventually our breakfast only came at 730am. No proper explanation was given by our driver of the delayed start to the tour. Was he drinking the night before?
Nonetheless, we managed to see the geysers even if for a short while in the crazy wind. Then we head off to Polques, where there was a hot spring. There isn’t a changing room. Stripping and changing into swim wear in the cold with occasional wind is quite an experience, but so worth it once you are in the thermal waters. Who cares if most people in the pool haven’t showered in the past 2 days and the germs are probably having a nice sauna bath. The spring waters are soothing and soaking in it when the icey lake is within hand’s reach is an experience not to be missed. It was so comfortable that I didn’t want to get out of the pool.
Once we were told to move on though, I had to bid farewell to my group mates, all of whom were continuing on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile (I’ll be going there later on, but through another route). We exchanged emails and hugs and I was ushered into another car. To my horror, I found out that the people in the other car had already visited Laguna Verde 2 hours ago, and the car was heading back to Uyuni! So I didn’t get to see Laguna Verde, which was a pity. But the passengers in this car – a Venezuelan couple – were nice and showed me the photos of Laguna Verde. The lady spoke English and offered to translate the driver’s explanation in Spanish to me. Obviously, I missed Laguna Verde because of my driver’s inexplicable delay. I will spare the details of sorting this out with the agency later on, but this goes to show that just as all the guidebooks say, these tours are not without problems. But is the tour nonetheless worth it? Absolutely. The past few days have been days of magnificent feasts for the eye and interesting adventurees to last for quite a while.
Anyway, I am blessed enough that the return trip to Uyuni was peaceful and it was through a different route than the one we came in. The driver was also very careful. This time, we passed through the other side of Laguna Colorada and from this point or view, the lagoon is indeed red-tinted. Also stopped at Valle de Rocas, a valley of strange rocks, that were formed as a result of volcano magma, and naturally sculpted by the erosion of wind. And unusual sight indeed. Spotted more llamas and alpacas, as well as cute alpaca-crossing signs. Also stopped at San Cristobal, which is supposedly the world’s largest silver mine.
All in all, in spite of the hiccups, the past few days have been nothing short of new experiences and natural wonders. No wonder this circuit is the most visited site in Bolivia.