So… the day had arrived for our grand three day tour of the Salt Flats and Altiplano! We had been into the travel agency the day before and the owner had shown us the itinerary and explained how it all worked.
There aren’t really any roads for most of the trip, so a 4WD jeep is required – and the tours run with between 4 and 6 people per jeep. 2 nights accommodation is included, as well as all meals. Required items were: water for the whole trip (the water in this area is not drinkable), and snacks for between meals. A sleeping bag was also highly recommended, as it’s VERY COLD, and there is no heating in the accommodation….
The day didn’t start well, as when we arrived at the tour company office, it turned out that the other two people booked on our tour were still in La Paz, as they weren’t very well… it turned out that they had flown straight to La Paz from Australia (yes…. they were Australian…) and booked their tour for the next day… of course they had managed to get altitude sickness and were too ill to take the bus to Uyuni…. yeah who could have predicted that….
ANYWAY, what this meant was that we would be going with another company’s driver and some other tourists from that other company – but we would still get the same guide. The whole thing was handled pretty badly without much explanation from anybody about what was going on – and the owner of the compnay then disappeared without explaining what was going to happen… so we were kind of annoyed about the whole thing.
BUT, the guide turned out to be REALLY EXCELLENT – very friendly and informative, and she told us a lot about Bolivia as well as stuff about the tour that we were on. AND also the driver from the other company turned out to be excellent too – there are a lot of bad and reckless drivers around apparently, and drink-driving also occurs fairly frequently. Unfortunately more than 20 tourists have died on the salt flats in the last 10 years due to accidents because of bad driving 🙁 While we were on the tour, we saw quite a few examples of dangerous driving from other jeeps… but our driver drove slowly and carefully, which was much appreciated!
The other people who would be sharing our jeep turned out to be three girls from Ireland who had just graduated from University. They were really nice, although they did make me feel very old when I overhead one of them talking about their Dad’s next birthday – and he turned out to be younger than me… yes, I’m now not just older than most of the backpackers, I’m older than their parents….??!?! :-0
So, despite the abrupt change of driver, company, and travel companions – the tour turned out to be ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT! 🙂 🙂
Most of the tour companies follow roughly the same itinerary, and so you see a lot of other jeeps along the way – especially at the start of the tour, before the large distances mean that everyone gets spread out a bit more. All the tours start by visiting the ‘train graveyard’, which is only around 3km from Uyuni. This is basically a place where they dump old and knackered trains to rust in the desert… but it’s in a scenic area and they let you climb all over the trains to take pictures! (Yes, not much goes on in the way of health and safety regulations in Bolivia….)
After a short time at the train graveyard, it was time to head for the salt flats! Just before going out onto the flats, there was a brief stop at Colchani (population around 600), where the local people still make a living from selling the the salt that they get from the flats. They process it all by hand, and each community in the region has their own area where they go and extract the salt. Our guide told us that the salt that is collected and processed in this way is not allowed to be sold outside Bolivia as it doesn’t have the correct certification.
Our stop included the opportunity to watch some of the process, and also to buy some salt from the flats.
Now that we had our salt, we were ready to hit the salt flats – more specifically, the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the ENTIRE WORLD! Yes, we like to visit things that have impressive statistics. Its area is a little over 10,000km squared – yes that’s very big. In fact, that makes it bigger than both Cyprus and Luxembourg, and around half the size of Wales, and one-seventh the size of Tasmania (perhaps that last statistic doesn’t sound so impressive… Tassie is bigger than you think 🙂 ). It’s also located at 3600m above sea level – that makes it very high too!
It wasn’t long before we were out on the salt flat – YES! We were excited to be on the salt flat…
After a short drive onto the flats, there was a stop at the very first ‘salt hotel’ that was built on the flats – it was called ‘Playa Blanca’ (white beach!). Tourists used to come and stay in this hotel right in the middle of the salt flats, but it was closed down as its sanitation system wasn’t very good for the flats….There are still hotels made from the salt that you can stay in – but they are located on the edge of the flats now.
Outside Playa Blanca are some monuments to the Dakar Rally (which nowadays goes through Bolivia), and a ‘flag monument’. It looks kind of bizzare, as these are the only things around as far as the eye can see. You can still have lunch inside the old salt hotel, and so this is where our lunch stop was.
After lunch, we were off again across the flats – it was quite a drive to our next destination, which believe it or not, was an island…. In the wet season, most of the flats are covered in water, and there are actually some islands on the flats. As it was the dry season, we could happily drive to these islands.
On the way to the island, we had a stop in the middle of the flats to go for a short walk and take some pictures. There are certain pictures that you HAVE TO TAKE when you are on this tour, as the guides like to demonstrate their amazing repertoire of optical illusion pictures that are easy to take on the salt flats as there is only white as far as the eye can see. More about these pictures later…. but it took around 30 minutes to get all the pictures taken?!?
The walk was really nice – we basically just walked in a straight line into the middle of nowhere away from the jeep – making sure that we didn’t go so far that we couldn’t see the jeep, and get stranded on the salt flat forever….. It was kind of surreal to just be out there in the middle of nowhere with just salt as far as the eye could see.
Next stop – Incahuasi island…..
It’s debatable whether or not this is an actual island – technically, probably not – but it sure feels like an island! It’s extremely bizzare to suddenly encounter a big piece of rocky land in the middle of all the salt – and when you are on the island, the salt looks just like the sea. It apparently used to be the top of an ancient volcano, and so it is quite fertile and it is covered in huge cactuses – it really is an absolutely amazing sight. There is a circular trail on the island which takes around an hour to walk, and there were amazing views in all directions.
After leaving the island, there was one more stop on the salt flats to take pictures of the sunset (and everybody jumping in the air…)
After sunset, we drove off the salt flats to our hotel for the night – which was in fact a SALT HOTEL! 🙂 It was dark when we arrived, so we took pictures of the hotel in the morning. It was a very comfortable hotel, and even had HOT WATER – which we took full advantage of – as apparently the accommodation on the second night is ‘very very basic’. The use of two ‘verys’ in front of the word ‘basic’ in Bolivia, means that you are definitely not getting a shower….
Day 2 here we come…