Touring the Salt Flats in Uyuni, Bolivia

by Forager on May 15, 2010

Now that I’m back on the blogging wagon, it’s time to pick up where I left off and start tackling the debilitating Everest-sized mountain of posts waiting for me. Time to devote more time to the travel focus of this blog. It’s been over 6 months since the Co-pilot and I went on our South America trip – and since then, well, it’s been 6 months so naturally we’ve fit in another holiday – to Thailand this time for a bit of rest and relaxation. But before I begin the slew of Thailand posts, I’ll fit in a few more South American ones first.

Following on from the last post on South America, we left San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and set off for the Bolivian border and the spectacular salt flats in Uyuni. We booked a 4WD tour and crossed our fingers hoping that we’d be travelling with some fun and interesting people on the 3 day tour, because 3 days spent in an intimate 4WD was going to be seriously unpleasant if you didn’t enjoy the company. Thankfully, Lady Luck was on our side and we met four fun and interesting young men from England, school friends who were travelling together through South America. The fact that all of them had just spent days on gloriously hot sun-drenched Brazilian beaches and had seriously underestimated the frigid temperatures, the bone-chilling icy wind when they turned up in t-shirts and thongs only added to our amusement. They in turn were mesmerised by the Co-pilot’s travel weary passport, jam-packed with stamps and visas from all manner of places and barely an inch of space left on any page. From their expressions, I could see this was something these young travellers hoped to achieve too.

Together we set off deep into the arid San Pedro de Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, passing barren plains occasionally incongruously spotted with brightly coloured lagoons. The corrosive minerals in the lagoons gives them their characteristic colours. If the mild altitude sickness and the teeth-chattering wind making me wrap my wind-cheater ever closer around me wasn’t a disincentive to get in the lagoons, then hearing that the lagoons were laden with inviting poisons like arsenic, sulphur and lead certainly were!

laguna blanca

Laguna Blanca - the white lagoon

We stopped at Polque hot springs, where the boys all stripped down and jumped into the thermal pools for a delightful warm soak. But suffering from a nauseating and head pounding bout of altitude sickness, I declined and in a futile attempt to alleviate the sickness, chewed a handful of disgusting coca leaves (which only added to the nausea).

Polque hot springs, Bolivia

Taking a dip at Polque hot springs

The thermal activity got even more exciting at Geyser sol de mañana, or The Morning Sun Geyser Basin. This was the highest point on our tour yet, reaching 4960m! At this height most of our travelling crew were feeling the effects of the altitude. That is, except for the 2 smokers amongst us. Apparently, smokers are already accustomed to having less oxygen in their lungs and don’t suffer altitude sickness as much as non-smokers. Highly unfair.

Geyser sol de manana

Braving the elements in t-shirts at Geyser sol de manana

Our last stop on the first day of the tour was at the Laguna Colorada, The Red Lagoon with hundreds of pink flamingoes actively skimming the corrosive lagoon for tasty algae.

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada - The Red Lagoon

Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada

Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada

With the sun setting the temperature dropped dramatically and the wind picked up a menacing soul piercing edge. It was just above freezing and time to head indoors.

Rustic accommodation at Laguna Colorada

Rustic accommodation at Laguna Colorada - the perfect romantic setting for an anniversary

The accommodation was as basic as you’d expect in the middle of the Atacama desert, and housed not only us but 2 other tour groups on the trip. The other groups were travelling in the opposite direction, from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama and where it was our first day and we were all struggling with varying degrees of altitude sickness; the other groups were on the 3rd day of their trip, well acclimatised and raucausly loud. We sat down to dinner as our heads pounded, our vision blurred, nausea threatened and we sucked in deep gasping lungfuls of air for every step or movement.

Bolivian love for frankfurts

Dinner on day 1 - our introduction to the Bolivian love for frankfurts

Dinner was a fairly simple affair. We were served a surprisingly tasty vegetable and herb soup with yuca root (a South America tuber) and the main consisted of un-dressed salad ingredients  and a large bowl of boiled frankfurts. There was even a bottle of cheap Chilean wine. Mmmm. It reminded us all of terrible primary school camp food and we speculated that perhaps this is what Bolivians thought Western tourists like to eat. Little did we suspect that these items in fact form the corner stone of many modern Bolivian meals and the Bolivians are mad for frankfurts. Now that the trip has ended I can say now that sadly, Bolivian cuisine didn’t impress me and this was the first of many dismal meals containing frankfurts.

After we struggled through dinner, we retired to our dorm room to turn in for the night. And what a memorable night it was. That night was actually our 8th anniversary, and it couldn’t have been a less romantic setting as we spent it in a dorm room (my first experience in a dorm) with our 4 new travelling companions (some snoring like champions through the night), and as the temperature dropped even lower, I donned everything warm that I brought on that trip – 2 thermal tops, thermal pants, double socks, fleece, down jacket, beanie, and climbed into a sleeping bag hidden under several layers of blankets. The altitude also contributed some interesting side effects for the night, one was insomnia and unbeknownst to me at the time, my watch reliably scrambled itself above 4000m. So every few hours that night I’d glance at my watch and blink fuzzily as I tried to comprehend how it could be so dark outside and yet my watch displayed 7am. I gave up and got up at first light, with no idea what time it was or how many hours I’d slept. It was definitely memorable as the most un-romantic or pleasant anniversary night we’ve ever had.

The second day’s itinerary was similar to the first, stopping off at landmarks and lagoons, bustling out of the 4WD to marvel at the strange arid lunar landscape around us and snap pictures of flamingoes and vicunas (a small deer-like creature) whilst the wind whipped around us.

Arbol de piedra - the stone tree

Arbol de piedra - the stone tree

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

Vicunas

Vicunas

Lunch was a familiar and depressing sight. The leftover frankfurts from dinner were mixed with a hodge podge of other random leftovers and disguised under a layer of mashed potato.

Lunch day 2 - frankfurts in disguise

Lunch day 2 - frankfurts in disguise

Thankfully we had reprieve from the frankfurts at dinner with charcoal chicken and chips with a side of quinoa and vegetable soup.

charcoal chicken and chips, a Bolivian favourite

Dinner day 2 - charcoal chicken and chips, a Bolivian favourite

Aside from the quinoa, a grain-like seed originating in the Andes and eaten by the Andean locals for 6000 years, at first glance these dishes don’t sound like typical Bolivian foods, but I was shocked to learn later that like the frankfurts – the Bolivians are hopping mad for charcoal chicken and chips.

The third and final day was the exciting day when we’d finally see the Uyuni salt flats. The day started with sunrise on the salt flats and at 4am we set off into the dark watching the first rays of light creep up on the horizon and brighten the inky black pools of sky with streaks of blue and orange. We stopped on the salt flats and clambered out of the vehicle rubbing sleep from our eyes just as the sun rose and – the effect was just breath taking.

Sunrise on Uyuni salt flats

A magical sunrise on the Uyuni salt flats

The photo above just does not do the experience justice. The first rays of sunshine to creep over the mountains and hit the salt flats lit up the scene around us in magic. The fluoro pink sunshine reflected off the crusted hexagonal wells of salt and surrounded us in vivid bright pink fire. It was amazing!

As the sun rose higher into the sky and bathed us in a deliciously warm golden glow that thawed our extremities, we soaked up the surroundings and marvelled at how long our uninterrupted shadows were.

Sunrise on the Uyuni saltflats

Want salt with that?

Later in the day when we reached a spot in the salt flats where the flat, empty white landscape provided the perfect lack of perspective for some silly, surreal photos.

Midget Co-pilot

Admonishing the mini Co-pilot

Mini boxers on the Uyuni salt flats

Mini boxers

Uyuni salt flats

Surreal photo fun on the Uyuni salt flats

We were so caught up in the process of creating surreal photos that we forgot all sun sense – and paid for it. At high altitude (4000m+), clear blue skies and having blinding white light reflecting off the salt for extra intensity, our skin cooked. I think I peeled my forehead off in one piece. Yes, we’re idiots, but that’s what happens when you wake at 4am and forget to pack sunscreen.

The next stop was at a salt museum, where amongst all the touristy knick knacks and seriously unfashionable, kitsch llama/alpaca wool items, we found a salt lick. Of course I licked it. Of course, a second after I licked it I thought about all the other people who may have licked it before me. Smart.

salt lick Uyuni salt museum

A proper salt lick

Lunch involved the same miserable frankfurts. We saw a vendor outside selling llama meat and although it was concerning that raw llama meat was being mixed with cooked llama meat, a few of us braved a taste. The llama tasted a bit like chewy, gamey lamb but it was surprisingly tasty and we even went back for seconds. Beats having frankfurts again.

Llama meat stew

Llama and potato stew

The last stop was at a train graveyard, where all the disused trains settle after retirement in a spot just outside the town of Uyuni, our final destination. We had low expectations of this stop, but once we got there the boys’ eyes lit up and they clambered up and down the wrecks like monkeys on the loose.

train graveyard, Uyuni

The train graveyard, Uyuni

The town of Uyuni itself holds no charm. Tourists pass through hastily on their way to somewhere better. We wanted to catch the train to La Paz, but because tickets weren’t a certainty and the train wasn’t direct, we decided to catch the direct bus instead. The boys did their best to negotiate the best price possible for six “bus cama” (full reclining) seats. Tickets in hand we settled down to a few well deserved beers in the plaza. We watched the tourists peruse the shops for souvenirs and the locals go about their daily business. It was then that we realised that some of the locals were looking at us. And they weren’t looking at us with friendly curiosity, they didn’t look like they were even scheming – they looked at us with cold, deadened, desperate stares as though they were seriously considering taking on the six of us in a brazen snatch and run. We took note and all surreptitiously checked and secured our personal belongings. It was a timely reminder and we recalled in our guidebooks that Uyuni had an infamous reputation for pick pocketing and luggage snatching.

With a long 12 hour direct bus trip to La Paz before us, we left dinner as late as possible to ensure we wouldn’t be plagued by fits of hunger throughout the night. The main plaza in Uyuni is populated by pizza, pasta and fried chicken joints and as we weren’t particularly picky we settled on the good, hearty looking pizzas at Pasti Pizza. The six of us chose a table against a wall, pushed all our luggage up against it, perused the menus, chose our pizzas and waited. Just as our first pizzas arrived we were approached and momentarily distracted from our meals by a middle aged well-dressed Hispanic tourist with a very strange Spanish accent. We all strained to understand his accent and what he wanted from us. After some confusion, he shrugged and left the restaurant. We turned our attention back to our meals but as an afterthought, one of the English boys glanced over at our luggage – his camera bag was gone and with it: his digital SLR, his digital video recorder, his laptop and the worst – his passport, all stolen! With a few of us manning the remaining luggage, the rest rushed out into the street hoping to catch up with our assailants but found no sight or trace of them. When we investigated the men’s room in the restaurant we found the toilet window wide open. We figured that whilst we were distracted by one man a small boy must have taken the camera bag and scurried out the bathroom window with it. The art of distraction. The oldest trick in the book. We were alert, but when targeted like that there was nothing we could have done.

Unfortunately, now time was working against us and with our bus leaving, we had no time to spare to explore the back streets of Uyuni looking for the camera bag. This was particularly frustrating for our group given, aside from me, the others were all 6ft+ and built like rugby players. Leaving without even having a decent crack at recovering that bag was a visibly distressing decision for those boys.

But we banished the sweet lull of vengeance and boarded the bus, reasoning that at least we had travel insurance, and at least we were heading towards the country’s capital and the best chance for the boys to get a replacement passport.

bus ride Uyuni to La Paz

The horrific bus ride from Uyuni to La Paz

Unfortunately, we weren’t greeted by the sight of the luxurious “bus cama” that we were sold. The seats on the old ricketty Panasur bus barely reclined and couldn’t even classify as a “semi cama”! Taking the bus ticket swindling in our stride and cursing the local people of Uyuni with fervour, we boarded the bus and left for the happier destination of La Paz.

But, Lady Luck had truly deserted us and our bus launched into a gung-ho off road trip through Dakar Rally roads. The cabin was instantly saturated with thick clouds of dust, choking our lungs and searing our eyes. It was physically impossible for me to breathe without a tissue plastered over my face as a make-shift filter and even then we all spluttered and coughed throughout the night. Just as bad if not worse, was the earth shattering noise of the bus shaking itself to bits on the dirt roads, the cocktail shaker effect as the vibrations made a solid attempt at liquefying my organs, and the random airborn missile that rained down from above as luggage was shaken loose. All elements that ensured it was by FAR the worst bus trip I’ve ever imagined and made for a sleepless night for all on the bus. All except for the guy behind us who upon departure from Uyuni fell asleep instantly and snored like Darth Vader with emphysema. I clearly remember myself thinking at that point: “I’m too old for this!”

Through the dust, bone rattling, and noise, somehow we trundled our way through the night into La Paz at dawn. As we disembarked and sucked in deep lungfuls of fresh crisp La Paz air, I noticed the floor around the bus driver’s seat was littered with coca leaves. That went part of the way to explaining the crazy driving at least.

As the boys trundled their luggage off in search of a hostel, the Co-pilot asked whether we should join them. My answer was an emphatic and non-negotiable “NO. I’m too old for that”. Instead, we went off in the direction of Hotel Europa, the best hotel in town because I wanted a decent hot shower – the first in 3 days; a soft, warm, quiet bed and I wasn’t in the mood to compromise.

When we emerged from our hotel many hours later, clean, refreshed and a little more rested, we went off hungrily in search of all the tasty goods La Paz had to offer.

Stay tuned… the next post will focus on the food of La Paz.

Tour details:

After much research and reading the recommendations of fellow travellers, we chose the company Estrella Del Sur (Star of the South) for our Uyuni Salt Plains trip. We were happy with the tour and our driver although he spoke not a word of English and explained each of the tour sights to us in slow Spanish – at least our 4WD was fairly new and in working order, unlike many of the crusty vehicles we saw on the trip. This company, like most others, run the tour in both directions between San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni. Because we booked the tour in Chile, for the 3 day 2 night tour we paid 65,000 Chilean pesos each, which is currently roughly equivalent to $137AUD each. Expect to pay another 7000 Chilean pesos in tax to the various national parks on the tour. One and 4 day options are also available, but we felt our 3 day option was ideal – we didn’t feel rushed and in fact could have cut out a few lagoons or other sights without much difference to the overall trip.

San Pedro de Atacama office contact number: 055-852109

Uyuni office contact number: 0591-2693-3132

Reservations: reservas_edesur@hotmail.com; Email: expediciones_estrelladelsur@hotmail.com

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 foodwink May 15, 2010 at 9:07 am

What an amazing experience! Despite the snoring dorm mates, stolen luggage and semi-cama bus ride, that is :( I’d love to visit South America one day. But until that day, I’ll travel vicariously through your beautiful posts. The pictures of the salt flats were just breathtaking.
.-= foodwink´s last blog ..8 Hours in Macau =-.

2 Simon Food Favourites May 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

wow. love the experiences you are having. simply incredible and those funny photos are hilarious! i’ve been to Bolivia but went to the silver mines in Potosí instead. quite an eye opener of how people live and work to survive.
.-= Simon Food Favourites´s last blog ..Shakespeare Hotel: Home of the ‘no condition’ $10 meals, Surry Hills (14 May 2010) =-.

3 Mark @ Cafe Campana May 15, 2010 at 6:25 pm

What a cool trip. The salt flats look really interesting. Where can I buy a salt llama as it would be the perfect accessory.
.-= Mark @ Cafe Campana´s last blog ..International Incident Party – Butterscotch Apple Dumplings =-.

4 Arwen from Hoglet K May 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm

The scenery is just wonderful, and it’s great to have seen the flamingos! I feel sorry for you with the altitude sickness, and arriving back in town sounds like a pretty nasty experience too.

5 Sara (Belly Rumbles) May 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm

What an incredible experience, the photos are fantastic, thanks for sharing this with us. Interesting about altitude sickness and smokers, that is very unfair indeed!

Sorry to hear one of the boys got their stuff stolen but happy to hear that both you and co-pilot didn’t suffer stolen items. I would of also headed to the hotel at the end, don’t forget your ear plugs next time when sharing :)
.-= Sara (Belly Rumbles)´s last blog ..Mothers’ Day lunch at Engima aka the riddle of the missing “lobster”. =-.

6 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella May 16, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I loved this post! So many unfamiliar but beautiful landscapes and those flamingoes! :o How gorgeous. Puzzling about the frankfurts though-I wonder why they’re so omnipresent. And hehe at the salt lick. I thought “how funny” and then I thought “Oh dear, I wonder if others have done it” so no doubt I would have dont the same!
.-= Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella´s last blog ..Win A Peruvian Cooking Class with Chef Alejandro Saravia! =-.

7 Tangled Noodle May 17, 2010 at 10:58 am

Excellent post, from photos to descriptions! Talk about vicarious experience – you really brought your adventure to life (although we got the lucky end of the stick and didn’t actually experience any of the downside). Still, what an amazing story and the pictures are both beautiful and fun! After all those frankfurters, I can wait to hear about La Paz cuisine! 8-) .-= Tangled Noodle´s last blog ..The Long and Winding Dumpling Road =-.

8 Ellie (Almost Bourdain) May 17, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Great post and stunning pictures!! Thanks for sharing your experience with us!
.-= Ellie (Almost Bourdain)´s last blog ..Momofuku Milk Bar’s Compost Cookies =-.

9 Conor @ HoldtheBeef May 18, 2010 at 12:39 am

Good god, what a story! I can only imagine the look on your face to discover the frankfurts hiding underneath the potato. Were you dreaming of frankfurts?

Beautiful photos, and well done for executing the old person-standing-on-hand trick so well, complete with bum poking. Lovely.
.-= Conor @ HoldtheBeef´s last blog ..International Dumpling Incident – Zwetschkenknödel =-.

10 Christine May 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm

The landscape is amazing! Love the pics of you and the co-pilot.

11 Renita May 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm

wow! looks like it was an amazing adventure! Wonder how long it would take for me to make a salted llama out of saxa salt! Love the photos
.-= Renita´s last blog ..Monday. Day after Sundae. =-.

12 betty May 21, 2010 at 1:30 pm

what a great post! i love all the photos especially the muck up ones with little people :O) what an amazing trip you had, im so jealous!
.-= betty´s last blog ..Milo babycakes with Nutella Frosting =-.

13 Simon @ the heart of food June 2, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Between the frankfurts and charcoal chicken, Bolivian cuisine sounds like what one might have after a big night out. I was kind of expected some form of kebab-like device :)

The salt flats look amazing. It looks like you had quite a hell of a time out there. Loved the mini co-pilot shot. Don’t know about the finger poking one though…

14 Gourmantic June 7, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I’m still trying to get over the salt licking photo… :lol: What a story!
.-= Gourmantic´s last blog ..Winning the May Grantourismo Travel Blogging Competition: A Personal Post =-.

15 Forager June 7, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Hey Foodwink – In hindsight, it was definitely quite an amazing experience. I’m not sure how much I appreciated it at the time – the bus rides clouded my perceptions, that’s for sure!

Hey Simon – I wanted to go to Potosi – it sounded like a gorgeous town, but we ran out of time, the usual story. There’s always next time though..

Hey Mark – Ha! I’m sure you could get one ordered from the salt mines! The locals would love you

Hey Arwen – The flamingoes were pretty amazing. I’m constantly surprised at how evolution works as these guys really have a specialised diet of corrosive bacteria. Amazing they can survive at all let alone flourish out in the desert.

Hey Sara – Good advice about the ear plugs. I probably had some somewhere in my luggage too – just so delirious I wasn’t thinking straight.

Hey Lorraine – Yup. I do tend to do things before thinking. A bad survival trait I think…

Hey Tangled Noodle – Don’t hold your breath, unfortunately Bolivian cuisine didn’t make much of an impression! Interesting yes, tasty, no.

Hey Ellie – My pleasure!

Hey Conor – Yes, the thought of frankfurts made us shiver and after the second day, the word “f*#king” was added as a mandatory prefix to the word “frankfurts”.

Hey Christine – Thanks! We had a blast taking those silly shots

Hey Renita – Well, they use compacted salt to shape those carvings, so my guess is that loose saxa salt would take you a while!

Hey Betty – Well, for all the pain we went through we had to have a light hearted side to the trip. And the scenery wasn’t half bad either!

Hey Simon – Spot on! It’s greasy hangover stuff. Someone should tell the Bolivians that!

Hey Gourmantic – Yes, one of my finer, brighter moments :P

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