South America – Adventuring in Bolivia, Part 2 – Uyuni Salt Flats

The Salt Flat tours are so much more than Salt Flats. I’ll do my best to describe, but you should really go there. With lagoons, alpacas, llamas, llama-alpaca mules, cacti, hot springs, Andean cats and borax … it’s really something.

When Kim arrived around 2am on Saturday morning, we slept a bit and then got straight to the business of booking with Red Planet (the company to beat according to several people I spoke to). We then somehow fandangled the last two seats on a tour bus for Saturday night and made our way to Uyuni. See my post about THAT trip here.

Travel Tip: Some people got lucky and just showed up, but if you’re heart is set on Red Planet it’s better to know for sure you have a spot and book at least 2 days in advance. Price in 2014 – $1,200bs with a transfer to the Chilean border).

 

SALT FLAT TOUR TIPS

  1. Pack warm clothes. It gets friggen cold! After just the bus ride to Uyuni I had frost bite on my toes. Pack at least 2-3 pairs of socks, good shoes, and layers, because white toes (or any other bits, for that matter) aren’t good.
  2. Pack hand and foot warmers! These saved us at night in our sleeping bags.
  3. Buy water and snacks ahead of time. You spend a lot of time in the vehicle, alternating between snacks and sleeping is nice. Plus you shake so much from the cold you burn all the snack calories.
  4. Bring a spare battery or car charger. There’s pretty much only one outlet in the hotel. So you can charge things sometimes, maybe.
  5. Our guide had a sweet mix of tunes, but in case yours doesn’t, bring a USB or your iPod.
  6. Plan your route. If you book a tour starting in Uyuni and want to go back to La Paz, be prepared for an 8 hour straight drive back from the Chilean border to Uyuni on the last day. THEN your 10-12 hour bus ride back to La Paz. Your choice, but Kim and I were quite pleased with our decision to end in Chile and spend a couple days there before heading up to Peru.

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THE TOUR

Our group of 12 was split into two Land Cruisers, and Kim and I had the pleasure of sharing with two American couples (one of which we also giggled with on the bus from La Paz). Here’s how our 3-day adventure broke down …

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Day 1: Abandoned Railcars.

Basically a giant adult playground, the area tells the story of Bolivia’s failed rail history, marred in politics and lack of funding.

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Evening 1: Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

Twelve thousand square kilometres of salt. It’s breathtaking. We took our fun perspective photos and hiked a cactus oasis in the middle of nowhere.

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Night 1: Salt Hotel.

With sunset looming, we made our way to our sleep spot . Hot showers, a decent meal, and beer were available, but we all went to bed reasonably early because the next day started at 6:30am.

Day 2: Equals amazing? 

After a simple breakfast we set out just after sunrise to see beautiful rock formations, lagoons, and volcanic views. I’ll let the pictures describe them. A full day, so bring your energy.

Note: do not sit on what appears to be soft, plush grass. Nothing truly soft can survive this barren land, and you’ll definitely regret it if you sit on it. Kim’s bum sure did.

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Evening 2: Geysers

As the sun started to set, we made our way into another national park where we had the option of staying at a lagoon for 25 minutes or continuing on to some natural geysers. Our group chose to skip the lagoon (we’d seen at least 20?) and head straight to the geysers, but not before our guide Joscar surprised us with Snickers!! Let me tell you, after 2 days of dirt and dust and vehicle travel, when a person surprises you with a North American chocolate bar, you get very excited. Good thing we were sharing our vehicle with Americans, because they got just as excited as Kim and I.

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Anyway, back to the geysers. In North America, these would be sealed off for safety and litigatory reasons, but not in Bolivia! In Bolivia, your guide tells you to stay close behind him and follow his steps, but then you lose him because you’re busy taking photos of the bubbling hot mineral pools and get lost in the steam from the geysers and then immediately panic, just a little (a lot) because you don’t want to step in the wrong place and have the earth collapse …

… anyway …

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Night 2: Hot Springs

Post-geysers (obviously I survived) we watched falling stars from a warm pool of natural hot springs. Red Planet has exclusive night access to these hot springs, whereas most of the other tours go to the hot springs in the morning at 6:30am. It was so nice to feel warm after two days of being chilled.

 

Last Day

After a quick stop at the Laguna Verde (iced over because it’s winter, sigh), we bid a sad goodbye to our new friends and hopped on a transfer bus to the Chilean border. The transfer bus grabbed us in the middle of nowhere, and drove about an hour in no-mans-land (between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia) until we reached the Chilean border.

Laguna not-so-verde

Laguna not-so-verde

 

Travel Tips: Crossing into Chile from Bolivia (at San Pedro de Atacama)

  1. They are most strict about agricultural products. This includes coca leaves, as the attitude toward them in Chile is different than in Bolivia.
  2. You have to have your passport stamped in Bolivia to exit. Sometimes they make you pay 15bs, but sometimes they don’t. Kim and I didn’t pay, but other people in the same bus did. I love Bolivia.
  3. Sometimes you’re advised to get your exit stamp in Uyuni, because the Bolivian immigration office after the salt flats can often be closed (and is quite literally in the middle of nowhere). We were fine, but you never know!
  4. If you didn’t arrange a transfer bus with your company ahead of time, you can still get on a transfer bus after your tour, but have to pay and sort it out then. Good luck with that …
  5. Once you get off your Land Cruiser and on your transfer bus, things go easily. You drive about an hour through No Man’s Land to the Chilean border, get off the bus with your belongings, have them scanned and your passport stamped, and then back on the transfer bus that takes you to the slightly warmer San Pedro de Atacama.

 

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South America – Peeing on the way to Uyuni

I’m on a bus on my way to Uyuni.

We left La Paz at around 9pm. The tour guide at the front of the special tourist bus (you pay a little more for this luxury) is mumbling something over the loud engine about wearing your seatbelt and not putting heavy items in the overhead bins because they might fall out and hurt you. I don’t pay much attention, because I’m tired and really can’t hear her. I listen just enough to hear her say that it’s a 10-12 hour bus ride and that there will be a bus-driver change in Oruro (about 4 hours from La Paz). Then I fall asleep.

Safety instructions for the trip to Uyuni.

Safety instructions for the trip to Uyuni.

Four hours later, though, I’m definitely no longer sleeping. I feel like I’m inside a blender. My abs are getting a serious workout while they try to keep my body in its seat.

As my new would-be six-pack starts to form, I take a look around. Kim is sleeping to my left, with her face mask and ear plugs, seemingly unphased. There are soft green lights above each seat row that remind me of a space ship; or some sort of post-apocalyptic disaster survival vehicle, I’m not sure.

And yep, I have to pee.

The bus slows, but only just to align itself to attack a massive bump in the road. The two Australian guys behind us jolt awake in confusion and I feel that tickle feeling in my stomach that I usually only get on rollercoasters. What the hell is going on?

Twenty minutes go by, and I still have to pee. Kim finally wakes up and we notice that the windows are frozen solid; should have brought my ice scraper from Canada.

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Home-made ice scraper.

We jitter around for another 15 minutes when the shaking suddenly slows to a smooth ride, and you can hear everyone’s thoughts all at once. A couple of brave souls get up to go to the bathroom. One man in an ugly hipster sweater manages to get there, just in time for us to hit a new patch of what I can only imagine is not a road, but just plain old wilderness.  The bus can’t possibly be on a road!

Ugh, now I bet there’s pee all over the seat. (Maybe not though, ugly-sweater hipster seems respectable enough …)

Kim says she’s glad we’re moving now because it keeps her warm. “That’s probably why they make the road like this”, she says, “to keep the tourists warm.” 

I still have to pee.

I watch people try to get up to grab sweaters, because the layer of ice on the windows is now so thick you can’t even really scratch it off. One man manages to grasp his sweater just as we traverse another giant bump – he topples immediately backward into his seat and on top of his seat-mate.

About 20 minutes later, we stop. Perfect pee time, but there’s someone in there again.

At some point during the wash cycle, Kim and I cascade into uncontrollable giggles and banter about the end of our lives. This causes the Australians and another American couple to giggle too.

Is this real life? When will I get to pee? Will we make it to Uyuni?

South America – Adventuring in Bolivia, Part 1 – Death Road

Two of the most popular “adventure things” to do in Bolivia include the Death Road biking tour and a tour of the Uyuni salt flats. And well, since the main theme of my trip is adventure, I naturally chose to do both.

Biking the World’s Deadliest Road 

When I first got to La Paz, I had an altitude headache for two days, so I kept things pretty chill. The Adventure Brew Hostel I stayed at was a great place to do this, with ping-pong and pool tables, as well as a sweet music playlist. (Tip: if you stay here, try the B&B. It’s a bit cleaner, quieter, and just slightly nicer. The B&B and Hostel are about a 1 minute walk from each other and share activities. You also get a free beer every day at both!).

While it was nice not to have a schedule for a couple days, I finally got myself organized on a Death Road tour. You hear a lot about different companies and their reputations, so I chose to go with Gravity Assisted Tours based on its 10+ year safety record and its reputation in the community.  (If you’re curious, the next safest and slightly cheaper option is Barricuda).

About choosing a death road company, Safety Sonia says: Let’s put it this way – a German guy I met told me his company hadn’t had any accidents in one year. Gravity had brand new Kona mountain bikes (also very popular in Canada) and no fatalities. You choose.

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 I would describe the Death Road tour as borderline spiritual. You get so much time to just enjoy the scenery while the wind is blowing past you that you’re not so worried about the cliff next to you. The road is almost exclusively bikers, so you don’t have to worry too much about cars either. I thought of my Dad a lot on this tour, but also just felt really present in the experience.

 

Touch your lips to some pure ethanol to honour Pachamama before your Death Road tour ...

Touch your lips to some pure ethanol to honour Pachamama before your Death Road tour …

It's disgusting. Honour Mother Earth though!

… it’s disgusting. Important to honour Mother Earth though!

Death Road highlights:

  • Get-to-know you games. First question, at 7am, from our guide was “What’s your most embarrassing story?”. Turns out a lot of people have pooped their pants? Not me. I called a 13 year old boy Anus once, that was pretty embarrassing.
  • Going really, really fast.
  • Stopping about every 4-8km to regroup and take photos. Our guide would prepare us for the next section at every stop, warning us of dangerous corners or things to watch out for. It made for a really relaxed and safe experience.
  • Channeling your inner mountain biker. If you went too slow, you lost control. If you went too fast, you lost control. A few fell off their bikes because of this, but rebounded and still had a great time.
  • Descending into the jungle. Half way down we stripped off our layers and left them on the little bus (which followed us the entire way, so if anyone felt unsafe they could definitely stop their ride at any time). Now at below 3,000m I was riding through waterfalls, over rocks, and through rivers.
  • Ending our day with zipling. And a beer. At a nature reserve, which included monkeys and parrots. No big deal.

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I loved this activity. A must-do in Bolivia, you’ll enjoy the almost spiritual experience of racing down a renowned path from the Andes to the Jungle. And I doubt you’ll die, unless you get distracted by a butterfly and accidentally go off the side of the road … like some Japanese tourist did a few years back …

Part 2 – Uyuni Salt Flats is up next!