Salar de Uyuni – 3 Days of Crazy Adventure
It was time to go, the next morning it was goodbye Chile and hello to Bolivia, but there was doubts. The majority of companies were cancelling all departures, a huge weather system had moved in and snow had closed the border, maybe for up to a week! We sitting tight wondering when our tour company, Estrella del Sur (www.travelestrelladelsur.cl), would make the call, and whether we’d be stuck in San Pedro for little while longer. The call came gone 8pm and the news was kind of good, the trip was on but the border near to San Pedro was closed, we would have to travel north through Chile for six hours and then cross. This wasn’t good as it meant we were going to miss the whole southern part of the usual trip, the beautiful lagoons and landscapes of Eduard Abaroa National Park. We weighed up our options, and the only smart decision was to get out of here, we’d exhausted things to do and it could be lock down for up to a week, definitely let’s get out of here!
The next morning out pick up was now way earlier than before, 4.30am, again an early one, two in a row. We were a group of twelve and one couple didn’t even get the call, they were woke up and told to get packing! We were on our way and I thought this is even a bit hazards, after only an hour or even less we had climbed altitude and were already driving in snow, only a thin layer but snow so close to the driest desert on earth! IT was the first hour of over five more and to be honest it was quite boring, the scenery was so arid, and constant to, with deep overcast skies threatening to burst into storms, huge gusts of wind blew up sand that at times sounded like the bus was getting sanded down, a new paint job maybe! Finally we made it to the border.
Olague was the crossing between Chile and Bolivia, the town on the Chilean side being so depressing, I would hate to live here. We stamped out and waved goodbye to Chile, crossing no-mans land and then meeting up with a convoy of Toyota 4WD trucks, our entourage for the next three days. The time was already nearly 1pm, the day was lost and the cloud just seemed thicker, lower and angrier here, the wind had a real bite too. Breakfast was finally served, crazy, and it was a free for all, people who were waiting for a ride back were getting stuck into our break, I thought I’d better get in quick! Some poor people were stuck too, companies just drove here but there was no-one to get them to San Pedro, not surprising as the normal border crossing where the trip ceases and starts is less than an hours drive from San Pedro. They were trying to buy their way onto the bus that dropped us off but he was full with his own tourists. Im not sure what happened but we were in the truck and off to Bolivian immigration down the road.
First taste of Bolivian Government Officials
So we have finally started our tour, just a quick stop for a stamp at immigration and we’re off. Well how wrong were we! We got to the border post, simply a porta-cabin, and a border guard says “We are closed, we open again at 2pm”. I couldn’t believe it, it won’t even 1pm! After 20-30 minutes and some persuasion by our guides they opened the porta-cabin. We queued and when I got in there I couldn’t believe my eyes, they were sitting on a couch watching the film BRUNO dubbed in Spanish! It was hilarious, welcome to organised and professional Bolivia! We got our stamp but no entry cards, a couple in our truck were from the US but they didn’t have any visas to issue them, the guides were instructed to drop them at immigration at the end of the trip in the town of Uyuni itself. At least we were through, but them another mishap, our truck wouldn’t start. I was thinking this trip is a non-starter, for definite! Again we waited and our driver kept his head under the bonnet playing with his engine, he persisted and obviously knows his truck inside out. Finally, we have power, 30 minutes more waiting time but now surely, we are off!
The Tour Begins
So we got going, our truck mates being two couples travelling together, a couple from Hawaii, Dave and Si, and an Aussie couple, Liam and Karen. We hit three spots on the way to what was lunch stop, the weather was holding out. First was a lookout back toward the border and the site of the massive Volcan Olague. The top of the volcano ascended into the heavens, aided by this crazy weather system of thick cloud. Dawn was the sensible one here, she stayed in the truck, the wind was thrashing us, making fingers numb to the bone. We were all pretty quick have a gander and jumped back in. Our other two stops were cool, rock formations the first and the second a lake. It was a unique site, the snow had been blown just like sand and was looking good in pretty patterns, the oversized wrens on the lake were impressive too, not really bothered by their partially frozen over lake and snow drifts. Again everyone was quick to get in and out of the cars, please sun come back.
Lunch was upon us already and after it was simply a two-hour drive to our accommodation for the night, on-route coming under attack from a hail storm. I thought the Patagonian weather was so much better than this, we’re supposed to be getting nice and warm days by now! It didn’t let up either and the promise of cold nights was certainly apparent as soon as the sun set. Our basic hostel was actually so much better than we expecting. The people were nice, served up tea and biscuits as soon as we arrived and then a cracking feed. Even a stove to keep us warm, well as much as possible. After a fun night of playing a game called PIGGY???? me and Dawn called it a night. We hoped once we got under the half-dozen covers or more our body heater would get us cosy. Oh how wrong were we. Fully clothed to we froze all night. Since I have used super-duper minus -20ºC sleeping bags and I wish I had one for that night. I was praying for the morning to come and sun to bring this place back from the dark ages! Finally light!
Day 2 – Crazy Desert Weather
Today started out perfect, sun shone heat back onto our frozen souls and blue sky brought smiles to everyone faces. Breaky was a good and filling one, pancakes, perfect when the chips are down, especially when there is dollops of dulce de leche to be plastered on. We were off in our trucks and our first stop of the day was at something that reminded me of the original Indian Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. We drove through vertical sided rock formations 20-30m high. We stopped in the middle and all the boys done what boys do, climb to the top! It was funny because none of the girls were interested. It was a little bit sketchy but the view from the top was perfect. It was a cracker and the landscapes afar kept rolling.
Stop number two was alongside a lake and the perfect opportunity to see my first Lamas up close and personal. They were casually munching away, sleeping and generally chilling, until we arrived and then they were maybe only a little more alert. It was a lovely scene and I got a really nice piccie of a mother and her baby.
Now to stop number 3, it was awesome and one of the guides childhood places. This place reminded me this time of Lord of the Rings! It was wicked, nothing I’d ever seen, mystical even. We spent 45 minutes here walking a circuit, first following a kind of valley, flanked by rock uprisings on either side with dozens of tiny and icy rivers dissecting the green mosses in-between. This led to a half-frozen lake, again the hardy wrens going about their business, and then back over one of the rocky uprising where we spotted the unusual rabbit like mammal, with big ears but also a big tail. It is called a Viscacha, check it out here on Wikipedia. Back in the trucks and on we went!
I was up for more of this, it was great, but the weather was so trying to change and it did. Unfortunately this was the last place we would visit until our hotel this evening and it was only 11am.
Sand Storm Havoc!
Well day 2 had started so well, but how fast the weather changes here, blue sky to big scary clouds and winds that come out of nowhere! We drove on and then the sand storms started. Every 10 minutes you could see it starting in the distance and then it just came at you, like something out of an Egyptian Mummy movie, a sand monster. We just had to simply stop the car for a minute, wait for it to pass and then move on. The weather was terrible, and the same all day long. We stopped for lunch in a dusty town, the guides finding a house that let them cook in, for a fee I imagine, and at the third attempt. Lunch was good although it was standing room only in the room with some crazy old keepsakes hanging around including a stuffed poor Armadillo. Well be drove most of the day, not stopping apart from an astronomically overpriced shop until we arrived at our accommodation for tonight.
Our Hotel built of Salt!
Finally we arrived at this cool spot perched above the start of the famous Salar de Uyuni. When we rocked up the sand storm was getting worse and we fought the wind the get all of our bags off the top of the trucks and inside. We all surprised when we walked in, it was quite posh! All of the actual structure was made of bricks that were in turn made from the salt of the Salar. The open dining area come reception was tiled white, it looked squeaky clean. We thought our chips are on the up here especially when we got shown to our rooms and we got a private room with en-suite. We have cashed in here for all of our woes over the last couple of days. Outside the storm was creating quite a view over the Salar, it wasn’t white here, well we couldn’t see it, the dirt from the sand was covering it and the visibility was limited too. It was impressive though, the swirling wind was alive, the sand travelling within it giving it a presence more than we ever imagine. A few guys braved it for videos and managed to get some cool recordings, I done a quick dash for a photograph, that was good enough for me. The storm got more constant and twice the main double doors leading directly into the reception area blew open, the second time accompanied by a mass of sand. We had to roll a huge piece of rock inside and behind the door just to keep it closed, that how strong the wind was.
Finally it was time to relax for an hour or, again like the previous night the tea and biscuits came out, and I decided to add a bottle of beer to the roll call to. My first taste to of Quinoa beer, it was awesome, although only over 3% at altitude you didn’t need much and your feeling the effects! What we were all also waiting for was a hot shower, yes a hot shower, I couldn’t believe it, here in the Salar de Uyuni. We were expecting such basic amenities after reading reviews and listening to guide-book scriptures, but this trip, apart from the weather was really surprisingly good. The problem was though, the hotel was full, and everyone who went for a shower first got hot water, well warm to hot, the second wave of people got luke warm to best. I was second! Never mind, it was good to actually not be cold and have a good clean without getting to wet. After our shower was when the next episode in weather antics took place.
It sounds a bit crazy, and we weren’t evacuated from the salt hotel, but we did have to get out of our rooms. The sand storm was now in full force and the wind was constant, none stop at some crazy speed and carrying with in it a desert load of fine sand. The worry was that the very thin glass windows along one side of the hotel would blow through due to the force of the wind! Holy crap, we were thinking surely not, but going with caution we shipped out as sand somehow was penetrating the window frames and piling up under the window. The room next to ours, the first and facing the full force of the storm was already donning a whole layer of fine sand over the entire room, it was unbelievable! We moved in to share with Claire and Phil from London, and subsequently we have become good friends. The situation got so bad the dining/reception area was an atmosphere of sand dust too so dinner was in our rooms, romantic or what! It even included a couple of bottles of red wine to keep us all happy. It was easy getting into bed that night, two in a single bed, warmed u with a bit of vino and a plus of the sand storm, it stopped the night temperatures plunging to minus crazy!
The Calm after the Storm
We woke the next morning to find peace and calmness, the skies were clear and the sun shining on through. At last, surly now, the third and final day, and the most important to, visiting the world-famous Salar de Uyuni. Thankfully no glass windows had blown through but the room I was talking about before was like a sand pit. I was unreal how much sand had somehow penetrated the building through its structure. Bolivian building techniques at their best I think!
Off to the great white desert it was, passing through some villages and witnessing some building that didn’t withstand the storm, walls over, tin roofs ripped off, it was a big one. We hot salt, how cool was it, the driver pumped up the revs and we were hurtling across an endless sea of shimmering white light, how cool was this. Our destination was the island called Incahuasi, located so strangely in the middle of the Salar. It pops up out of nowhere, solid rock and them covered in cool cacti. It has been well-known for centuries to with the Inca civilisation using this place too. We had a walked around and climbed to the super vantage point where you have 360º views of the surrounding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni. The weather definitely wasn’t changing today, the blue sky was only getting bluer and the sun just hotter.
After a short drive it was time for the famous photo-op moments. Trying to get creative with photos of toy dinosaurs eating people and so on. We had our ideas but oh my word how difficult it is to get it just right. We tried and tried and got a couple of ok shots with the help of our mates Claire and Phil. In the end it was getting painful though trying to get that perfect funky photo. Looking back we should have got the guides to give us a hand, surely they are expert at this.
The only actual Salt constructed hotel on the Salar de Uyuni itself was next on our hitless. It is not in use anymore, there was real concerns over pollution, good call, lots of poop seeping into this environment is a little bit of an unknown. A cool construction through within a 100m was the big stone monument celebrating the recent Dakar Rally Race. It passed through here and the photo opportunity was too good to miss, everyone has to snap a photo with this!
The day was flying due to our late start this morning, and already we had arrived in the town of Uyuni but there was one more stop, the train graveyard. Once this place was so busy exporting all of the masses of salt that trains played a big part. Over the years they started and ended their service here, left to sit for the rest of time, in the desert until the elements finally, it may take a couple hundred years by the looks of it, to break completely down.
Uyuni, not a pretty sight at first but the town centre and plaza is quite nice, and with lots of little pizzerias offering alfresco seating we were glad to be back into familiar surroundings. A beer was on the cards after finding a cheap little abode and then the night was owned by the best pizza place I’d been to in South America, MinuteMan Pizza. If you’re in Uyuni you have got to hit this place up, you’ll be so well fed, and along with a bottle of red, merry too! They got a nice endorsement in the Lonely planet too, click here!
The tour company, Estrella del Sur. In pretty dismal circumstance they still made the best of trip for us and I would recommend these guys for any travellers out there. The general consensus out there on review sites is these guys usually deliver what they promise. And, with all the scary and terrible reviews out there, generally everyone has a good time with all of the companies, just remember you pay for what you get as a rule. Peace out and wishes of sunnier times!