Salar de Uyuni and thereabouts

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

Villazón, Bolivianos and breast-feeding

Crossing the border from La Quiaca, Argentina into Villazón, Bolivia is like crossing into a different world. Hay is piled high on the street corner, pigs snuffle and root in the dust and lilliputian people stare at us curiously from under their enormous bundles. I gaze back. Pairs of midnight braids snaking down pastel backs, dusty bowler hats, pleated skirts voluminous with peeking petticoats – Villazón seems to be a town populated by women. Women and babies. Dark eyed and chubby cheeked, babies peer out from their vibrantly striped swaddling. Both statutes and women bare their breasts and nurse their charges. All at once, we’re surrounded by new colours, sights, smells and a culture so immediately and obviously different from our own that, for the first time, we feel utterly, for want of a better word, dépaysagés.

We make our way to the bus station to buy our tickets for Uyuni. By candlelight, our agent types up our tickets on an antique typewriter. Shadows flicker across the poster of the Sacred Heart behind her. There is no electricity in Villazón today. To our dismay, this also means there are no working ATMs. Luckily, we have a tiny stash of U.S. dollars which we manage to exchange for some Bolivianos. We board an ancient, exhaust-belching bus and judder along a dirt road, knees somewhere up about our ears, to Uyuni, 8 hours away.

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Uyuni, Tour Operators and an Incredible Trip

Uyuni is silent and eerily deserted when we arrive after midnight. A little unsettled by the absence of street lights and the packs of roaming dogs, we take our guidebook’s advice and settle in for the night in the El Salvador hostel, miraculously situated at the bus stop. It’s very basic and also operates as a baño público (oh yes that does mean “public bathroom”) … but it does the job! We’re inside. The next morning, we head out to try to book a three-day jeep tour to the famous Salar de Uyuni. We make a bee-line for Red Planet tours (enthusiastically recommended by my intrepid friend, Vinny) but, unfortunately, they are completely booked up for the next few days. We spend the rest of the sifting through the myriad of tour operators. Their undulating calls of offers and deals are, for me, the precise sound of Uyuni. It’s a bizarre echo of Henry Street, Dublin at Christmas – “Wrapping paper, 5 for a pound”. We finally settle for Brisa Tours and cross our fingers.

Day 1

We bundle into a jeep with Mia, a Swedish girl, Elodie, a French girl, two Swiss boys, Cedric and Manuri , and our worryingly taciturn driver, Veimar. First stop – the train cemetery. Here, in the desert on the outskirts of Uyuni, is a place of slowly rusting old steam trains, their skeletons exposed and their crumbling husks defiled by graffiti.

Train cemetery

Train cemetery

Photos taken, we clamber back into the jeep and continue on to a mud-brick village on the fringe of the salar. A true cottage industry takes place here where some of the salt is dried, iodised and bagged.

The salt is processed here

The salt is processed here

We drive past little hummocks of salts drying in the sun and our guide explains that the salt plain is composed of sodium, potassium, lithium, magnesium and borax. A trove jealously and rightly protected by the Bolivian government, the plain may contain over a third of the world’s lithium reserves, and as such is of vast economic importance.

Drying mounds in the Salar de Uyuni

Drying mounds in the Salar de Uyuni

It is also absolutely beautiful. We drive further out into the vast, gleaming emptiness. The salt plain perfectly white, perfectly flat, perfect. Pools shimmer on the crust mirroring the cloudless blue of the sky.

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Veimar springs to life and gleefully directs us into poses. A photo shoot pro! It’s fantastically cheesy and so much fun.

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Veimir then ferries us to the incredible Isla Incawasi (Fish Island), a remnant of an ancient coral reef born of a defunct prehistoric salt-water lagoon. Amid the vast and startling emptiness of the salar, this rocky outcrop is a habitat for 1,200 -year-old-cacti, vizcachas and wandering llamas.

Isla Incawasi

Isla Incawasi

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Volcan Tunupa

An icy wind whips across the salar as the sun sets and the view is magnificent.

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That night, salt crunching underfoot, we settle into a salt hotel outside the bounds of the salar.

Lobby of Salt Hotel

Lobby of Salt Hotel

Day 2

The moment I get into the jeep the following day, I know something is wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. It was bound to happen, inevitable really, but here? Now? In the middle of a flat barren expanse of absolute desert? Well, that’s just cruel! The day passes in a haze of half admiring a string of lagoons in shades of reds, whites, blues and greens while desperately scanning the horizon for an accommodating boulder. Armies of flamingos stand sentinel on their toothpick legs and I stare wild-eyed past them. I think I might hate the flamingos, the lagoons, the Arbol de Piedra and the cruel, cruel lack of bathrooms! I have no words. It is horrendous!!!

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Arbol de Piedra

Arbol de Piedra

Veimar recommends a visit to a nearby pre-Incan necropolis and, eager to stretch our legs, we agree. We wander through the hive-shaped mounds peering into the window-like openings. It’s definitely more than we bargained for. Skeletal remains huddle in foetal position surrounded by their belongings in each one of the hives. Incredible! We make our way to the neighbouring museum and spend a fascinating 45 minutes learning about ritual cranial deformation and Andean spirituality.

Human remains in a pre-Incan necropolis

Human remains in a pre-Incan necropolis

After the longest day of my life, we finally make it to our hostel. Conversation strikes up at the dinner table that evening and as always between strangers innocuous questions are casually thrown about – “How long are you travelling?”, “Where are you heading next” and, tonight’s surprise Pandora’s Box, “So how do you guys know each other?”. The totally and wonderfully unexpected response from the wooly-jumpered, boho Swiss boys – “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses”…. Take that prejudicial expectations! The conversation unfolds from there – they have no problem fielding our group’s barrage of questions. Blood transfusions, creationism, homosexuality, door-to-door preaching and Lazarus– all topics probed (more information available here ) and though it is impossible for us to comprehend such a belief system, it definitely makes for some interesting chat!

Day 3

Dawn finds us muffled in warm clothes and peering delightedly through clouds of steam and sulphur into a bubbling, sighing primordial soup (Click here for a video). Under the intense, geothermal pressure the crust has puckered and rucked into coloured peaks and depressions. For me, it’s the highlight of the trip.

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We drop the boys at the Chilean border and commence our return journey which carries us through the impressive Ciudad Perdido (the Lost City), the Salvador Dali desert and an incredible canyon, the “Anaconda Canyon” according to our guide.

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La Ciudad Perdido

Back in the jeep, we’re bumping along at a steady pace when suddenly we slide to a halt and Veimar leaps out and hurtles out of sight. We all look at each other nonplussed. Veimar comes back clutching a tiny, adorable and furiously wiggling armadillo. We’re delighted and grab our cameras. Veimar is positively beaming. He’s tells us that these little creature are known to bring good luck in the Quechua culture and with that, he locks the tiny armadillo in a blue coolbox! His future is apparently dinner and transformation into a musical instrument. There is a moment of horrible silence broken only by the armadillo’s screaming and useless scrabbling inside his plastic prison. It’s horrible! If we actually met our meat, would we still eat that steak? Damien asks Veimar whether these armadillos are endangered. We ask whether we can let the armadillo go. Veimar looks at us as if we’re crazy.

The terribly unfortunate armadillo

The terribly unfortunate armadillo

The jeep’s sound system pumps out Bolivian panpipes (…) as we roll towards Uyuni. Darkness falls. The music has drained the jeep’s battery and we’re lightless. We plummet blindly through the complete darkness. Damien frantically rummages in his rucksack for our headlamps and we shine them out of the windscreen to alert the oncoming traffic. It’s beyond hairy and time and time again we serve off the road into the desert. The silence in the car is tense and after an interminable 30 minutes, we tumble half-hysterical out of the jeep in front of our hostel. It has definitely been an unforgettable three days!

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6 thoughts on “Salar de Uyuni and thereabouts

  1. Hi there.
    glad to find your blog, finally something a bit positive about the trip. The pics are cheesy but well, once you are there…
    do you have the contact details of the agency that organised your trip?

    Julian

    • Hi Julian,

      Ah I defy anyone not to give into the cheesy photo temptation in the Salar! An impossibility :o) Our tour company was Brisa Tours and we paid 750 Bolivianos per person for a three-day tour. There were six of us in our jeep and, strangely, everybody was from different tour companies, having paid different prices. The cheapest option appeared to be to book last minute in Uyuni and the most expensive, pre-booking from abroad. A good friend of mine also recommended Red Planet tours but they were fully booked during our time in Uyuni (plus they’re quite abit more expensive).

      Other things I can think of? Pack warmly, bring snacks, suncream and toilet paper, and drink coca tea.

      It’s worth knowing aswell that Minuteman Pizza in the Tonito Hotel does a fantastic pre-tour breakfast. Uyuni hotels tend not to have wifi (Hotel Julia does) but there are a few internet cafés in the town.

      If you’ve anymore questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

      Have a fantastic trip!

      Emma & Damien

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post – beautiful and terrifying at the same time. 🙂 Just a quick check – but did your jeep provide seat belts? We’re planning to go to the salt flats late May and knowing we’ll have seat belts is one of the main reasons we want to book ahead!

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