After touring the Atacama Desert for a few days we set out to explore the Uyuni Salt Flats in southwest Bolivia. Of all the places we wanted to visit in South America, this is the one we were looking forward to the most. At over 4000 square miles, the Uyuni Salt Flats are the largest salt flat in the world. We couldn’t wait to see the stark landscapes we had read so much about so we started researching the best tour company to book with. A quick Google search on the Salt Flats tours and you immediately get sucked into the Trip Advisor black hole reading about all of the Salt Flats horror stories. The tours take you out into middle of nowhere Bolivia through some pretty rugged terrain so stuff is bound to happen from time to time, but nevertheless we were a little freaked out by some of the reviews. Stories of coked out and/or drunk drivers, vehicles that broke down multiple times, food poisoning, altitude sickness, and bone chillingly cold rooms were all over the internet. Turns out all of the companies have their good reviews, their okay reviews, and their really, really bad reviews. Jaime and I agreed that it was just going to be a crap shoot so we went with a company that was close to our hotel called Cordillera Traveler.
Our tour started out with a short drive from San Pedro de Atacama to the Chile-Bolivia border where we each had to, as U.S. citizens, get a $160 visa for Bolivia. Nothing but crisp US dollars will get you a visa so we were lucky that the US dollars we got out of the ATM in Panama (a layover between Colombia and Chile) were crisp and unwrinkled. The border experience was pretty entertaining, as we were standing in line near an Australian guy who was coming back from the Salt Flats with a skinned up face and a broken nose. Turns out he had a little too much rum on the tour and bit it pretty hard one day on the salt flats. He then proceeded to dump his travel girlfriend while in line at the border in favor of traveling onward with some French girls he had just met. I say the girlfriend dodged a bullet with that guy!
After getting our visas we were paired up with our driver and three other travelers whom we would be sharing a Toyota Land Cruiser with over the next three days: our Bolivian driver Guido, Anna from Switzerland and Cassia and Mederic, a couple from Brazil. Once our group was assembled there was a huddle with the representative from Cordillera Traveler who gave us the obligatory prep talk about how rough the travel was going to be – no medical facilities for miles around, high altitude, really cold, etc. It was kind of funny because he made it sound like we were going off to war and kept saying “you are in it together”.
Guido quickly loaded our backpacks on top of the Land Cruiser and we were off, speeding across the barren landscape. You soon realize how essential an off-road vehicle is because the terrain is really rocky. There aren’t any ‘roads’ to speak of out there, just paths that the various vehicles have carved out over time. You spend a lot of your time riding in the car on these tours so we felt incredibly lucky to travel with Anna, Mederic and Cassia who are all very easygoing folks with a good sense of humor. We also totally lucked out with our driver Guido; he was such a nice guy but more importantly a very skilled, responsible driver. He seemed to really love his job and he got a kick out of our reactions when we saw those amazing sights for the first time. Guido didn’t speak any English but all of us spoke enough Spanish – well all of us other than Jaime that is – to understand his explanations of the sites and to hold some basic conversations with him. We were lucky that Cassia is fluent in Spanish and English so she acted as our translator when we didn’t quite catch onto what Guido was saying.
The first day of the tour was spent touring the Bolivian Altiplano, which is the high plateau that sits in the middle of the eastern and western parts of the Andes. The landscape here is arid, windy and high altitude so we were pretty happy that we spent a couple of days previously in the Atacama desert getting used to this type of climate. You end up riding for a couple of hours and then surprise, you come upon one of the stunning altiplano lagoons that this region is famous for. The lagoons here are of such striking colors because of the mineral deposits. First up were the Laguna Blanco (White Lagoon) and Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) lagoons. After spending some time at each of them, we continued on through the Dali Desert making a few stops including the Sol de Mañana geyser. Frankly we were a bit spoiled by the geysers we saw in Yellowstone National Park back in June so weren’t overly excited by it.
After touring the Altiplano all morning we had lunch at the hotel where we would be staying the night. The accommodation was dorm style and definitely rustic but it was just fine when you consider exactly how far away from civilization you are out there.
Once we finished with lunch, we loaded up again and headed to see the grand finale of day one – Laguna Colorado. This is a beautiful red lagoon like nothing we’d seen before. And, on top of the striking red color, there were also many flamingos feeding in the water. This was an incredible end to an amazing day to say the least.
The first night you stay at around 14,000 feet so needless to say it gets pretty cold since there is no heat in the hotel. Our hotel let us rent sleeping bags for a couple of bucks so I had my sleeping bag, base layers, a fleece shirt, a cap, a silk sleep sack, gloves and the two thick wool blankets that were on the bed already. I was warm enough but if I didn’t have the sleeping bag I would have been freezing. Everyone in our group was just fine with the altitude that day and at night but some of the folks in the other groups weren’t so lucky. I imagine it was definitely no fun throwing up and feeling crappy in the shared accommodation.
After a day of seeing such beautiful landscapes, we felt our tour was off to a great start. We couldn’t wait to get up early the next day and continue on with days two and three.