Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
I was not planning on visiting Bolivia during this trip. Actually I was not really planning on coming to Chile either – but life happens and when I heard about San Pedro de Atacama it was a no brainer – I had to come and check it out. In the end it turned out pretty good, considering that it was cheaper for me to fly back to Montreal from Santiago anyways – why not do a quick little stop in Chile, and at the same time, take this world-famous tour to the Bolivian salt flats?
So here I went – I booked my tour again through Inca Norte, but they are a vendor for another tour company called Licancabur Tours. Tours for 4 days (3 days tours plus return to San Pedro de Atacama) usually are sold in this season between 115 000 to 150 000 pesos per person. It is worth trying to deal a good price. I had found a cheaper price than I ended up paying for, but the receptionist in my hostel did not recommend me to book with the agency with the cheaper price… so I listened. In the end tours are really similar and it will really depend on the personality of your guide, which is a hit or miss. In total there was 18 of us starting the tour on the same day with that company, which means we would be 3 jeeps following each other during the excursion (which is good to know, in case something happens). In theory the pick-up is planned between 7-730AM, but I got a text from my travel agency in the evening confirming that the pick-up would start at 8AM. Well – 845AM still waiting outside with my bags, we decided to contact the agency to see what was happening. Again, this is very normal here as nothing is ever on time (wish I was being sarcastic), but I was told there was delays at the border and that they would come pick me up sooner than later. 9AM finally my transportation arrived and we were able to make it on the road. Ended up realizing that the rest of the group already went through the Chile customs to get stamped out before they came to pick me up, so not too sure what happened there. Doesn’t really matter in the end as I was in the car, stamped out of Chile and on my way to the Bolivian border.
Now. The Bolivian border experience. I know I said the entrance to Chile through the Paso de Jama was hectic, but that is because I had not yet experienced the Bolivian border. First the border is probably close to 4000m altitude, and it consists of a large parking lot (for all the transfer-bus for tourists and all the Jeeps for the tours) and 3 small houses. In one of the building you need to go to get stamped in or out (depending) of Bolivia. The line up was pretty impressive and you have time to get quite frozen before finally having your turn. One thing I have also learned the hard way – once you get in the line inside the building, don’t you dare talk or laugh. I got badly shushed by the border agent for talking and a guy from our group got kicked out for laughing and put back at the end of the line! We were at least 1h at the border before we could finally load our things in and on our jeep, which would be basically our home for the next 3 days. We also had breakfast before heading out.
There are 6 passengers per jeep plus the guide/driver. We met Angel, our super energetic driver, and helped him to put all our large bags on top of the jeep, which he then wraps up in a big tarp. At that point I realized I was the only one in our group who spoke Spanish – which was a good thing because Angel spoke no English whatsoever. Some companies have guides that speak English, but I think you have to request it or it might be a bit more expensive. So here we went – 2 Brits, 2 Belgians, 1 Aussie and 1 Canadian, with our guide (from Chile) heading out for some funky off road fun in the South of Bolivia! I had never seen 3 guides having so much fun together – they would race each other and have so much fun on the road, it definitely made the trip quite exciting. By the way, our driver was really good and at no point have I felt unsafe in the jeep (which is amazing, because I do get car sick at times).
Our first day was quite packed, and we first stopped at the entrance of the Parque Nacional Eduardo Avaroa to pay our park entrance fees (150 bolivianos). We then drove and stopped for photos at the Laguna Blanca.
We could hardly believe the view would actually get better, until we reached the Laguna Verde.
Our first big stop was for lunch, where we waited for our food bathing in the Agua Termales de Polques (very warm this time) for a tiny 6 bolivianos. The highlight of my day was to actually run into Stig, to who I had said goodbye about a week ago, as we both almost walked into each other in the parking lot. Life has a way to get people together – and I was just very happy to have one more chance to hug him before heading again! Our first lunch quite surprised me – I have to admit the quality of the food on this trip was much higher than I expected.
Around 14h45 we hit back the road and drove all the way to the Geisers Sol Manana (4855m) and then to the Laguna Colorada.
Pictures don’t make it justice but, the water actually looks pink all the way near the shore, due to the different minerals in the water. Of note – the drivers will have their own local music, but if you want to switch it up a bit bring a USB or a cable so you can listen to your songs in the jeep! We used the Bluetooth to rock it a bit (read – a lot! Even got some Gold Digger going…)! It was greatly appreciated, especially when we reached our highest driving point at 4900m on our first day.
We kept going for another hour until we stopped to watch closely a herd of llamas. It was actually just a diversion as the jeep in front of us got a flat tire – I had never seen 2 guys changing a tire so fast and efficiently on the side of the road. In about 15 minutes we were back in the jeep and heading back on the road! We drove for a good hour at least and arrived at 18h45 at Villa Mar, a small village where we spent the night in an hospedaje. It was better than I thought (more like a hostel than a refuge, like I was told), although the rooms were very cold. I am glad I brought my sleeping bag with me (if you don’t have yours, you should rent one from your travel agency… they do supply lots of blankets but there are no heating system whatsoever) as well as my thermal pants and shirts. We had a warm dinner there and I went to bed early to be in shape for another long day of driving (you must start to notice my love for sleeping? I have been embracing it on this trip, especially at high altitude…).
After quite a cold night, we got up to have breakfast a 730AM. By 830AM we were all packed and back on the road. This second day turned out to be the longest one for all of us I believe – we did a lot of different stops, but they were all very similar (unbelievable the speed at which we quickly get used to new sights…). The reality was more that we needed to do quite an effort to get the 6 of us in and out of the jeep with the seats, putting on and off our jackets, toques, gloves… and sometimes we would stop only a few minutes to take photo of a bunch of rocks (like some guys in the group said).
We stopped in the Valle de las rocas where we had enough time to relax and enjoy the view of a small lake and a herd of llamas, horses and donkey in the distance. We also passed by the Laguna Pinta and stopped for lunch in a small village in the middle of nowhere (literally – I actually don’t think I have ever known the name). We kept driving all the way to a another small village, San Agustin, where we stopped after our guide told us we would go enjoy some local beers and food… after which we actually ended up stopping at a small food store where we could buy snacks, wine and local beer (they even have some made out from quinoa!). The prices were reasonable, but maybe budget a bit more bolivianos on your trip than the 300 they suggest when you book your tour – otherwise you might run out on your way back for snacks and such. Our last stop was another very small village, where the main highlight was 3 small kids giving milk to baby goats! We did a few more llama watching stops and during one I helped our guide to fill up fuel from one of the tanks we were carrying on the roof top. It was the first time I actually saw someone siphon gas with a tube into his car tank.
At 18PM were arrived at our accommodation for the night: we stayed at the Hotel del Sal. A few hotels around and in the salars are built completely from blocks of salt. Actually, the entire floor of the main common room and the bedrooms was made of grain of salts… which was a very nice exfoliating feeling for the feet (if you are courageous enough to walk bare foot, considering the cold..). The highlight was the access to “warm” showers (5 min, 10 bolivianos), which was the only shower we had the chance to take in the entire excursion. You’ve been warn though, you will freeze the second you turn that water off… That evening we had a few drinks, played cards, I practiced my ukulele and we all went to bed early to get ready for the sunrise watching in the morning.
We had breakfast at 6AM and got ready to leave – we were on the road by 645AM and heading straight on the salt flats. We absolutely lucked out – we did the tour at full moon, and to be honest this has been the highlight of my moments on the excursion. After maybe 30min of driving, we stopped in an area where they make salt bricks to take some photos and enjoy the sunrise. What we were not expecting is that we had on one side the massive, full moon going down behind the mountains, and on the other side the rising sun on the horizon at the other side of the never ending salt flats. The Salar of Uyuni are 12 000km square, and there are areas on the flat where you can look around and see salt as far as the eye can see. We must have been at that spot for a good 45 minutes, fooling around, taking photos and sinking in the moment. I don’t know that my words can even describe the feeling I had, but I will summarize with some of my best shots…
The famous photo moment arrived, when we headed back in the jeeps and started driving around the salt flats to reach a nice, white, untouched, quiet spot. It was the most epic roadtrip portion of this tour, where disco, hiphop, reggae and latin beats filled the atmosphere in our jeep as we raced the others in the group. The 3 jeeps stopped and we took some time to take the famous perspectives photos. My group wasn’t really keen in taking tons of photos, so I took as many as I could and then grabbed my uku and sang in the middle of the largest salt flats in the world. Just because!
It was finally time to get back on the road, so we drove to the closest village (Colchani) for lunch. It is very close to Uyuni and also is really touristy (basically it is just a bunch of gift shops and a few restaurants). After waiting for about 40 minutes for our driver to show up again after lunch (he sometimes just disappeared for a bit) we headed down to Uyuni to explore the train cemetery. The locomotives have been there since 1999 and now became part of the heritage of the region, visited by the tourists as part of the popular tours.
We ended the tour in the center of Uyuni, where we separated our group. When you book the Uyuni tour from San Pedro, you have the choice to take a 3 days tour (basically one way from San Pedro to Uyuni) or to book the 4 days tour (with return). The 4 guys were heading out to La Paz by bus that night, so Angel dropped them off at Uyuni’s bus terminal. Alex and I returned to San Pedro, so we had about 1h to hang around town (during which I had the time to get overcharged on my restaurant bill and was too in a hurry and impatient to notice (Murphy’s)) before getting back to the agency for the return trip. It seems that our agency did a little math mistake, as they put 7 of us back into the same jeep for the return trip. Considering that it is already quite tight with 6 passengers, we ended up alternating seats every hour or so, so that everyone would have their share of the “3 people sitting on a 2 people back seat” experience. I have to say although we had this little glitch, everybody kept a good vibe and we just went with it. We drove 3hrs that evening to go back to Villa Mar and sleep at the same hostel/refugio where we stayed the first night (to our big disappointment). It turned out better than the first time, as we shared smaller rooms that got warmer much faster. I actually used only my sleeping bag that night and didn’t get cold at all (in the room).
After another 530AM wake-up call, we left the hostel with the group and headed for another good 3hrs drive until the Bolivian border. We had breakfast that morning at the entrance of the national park (where our new driver made no particular effort to tell us what was happening, where to sit or when was our turn to eat… we actually sat down twice to a table and were told by another guide that it was their table and we had to leave… until everybody had left and we were the only group left standing by the fire. Long story short – I think we all started to be pretty tired, even so as we again reached an altitude of about 4000m, and hungry). We did a few pit stops where we tried to buy few snacks to finish our bolivianos and reached the border around 1030AM.
After another long wait at the border (this time I almost got pushed out because I met 2 Canadians from Vancouver in the line up to pay my 15 bolivianos exit fee and I forgot I wasn’t suppose to talk (perks of being too social)) we sat in a mini-bus that took us to the Chilean customs. After another long time waiting in queue, scanning the bags and waiting for ever for a French guy in our group who got issues with his student visa, we finally got dropped-off at our respective hostels. I enjoyed a long, warm shower and relaxed before going out for dinner at the Barros (local restaurant with live music really popular in San Pedro) and going for beers with Arthur and Sophia from the agency.
This was supposed to be my last evening in San Pedro, as I had booked my 22hrs bus ride to Santiago the night after, but I got somewhat sick that night and stayed one extra day to rest at my hostel. The morning after I left for Santiago.
To summarize, if you are in the area and are considering doing a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, I absolutely and definitely recommend it. It turns out pretty cheap, considering the quality of the food, accommodation and touring included. I paid 130 000 chilean pesos (more or less 260$ for 4 days with accommodation and food included!) but I know you could get a better price depending on the vendor.
So… get your winter clothes ready and enjoy!