After a harrowing 8 hour bus trip from Sucre to Uyuni, I was relieved just to be off the bus and on firm ground again. Our bus driver literally raced another bus the entire trip, jockeying for position and momentarily overtaking before screeching to a stop to pick up passengers and then we rocketed off again.
I was sure we were going to crash off the road and roll down the mountain pass. We were violently thrown from side to side as the driver attempted to not only overtake the other bus, but to take out some sort of land speed record – curves (and passengers) be damned!
Uyuni (finally!) is pretty much a small sandy town in the middle of nowhere, famous for being a stop on the Dakar rally, and the Bolivian jump-off point for the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. I started my Salar de Uyuni tour by internet researching reviews for the different companies offering the 3 day tour and ending in San Pedro de Atacama (discounting the reviewers that gave one star because they were cold) and chose to go with Red Planet. Having now done the tour, I really recommend them: informative and friendly english speaking guide (Luis), safe and careful driver, well maintained jeep, small group, and delicious food prepared the entire way.
DAY 1 – UYUNI – COLCHANI – INCAHUASI ISLA – AGUA QUISA
About 20 travellers assembled in Red Planet’s office in Uyuni the next day where we were divided into different jeeps. I had 4 jeep-mates (from Australia and Jersey), a driver and a guide. You are with these people for the next 3 days 24/7 so I was really lucky to have such great company with me.
First up we visited the train cemetery just outside Uyuni. The railway tracks were built in the late 1880’s to transport minerals to the Pacific, however the mining industry collapsed in the 1940s and the trains abandoned, hence the train cemetery.
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 km2 and is 3,656m above sea level. Around 30,000 to 42,000 years ago it was a giant prehistoric lake. It also produces 85% of all the lithium used in the world. Due to the expansive featureless white of the salt plains, it is possible to take bizarre forced perspective photos there:
Isla Incahuasi is one of the rocky islands left in the salt flats. The island is actually made of prehistoric coral, algae and fossils and covered in giant cactus. It was also incredibly windy which made climbing the rocky island was pretty treacherous.
The fist night we spent in a hotel made of salt blocks. It was nice and warm inside and once again, my alpaca sweater, gloves and socks never left my pack. I don’t think I will use them at all and have carried them from Ecuador in a misguided belief I will be freezing in South America.
DAY 2 – AGUA QUISA – PASO LEON – LAGUNA COLORADA – GEYSERS
After breakfast we loaded up the jeep and drove through the Chuguana desert – where the scenery resembled Mars with red hills, towering volcanoes and mineral laden lagoons – home to bright pink flamingos and very very cold winds.
Arriving in the desert of Siloli we discovered bizarre stone formations made by wind and snow erosion – and the world’s most disgusting toilet. Be warned.
After some more driving we reached “Laguna Colorada”, an amazing red colored shallow salt lake – again home to 3 types of flamingos. The red colour is caused by a type of algae, and the intensity of the colour will vary with the water temperature.
After visiting geysers, we slept at a basic (no running water, long drop toilet) hotel on the edge of a thermal fed lagoon. The stars here were incredible at night – so so bright and clear in the cloudless sky. And being back in the Southern Hemisphere, I could finally identify them again!
DAY 3 – LAGUNA COLORADA – GEYSERS – LAGUNA VERDE – SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, CHILE
Our last day we got up to a pancake breakfast (yay!) and then we drove through the Salvador Dali desert to the green lake (Laguna Verde). The Dali desert is so-named because of rocky outcrops that resemble his paintings, and the colours (which also remind me of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings). The scenery has been incredible the entire trip – always changing and always amazing.
From there the group split up again to continue on our individual journeys. For me it was a quick trip to the Bolivian border to get my exit stamp and a long wait for the transfer bus to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and arrival into customs on that side. I was sad to say goodbye to my jeep-mates and Bolivia, but on the plus side San Pedro de Atacama has hot water 24/7, no long drop toilets, dependable wifi and a lesser altitude!