Instead of a 10 hour overnight bus ride, we opted for a 60 minute flight from La Paz to Uyuni. We crammed into a taxi for 10 Bs each with other passengers and got dropped off at Piedra Blanca Hostel 15 minutes later. The room wouldn’t be ready until 1pm so we dropped our stuff and made our way into town: our goal was to book a 3 days/2 nights Salt Flat tour for the following day. Uyuni is like one of those towns out of a western movie. Small one story structures, dirt roads and dust everywhere. After visiting several tour operators, we opted for Salty Desert Adventours. They were the only ones that offered all the things we wanted (sunset over the flats, stargazing in the hot springs at night, an English guide and a guaranteed private room each night).
Leaving Bolivia without trying a salteña would be a sin. After exiting Quechua tour office we turned right; it was still morning (which is the only time they serve them). We saw a sign and an opened door to a short narrow corridor leading to a woman in a closet sized kitchen. We paid 6 Bs for one and walked out with our prize. We had been instructed in La Paz by our food tour guide, Alfi, that you had to bite off the tip and suck the gravy out before attempting to eat it; if you dribbled gravy on your hand, it meant you were a bad kisser. Eager to try it, I bit the tip and poured…and gagged as scalding hot gravy hit my mouth. So much for being a good kisser … but it was absolutely delicious.
A couple more forays into town rounded out our day; one for water (but it turned out the Hostel had the cheapest) and food for the trip into the desert and the other for dinner at Tika restaurant where we enjoyed beef medallions and shredded Llama jerky – which is truly the only way to eat llama as it is tougher than shoe leather.
The next day we loaded up into a 4×4 with a German family (a mom and her two grown children) and headed to the train graveyard. This historic site was created by just plain neglect. When steam engines were being replaced by diesel ones, the old locomotives were placed here to be eventually recycled. With all the turmoil in Bolivian politics, they were left here, forgotten and eventually became a tourist attraction. Actually quite an interesting place. After climbing a bit on the old steam engines, we moved on to Colchani where they produce all the salt used in Bolivia. It was a surprisingly small operation and very basic but interesting how they just scrape it off the ground and process it. Oddly they don’t export any of the salt because no one wants it. Instead they have 2 other exports: quinoa (organic since they don’t have to worry about insects) and lithium. We all piled back into the car and made our way to the old salt hotel which is now a museum and “lunch spot”. We had a quite good lunch of quinoa, fruit, veggies, beef? steak and sausages.
Onward to the salt flats for picture taking. We stopped once when our guide hopped out of the car and started to stick his hand into holes in the salt flats. Turns out that nice formations of salt crystals form inside them and make great souvenirs – you just have to have a tire iron and an arm impervious to the frigid cold water inside them. After pulling out crystals for us, we drove to the dry sections for picture taking, doing the silly perspective thing.
It was a hoot to see the different things the guide did for us including videos. Check out the gallery at the end of the post to see some of the pics.
We moved on to the wet part of the salt flat for reflective pictures. The immense vistas were just breath-taking. Lots of pictures later, we relocated again for the sunset. It was apparent that Mia, our car mate was now suffering from altitude sickness even though they had been in La Paz for 5 days. Our guide quickly found the oxygen tank in the car and gave her a bit. It was great to see that they were prepared for this sort of thing. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and drove to our first hotel, a salt hotel. Marveling at the salt tables, salt sculptures and salt beds, we enjoyed a dinner of veggies, chopped up hotdogs and vegetables mixed in a tomato sauce on a bed of french fries. Not too bad of dinner as we were pretty hungry after a full day. We retired to our tiny room with a queen mattress on a bed of salt and tried to get some sleep but even though it was technically summer, it was still very cold; Cynthia slept with all her clothes on and a set of hand and foot warmers she’d brought along.
Arising at 5:30 in the morning we were early enough to get some toilet and sink time. You understand the meaning of the early bird gets the worm when there are three toilets, two sinks and two showers for over 30 people. A quick visit to a local quinoa museum then the shop next door for 5 Bs bag of cocoa leaves which certainly helped to settle a few upsets stomachs, then off through more rugged, dusty desert to see the active Ollague volcano at the Bolivian/Chilean border. A 5 Bs toilet stop and some pictures and we were off again to the first lagoon where we saw a few flamingos and enjoyed a lunch of chicken, noodles and fresh fruit and veggies. The next lagoon was bigger and more populated with flamingos. We were able to get closer to the birds and get some good pictures of them. On our way to the next spot, several cars were delayed by an impasse in the road. All the drivers and guides pitched in to fix the issue and we all were on our way again. A quick stop to see some neat stone formations including the famous stone tree then we were off to our last attraction, Laguna Colorado or Red Lagoon. It is a very large lagoon filled with tens of thousands of flamingos. It gets its red coloration from the minerals in the water which also helps the flamingos to keep their pink color (along with tiny shrimps that live there). We entered the national park at this point (150 Bs) and visited the geysers. Not quite as impressive as Yellowstone, but still a neat sight and we were able to walk right up to them.
Last stop was our very basic hotel: no hot water and no functioning outlets in any of the rooms so you had to use the charging station in the common area. When Cynthia asked about hot water for a shower, our patron pointed to the hot springs (pools) about 300 yards down the road. It was wonderful being so close to the thermal pools – a 5 minute walk with our head lamps and 6 Bs later we were able to change into our swimsuits in the rudimentary changing rooms next to the pool and enjoy a nice warm soak. There is nothing like viewing the night sky not only in the middle of a desert, but one that is 4300 meters (about 14,000 feet ) high. And this night we were also treated to a lightning storm just on the horizon – simply amazing!!! We slept like rocks in our rock hotel.
The next morning breakfast at 6am and off to visit the Dali Desert. It is called that because of the funny rock formations that reminded someone of a Dali Painting (we really didn’t get it) then the green lagoon at the base of a volcano. Here we took our last parting pictures, tipped the guide and driver then made the 20 minute drive to the border to cross into Chile. One thing we were really looking forward to was the 6000 foot drop in altitude to a reasonable 8000 feet above sea level. Chile here we come….