The bus ride to Uyuni was quite comfortable; the seats were wide, we were given pillows and blankets and the bus had a heating system. The only problem I had was that I was sleeping by the window and the heater was blasting hot air directly at my feet, which were sweating profusely in my fluffy socks and hiking boots. It was still a much more pleasant experience than it would have been if my feet had been cold. Also, what was very nice of the driver was that we were given the opportunity to leave the bus for a little while in order to enjoy the sunrise.
When we got to Uyuni, we unnecessarily took a Taxi to our hostel. Unfortunately, we had to wait a while before being able to move into our room, but we decided to use this time (more or less) wisely. Of course we first had to make use of the internet access we now had, but afterwards, we went to our first tourism agencies. For our tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we decided to make sure to take a recommended company. There have been many accidents in recent years, as there is an unimaginable amount of cars driving around, some of which are driven by irresponsible drunk drivers. Add to that the fact that the tires mostly lack profile and not every seat has a seatbelt. In some cases, companies also fill the car with more people than there are seats.
We went to various agencies, let them tell us about their tour and took their flyers back to the hostel. I also made sure to ask about the amount of seatbelts, the number of people doing the tour, what happens if they don’t find four more people and where we would be staying the night. It was important to us that our first hostel wouldn’t be too far away from the salt desert so that we would be able to see the sunset. In the end, we walked back to the hostel with a handful of flyers, ready to look up the company’s reviews on Trip Advisor.
Once we were back at the hostel, we pulled up Trip Advisor and within 15 minutes, we had already decided against all of the agencies. This time around, we chose to look up reputable companies first and then set out in search of the ones we had picked out. Some were closed, but we did manage to hit up “Uturunku Travel” as well as pick up a few more random flyers along the way. It was really hot at this point as the sun was burning down on us. Uyuni is not far from the Atacama Desert and located at an altitude of around 3700 meters, so you can imagine I was suffering considering that even the dry German heat in the summer gives me a headache. Needless to say, I was glad to be back at the hostel in order to consult Trip Advisor a second time.
Our number one choice at this point was Uturunku travel. They had only 5 reviews, but 5 very good ones. They also promised us that we would be able to see the sunset, even offering to book a different hostel if we so wished, just so that we would be closer to the Salar de Uyuni. The only problem for me was that they told us that the new car with 7 seat belts was currently still on tour. However, they insured us that this particular car would be back the next day when we wanted to leave and that we would be able to travel in it. Before deciding on it though, I texted two other recommended companies, just in case. So now it was time to wait for their response. Meanwhile, Leonie and I went out for lunch.
We picked out one of the quite expensive “Mexican” restaurants. I ordered a burrito, while Leonie ordered tacos. The server was very moody and not at all helpful. She wrote down our order, but something must have gone wrong. I ordered my food without cheese, Leonie with. However, when our food came, there was quite obviously cheese in my burrito. The lady however, didn’t want to admit that she had made a mistake and just ignored us. I was left to just deal with the problem and did my best to pick out the cheese (we couldn’t switch foods as Leonie’s tacos also contained meat). When it was time for us to pay, she didn’t give me enough change, once again not paying us much attention. Only when her coworker came over, did she finally fork over the five Bolivianos that were missing. That was honestly my worst restaurant experience in South America.
After lunch, Leonie and I took a small break in our now accessible hostel room. Leonie was exhausted, so I set out on my own to visit the office that has responded to my text message. When I arrived at the right time, there was nobody there, so I told them we would book with another company and returned to Leonie. The choice had been made for us; we would be doing the tour with Uturunku Travel. The only thing we had to do now was find an ATM (if I remember correctly, the tour cost 850 Bolivianos, which is about 106.25 Euros).
At the office, we paid for the tour, once again stressing the fact that we wanted the new car and a night at the hostel close to the salt flats. The man who was at the desk this time, consulted with his mother about the car in a voice that gave me the impression that we wouldn’t be getting our wish. Nevertheless, they did promise us that there would be no problem. I had a bad feeling about this, but we wouldn’t be able to change the situation now, as we would be without a tour if we didn’t book. The only thing that was left for us to do now was buy water and our typical travel dinner/breakfast of bread, avocado, tomato and onion. The rest of the day was spent in our room and on Netflix.
The next morning, we went to the office at around 9:30 in the morning. Everyone else had been picked up at their hostel, so there were only two seats left, one of which had a seatbelt (my premonition had been correct). Leonie was nice enough to give me the seatbelt, as she knew that it was more important to me than it was to her. I felt bad anyway.
Doing the tour with us were a Bolivian father and son duo and two women, one from Argentina and the other from Japan. Our tour guide and driver’s name was Timotheo. Everyone was relaxed and friendly, so I had high hopes for the tour, despite my initial disappointment.
We began the tour at the “Train Cemetery”, which is basically just a collection of rusting locomotives, most of which date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Apparently, at the end of the 19th century, plans were made to make Uyuni a more significant transport hub within South America, but difficulties in the execution of the project, led to the plans being abandoned. The trains were left to rust and this process was accelerated by the salty winds blowing over the area. Leonie and I had fun climbing onto the remains and taking photos. I set my eyes on a beautiful tank train wagon, which was difficult to get up onto, but definitely worth the effort. Everyone walking by was wondering how I had made it up there, so my smile in the picture was genuine.
I made it!
From the train cemetery, we entered the Salar de Uyuni and after taking a short look at the “Ojos de Sal” (“Eyes of Salt” – small bubbling pools of fresh water that rises up from subterranean rivers), headed straight to a little town filled with souvenir shops. We had a look around, but then quickly proceeded to join the herd of cars driving to lunch at the former Salt Hotel in the middle of the Salar. Nowadays, the hotel only serves as a dining hall and neighbor to the Dakar Rally monument. While Timotheo prepared lunch, Leonie and I tried taking our first crazy pictures that we were hoping to leave the Salar with. We struggled! It was very difficult to see the image on the camera display due to the sunlight being reflected off of the salt from all sides and our lack of a camera tripod made things even more difficult. When Timotheo called us back in for lunch I was very worried that we wouldn’t be able to get the photos that I so desperately wanted. What heightened my worry was the fact that a storm was heading our way and lightning was already cracking down on the Salar in the distance.
Click the arrows to see all the photos
!!!We now interrupt this program to make you aware of a slight problem!!! I just realized my mistake. All this time you were probably wondering why I would write in English although it is time for a German post. I am sorry for the inconvenience my brain fart may have caused you. But then again, I wrote the quiz in German even though it was technically meant to be in English. It is fairer this way anyway. Back to the Salar the Uyuni…
So, we were waiting for the storm to pass while we enjoyed a not half bad lunch around a table made entirely out of salt. Afterwards we packed up our things, ran through the rain towards the car and took off in the direction of the sunlight. Far away from the storm and from other tour groups, we all got off once again and began the photo session I had been looking forward to. Timotheo had some nice tricks up his sleeve and made sure to help Leonie and me. We had put a lot of thought into the photos we wanted, unlike the others, so we ended up needing a lot more time. However, the other members of our group were understanding of this and I believe they quite enjoyed watching us make fools out of ourselves. I also have to give a huge shout out to Timotheo who managed to get at least one good photo every time. Of course there were a lot of fails (there is maybe one successful shot for every 60 failures). The marionette photo was especially hard due to the strong wind. Now, without further ado, here are our masterpieces:
Click the arrows to see all the photos
An here are two fails…
The dinosaur is too small, but apart from that the photo is great
The shadows give it away
By the time we reached the outskirts of the Salar de Uyuni it was already the late afternoon. We had taken a small photo break in a wet area of the Salar, but the rest of the time had been spent crossing the salt desert. I am glad that the tour companies cross the wet parts of the desert despite the danger it poses to their cars. These areas are undoubtedly the most beautiful and only exist during the rainy season.
Somewhere along the way, I made sure to emphasize that we had been promised a sunset, which Timotheo hadn’t known. He was very accommodating though, saying that we would head to the salt hostel and then return in time to watch the sun’s departure from the sky. So that is what we did. Leonie and I moved into a room with a salt crystal floor that punctured holes into the bottoms of your feet. Other salty aspects of the room were the raised platforms on which lay our mattresses and the walls.
After dropping off our things and using the restroom, we boarded the car once again and drove out onto the end of the “pier”. From here we watched the sun set behind the western mountains looming over the Salar. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. The strong wind blew ripples into the water, not enabling the sun to reflect off of it’s surface. The water was also too deep in this area to create the mirror effect that I had been hoping for. A little disheartened, I watched until the sky had turned dark and got back into the car.
After dinner, Leonie and I decided that we would try to get a nice view of the sunset. We packed our things and set our alarms for 3:30am, so that we could leave the hotel by 4. We headed out of the small town and once there were no more houses separating the road from the Salar, walked straight down towards the salt. The stars glistening above us, we navigated across the long stretch of mud until we reached the beginning of the water. It was a lot further than we had expected and by the time the sun began to rise at 5am we still hadn’t gotten to where we wanted to be, but were being overtaken by the cars of the tour companies that had promised their tourists a sunrise. Now hurrying in the direction of pier which was blocking our view of the sunrise, we knew that we would not let this once in a lifetime experience pass us by. In the end, we made it just in time to glimpse the splendor that is the colors of dawn being reflected by a mirror made of water and salt. It was still windy in the distance, but where we were standing the water was just calm enough. We had also found a shallow spot and although that meant that in some areas small mounds of salt protruded out from the water, I like the effect that it had. The conditions still weren’t as perfect as they could have been, but I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I had such a hard time ripping myself away from the view that Leonie and I departed a little too late. By the time we left it was almost 6am and we had to be back at the hotel for breakfast by 7:15. We also hadn’t expected our route back to be as muddy as it was. Our morning hike had been a lot dryer, but somehow we had now gotten ourselves stuck in a wet patch. Timotheo had warned us against not taking the road the entire way, but since he hadn’t given a reason, we had decided to ignore him. Now we regretted it. Having 5kg of mud clinging to each shoe made walking a real pain and slowed us down considerably. I also couldn’t resist taking a few more photos along the way, which is why Leonie arrived at the hotel about 10 minutes before I did. Neither of us was on time though. At least Timotheo understood.
Click the arrows to see all the photos
Day two of our tour consisted mainly of sitting in the car and then taking 15 to 30 minute breaks at the different destinations in order to look around and take pictures. We stopped at 4 lagoons, different rock formations and a view point from which you can see one of the various volcanoes in the Atacama Desert. Along the way we were able to see three types of flamingos, as well as “viscacha”, a desert fox and “vicuñas”. Although the things we saw are undoubtedly magnificent, the day was a tad bit tedious. Everything just felt rushed and touristy. I don’t know what we expected, but it certainly wasn’t Timotheo saying “now you have 15 minutes to take your pictures” every time we made a stop. So, I shall now let you live vicariously through my experience in pictures. I didn’t really experience it any other way, as apparently taking pictures was the sole purpose of making a stop and you didn’t have the time to both enjoy the place and snap some shots.
Click the arrows to see all the photos
We ended day two sitting around a table and waiting an excruciatingly long time for soggy spaghetti and packaged pasta sauce. However, we did have a great conversation about the cultural differences between all of the countries we represented (Peru, Germany, Bolivia, Argentina and Japan). We talked about everything, from schools systems to politics to language quirks to traditions. I believe that this was one of the best conversations I have had throughout all of my voluntary year. It certainly raised my overall satisfaction with how that particular day had gone.
Day three wasn’t very different than day two in terms of the way we saw the attractions, at least on this particular day the natural phenomena we saw were a little more varied. We started the day waiting 20 minutes for the late tourists of other groups to file onto their cars so that we could finally leave the parking prison that we had gotten ourselves stuck in. I spent this time internally screaming at the drivers to stop heating up their engines for 30 minutes and blowing unnecessary fumes into the crisp night air (it was 5am).
Once we finally got moving we made our way to what in my opinion is among the coolest natural phenomenon I have witnessed taking place. We stopped at a volcanic and seismically active site which is known as “Sol de Mañana” (morning sun) and is located at around 4850 meters above sea level. The site boasts boiling mud pools with sulfur residue surrounding them, as well as a hole (apparently not a geyser) that spews an up to 50m long steam trail in the mornings. It was truly impressive, albeit a little smelly.
From “Sol de Mañana” we drove to some extremely crowded hot springs (Leonie and I decided to go for a walk instead of hopping in) and afterwards to two more lagoons, one of which turns green later on in the day. We didn’t stay very long however as we had to drop off the Japanese and Argentinean women at the Chilean border. This process took quite a long time, but as we had already spent so many hours in the car, we used the opportunity to walk around a little and watch the birds flying over our heads. Something interesting I noted was the difference in infrastructure between Chile and Bolivia. Over in Chile we could see a paved road leading through the desert, which we hadn’t seen in Bolivia since leaving the city of Uyuni.
Click the arrows to see all the photos
I have to admit that I was extremely glad when Timotheo finally announced our departure. I was getting tired of the whole hop-on-hop-off concept of the tour and was not lamenting the fact that it would be over that same day. We made a few more stops along the way, mainly to look at rock formations, but by this point I had seen enough rocks, so my enthusiasm was kept to a minimum. Apart from stopping for lunch, we spent the remainder of the day in the car, heading back to Uyuni. Honestly, I understand why there is a danger involved in doing one of these tours. Timotheo drove the entire day, with only a few very short breaks, some of which he spent cooking food. Add to that the fact that I actually overheard a conversation between Timotheo and another guide, during which the man asked Timotheo whether he’d like some of the beer that that the man was drinking out of his sprite can. Luckily, our wonderful tour guide declined. For this reason alone I felt compelled to give him a tip. I still wasn’t happy about the state of our tires/windshield or our lack of seat belts, but he wasn’t at fault there.
Leonie and I were glad when we arrived in Uyuni in one piece. As our bus was already booked for the following day, the only thing we had to do at that point was head to the market in order to buy our dinner (as per usual avocado on bread) and then crash at the hostel. I did make sure to make a quick stop at an internet café though in order to save all the great pictures. This was a huge debacle as the computer was dead slow and my hard drive didn’t want to respond for a while. However, I persevered (I mean, I wasn’t about to lose all of our great snapshots). Although the last two days had been exhausting despite not including any programmed physical activity whatsoever, I was glad that I had the opportunity to come to Uyuni and see some of the treasures of the Atacama Desert. Add to that the fact that I had basically seen the place where they filmed the scenes on planet Crait in “Star Wars the Last Jedi”!
All in all, I hope that Bolivia does it’s absolute best to protect the majority of the Salar de Uyuni. Acording to the “Deutsche Welle” the Salar de Uyuni contains 9 million tonnes of lithium, which is a quarter of the known deposits on earth. With Bolivia being the poorest country in South America, president Morales hopes that he can bring prosperity to his country. Although lithium mining is supposedly less polluting, I don’t want to imagine the effect large-scale mining operations could have on this beautiful place. It is a difficult subject, as lithium necessity is on the rise. With a higher demand for electric cars, we are in need of lithium. I don’t know what is worse, not allowing the shift to more electrocars or witnessing the gradual exploitation and death of this phenomenal salty mirror. What do you think? My tip: see it while you can!