So I’ve had to split this post into more than one part or else anyone reading it will have to cancel any plans for the next week at least.
Salar de Uyuni is somewhere I’ve wanted to experience ever since my first time in Peru back in 2011. I was volunteering in the Sacred Valley and a bunch of my fellow volunteers took a particularly long weekend trip there. They came back with some of the best, most fun pictures I’d ever seen and I was instantly filled with jealousy over not having been able to go.
San Pedro de Atacama is undoubtedly the best place to book and start the tour from outside of Bolivia. I was with a friend who had compiled a list of the most reputable companies to do the tour with and was adamant he didn’t want to deviate from the list, so in the end we booked with a company called Cordillera Traveller. It cost us about £150 per person for the 4 Day/3 Night tour, returning to San Pedro on the final day.
Every tour company in town have daily departures, so you really don’t need to book in advance. Just popping in the night before is normally good enough, and if that particular tour company is fully booked they’ll just direct you to one that isn’t.
The first day started with an 8am minibus pick-up at my accommodation. Considering that as a whole San Pedro is about the size of peanut, pick-up is unusually prompt for a South American country! By 8:20 the whole bus was full and we were on our way to the border.
A mere 15 minutes later we were all clambering out of the bus and queuing up outside of the Chilean immigration office. This is where I discovered that those useless little pieces of paper otherwise known as Immigration Cards that they give you when you enter a country aren’t so useless after all. Don’t lose them.
We all got back into the bus and it was about an hour drive from there to the Bolivia border.
I’ve always wondered what happens if you commit a crime or die or something in that little section of land between of two countries at border crossings. Who takes responsibility? Which laws are you supposed to follow?!
When we arrived at the Bolivian border, which was literally a couple of shacks in the middle of a clearing surrounded by minibuses and jeeps, we were split into two groups of six and passed over to some very nice Bolivian men and their 4X4s. Chilean vehicles can’t drive in Bolivia and vice versa, so it was like being the baton in a relay race, being handed over an imaginary line.
On clearing “customs and immigration” (otherwise known as one solitary grumpy man with a stamp), we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of rock hard bread, plastic cheese and rubbery ham before heading over to our respective 4X4s and drivers/guides for the next four days.
My guide, Adelio, was a man of very few words. He preferred to sit in silence, answering any questions with one word answers and only talking when he absolutely had to. I had been pre-warned that the Bolivian guides would only speak very basic English, if any at all, but there was a couple in our group that had specifically requested an English-speaking guide and were wrongly promised that that is what they would get. Of the six of us there were three with no Spanish, two with enough to get by, and then me, which is how I found myself as unofficial interpreter and communicator of instructions for the following three days.
The first day was one that will forever be known in my life as “The Day of the Lagoons”. So. Many. Lagoons!
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate nature in its purest form, I really really do, but when it’s averaging about 0°C outside and your guide keeps telling you to get out “fifteen minutes, photos”, there are only so many bloody lagoons you can deal with.
The first we came across, Laguna Blanca was absolutely stunning! It gets its name from its colour which is caused by the natural minerals in the water and ground. The type of minerals found are something to do with it being at the foot of the Licancabur Volcano, but don’t ac
Almost immediately after Laguna Blanca, we saw Laguna Verde (again, the name says it all – it was green) of which I unfortunately was unable to take a photo due to the fact that by that point my fingers had frozen together.
Next up – and a lovely little respite from the beginning of what would be an infinite amount of lagunas – was the Salvador Dalí Desert.
Also known as Dalí Valley (Valle de Dalí), it’s named as such thanks to its landscapes that resemble surrealist paintings created by Salvador Dalí himself.
This is where our guide tried telling us that Dalí travelled all the way over to Bolivia, painted the deserts and then headed back to Spain. Somehow I find this difficult to believe.
After a brief discussion over whether or not it was feasible that Dalí to come over to South America during his lifetime, we moved on to some thermal water pools, otherwise known as hot springs.
What with all the volcanic activity in the area, Bolivia, Chile and indeed Ecuador are littered with hot springs, so this wasn’t a new experience for me, and the idea of taking my clothes off in that freezing cold weather did not hold an ounce of appeal for me so I happily sat it out.
Next up were the Sol de Mañana geysers – intermittent springs rising at around 90°C.
At this point, having already been on the El Tatio Geyser tour (read more about that here), I considered myself somewhat of an expert on the subject of geysers.
No, I’m lying.
I still didn’t, and I still don’t know what a geyser actually is, but the steam they let off is crazy hot and that’s all I wanted in life by this point. The warmth was so welcoming that I was able to pretend the rancid smell of sulphur didn’t exist!
Our final resting place for the day was – surprise, surprise – a lagoon!
This one, Laguna Roja (otherwise known as the Red Lagoon), was supposed to be home to more than 30,000 flamingos from 3 different species. What it was actually home to was about 5 flamingos who just seemed like they’d lost their flock and were hanging around hoping someone would come back for them.
However, what the lagoon was lacking in flamingos, it more than made up for in llamas and alpacas!
We spent the night here at the laguna.
Okay, so we didn’t sleep at the actual laguna, but in a small little guesthouse type thing about 5 minutes away where we all huddled in rooms for 6 people, five blankets to a person. It was cold. So damn cold.
We’d been warned by the tour agency back in San Pedro that we would need to rent sleeping bags and directed us where we could find them in San Pedro. They insisted that it wouldn’t be possible to get them in Bolivia. Unfortunately the San Pedro sleeping bag renting place was all out of sleeping bags to rent, but luckily the agency lied! The guesthouse happily rents out sleeping bags for the equivalent of about $5 per person. So cheap, but a lifesaver.