The Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia was hands down my favourite experience in South America. And it's not just about the salt plains either, it's about feeling like you're the only people for miles about as you explore gorgeous lakes, alien-like deserts and geysers in a 4WD.
We signed up for the tour in the Atacama Desert with Cordillera Traveller - who had the best reviews online at the time but we soon learned our tour guide Paulie spoke not a lick of English. It was luck of the draw as to whether we had an English speaking guide and since we'd only been in South America for two weeks at this time we understood just a few words in Spanish. Luckily we had a couple of Chilians in our group to help out with any mis-translations.
We were picked up early the first morning from the travel agency and dropped off at the immigration offices, passing through quickly and easily - necessity if you sign up for the one-way tour coming from Chile like we did. If you're doing the Salar de Uyuni tour and you're already in Bolivia, you can pick a tour at Uyuni town - and I highly recommend booking in person and not on the internet as you'll get way better prices.
Before setting off for the beginning of the tour we were given breakfast and I was astounded to see Milo! (A popular hot chocolate drink in Australia and New Zealand). Just what we needed to combat the cold temperature.
Over the first two days we saw many lakes in varied colours - each more stunning than the previous, each with it's own breathtaking mountain as a backdrop. Much of South America's terrain reminded us of New Zealand but this region was entirely otherworldly. The landscape was so peculiar, you could have convinced me we'd left Earth.
We drove over pink deserts while a cloudless sky stretched endlessly overhead. In the middle of absolute nowhere we spot a handful of men in army uniform running towards us, waving frantically. We pulled over and Paulie had a few words with them. After a minute they walked away dejected. Were they stranded? We never found out.
Don't let the clear blue sky fool you, because it was freezing! The air was brisk and especially bitter when the wind blew - this was the only time I gained serious use out of the thermals I brought with me to South America. If you plan on trekking Patagonia then thermals are positively worthwhile to bring along. If you're just general backpacking around South America like us don't worry about them. Just bring your regular cold weather clothing, or alternately, do what I did and buy $10 thermals on special in the summer and throw them out once you're in warmer regions.
The final lake sparkled and seeing flamingos up close was electrifying. I couldn't get over how exquisitely graceful these creatures were and could not stop taking photographs. These were first of many brightly coloured and wonderful birds we would find across South America.
On the afternoon of the first day I began to develop my first symptoms of altitude sickness. What began as a mild headache grew into a roaring migraine and it felt like my brain was trying to push it's way out through my right eyeball. We all had a big bowl of soup with dinner, many a hot cup of tea and I was in bed by 8pm.
The following day I was fine and dandy although I could not get accustomed to the low oxygen level. It not only meant physical exertion was far more difficult but even just being sedentary was bothersome, so that while sitting I would sometimes notice that I was short of breath. Jack took to teaching me how to breathe properly, a lesson I found rather irritating.
Altitude sickness wasn't a huge issue for us although people experience it at different levels, we later met travellers who fainted. Even my camera would throw a wobbly in the high altitude and would often show error messages or turn itself off.
The second night we napped in a salt hotel - a snails worst nightmare - where the walls, the base of the beds, the table and chairs are all built with salt (I can't, for the life of me, find my photo of the salt hotel, sorry guys).
We ate our first alpaca chops for dinner that night and opened a bottle of warming Chilian wine.
The next morning we were up at 5am and on our way (grooving in the 4WD to Spanish John Lennon) to cactus island - an island of rock and cacti in the middle of the salt plane. The idea being that we would climb to the top to watch the sun rise. Easier said than done, the low oxygen made all exercise extremely difficult. After a minute I was gasping for breath and my lungs ached with the effort of dragging every molecule of oxygen from the atmosphere that I could.
Jack bounded to the top with the camera and what appeared to be very little effort at all. I hauled myself to the top just after the sun had appeared on the horizon.
We sat and tried to enjoy the sunrise over the saltflat while ignoring an American couple repeating over and over variations of;
"Oh my gawd, Dereck!"
"Sandra, it's beautiful, oh my gawd!"
Which continued on for another twenty minutes.
After breakfast we drove out into the flats. Despite the Salar de Uyuni stretching over 10,000 square kilometres, the five or so jeeps in our group all parked in the same spot. So while taking photos I would have to keep looking behind me to watch for people wandering into the shots.
I loved walking around and crunching the salt beneath my shoes, amazed that the salt is ten metres thick under my soles. We took a few obligatory tourist perspective shots, cheesy but hey, they we're fun.
Last on the tour we dropped in on the train graveyard, an assortment of antique trains abandoned when the regions minerals were depleted in the 1940s.
The Salar de Uyuni tour was one of the highlights of my trip across South America, it's a true depiction of how stunningly gorgeous and rugged Bolivia is. The combination of awesome natural beauty and a fascinating culture is why I urge you to visit this country for your next adventure while the Bolivia remains unchanged by western culture.
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