I finally left Sucre to head towards Uyuni on Mon 23rd Dec. Initially I wanted to go a day earlier as I didn’t know how many people would travel in the salar during Xmas. It turns out there much more than what I thought. Skipping Potosi, the highest city in the world (to be confirmed) and its mines, I arrived in Uyuni late Monday. Listening from my friends advice I looked for a specific hostel, which I found after a little while. Lucky they had some room for me so I checked-in and went straight to different tour agencies to compare prices and see their availability. The plan was to visit the salar of Uyuni and surroundings in a three day trip and end up in San Pedro de Atacama, on the Chilean side, at the end of the trip. Again I had a couple of travellers who recommended me few agencies to check out. In the end I went with one that was quite cheap but had a lot of happy travellers in their office. Rendez-vous was given for the next day, leaving at ten thirty in the morning. Before calling it a day, I went to the migration office and managed to finally get an exit stamp on my French passport, which would enable me to swap my OZ passport to my French one for Chile and Argentina, avoiding me to pay the $100 reciprocity fee required in both countries. I could finally relax.
Early the next day, I was ready for my adventure. I quickly went to the next door market to buy a Dino toy (to be used as prop in the salar) and a bottle of water of 5L that should hopefully last me the whole trip. A short delay after departure, I got introduced to my crew for the next three days: a French couple (François and Alexandra), and three independent travellers from Brazil (Marilia), Spain (Helena) and even Russia (Vladimir, that was actually travelling the whole continent by bike!). Our 4×4 driver and guide, Jaime, was a small and funny guy who quickly got to appreciate.
First stop was the train cemetery just outside of town. Trains that used to link Bolivia and Chile. They now use new rails and leave those trains for tourists. We stopped there, took some pictures and continued our trip. Prior to come here, I didn’t do any research on what we would visit on day one, two and three. So it was a total surprise regarding what we would see, when, etc. So right after that we stopped for a quick break in a nearby local market then went straight to the salar. As soon as we got close to it, it was really impressive. I have never seen anything like it before. The salt lake, recovered by a small layer of water was giving the whole place a feeling of being somewhere else, on another planet almost. The colours were amazing, the reflection of the sky and clouds in the water made it hard to differentiate the ground from the sky looking at the horizon. We stopped, removed our shoes and played like kids in this magical place. Taking some pictures out of time, we quickly realised how salty the water was. After few minutes our legs were all white, full of small particles of salts covering every part of out skin. We did even see some tiny dust sprout in the background.
Half an hour later we went back in the 4×4 and kept going. The water start disappearing, revealing another colour of the salt flats, more like the one in Nevada. I couldn’t get my eyes of the natural octagonal shapes made by the salt deposit on the ground. It was so even that it looks not natural, another beauty of mother nature. We were making our to one of the salt hostel being built in the middle of the salar. Actually I think that is the only one made in the middle of the salt flats, all the others are located on the edge of it. Next to it was a massive statue in the making for the ‘Dakar’ (hardest rally competition in the world, for the first time it was coming to Bolivia so it was a big thing). We stopped for linch break, had some nice salad with meat and veggies. Four wheels drive from other companies were also there, some passengers starting early with making pictures famous pictures based on deceptive perspective (the salt flat being so white everywhere you can pretend holding people in your hands, etc. based on the illusion of distance). Jaime, our guide, told us the salt flat will be whiter later on, making it perfect for pix opportunity.
After lunch we went towards ‘isla del pescado’ (fish island) which turns out to be more like cactus island. An island made of rocks and invaded by cactus just in the middle of nowhere, it is truly amazing to see it. Again, we made a stop there for about an hour, enjoying the view of the salt flat from higher up and contemplating those huge cactus. There was even a white llama that was randomly walking on this island. Later, we moved on to make some pictures in a very white spots of the salar. Right away, I started to take some pictures of Helena with her little truck, with me lying flat on the ground. I quickly realised the ground that appeared dry was actually very wet, leaving me with a huge salt stain on my shirt and pants. Some clouds started to appear, hiding the beautiful sun. So we couldn’t all get great pictures due to the luminosity but still, I got some great ones. Once we got all the pictures we wanted and the sun was totally hidden by the clouds, we left the salt flats. We were the only car left there. We had some amazing colours thanks to the clouds and reflexion of the sky on the salt flat. We eventually left the salt flat and went to our hotel for the night, a hotel made entirely of salt. Yes, the ground was pure salt, the walls, the tables, the chairs, even the base of the bed! The only thing that wasn’t made of salt were the shower and toilet. It was a very interesting experience. There we met travellers from other companies, had a hot shower and our Christmas dinner. Dinner was based on the package the company offered and because we had a cheap deal, we had a cheap dinner: salchipapas (french fries mixed with cut frankfurt sausages and eggs on that). Compared to the other tables, dinner was miserable, so much that we couldn’t stop laughing about it and ended up calling our crew ‘Salchipapas’. We then made friends with the other tables, had some drinks and played cards until midnight. Then we went outside, lighted up few sparkling candles and wished each other merry christmas. We all went to bed after that, resting on our salt beds.
Day two was very different. First of all I didn’t know but there was no more salt flats, it was only day one. So today we drove a lot. We crossed some great landscape, totally empty. A desert made of pampa vegetation with few Vincuñas (belonging to the lama family) on the way. We got close to a volcano that was separating Bolivia from Chile then turned back inland. We then went to a gorgeous lake full of flamingos. That was the first time I met those animals and, in this scenery, it was quite incredible to see. The colours were green, brown, pink with the flamingos. It was like being in a national geographic doco. We had lunch there and left when a gusty wind kicked us out. Within minutes it was almost impossible to stay outside with this wind. On our way to our next stop we all felt not so good, something in the food I guess… The weather was overcast but the colours were still amazing. We saw some more flamingos in the wild, in a different coloured lagoon. Those big birds don’t do much but they still look majestic just standing there and drinking water. A picture session and toilet break later we left towards the last part of our trip. We reached a massive lagoon from above. The overcast sky wasn’t giving it justice but the colours were still amazing. A mix of every colours you can imagine. The wind wad blowing strong on us as we were at the top of a hill. We enjoyed the view and awaited for the sun to show up which eventually did twenty minutes later but we already left. We were at the entry of the national park, on our last leg of our journey for the day. Jaime stopped at a very isolated refuge where he looked for a room to accommodate us for the night. No success on the first one but luckily there was room on the second. So we unpacked for the night, had some coffee and maté then dinner. The group we met yesterday stayed with us again so we all joined tables and ate together, it was nice. This was Christmas day and the big surprise, we had some kind of cheap champagne offered to us. We thanked Jaime and asked him to join us but he kindly refused. The night ended by playing card, a new game ‘mafia’ that got quite complex due to the Russian rules. Eventually we all went to bed as we had to wake up very early on our last day.
Four o’clock, the first alarm went off, slowly the group started to wake up. A quick round to be bathroom and we were all set to leave at four thirty as requested by Jaime the day before. We were all ready except Jaime himself. Not long after, while we were watching the stars under an amazing sky, we packed up and went. The temperatures were quite low, it was a crisp dawn so we had to put the heater in the car. I fell asleep not long after and got woken up as soon as we arrived at the geyser. We were the first car on the spot so we had it all for us. Despite our tired faces and the fresh temp outside, we all went down to enjoy this spectacular natural phenomenon. Then we walked towards the crater which was blowing white smokes all around. In the craters were boiling grey mud. The whole landscape looked so surreal I felt like we were on the moon. Slowly the sun started to rise up, creating amazing colours in the sky and making the whole place even more surreal. The temp got so cold just before the sun rising that we had to leave the spot. The whole experience was really fantastic and totally worth waking up so early. But that wasn’t it, we were now on our way to the hot springs. Half an hour drive later, we reached the pool, again we were the first there (except a couple of brave cyclist who came the day before and camped for the night). We had a great breakfast first, enjoying even pancakes with maple syrup (which was luxury for our Salchipapas crew, used to basic food). Then we went to the hot springs. It was barely 7am, the temp were still cold despite the sun being higher in the sky. The landscape surrounding the pool was also unreal, due to the colours, the smoke from the hot springs as well as the flamingos in the distance. We put on our bathing suits and got into the water. Gees, it felt so good! The water wasn’t too hot (like the one I experienced in Baños, Ecuador), just perfect. At 7.30am, because we had such a great experience, it felt like we spent half a day. More cars came later, filling the pool a bit more. Everyone was having a great time, making this memorable moment by taking pictures and videos. Some were even having a beer.. yes at seven in the morning. Oh and did I mention that the hot springs are at the altitude of 4,300m?! Almost as high as ‘Mont Blanc’ (France’s higher mountain). Just a fantastic experience, no one wanted to leave. We eventually did when the sun rose up more, pushing the temp higher and making the hot springs no longer so comfortable. A good hour and half later we went out, dried ourselves and drove towards the last stop of our trip: Laguna verde. On our way there, we saw some old volcanoes with so many different colours due to the minerals they hosted. This morning really felt like we left Earth and visited another planet. We were all in awe, capturing every moments on our cameras. This part of the desert was just gorgeous. Minutes later we arrived at our destination, a lagoon facing a majestic volcano that was separating Bolivia and Chile. The lagoon turns green when the wind blows and push the algae, revealing a green colour. There was no wind when we got there but it was still green. We could see the whole volcano reflection in the lagoon, that was cool. Our mates from the other car we spent the last two nights with, joined us for one last group photos. From there our path were splitting, some like Helena and me, were going to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Others were returning back to were we started, in Uyuni and continue their trip in Bolivia. The border between both countries wasn’t far. Helena and I said good bye to our Salchipapas crew and left to Chile. Unexpectedly a group of three French travellers from the other car, initially planning to climb the volcano, changed their mind and joined us.
We were on our way to San Pedro de Atacama, with so many memories in minds it felt like we already spent a full day yet, it was only ten in the morning… Now, in Chile, another page is turning, another country to explore and new are adventures awaiting.