Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, Part 1: Touring Otherworldly Landscapes

From San Pedro, I booked a 3-day tour to the big deal, must-visit of this area - Salar de Uyuni, or the famous Salt Flats of Bolivia!

Visiting Salar de Uyuni consist of 3 to 4 day overland tours in a 4x4 - you can start in San Pedro in Chile and drive out to Uyuni (a city in Bolivia, hence the name "Salar de Uyuni," which means "Salt flats of Uyuni), or you can go the opposite route from Bolivia to Chile.  From San Pedro (Chile) to Uyuni (Bolivia), the way I went, you have a driver in a 4x4 who takes you through the Atacama Desert and all its crazy amazing sights for 2 days, with the 3rd day ending up in Salar de Uyuni.

A Quick Note on Salar de Uyuni Tour Companies:
Regarding tour companies, there are a ton of companies who do this tour, but many have gotten kind of a bad rap over the years with drivers driving drunk, or overloading vehicles, etc.  (there have been a couple high-profile stories where tourists have died due to driver negligence and the tough terrain).  So picking the right tour operator can be tough, especially if you start the tour in San Pedro, where there are much fewer companies and the tours are generally higher-priced than their counterparts who leave out of Uyuni.  I looked at three highly-recommended companies my hostel suggested - Estrella del Sur, Cordillera, and World White Travel. I ended up just choosing the cheapest of the three, World White Travel. They have English-speaking tours but those only leave on certain days, so I ended up with a Spanish-speaking driver (not a huge deal, since you're just looking at breathtaking landscapes vs. getting into nitty-gritty historical facts), but I loved the tour and thought the company was great.

Back to real-life, this entry will cover the first 2 days of the Salar de Uyuni tour (before the actual salt flats - but the landscapes were still AWESOME, so stick with me here).  (I say stick with me because there are going to be tons and tons of photos).

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Got picked up at my hostel in San Pedro around 7:30AM - our van had 5 other people, who were the people I ended up taking the 3-day tour with (who ended up being great!).  It was only about half an hour's drive out to the Bolivian border crossing.

Here was my awesome tour group: L to R: Will (US), Keela (US), me, Alessandro (Italy), Myles (UK), and Bianca (Italy)

And this was the view the whole way - so cool looking!

Bolivian border crossing! This squat concrete block in the middle of nowhere.  Also, I just have to say that these reciprocity fee things are so annoying - for Bolivia and Argentina, they basically charge you a "reciprocity fee" for a visa - meaning whatever it costs them to enter your country, they charge you the same amount to enter their country. And the US is a jackass and charges people $160 to enter. So I've had to pay $160 EACH to enter both Bolivia and Argentina (ouch!).  Whereas people from all other countries just waltzed on through without paying anything.

  • First stop on the tour was Laguna Blanco (which translates to "white lagoon").  I don't remember specifically why all these lakes are different colors, but I do know it has to do with the minerals inside them. TA-DAAAAA

Laguna Blanco!

Look at how pretttttty!

  • Next up, we arrived at Laguna Verde ("green lagoon").  This one has extra minerals. Lots of extras. Which is why it's green.

Laguna Verde! Though it really doesn't look that green to me. This actually looked much less green than Laguna Blanco, to me.  However, it's apparently been a super-dry season with minimal rainfall (even less than the desert usually gets), which is why the lagoon is super-tiny and the green color is much less vivid than usual. If you want to be wowed, you should google image "Laguna Verde" instead.

And people have made all these super-intricate rock piles around the lagoon!

  • Stop #3, the Dalí landscapes.  This is an area of the desert where there are all these rando rocks, which are reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting (you know the one), therefore they call it the Dalí landscape.

The Dalí landscape: vast expanse of desert, weird-looking rocks strewn about artistically

We had an amazing time playing with the pano settings.  TWO CONNIES.

Just a gorgeous rando mountain that looks like a painting.

  • Stop #4, a hot springs pool.  You had to pay extra to enter, the area around it was a total construction zone, we only had 40 minutes, and Bianca thoroughly freaked us out about it being a diseased cesspool, so we didn't enter - but the view was gorgeous.

How many backpackers can you cram into a warm pool

View from the hot springs. On on side. The other side was again, a total construction zone. I think they're building a hotel or something there.

  • Stop #5, a big steam geyser and crazy bubbling mud pits!

Here is a giant geyser, which spits out super-hot, huge clouds of steam. You could hear it too; it sounded kind of like a volcano.

And my favorite part, these huge gray mud pits in the ground which were filled with super thick, frothy mud that bubbled. Like what you would expect to see in a witch's cauldron. Complete with thick bubbly noise.

I think I took a million slo-mo videos of the mud bubbles popping

  • Last stop of the day (this was a very busy day), we went to Laguna Colorada, which is a red-colored lagoon.  It also has a zillion flamingoes. 


There are three kinds of flamingoes that hang out at Laguna Colorada - these ones have black-tipped wings, which make it super pretty when they fly.

Laguna Colorada

  • That evening, we stayed out in the desert in a refugio, which are just basic shacks with the bare necessities. We spent the evening drinking tea and playing cards (I have to point out, purely for memory purposes of course, that I won every time).

The room in our refugio!  I am just now noticing how sketchy the floor looks in this place....

Dinner is served! Pastaaaaa

The eerie-looking moon. And so many stars!

  • After sleeping the night under 60 blankets (it gets cold in the desert at night!), Day 2 of our tour commences! We started off with a morning visit to Laguna Colorada again, but the other side of it - where the reflections off the lake were insane.

HOW PRETTY IS THIS REFLECTION. Also, there is a tiny moon above the tallest mountain!

Me, just to prove I went there.

Some of the zillion flamingoes take flight

  • There's a typical route this tour takes on Day 2, which visits a couple additional lagoons, but our guide Casi was REALLY pushing us to take another route, which he claimed had better and more interesting-looking landscapes. Also, due to the low rainfall this year in the desert, some of the lakes are apparently not looking so fly. So we agreed, with zero idea of what was in store for us. I'm going to zoom through these in caption-form, but it's not because they weren't awesome. It's because I'm lazy.

First up, crazy-old cave paintings!  According to Casi, these are either thousands or millions of years old.  I'm going to lean towards thousands, personally.

Exploring more cave paintings. These look like alien triplets painted on the wall.

Stop #3, a super weird-looking rock landscapes.  Our guide Casi told us this area is called Italia Perdida, or "Italy Lost", because the winding paths are reminiscent of an Italian city.

Boy band pose in front of an especially interesting rock wall


Myles had an artistic vision, and we executed it.

Stop #4 - we stopped for lunch in a super green rock canyon filled with llamas. I colloquially title this area "Llama River", due to Casi's description that this place had a river with "mils and mils" of llamas

Here, we stopped for lunch.  We're eating on a rock table! With rock chairs! 


I found this baby llama adorable. And right on cue, it spread its legs to pee.

A quick walk out of the canyon, and there are zillions more rocks. It is so, so crazy looking.

The other side of Llama River Canyon, sans llamas. 

Stop 5, a legit real canyon of rocks that was super super high.

And after a couple hours, our last stop of the day - railroad tracks in the middle of the desert!  These only see about 2 trains a week, our guide says. It's really weird because the entire area seems so, so deserted - and then randomly, there are railroad tracks!

Our car just chilling in the desert.

And you've made it to the end of an epically long post!  I'm not going to include any fun facts or anything because I think you've suffered enough, but make sure you stick around for tomorrow, which is the HIGHLIGHT OF THIS ENTIRE THING: THE ACTUAL SALT FALTS OF UYUNI!!  And they are life-changing, so get. ready.

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