Uyuni: A Desert on the Moon!
From La Paz, we took a night bus (another one…) to Uyuni, still in Bolivia, for about 11 hours and BOB$150 per person. The old city is famous for its train cemetery, three surrounding volcanoes, mummified Incas but above all, its gigantic 2000 square-meter salt flat!
One thing that surprised us at first, being more used to extended hours on long bus rides, is that the bus which was originally scheduled for an arrival at 7am got there at 5.15am. The company was Trans Omar but it seems to be a bit of a norm across the many others too. We had booked our trek directly from La Paz, the day before, in one of the many agencies you can find there. If you are stuck in a dilemma between two agencies, thinking that perhaps one would give you a better tour than the other, don’t panic! From what we saw, they offer pretty much the same services on the field, with a difference between the 1, 2 or 3-day tours. The little extras you might pay for are a service in English (an actual one, not just two words thrown here and there), some hot drinks along the way, etc…
We were there for the 2-day tour (we paid BOB$550 per person, which is about €67, not sure if that was the best price possible, I was half sick with the altitude and So was on her own rushing at the last minute through the many tours on offer), so here is the list of what we got to see.
The Train Cemetery
Upon arrival, on a freezing early morning in Uyuni, our guide was there with a sign reading our names to pick us up. We got into his jeep and headed straight to their main office. There, we had to leave our big backpacks and take only the essential things into smaller bags. Everything is done by jeep with about 7 people on-board, so the space is too tight for big luggage.
"If you are travelling with a big backpack or suitcase, make sure that the company you choose offers a deposit service for the bags, since it would be quite annoying to have to check-in to some random hotel just to leave them."
At that stage, we were packed and ready to go, trying to forget the tiredness of a night’s sleep on the bus and… we had to wait for 5 more hours. Most tours would start at 10.30am, so the companies wait for all the following buses to get to Uyuni and they only hit the road at that stage. Norma, the owner, kindly drove us to a cafeteria with Wi-Fi (not the most common thing, trust me) and we had breakfast and coffees to kill about one hour off the 5.
Eventually, the time had come to get on the Jeep and get some adventure! We were 7 tourists: Lara, Mayder & Ander from the Basque Country, Matheus from Brazil and the three of us, So’, our friend Eric and myself, all French. Our guide, called Marcelo, explained briefly what we were gonna do in Spanish and got the engine roaring. Our first stop was the famous train cemetery. Built in 1892, a huge train track is to be crossed to discover dozens of old rusty vintage looking trains. Apparently, according to Marcelo, a deal was done with the British back then, that all trains and tracks would be provided in exchange for their choice of minerals and natural resources. It apparently didn’t end very well, based on the amount of rusting metal sitting out there, but there’s a great buzz for tourists! Like pretty much everything in Bolivia, there aren’t many rules and protection for these trains, so you can just climb up on them, take arty pictures or stupid ones, or just feel like you’re travelling in time while walking along them. You can also have your James Bond moment of running over the top of some wagons, a lot of fun! Of course, you always have to watch your ass and don’t act like a dope, because if you fall down from the top of these giant trains or hit one of these rusty screws, you will probably find a lot less fun in the overall experience!
One thing that is quite important in Bolivia, everybody guesses why if they’ve done a little research on the street food there, is that the place is equipped with a public toilet. And it is the case in pretty much all stops on this tour. It’s not the Ritz but it might save you. Count around 3 to 5 Bolivianos to get in.
From the train cemetery, it’s only a 20km ride to the town of Colchaqui. Located on the border of the Salar (salt flat), the city lives of tourism today, but historically of the artisan processing of salt for the rest of the country. Since all neighbouring nations have their own salt resources, it’s not being exported and only supported by domestic consumption.
The town is full of small houses made of salt bricks, that the guys literally saw off the ground and allow to dry in the sun for a while. There’s a small market with artisan salt sculptures and other Bolivian souvenirs (hats, alpaca ponchos, leather bounded books, little lama keyrings…). The prices are quite good and the things seemed to be mostly made by locals, unlike other “traditional markets”.
Once there, we took a little tour of the salt “factory”. I’m using quotation marks here because it’s more like someone did it in his garage than the idea you might have of a factory. In fact, it was probably one of the coolest visits we’ve had during that trip. The old local guy showed us how they would bring the salt straight from the salar, dry it on a big pan over an open fire, by batches of 150 kilos, mill it and add iodine to protect the Thyroid glands and finally bag it using a flame to seal the sachets. The tour was really good and I highly recommend it, a little contribution will certainly be asked at the end. Before you take out your big notes of Bolivianos, take a look at the board of what they are selling as contributions: a bag of 250g of salt is BOB$1, 500g for BOB$2… as a reminder, it takes BOB$8.16 to make up €1!
After that, we were free to wander around the market to look at the many artifacts. If you don’t have a hat, you’re gonna be at around 3650 m.a.s.l here, the UV index is insanely high, so get one for yourself there where they’re cheap and give back to the local community.
This is it, you finally made it to the Moon! The Salar is a huge, never-ending white flat land. It is so long and wide that if you point your camera at the horizon (preferably a wide angle or fisheye), you will see the natural curve of the Earth. How’s that for a trip to the Moon?
The Salar is the result of the disappearance of the giant Tauca lake 14,000 years ago, due to the movement of tectonic plates. The blocs of Peru, Bolivia and Chile got together, forcing the land to rise and the sea to collapse. Three volcanoes can still be seen around there today and the Salar is the Natural sea salt that was left behind. Together with the nearby Coipasa Salar, they form the largest salt formation in the world!
"Like I said, you’re high up altitude wise and with the reflection of the Sun on the salt, cover yourself in solar protection cream. Even if you think your tan is already good enough not to get burnt, remember that locals, whose tan is pretty advanced, still use it themselves, everyday!"
There are millions of pictures I could put here, it was really hard to select them, from the illusion of “floating mountains” over the salt in the distance, to the hexagonal lines on the ground due to the natural path of water, or even the blue blue skies over the white white land… just mind-blowing!
The Salt Hotel Museum
Not much of a hotel and definitely not what I’d describe as a museum, I still loved that place because that’s where we had lunch. It was quite basic but OK, if you are on a fragile stomach, like I was, it’s designed for you! Lunch was made of boiled potatoes, rice, overcooked chicken supreme, some bananas for dessert and Coke or water for drinks. You couldn’t dream of a better menu if you’re unwell, pure hospital food!
Our group shared lunch at the same table, time to talk about where we came from, what we were doing and what the hell had brought all of us around that table in the wild heart of Bolivia to eat together. It was quite fun, after lunch we went to check out the Museum part, only to find out that it was where we had taken our lunch. So we went back, paid attention to the handful of statues, tables and chairs made of salt, not much of a museum but a great experience overall.
If you are fond of motor sports, you’ll dig the big Dakar Bolivia monument outside. Also made of salt, it was probably one of the most impressive thing to see.
The Isla Inkahuasi
Meaning “the House of the Inca” in Quechua native language, this island is jaw-dropping. It came after a never-ending car ride through the white salar, perfect time to take a big nap after lunch. But hold on, I see you coming here, “an island in the desert?” you think? Well, it’s not your typical island, remember the salt flats used to be covered in water? Back then, the top part of this little hill would have been an island. And some funky little details are here to testify of the old times. For a start, if you look closely at the rocks, you’ll notice that they’re nothing but a huge coral construction. Want more? Climb up to the top of the hill and on your way back, you’ll find the big “Arco de Coral”, a natural coral helix staircase.
One of the top things to see there is the many huge cactus that can go up to six or eight meters. In their favourite environment, dry and hot, they strove to this insane height, really beautiful. If you get a chance, take a look at the furniture outside the little Cafeteria there, it’s all made of dried cactus, beautiful art pieces!
Let’s talk about price: the entrance to the Island was BOB$30 per person, not included in the tour, but really worth it!
Sunset over the Salar
That’s one thing I never really understood, standing here to stare at a huge ball of fire that everybody knows you shouldn’t even look at… We were all there, with literally no one around us, miles away. We’re all taking off one piece of garment, standing up in the Salar, with our cameras ready in our hands (knowing that it would probably destroy them…). I’m not really getting it. But eventually, the magic kicked in.
A cold wind starts to blow, we all put on the clothes we took off earlier. The skies get a little darker and for once, I turn around. Oh my!!! In the distance, on the clouds far away, a full range of colours start to reflect. There’s red, yellow, pink, everything, it’s amazing! Eventually the skies get real dark, so I turn around to see the last bit of the sun disappearing. Rays of god-like light are exploding in the horizon!
Now the salar is all dark and cold. The sun is gone. Time to head back into the car and go for dinner already.
A night at the Salt Hostel (Coqueza)
From the salar we headed towards a small archeologic village of Coqueza. The way in to the village is an old road between two stunning rock walls, surrounded by green land and pink flamingos.
When you’ve done a few of these tours, your expectations of the overnight hostel is more like a refuge with a hole in the ground for toilets. So, when we got there, from the outside, the place met our expectations. But we eventually unloaded the bags from the roof of the Jeep and proceeded inside. Wow! The place was entirely made of salt. Thin & rocky on the bedroom floor, large bricks on the walls, just incredible! And clean! With two toilets and one bathroom. Just perfect really. There might have been a few issues for those who wanted 5 star holidays, like the pressure in the shower or even the fluctuating temperature of the water, the fact all electronic goods could only be charged in one spot and until 22.00 no later, same for the Wi-Fi (more like a Fi, or half Wi-Fi…) but anyway, these are all common basic expectations for travelling in Bolivia!
On top of the great look of the house, there was a beautiful smell of food when we got in. We were first given infusions and coffees with biscuits (we all agreed that it was weird before dinner, but we all ate them and drank them happily, so maybe it makes sense…) and then dinner was served. The smell came from a fantastic grand-mother’s style soup, with chunky vegetables inside, served with white bread. An incredible treat after standing in the cold desert at sunset. Then we got spaghetti served with a vegetable tomato sauce and some grated cheese. We were all around communal tables, sharing the same food again, and there was a real feel of a happy family there in Bolivia. At the end of the meal, we had asked for a candle for our friend Eric since his birthday was that day back home. The only issue was that there was no dessert included, but they didn’t give up. A candle was brought on a plate along with a bottle of Bolivian red wine from Tarija called Kohlberg. Slightly sweet and with notes of cooked wine and prunes, I’m not sure whether we liked it or not, but we all shared a glass before going to bed, for a fantastic memory!
On the second day, we went to the local tourist office and registered our names, genders and nationality so that the local authorities could keep a record of things. A great thing to do, for instance our host the previous night told us that in 2014, only 270 Bolivians had been there but that this year, up until October only, more than 3000 had showed up! And it goes the same with all countries, except South Africa and other African Nations according to him, so if you’re reading this in Africa, quick quick, get your name on that register first!!!
The other reason of our visit there, was to pay the BOB$30 fee to enter the volcano and tomb of the mummies. We did so and didn’t regret it!
The Inca Mummies
I’ve only seen bodies petrified in turf in a museum in Ireland before, and one Egyptian mummy at the Louvre in Paris, but these ones had something very special about them. Perhaps the fact that nothing had been done to them to preserve them, only the natural dryness and cold days in their cave.
We entered what used to be this family’s house, through a really low hole in the wall. And right there, to our right, the mother of the family was waiting for us, mummified, wrapped in her lama’s woolen throw almost intact. Beside her, three little kids and babies were also present, looking like they were gonna stand up and run after us at any moment, especially three days before Halloween. We kept going further to discover the men. All bodies were put in a fetal position when dead, in order to seek reincarnation in a future life. In the middle of the room, there was a hole in the ground. Quite a quirky thing by the way, people would throw coca leaves, coins or cigarettes there as a sacrifice to the divinities. Not sure whether it works or not but we all did it anyway.
Over all, there was something magical about this visit, it really felt like we were the first ones to enter the tomb. In reality, with 30 solid years of tourism, we were definitely not, but having the old local explaining the story of this family and standing a meter away from them had something special. I’d really recommend it!
Trekking on the Volcano
This part was so-so. I had been unwell in La Paz the previous day due to altitude sickness, experiencing great fatigue and headaches, so a local doctor had told me to ask for oxygen when doing the tour. I had done so with the agency, agreed to pay a certain fee (still not sure whether this is supposed to be an obligation to provide it for them or if they have the right to charge you, but anyway, many things seem quite blurry in Bolivia, law wise…) but things didn’t go according to the plan.
On day 1, at the office, the boss of the tour company, Norma, had told me that if I were feeling unwell prior to the ascension of the volcano, she’d rather I didn’t do it. I said OK. We got to that point and I was quite alright, probably getting used to being at 3650 m.a.s.l. The volcano rises up to 5500m but the ascension “only” takes us to 4400m.
So, we got started. So’ walked for about 10 minutes but the rocks were really stiff and her ankle/ligaments still being fragile from her incident, she decided to turn back. We asked the guide which was the best, he indicated one way and said: “I’m going back down myself now as well anyway, you guys keep going, I’ll meet when you come back”.
At first, I thought “great, he’s going to help her to go down”. But when they were gone I realised “shit, we don’t have neither a guide nor a bottle of oxygen here”. Since the communication had been minimal to say the least, I didn’t even know if I could turn back or if he would have moved the car to meet us at a different location. So, I kept going for one of the hardest treks I have done so far. The lack of oxygen combined with very stiff and slippery rocks made it a hell of a climb.
Eventually, after just over one hour and about twenty breaks to catch our breaths, we got to the top and stared at the beautiful nature in front of us. A multi-colour volcano with shades of orange all over it, facing the bright white salt flat surrounded by thousands of green plants and colourful flowers, just incredible.
There were also some piles of rocks here and there, put in an artful balance, quite beautiful. Thinking back about it, the trek was worth the effort but not having a guide or somebody who knows how to react if the s**t hits the fan could have turned it into a nightmare…
Flamingos & Lamas
We went back down to the very same parking lot (meaning that I could have turned back earlier, but I was glad I hadn’t), I found So’ there who showed me all the fantastic pictures of lamas she had done before falling asleep in the Jeep. In fact, there were loads of them lovely creatures around. Since I had one of them spitting over me at a zoo when I was a kid, I didn’t really approached them much, but they were all real cute.
We headed back to the same hostel to have lunch, another delicious meal with traditional homemade Milanesa (thin slice of chicken breast or pork coated in breadcrumbs and herbs), with vegetables and rice. Dessert was a selection of oranges from the garden. We had some time after lunch to go and play with the house parrot outside in the garden, trying to get him to repeat stupid things in everybody’s language and finally hit the road again.
On the way down, passing over that road that leads into the village, with rock walls around it, we pulled on the side and walked down to the pink flamingos. You can’t run towards them because they’ll fly away even further, so the whole thing is to find the right pace to approach them.
Everybody got his pictures done and we got into the car again.
The Salt Blocks
In the Salar, I kept wondering how did the guide found his way. I mean, the place is big and white, it’s not like they have road signs or anything, just salt. But anyway, he did, one more time, and we got to a place where they excavate salt blocks from the ground. They literally saw them off the ground and roll them on their side, showing darker lines for every year due to the raining season. The ones we saw were about four years of salt.
Back to Uyuni
That’s it, our trip came to an end. Already time to go back to the town of Uyuni and catch another bus. Next destination: Copacabana and the Isla del Sol!
Stay tuned for more info, safe travels!