So here we were, stuck on a bus in the middle of nowhere between Chile & Bolivia. We looked around and all we could see were mountains and a whole load of other buses waiting in line for something or anything to happen. We hadn’t been informed of anything but as the JCB diggers started to arrive and take over the buses we knew that it was a landslide.
We had boarded a ‘Atacama 3000’ bus at 5:30am from Calama city in The Atacama Desert costing $10,000 CLP/£12 each. We’d actually booked the tickets in advance in San Pedro town because everything was getting booked up so fast it was crazy. We had done loads of research in advance and found that it was much cheaper to do a tour from Bolivia into the salt flats rather than do a three/four day tour through the desert as many people do. To be fair, this tour probably misses out on much of the hassle crossing the border but HEY we’re here to save money right?!
So we’re on this bus since 5:30am and we come to a complete standstill by lunchtime. We completely forgot in some crazy rush to but water or food before we got on. (God knows why) if you’ve travelled South America you’ll know that there is usually sellers everywhere you go and you can always get your hands on whatever you fancy pretty quickly… but some reason this was not the case and there wasn’t a seller in sight for hours. The bus was due to arrive at 1pm in Uyuni but we were 8 hours in and literally just stuck staring at mountains and really damn thirsty.
I think between lunchtime and 10pm that night we were stuck in 3 landslides overall. The bus was rammed with lots of families with small children and stressed out tourists. It was chaos. We eventually reached the border which was super slow and the staff checked through everyone’s bags and took ages to sort the passports and give everyone a stamp.
At about 5pm we stopped at the craziest roadside restaurant where we were greeted with a whole field of alpacas and snowy topped mountains. Our first steps in Bolivia. We couldn’t believe it. We were in such a daze from the journey and this just was so surreal. The whole restaurant was rammed and all the Bolivians literally fought each other for the food. I was doing my typically awkward queuing routine & people who were last off the bus just screamed ‘sopa’ from the back of the room to be served first. I was so annoyed and so tired. Like people were actually pushing each other out the way. They just have known the restaurant only had enough food for a few people or something. They only had about 8 meals to give out to the whole bus and of course the bus driver always gets served first. I settled for two bottles of water and some extremely overpriced Pringles.
So mad seeing all these alpacas at a service station…
So we finally arrive in Uyuni and our bags are checked across the pavement. On first glance the town looked pretty basic, which was truly what we were expecting from everywhere in Bolivia. We walked to our hotel which was called Castillo de Liliana (£18 per night). It was freezing. We got such a shock, never did we expect it to be so cold in Bolivia I needed a huge jumper on soon as we arrived. The beds had huge duvets and blankets on. We snuggled down for the night drained from the journey.
We woke the next day looking forward to exploring what Bolivia had in store. First up the hotel breakfast: much better than anything we had got in Chile or Argentina! Scrambled eggs, cereal, toast, yoghurts… these people liked to EAT! Our first wander around Uyuni proved fruitful too. We found ATM’s everywhere which were completely free to use. What a revolutionary idea! You probably won’t believe me when I tell you that all the ATM’s in Argentina cost £7 to withdraw from (cries). Anyways so it seemed that we could use card in restaurants and shops too! How forward thinking eh! We checked out the market and a few shops, the stuff was SO nice! So colourful too at such cheap prices. Jack found himself an alpaca wool jumper, a stripy hat and two badges for £13! Bargains everywhere. Oh we also bought Larry the llama for £3 there too who has remained in my backpack ever since.
As soon as you arrive in Uyuni you’ll realise that it’s just FULL of tourist agencies. No need to book anything in advance. You literally can book and jump on the next day. We found an agency called Hadoka Montana who were offering a one day trip to the salt flats for $200 Bolivianos/£20 each. We had seen elsewhere for slightly cheaper, but what the hell, £20 is really very good value for a tour that lasts 10am to 8pm including lunch! We had also ready good reviews about this company too. There are many reports of the drivers being drunk on the salt flats in Bolivia, like in many places in Bolivia to be honest so We thought it was worth paying a little extra for a better tour & driver. So yep we booked, paid the cash and were MEGA excited to get there and experience it for ourselves!
We got slightly over excited on our first day in Uyuni with the cheap prices and ended up buying quite a few ‘Potosina’ beers. A 600ml bottle was about £1.50. We’d barely been able to afford any beers in Chile at all so it was pretty much a dream. There are tonnes of shops and tables in Uyuni so you can buy a beer at regular shop price and still be able to chill out there. In the evening we went to this place called ‘Lithium Club’ and had a massive chicken soup each for £2. We were eventually to find out in Bolivia that the soups are DELICIOUS (full of chicken, potato, egg and tasty broth) and always fill you up for a such a cheap price.
Uyuni was so cold, but so bright! Never seen such blue sky and fluffy clouds
The next morning we woke at 8am ready to head to the salt flats after our mighty breakfast. We went to the local shop first to buy a few beers for photo opportunities on the flats and headed to the tour office for 10am. We were greeted by a really friendly tour guide and three Japanese guys. If you didn’t already know, Uyuni is hugely popular with Japanese and Korean tourists, many tour agencies even have signs up in these languages, and the streets are filled with huge groups from there!
Anyways so we all jump in the jeep and drive about 10 mins to a big shop full of Wellington boots (gum or rubber boots to the rest of the world). We were each given a pair as part of the price of the tour! Decent. We asked if it was absolutely needed and the driver explained that in rainy season it was ankle deep water in places so worth wearing them.
So we were all geared up and back in the jeep. The first stop was to the famous ‘train cemetery’. I was really looking forward to this place just as much as the actual salt flats! Uyuni has long been known as an important transportation hub in South America and it connects several major cities. In the early 19th century, big plans were made to build an even bigger network of trains out of Uyuni, but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighbouring countries. The trains and other equipment were left to rust and fade out of memory. Most of the trains that can be found in the Graveyard actually date back to the early 20th century and were imported from Britain. We arrived and it was absolutely heaving. One of those ‘instagram vs reality’ moments. Like there was hundreds of people there just climbing all over the trains trying to get the perfect shot. The trains themselves are massive so be prepared for some serious climbing here. I couldn’t believe how high some people got! It was truly stunning though I’ve never seen anywhere like it in the world. We were asked how long we wanted to stay there and the driver suggested 30 mins. Honestly it was not long enough at all and we just rushed around like mad dodging people and their photos. I was pretty disappointed I couldn’t get many good snaps. Word of advice: take your photos quickly as possible before someone jumps in it! It’s not actually that far out of the town so you could easily go out and visit outside of a tour, perhaps even for sunset which would be stunning.
Unbelievably cool, but so crowded
So it was all over and we were back in the jeep. The driver had suggested we beat the other tours to it and get to the salt flats quickly as possible and we all agreed! There was one more stop before the actual salt flats: a spot to pick up the lunch for the group and to colchani town where there are lots of stalls and a museum. It was really just another tourist trap but the stuff is cheap and you can stock up on water and snacks.
Right so we were finally en route to the famous Salar de Uyuni, amid the Andes in southwest Bolivia – the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desertlike, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands.
A usual Uyuni tour takes you to a place called Fish Island which is in fact not an island or involves any fish but a spot filled with the craziest cacti. I’ve seen many photos of this place over the years and honestly it looks beautiful.
Before we knew it we suddenly hit the salt flats and we driving through ankle depth of water. Honestly we were speechless. The whole jeep was speechless. We had the most perfect mirror reflection right in front of us. The sky was perfectly clear, just a few clouds to add to the affect. I truly had never seen such blue sky in my life. We jumped out at our first point and took a walk around. The salt splashes all over you in rainy reason, so be prepared to leave in a mess! We took thousands of photos before moving onto our second spot where the driver set up our lunch. He literally whipped out a table, chairs and a chicken dinner for us as we sat looking at one of the most surreal views we have EVER seen. My mind was blown.
I think I’ll let my photos do the talking:
After lunch we headed to the famous salt flat hotel, a hotel made entirely from salt (including the tables and chairs) it was a spot where many of the longer tours were having lunch and staying. This is also the location of the famous flags from around the world. Such a cool photo.
Next it was time for the driver to organise some of his own photos. Part of the tour is the perspective photo part and it was so much fun. Us and our three new Japanese friends spent hours pretending to run away from dinosaurs, being crushed by cans and making perfect circle reflections! The photos are just mad and we still can’t get over them to this day!
Can it get any cooler than this?
The final stop of the day was the sunset. As we approached the last point the sky started to turn purple. Then pink. It was the perfect candyfloss combination. The reflection melted into the sky, it was honestly so confusing, like a meeting of the earth and heaven. You couldn’t see the end, there was no end it just went on for miles. It just all merged together giving us these crazy crazy colours at what looked like the end of the world. After about 20 mins the sky was on fire, filled with orange and our shadows reflected so far. We sat and watched on our stools and taking of course more photos. The best and craziest sunset I have ever witnessed.
Candy floss sky & the end of the world
I truly don’t think I would want to visit the salt flats out of rainy season. Despite how amazing it is, for me the mirror reflection was the most incredible part. The rainy season is between December – March. Make sure you get a clear day too! Grey clouds would really spoil it!
We arrived back to our hotel at 8pm. All i wanted to do was look at our photos and tell everyone about it. So so incredible. Something amazing happened that day honestly.
Is this real life?