The Great Bolivian Overland Trip

Uyuni Travel Blog

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The Great Salt Flats

2:30 a.m.  One lone backpacker disembarks a weary train in the frigid altiplano night and disappears into the still-sleeping town of Uyuni to begin one of the great Bolivian trips.

As mentioned in my last post, the heavy road blocks in Bolivia have prevented travel between the capital, La Paz, and the altiplano (Bolivia's scenic south), resulting in many stranded travellers.  Looking back reflectively now, I am thankful that I got out the way I did, as absurdedly hectic as it seemed at the time.  As a result, I'm the only foreigner on the train to Uyuni from Oruro.

To a Canadian, yes, to a Canadian - it is surprisingly cold in Uyuni, and in the dark hush of night, I hustle into the one dimly-lit hotel that has remained open to accept late travellers from the train.

Train Graveyard
  Early next morning, I realize I have much time to confidently cruise around the travel agencies offering the overland trip from Bolivia to Chile through the Great Salt Flats.  One at a time, each agency makes me listen to their identical sales-pitches and trip itineraries, even though my first and only question is "Cuanto cuesta?". 

A bit smarter (but as you shall read later, not completely) from my Amazon trip, I request to go through lists of other travellers signed up, so that I'm not stuck with a group of couples or people who all speak one language.  I decide upon a different tour that has a one night stop in a Salt Hotel. 

And so I'm off.

In summary, the high-altitude scenery encountered was vast, varied, and a genuine thrill to see.

The Great Salt Flats
  Pictures speak a thousand words, so rather than describe these places, I'm just going to post up some pictures for a shallow glimpse of what I experienced, keeping in mind that actually being there is many times more incredible. 

The myriad of experiences include train graveyards, mining salt dunes, playing football and breakdancing on the blinding-white Great Salt Flats, pink flamingoes on red and green lakes, inactive volcanoes, weird rock formations (great for rock climbing/bouldering, especially with the gravel-like ground), deafening geysers, and an overland trip on a 4x4 reaching almost 5000m.

Of course, they saved the best for last.

At that altitude, we're cold almost the entire time.  So for the three days, showers were reserved for only the truly insane or obsessively-clean.

Bubbling thermals
  On the last day, however, at 5:30 a.m. and at over 4500m, we come upon a viciously tempting hot spring.  Of course, the key to a nearby newly-constructed, very-inviting bathhouse was lost like the sanity of those who have dared to enter the thermal waters.  Combined with -10 degree whipping winds guarding the hot spring sanctuary, most reasonable people opted out on exposing themselves in such inclement conditions and jumping in and settled for the amusement of watching Those-Who-Deliberate. 

The real question on everyone's mind (including yours, I bet) was, "What am I going to do when it's time to get out?"

Well, the opportunity to be warm after a drafty, bone-chilling morning drive was too irresistible for a select few, who chose the wrong tour operator and rode either in heatless vehicles or drivers who refused to turn on the heat to save energy and kill the enthusiasm of their hapless passengers - both of which are the same from my perspective.

Early morning hot springs
 

One by one, we all stripped down faster than we have ever in our lives and plunged in.  

Aaaaaaah.

The air temperature was so cold that my hair turned brittle upon emerging my head from the comforting waters.  However, as we stayed longer, the sun peaked itself (really beautiful, by the way) and offered some added warmth.  Funny enough, when the dreaded time to come out arrived, it wasn't so bad.  The warm water on my skin seemed to shield me enough from the cold air, and I didn't even shiver as I quickly changed and made the mad dash to the nearby lodge for breakfast.

The journey concluded with a pleasant crossing into Chile, and wow, what a difference Chile is from Bolivia.  We're initially greeted by clean, well-maintained asphalt roads and a comfortable bus complete with a mini-tour of the hospitable resort town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Salt Dunes

The trip was amazing, but as positive as I'd like to be, I did have an issue with the decrepit, I-can't-believe-it's-still-running vehicle we travelled in, which was sub-standard compared to the better tour companies.  This meant:

- Slow vehicle

- Stiff suspension that transfers the rumble to your bones after hours on rocky roads.

- A bad draft.  On the third day, at 5 a.m. at 5000m with whipping winds, it just crawled through the.  I actually felt the snow fly into my face.  Yes, and the jeep had no heating.

- No power!  We were the only group that had to get out and hike one of the high passes for fear of the jeep stalling.  On the positive side, we saw these funny chinchilla-like creatures along the way.

- Windows didn't work.

Laguna Verde
  Radio didn't work.  Gauges didn't work.  When would the car itself stop working?

Oh, and I wasn't even grouped with the people on the list!  However, aside from one couple who attempted to rush the entire trip, the other two made great travel mates.  I think the name of my company was Janpath - it's really close to the train station.  They, and some other companies, just hire mercenary tour vehicles to do their evil bidding.  They don't actually own a fleet.

I think the other companies such as Kantuta Tours, Andrea Tours, Oasis Tours  seemed to have their own great fleet (marked vehicles) at the same price - and better food too.  I actually sneaked some breakfast from another group on the last day!

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The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
Train Graveyard
Train Graveyard
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
Bubbling thermals
Bubbling thermals
Early morning hot springs
Early morning hot springs
Salt Dunes
Salt Dunes
Laguna Verde
Laguna Verde
Train Graveyard
Train Graveyard
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Volcanic Scenery
Volcanic Scenery
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
The Great Salt Flats
Uyuni
photo by: razorriome