We arrived at the salt hotel which was situated 3800m high on the Altiplano. Everything in the hotel was made of salt including the beds, tables, chairs and walls. It had taken about 7 hours to reach this remote outpost which was nothing more than a cluster of ramshackle houses surrounded by desolate windswept desert . We travelled in a Toyota Land Cruiser, during the ride we had ascended through colourful red shaded mountains graced by gliding mountain birds and we intersected occasional fields of inquisitive Llamas. At one point we stopped to assist a Llama that had got stuck in an icy river, it looked grateful as it waddled off to be reunited with its friends. We had travelled from Tupiza, a town in south Bolivia close to the Argentinian border and had now spend the evening in the hotel before getting up before dawn to drive onto the salt flats to see the sunrise.
I was greeted by “Ricky” as soon as I opened the car doors. A tall lanky man with long black hair, his hair was bound in a loose pony tail. Ricky’s welcoming demeanour suggested to me that he was the hotel owner but we soon found out that Ricky was a guest with another tour party that had arrived before us. Ricky’s over familiarity continued as he softly kissed each female member of our party on their cheeks leaving them slightly tense and bemused. The situation got stranger when Ricky told us that his wife was ill in bed eating chocolate so he was about to go into the village to “take pictures of children”? We made a hasty decamp to our bedroom made of salt, slightly concerned about where we had come to and more concerned about the people that frequented this solitary place.
We booked our salt flats trip with Le Tourre, an agency based in Tupiza. We had avoided the more traditional starting point of Uyuni because the local Bolivian folk had blockaded the roads in protest at the lack of progress after the mayor had promised to build a new bus terminal. We heard it was dangerous and there was a chance we might have got stuck in the town so we travelled from Potosi to Tupiza instead.
Earlier in our travels, at Sucre we had met a Dutch couple, Esmee and Jeff. They too had heard about the protests but like us, they were adamant to see the salt flats not wanting to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Jeff and Esmee were keen to a do a two day tour rather then the traditional three night four day tour that most travellers seem to follow. Tracy and I weren’t fussed about the four day itinerary either, we’d had Llama farm overkill in Peru and we could see geyzers later when we reached New Zealand. A plan was hatched and the four of us met in Tupiza at 4am about four days later. To quote the A-Team “the plan came together”, we loved the salt flats, Jeff and Esme were great company, and four of us in the SUV was a bonus, most tours take six.
After leaving our bags in the room we strolled into the hamlet and on the way the others saw Ricky lurking behind a wall with his long lens. The 6th August is national Bolivia day, a day when Bolivians get totally wrecked whilst trying to remember what makes Bolivia great. The twenty or so villagers that we witnessed dancing in the square were absolutely hammered. Bolivian folk are generally a stoic bunch that keep themselves to themselves (that’s my polite description, PM me for a better one) but these traditionally dressed revellers, high on alcohol and altitude were happy as Larry beckoning us over to dance. We politely avoided their advances, kept a look out for Ricky and walked on to the top of a nearby hill to catch the sun descending over the undulating sandy horizon.
The next morning we left at 5.30 am, driving through the last of the night towards the salt plateau. As dawn arrived, the sandy ground beneath us gave way to grey hexagonal like shapes, we were excited to finally be approaching the salt flats. Our driver stopped before sun rise and we stepped onto the moon like surface that we had seen so often in pictures. It was before dawn and we were walking through the cleanest, crispest morning air, it felt like we were on top of the world. The white, greyish landscape went on as far as the eye could see in a 360 degree panorama of uninterrupted salt. The sun made a grand entrance on the horizon ahead and illuminated the impressive vista with even more natural beauty. Slowly the sky became blue, a wholesome blue that would otherwise be found in a children’s picture book.
After sunrise we returned to the vehicles and drove about another 50 minutes across the salt flats, there are no roads, I guess the driver’s compass is his experience. It was ages before we noticed any other SUV’s but in the distance gradually more and more land cruisers came storming through the salt from different directions, ultimately meeting at our next location, El de Cactus a rocky out-crag in the middle of the flats We walked to the top of the rocks for more pictures then gathered around the vehicle to eat cake laced with the South American favourite, Dulche de Leche, a slightly sickly but palatable caramel spread.
We drove a further twenty or so minutes into the salt plain and stopped to take photos, making the most of this unique landscape. We managed to take some great photos but remembered to savour the experience, we would be unlikely to visit this unique place again. The sun, although intense in its brightness couldn’t warm the air around us, it was freezing cold on the salt flats and we were eventually grateful to seek sanctuary in the car.
We drove on to Uyuni but first stopped to see another rocky out-crag where flags had been placed to mark the Dakar Rally which had sped through the salt flats earlier in the year. Our driver had driven fairly safely apart from a near miss the previous day. He was accompanied throughout by his partner who cooked our meals. After lunch from the boot of the car in Uyuni, we then had to endure a 7 hour drive back to Tupiza which was made easier as we chatted to Esmee and Jeff.
The surrounding mountainous landscape continued to impress but we were now descending out of the mountains through terrifying switch backs on dirt tracks with steep horror drops at the side. I clung on to the handle above the window, I guessed that our driver had driven these tracks hundreds of times before but familiarity breads contempt and he was driving pretty fast and uncomfortably close to the edge. At one point we passed a road sign depicting a car on a steep descent. We laughed at how the descent was almost vertical and just as we laughed the driver seemed to lose control of the car as he veered sharply off the road. My heart left my mouth as we left the road over a bump as I was certain we were were careering to sure death. It turned out the driver was taking a short cut, cross country. I suspect the sharp turn entertains the driver because we all screamed in the back. I think the road sign was placed strategically there to give the trick more affect – it worked.
We arrived back in Tupiza some 7 hours later. La Torre had taken care of us and facilitated the trip of a lifetime. The salt flats were amazing and although we spent a lot of time in the jeep, the ultimate destination was worth it. If you want to get to the flats without the faff in between consider a two day tour with La Torre from Tupiza.