Once in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, we decide it’s time to cross into Bolivia. We decide to book a 3 day, 4-wheel trek across the desert to Uyuni, Boliva. Below are the tails from what has essentially become my e-diary, sorry most of it was written in notes and in a hurry, so its not that great.
Trip to Uyuni, March 12th – March 14th
Day One: We get up painfully early before the sun rises to get ready and pack our bags. Tyler wanders the town to find an ATM so we have money to exchange into Bolivanos, as well as buy last minute snacks and bread for breakfast. We wait around outside the office for awhile until finally a van picks us up and we set off for the border. We’re stamped out of Chile easily enough, and continue on to the Laguna Verde border crossing into Bolivia: remote, in the middle of the desert altiplano. From there we’re told we can temporarily enter Bolivia, but as soon as we get to Uyuni we have to each pay $US 135 to obtain our visas. Not too bad…the only problem so far is that we specifically went to the ATM in Chile to get pesos to exchange in Bolivia to pay entrance fees and have some cash when we get to town because the ATM is supposed to be spotty, but we never get a chance to stop. So frustrating! But the scenery and company makes up for everything…
We drive through the desert in our trusty Land Rover with our fantastic Bolivian guide Neftali. After a few hours through the incredibly high and remote desert, we come across a lake, known as the white lagoon. Who would expect water out here?! The more impressive sight is the Green Lagoon, which, when the wind and sun are just right, goes from watery brown to bright turquoise! It was amazing to watch it slowly transform – well worth the wait! Next sight was the Dali rock fields, which apparently inspired the famous Spanish artist (or they just look like his work, I can’t remember now…). As we keep driving all day long, we have good conversations with our new friends and trip-mates: Will and Isabel. By the time we reach the Polque Hot Springs we’re already sharing towels along with stories. The hot springs were great (with a fantastic view), but maybe a little much with the altitude (close to 5,000 meters – which is about 16,404 feet of elevation!). Next stop: Morning Sun Geyser Basin, where we walk around active, bubbling, muddy, sulfuric geysers. They’re not like Old Faithful; they’re more like some kind of swamp-land from your imagination when you’re reading Lord of the Rings. Still interesting to see though! Finally, a few hours later we arrive at the refugio by the Red Lagoon. Like the Green Lagoon, when the sun and wind are just right the lagoon turns an amazing shade of rust-red in the late afternoon, and is home to thousands of pink flamingos. That night we sleep out in rustic accommodations in the desert; our guide makes us the best dinner of all the groups (lasagna!), including wine, and we even get afternoon tea and pancakes for breakfast. Incredible!
The only downside to the trip was that the other 2 girls in our car (“the frenchies”) wanted to be in another car, and to make a long story short, basically insisted that we plan our entire trip around following this other car’s schedule, which ended up making us miss some sights in the desert and have a really, really long second day and an extra night in the crappy little town of Uyuni, all so they could see some boy they liked and see the last day of Carnival in Uyuni (which is just a bunch of people drinking in a square). Ah, the joys of group travel! At least we made some good friends out of the whole thing, and had some great discussions with Neftali about who his least favorite travelers are…
Day Two: After a great breakfast in the refugio, we head out to cross the rest of the desert. We get up early, intending to leave early, but the French girls hold everyone up and we end up leaving 2 hours later than planned so they can try to follow the other car…
No worries though – we focus on the awesome sights we’re getting to see. First stop is the Stone Tree, a cool rock formation in the middle of the desert. In addition to the “tree” there are volcanic rocks around that I swear were just made for bouldering…so perfect I couldn’t resist playing around on them. Later I found out someone else had the same great idea and broke their arm, so you’re actually not supposed to climb on the boulders…what a shame.
After the tree and boulders, we made a few more stops in the desert for photos on mountains and lakes in the altiplano, then made a looooong trip to Uyuni, in Bolivia. Before heading into town we stopped at the “train cemetery” where old trains from over 100 years ago are just sitting around rusting in a field. You can play all over the them…it’s kind of a neat, but weird, sight.
Once we get into town, Neftali tells us that there’ s really nothing to do in Uyuni other than party for Carnival, which none of us are really interested in after our 2 days in the high desert. He can’t cook us dinner because the place we’re staying doesn’t have a kitchen, and there’s not many restaurants open because of Carnival. We end up having to eat pizza for dinner, which the French girls didn’t even show up for. Oh, and that was after they took the first showers and used the last of the water at the hotel so no one else could shower until the next day…in the afternoon. Lovely. But, at least we have a room to ourselves, and we can breathe a little easier at last!
Third Day: On our last day of the tour, we finally get to see what we’ve been waiting for: the salt flats of Uyuni, the largest in the world. Right now since it’s the end of the rainy season in Bolivia, the flats are covered in about a foot of water so we don’t get that endless white field effect, but we do get amazing crystal clear reflections. Before we get to see the flats, we stop at a “salt museum” to see the traditional way of how salt is processed. Basically when the flats are wet it’s shoveled into triangular piles, which are hauled into town by truck, where they’re dried in the sun for a few days. Then the salt is heated in an oven to clean it, ground, and packed into plastic bags, and sealed by melting the plastic. When there’s no water on the flats, they use knives to cut blocks out of the salt which they use to make houses and tourist hotels.
Next we drive out the start of the flats, a few miles outside of town, and have breakfast on the back of the Land Rover. Side-note: strawberry yogurt with chocolate corn-flakish cereal is surprisingly good. The goal of today: avoid sunburns (Tyler, of course, fails at this), and take a million pictures. We drive through the water, stopping in the middle to get out and take pictures. We walk for about an hour through the water…exfoliating our feet on the crunchy, surprisingly sharp sand. Apparently there’s nothing for traveler’s foot like walking around these flats for a day! And isn’t that a nice image to have in your mind when you’re using salt?! The scenery is intense: the watery reflections and cloudy skies blend into oblivion; it’s exactly what I imagined when I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Seriously, it looks like you can just walk into nothingness and heaven. There are islands on the flats that look like they’re floating in the sky because of the reflections, like some trippy Myzumi anime. After we spend a long time trying to take it all in and capture it, we meet Neftali and the others at the Hotel de Sal, where Neftali is making us a traditional Bolivian lunch of llama and the best quinoa I’ve ever had.
After that we head to an artisanal market in the village near the flats, where I buy my first llama sweater and get my first taste of beautiful, vibrant, and cheap Bolivian handicrafts. Waiting for months before we buy anything has finally paid off! Once we get back to Uyuni our tour official ends, and Tyler and I set off on our next challenge: getting our visa straightened out.
The Longest Hour: the tour is over, and we have an hour before we meet Will and Isabel to figure out where we’re staying and get our Bolivian visa. We passed though the border crossing at Laguna Verde on the condition that we would pay to get our official visas as soon as we arrived in Uyuni. After the end of the tour, we walked around town looking for the Migración Office, covered in our salt-splattered clothes. We find the office, expecting to pay the $US 135 visa fee. However, we can’t pay by debit card, and the ATM only dispenses 150 Bolivanos (about $US 21) at a time. We are pretty sure we can’t just make 10 withdrawals in day, even between our two bank accounts. We go to the only ATM in town anyway. It doesn’t open until 5 p.m. It’s now about 4:15. We’re supposed to meet our friends, Will and Isabel, at 5 in the main square. We have nothing to do for an hour. We walk. We look vainly for another ATM. We ask around for hotel and hostel prices, as we also have to find a place to stay that night. We walk more. Finally, I decide to just use an internet café, at least let the most important people know we’re alive and well in Bolivia, even if we don’t have our visas yet. It takes 22 minutes to send one email, delete my junk mail, check one bank account, and update my Facebook status. Frustratingly slow, but at least I can finally write home. Tyler goes to get in line for the ATM. At 5:05 a women is painstakingly slowly sweeping bank receipts out of the ATM booths. No one can go in until she’s finished. She doesn’t know it’s after 5, that people had already been using the ATM. Tyler and I are now first in line. Some pushy tourists try to tell the girl to hurry up, people are waiting. Strange thing to see in Latin America. We patiently wait; we’re used to it by now. I spot our friends, wave in the direction of the ATM and get back in line. We finally get to go in; we each try to withdrawal the maximum amount on the screen from our bank accounts – 1400 Bolivanos, about US$200, hoping with every fiber of our being that it works. It does! Our friends are trying to get a Bolivian phone card to work; it’s complicated. We tell them we still have to get our visa. They’ve decided to stay in the same hotel as with the tour; they’ve already showered and have a room. That’s what we wanted to do, but we were waiting for them. We decide to go get our visa before the office closes and meet them at the hotel later. We go, but we don’t have all the required paperwork. That’s easy; just pay a 50 peso fine each. Our passports already have the visas and 90 day stamp in them; we just have to fill out the paperwork. The dates are fudged to match the day we were stamped out of Chile. But we’re officially in Bolivia!
We go back towards the hotel; I’m impatient as Tyler insists on buying another 5 liters of water before the big bottles sell out. I want to shower before the water runs out again. We get back, check in hurriedly, get to the room, and take our bags from storage to the room. Tyler runs to meet our friends at the “bus terminal” to buy our tickets to Potosí for tomorrow. I scramble for a shower before the water is out. I try to use as little water as possible and be as fast as possible so Tyler can have a shower. I want to wash my salty pants but I don’t. Tyler gets back, and for the second time there’s no more water for him. Oh no! He washes using bought water, again, but he amazingly only uses less than a liter of water. We spend some time reading our guidebook, playing computer games, organizing photos. We go to eat dinner with our friends, end up at a “Mexican place” which turns out to be alright. Off to bed early, we’re still used to Chilean time, an hour ahead. The next day we find a place serving breakfast, bread on the verge of mold, with margarine and jam, coffee. Then we’re off on the very bumpy dirt road to Potosí…