Love at First Sight: The Astonishing Salar de Uyuni

Spectacular natural landscape of Salar de Uyuni

An adventure is an affair; taking a risk from the norm, lose sight from all familiar comfort, and discover new things and new ways to bring an undeniable pleasure in a unique and rewarding discovery, a new vigor to the mind.” My adventure in Bolivia was indeed an affair to remember.

At 1.30 am on Friday, 11th of February, while sleeping comfortably on the overnight bus I took for Uyuni, I woke up to the sound of a group of men shoveling and digging the road.  I then found out that our Emporador bus got stuck in the mud and it took more than 10 minutes of endless advice and shouting from onlookers and the determination of a group of men to shift it from knee-deep mud.  I just could not imagine what it would be like to be stranded in the middle of nowhere in Bolivia.  But the fun did not end there.

It was 2.30 am, still dark and raining, when we arrived in Uyuni town.  We safely hopped into a taxi with another traveller from the US to take us to the closest hostel. The first hostel we stopped by was full and decided to walk under the rain, along the streets of Uyuni town, dragging my cabin case and Steph with her backpack with the hope that the next hotel door that we will be knocking on will say the magic statement ‘Si, nosotros tenemos un habitacion para dos personas’ (yes we have a room for 2 persons).  After putting up with the grumpy American, which we luckily managed to leave behind, we finally found our savior of the night.  It was not a Westin-like hotel with the heavenly bed but in the wee hour of the morning, Hostel Cactu was as good as the Westin heavenly bed.

Finding a good operator to book a tour was not an easy pursuit and prices are normally jacked up – starting from 650 to 800Bs for a 3-day/2-night tour.  After a thorough canvassing, we were finally able to book with Expediciones Empexsa, located on Av. Ferroviaria lad del Hotel Avenida, and settled for 650Bs plus 40Bs for the sleeping bag and a non-English speaking tour guide. Going through the ordeal of finding a good tour guide, made me hungry that I had to do two rounds of breakfasts from 2 different restaurants, the Pizzeria for a muisli and at the Mexican Café Bar for a pancake.

At 9.30am we all met up in front of the travel agency, packed with a big bottle of water and a roll of toilet paper. We then met the rest of the group, Nadine and David from Scotland, Dino and Anne from Spain, Clementina the ‘cocinera’ (cook) and Lino, the designated driver and tour guide.

Day 1 – was a brief visit at the Cemetery of Trains, which was about 10 minutes away from the town of Uyuni. From here, we drove down to a small town called Colchani, via a 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser, and stopped by for 15 minutes to check out the crafts market.  After a 15-minute drive we made it to our final destination, Salar de Uyuni. Without doubt this is one of Bolivia’s most stunning gems.  From the devil’s mine to the largest salt lake in the world, I was simply mystified by the beauty of this natural wonder.  And with the clear blue sky adding perfection to the astonishing salt lake, it was a great and jaw-dropping experience and truly a “love at first sight.”

After the breath taking and mind-blowing tour of the salt lake, we had a sumptuous lunch at the Salar Hotel – a hotel completely built with blocks of salt cut out like blocks of stone from the lake.Yes, everything was made of salts from the walls to ceilings, beds, tables and chairs.

Since day 1, I felt safe in the hands of Lino. I admired his calmness, attentiveness and cautious driving proficiency. Though he speaks limited English, the spectacular sights, the wonderful company I had with the tour group, the snippets of stories and laughter we shared while in the bus – all diminished the communication barrier. Accommodation for the evening was at the Hostel Lota in a 4-shared room.

For dinner, we had a very nice vegetable soup as our starter followed by ‘Lomo Saltado’ a Peruvian cuisine cooked with sliced beef and sausages mixed with French fries.

On our very first night, we found out that though shower was working, we were getting very less hot water. I literally relied on my ‘dove’ shower touch during the trip duration.

Volcan Ollague

Day 2 – Saturday, 12th of February:  It was a glorious day and clear skies. During our day drive, we visited a number of lagoons and magnificent landscapes. Our first stop was at Volcan Ollague.  This was followed by an excursion to several amazing lagoons –Canapa LagoonHedionda Lagoon,Chiarcota Lagoon, and Honda Lagoon. I had to rest a lot as I started feeling post mine-spelunking muscle soreness on my upper legs.  I also struggled from getting off and on the car but had to endure the pain, as I wanted to take some good pictures and also to get up close and personal to the magnificent scenes.


Arbol de Piedro

Lagoon Colorado (Red)







Chicken, pasta, potatoes and vegetables were served for lunch on the desert of Visca Chita.  The desert also accommodates the biggest ecological toilets with spectacular view. You just need to find a perfect spot!  After the lovely lunch, we continued our drive to Arbol de Piedro then to the final stop at Lagoon Colorado (Red). This was my favorite site especially with the presence of flamingos and llamas. After dinner and careful deliberation, I made a decision to return to Peru through Chile the following day. We stayed the night at Hostel Huayllajara but this time in a 6 shared-room.

Day 3 – Sunday, 13th of February was an early frosty morning start for everyone but looking up at the sky, it was a glorious starry morning. We left the hotel at 4.30 am to visit Los Geisers. I had an awesome time observing the impressive columns of steam (Geysers), and the number of pools of boiling water and high mountains in such a beautiful day. I was tempted to dip myself into the hot springs, but did not have the time to do so.

The impressive landscape of the Green Lagoon

After breakfast, we then headed towards the impressive landscape of the Green Lagoon (La Laguna de Verde, located at the feet of Licancabur volcano. This is another must see place. The lagoon’s best moment is witnessing the changing of its color from emerald green to deeper green.

At 9.30am, after many bus rides and less sleeps, my Bolivian adventure ended after bidding Hito Cajones,  a beautiful ski mountain like site located in the border of  Bolivia and Chile, my affectionate adieu.  We were transferred from here to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The road towards San Pedro de Atacama was more pleasant, especially when you get to observe the spectacular views of the snow-coated mountains. Chilean authority does it right: full immigration and luggage checks were performed.  At midday (with 1 hour ahead difference), we arrived at the touristy town of San Pedro. We had to wait for an hour due to power interruption. At around 2pm we were able to purchase our same day bus ticket for 17500 Chilean Pesos (USD1 = CLP450) for Arica, the northern tip of Chile and my doorstep to the southern Peruvian border.

Late lunch was served at Paacha Restaurant located on Domingo Arienza esq Caracoles. For 6500 Chilean Peso you can have a good 3-course lunch.  We had a delicious seafood soup as a starter, a grilled steak for our main course and finished off the delectable meal with a yummy dessert.  It was the kind of meal I was missing for a very long time so I am looking forward to return to Chile. The rest of the afternoon was spent at Plaza Restaurant located in the main square. At 8.25pm the comfortable Tur-Bus departed. The crew on board came around and offered everyone a pillow and blanket.

At approximately 5.30am on Monday, 14th of February, we finally arrived at the Arica Bus Terminal. The bus crew had to wake us up as we were last folks on board.  We were all obviously tired from the last few days of getting up for an early start.  From here, it was only a question of time to Tacna, the southern border of Peru.

At 6.30am we walked over to the next block Terminal to get a taxi and got our ticket for 2000 Chilean pesos each (plus 4000 Chilean pesos payable to the taxi driver). The drive to Chacalluta Chilean border in a comfortable Lincoln taxi with 3 other passengers took approximately 15minutes. We waited in the car along with hundreds of others for the border to open at 8am. The clearance was done in 15 minutes and after passing through the border, within 5 minutes, we arrived at Santa Rosa, Tacna border of Peru. After going through another customs clearance and luggage checks, we hopped back into the taxi and went for another 25-minute drive to Terrestes Terminal de Tacna.  It was simply a hop on-hop off taxi escapade to go through the 2 borders. I am sure the taxi driver must have done this process a million times.

At 8am we boarded on to another bus for another 6-hour travel to Arequipa. The cost for a full cama was 42 Soles.

My Bolivian adventure was an open affair and encountered new experience; the devil’s mine tour was indeed a risk-taking venture; and the 3-day lagoons, lake and desert odyssey, with limited shower was a lost sight of all that familiar comforts of home and nice hotels. I tested myself by stretching my limits but yet enjoyed it immensely and freely, with no guilt, unlike a factual romantic love affair. It was a change that indeed generated a new vigor to my mind.

© 2012 by Michelle Riel, retains sole copyright to her contributions to all the contents of this site.

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