If you’re in Bolivia, you’re supposed to go to Uyuni to see the world’s largest salt flat. If you go to Uyuni, you’re supposed to do a 3 or 4-day tour in an SUV that not only goes across the flats but also through the region’s beautiful, high-altitude scenery. It’s just the way it is, and nearly every tourist succumbs to the pressure of spending a wad of cash on these jeep tours, yours truly included.
Jhon and his “jeep”, a Nissan Patrol.
Craig did the tour from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile seven years ago, so we were looking to do it a little differently this time around. We decided to go from Tupiza (just a couple of hours across the border from Argentina), which would take 4 days/3 nights instead of the 3 days/2 nights that most other tours consisted of. It cost a bit more (1,300 Bs, about $185 USD, plus 211 Bs, or $30 USD, in added fees), but we’re nearing the end of our trip here and the rest of Bolivia should be relatively cheap, so… why not?! Everybody else was doing it.
Day 1 – Getting to know you
We shared our jeep with the driver, Jhon (not a misspelling), the cook, Hilda, and a couple from Munich, Maria and Felix. We’d heard of some horror stories of terrible camaraderie on tours, which we were hoping to avoid. Being stuck in a small, confined space for hours at a time with people you don’t like hardly sounds fun, right? Luckily, Maria and Felix, as well as Jhon and Hilda, turned out to be great people, which was a huge blessing later on in the trip, as you will see.
Throughout the day, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the tour (booked through La Torre in Tupiza). Jhon spoke only Spanish (English-speaking guides cost extra, so we translated for the Germans), but was very informative and helpful. Hilda gave us delicious food, which we’ve heard is not always the case on these tours. Accommodation was basic (no showers, shared dorm rooms), but clean and comfortable.
The only downside to that first day was going from 2,975 m (9,760 ft) to 4,855 m (15,928 ft), our highest point of the day. Craig became decommissioned for a few hours as he struggled to regain his equanimity, despite chewing industriously on the local remedy around here, coca leaves. In fact, everybody was feeling a little out-of-sorts that night, since we were sleeping at 4,150 m (13,615 ft), and I liberally dispersed my supply of acetazolamide around to good effect. In case you’re not aware, the safe thing to do is to ascend at less than 400 m per day–we were doing more than triple that. Altitude sickness is like being really drunk (dizzy, not in control of your body, stupid) and hungover (nauseous, fatigued, headache-y) at the same time. It’s no fun and is surprising how deeply it can affect you. I’m constantly taken aback by how awful you can feel just from being a few thousand more feet in the air.
The Sillar, which is all eroded landscape. We think it’ll look like Bryce Canyon in a few millenia.
Bolivia means llamas! Lots and lots of llamas. Jhon said that families in the altiplano owned about 1,000 llamas each.
Laguna Morejón, our first high-altitude lake, with Volcan Uturuncu behind it. At 15,928 ft (higher than Mt. Rainier!), Craig was really feeling the altitude at this point, and didn’t even get out of the jeep.
Accommodation our first night, plus our jeep, all loaded up.
Day 2 – Onwards and upwards
We all felt immensely better the next day (thank goodness for modern medicine), and enjoyed our second day a lot. We saw many animals, including vicuñas, llamas (both from the camelid family, with long necks and an ability to survive desert conditions), chinchillas (which look like rabbits with long tails), flamingos, and an Andean fox (who came right up to the jeep and stared at us; Jhon said it had obviously been given food by previous jeeps, a VERY BAD practice which we, of course, did not continue, but we nonetheless enjoyed getting some close-up pictures of it). Seeing wildlife has got to be one of my favorite things about traveling. Even though I’ve probably seen about ten thousand llamas so far (not really “wildlife”, I suppose), it just doesn’t get old. Vicuñas, especially, are super cute and I just want to cuddle their funny bodies, which have fat, round trunks, but long, skinny necks and limbs.
Lodging that night was again quite basic, and VERY cold. Still, I wrapped up in the wool blankets and fell asleep quickly, not knowing that the longest night of my life was still ahead of me.
Laguna Kollpa and lots of flamingos. The white in the background is borax, which is harvested and shipped to Chile.
The Desierto de Dali, so named because of its melting clocks.
Laguna Verde, which I remember being more green in person. The green is from certain minerals, including arsenic, that are continually mixed up by the wind. In fact, NASA tested the Mars Rover on Volcan Licancabur in the background due to its Martian-like qualities: low air pressure, high winds, extreme temperatures, rocky terrain.
The part where most of the smoke was coming out made such a loud, hissing sound; as if a jet was taking off. It was fascinating to see all the bubbling pools of liquid or mud.
Laguna Colorado, made red by algae. Lots of flamingos here, too, but you can’t make them out from this vantage point.
Day 3 – The lost day
I woke up at about 1:00am with stomach cramps and stumbled to the bathroom. I’ve had food poisoning before, of course, but I’d never experienced anything like this. They call it traveler’s diarrhea, and despite ten months of traveling, I hadn’t had even a twinge. But I hadn’t reckoned with Bolivia. In the movies, travelers in India accidentally drink the water and then, several hours later, turn green, sweat buckets, and spend hours locked in the bathroom. Now I know those movies aren’t an exaggeration; if anything, they don’t even begin to depict the full misery. By the time Felix and Maria woke up, at about 6:30am, I was a hunched-over, shell of a person. I’d gone to the bathroom countless times, and felt emptied out from both ends, like a wet rag wrung completely dry. I’ve always been the one with the iron stomach, so my ordeal was especially foreign and vicious.
Craig was the epitome of perfect, sympathetic boyfriend and took very good care of me. He hardly slept all night as well, he was so concerned for my welfare. Jhon told us we only had two options: 1) continue with the tour as planned or 2) he could take us to Uyuni that night, after going through the usual third-day activites (it wouldn’t be fair to the Germans otherwise), and we would miss the salt flats part of the tour the next day, which is admittedly the highlight. It was obvious this second choice was not ideal, for anybody. I said, “Let’s see how I feel.”
This is where the sympathy and kindness of our fellow travelers really came to light. You could tell Jhon was worried about being able to make the drive to Uyuni and somehow get gas late at night, but he never pressured us either way. He stopped at a health clinic for me to get some drugs. The Germans were compassionate and told us they would go along with whatever we decided. Jhon even remarked that not all travelers would be as kind as they were; not taking too much time at viewpoints, insisting that I sit up front in the more comfortable seat (along with Craig), buying me a Coke since I was refusing to drink the rehydration salt formula, which tasted terrible. We really were fortunate in our fellow travelers, and I’m so thankful.
The first hour didn’t go so well–Jhon had to bring the jeep to a screeching halt for me to be sick out the door–but the rest of the day was comparatively better. I spent most of it in a fog in the jeep, sleeping or trying to calm my roiling stomach. Craig and the others agreed that the third day wasn’t the best day in terms of scenery, so at least whatever gut bacteria I’d contracted was considerate enough to flare up on the least exciting day.
We stayed at a “salt hotel” that night, which was made of bricks of salt, and had salt liberally sprinkled on the floors. They even had (unimpressive) chandeliers made out of salt. I could have cared less about all that, though, because they had HOT SHOWERS, and I nearly cried in relief. Having diarrhea all night just does that to you.
The Stone Tree, made of petrified lava foam.
Our dusty jeep. I’m in there somewhere, trying not to die.
Laguna Hedionda, where flamingos are more adapted to human presence and don’t fly off if you get close.
Day 4 – The Salt Flats!
We woke up at 4:30am the next day, in order to get out onto the salt flats for the sunrise. I felt like I’d been reborn; it was amazing what antibiotics, Tylenol, and Benadryl can do. For the first time in over 24 hours I felt hungry, and I cautiously ate some crackers as we sped across the flat expanse of the Salar.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, at about 12,500 km² (4,826 squared miles), and is at 3,650 m above sea level (11,975 ft). We were hoping that, by arriving in Bolivia in December, we’d catch part of the rainy season, when parts of the Salar are covered by a thin sheet of water, creating a beautiful mirror-effect. Alas, we didn’t get to see this, but it was still impressive and beautiful.
Of course, what everybody really wants to do on the Salar is take hilarious perspective pictures. It’s so white and flat that it gives the camera nothing to focus on but the subjects, despite differences in distance from the camera. It’s hard to explain, but not hard to show, so enjoy the last photos from our epic jeep tour!
View from Isla Incahuasi, a volcanic outcropping from the dried sea bed that became the Salar.
La salida del sol.
I’ve always wanted a pocket Craig.
I’m always on Craig’s mind.
Craig should also get a pocket Sheena.
With Felix and Maria.