Where possible, we generally tend to avoid traveling on organized tours. It's not that we've had bad experiences or that we are against the idea, but most of the time we just prefer to do our own thing. This way we can stay in a place for as long or short as we like, do the activities we really want to do and choose accommodation that suits our wants and needs. We also find that once we weigh up the cost of organized tours, it often isn't worth the money considering we actually enjoy living by the seat of our pants and making our travel plans as we go.
There are however, times when tours not only make traveling easier, but sometimes there really isn't any option other than to book through a travel agent in order to get to the places you want to see.
Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats in Bolivia, is one such place where we decided that a tour really was our only option. Our goal was to cross the salt flats of Bolivia, into the Atacama Desert where we would cross the border into northern Chile finally reaching the town of San Pedro de Atacama. Without a car and with no clear roads through the salt flats or the desert, (which is considered the driest place on Earth) it was fairly obvious that this was one of those occasions when a tour was without a doubt, our only option.
Photo: This sculpture was created for the Dakar rally. While it has an inner support of bricks, it is coated in a thick layer of salt from the endless supply in Salar de Uyuni
After speaking to other travelers we were told that most companies offer two options for the tour. Being that English is not particularly widely spoken in Bolivia, most tours are run by non-English speaking drivers, however for considerably more money you can find a company offering English-speaking drivers. Feeling a little over confident with our terrible Spanish, we opted for the non-English speaking driver. We had been told that the drivers don’t particularly run a “tour” as much as simply driving from point A to point B and besides we figured it would be a good opportunity to practice our Spanish…… Ha!
Upon jumping into our 4wd we were greeted by another couple who barely spoke a word of English and had absolutely no interest in putting up with our terrible Spanish, therefore killing all possible conversation. At this rate, it was gonna be a long 3 days! There were 2 more seats in the car and suddenly we began to worry that we were in for a pretty silent journey seeing as the last two passengers were also listed on the driver’s paperwork as Spanish speakers.
Next stop and in jumped Alvaro and Monica. We tentatively introduced ourselves trying to suss out whether or not they spoke English. Little did we realize this couple from Switzerland, speak more languages than we’d had hot showers in the past month! (sadly, yes this is a true fact!)
They are both fluent in Spanish, French and English along with some Portuguese and Italian! Basing our feelings purely on this information, we HATED them! Our feelings of inadequacy were only increased by the fact that they are also bloody awesome people and completely made our 3 day trip yet another excellent experience. Yep, total arseholes!
Photo: Meeting Alvaro and Monica made our trip a million times better. In fact we then went on to spend 2 more days with them in San Pedro and recently met up with them again in Thailand!
Upon leaving the town of Uyuni, we headed straight to the Train Cemetery. The Train Cemetery is a bit of a gimmick once you see that its actually just a dumping ground for old trains, cars and other bits and pieces however the rusty old skeletons of trains surrounded by clear blue skies and barren mountains far off in the distance, make for some excellent photo opportunities.
In walk 50 tourists.
For some ridiculous reason, all tours departing the small town of Uyuni, begin at exactly the same time and all make their first stop at the Train Cemetery. This would have been fine, but my dear husband Wade generally just doesn’t like people, so within minutes of getting out of the car he was pouting like a little girl and making loud sighing noises every time someone walked through his photos. I found the whole scenario rather amusing but the more I told him to get over it, the angrier he became. We were still able to snap some cool photos and climb through the old wrecks of the trains though so all in all, still an interesting first stop.
As we tore off in a cloud of dust from the Train Cemetery, we once again unwillingly joined the convoy of 4wd’s cruising across this great open space. We started to worry that the next few days would be just one big convoy, with each car stopping at identical locations on a fixed itinerary. However, the further we drove, the more apparent it became that with such a vast landscape and no signs or roads visible to the untrained eye, a single degree of difference in direction would send two vehicles on completely different paths and within an hour, we had all but lost every other sign of human life.
It's almost dream-like when you finally reach the world renowned Salt Flats. The horizon becomes a hazy blur and everywhere you look is a sheet of white. The glare from the sun reflecting off the pure white expanse beneath us makes it almost impossible to look at without sunglasses. The salt crunches under your feet as you walk and yet it is rock hard to touch.
All sense of perspective is lost and it is only upon scanning 360 degrees that we can see the faint hue of mountains on the horizon East of us. The "road" is merely a set of tyre tracks that our driver sporadically switches between sticking to and creating his own path.
Once the car comes to a halt another of Mother natures incredible works of art becomes apparent. The salty earth is patterned with large hexagons side by side like tiles as far as the eye can see. The edges are defined by a ridge of salt so straight and perfect that one struggles to believe that this is the work of nature rather than a team of labourers with long rulers! It's magnificent, thought provoking and mysterious. It blew my mind and confused the hell out of me all at once. I loved it!
Now look I’m no scientist and most of you probably don’t care why this happens so rather than me regurgitating someone else’s explanation, lets just appreciate this phenomenon for the natural, marvelous occurrence that it is.
Photo: The hexagonal pattern across Salar de Uyuni becomes a white blur when speeding past, but once you stop, you can truly appreciate this natural wonder
Just when we thought our driver had joined the rest of us in a state of complete disorientation, an island began to appear in front of us. No, this was not the first stage of insanity, the closer we drove, the clearer this cactus-covered island became. Isla Incahuasi as it is known is an ancient island of fossilised coral. The cacti that sit upon it like pins in a pin cushion are up to 1000 years old and stand some 9-10 metres tall. I was suddenly grateful for the lack of a chatty English-speaking guide as this adventure was surprising me at every turn. We had no idea this place even existed!
We spent an hour clambering over lose rocks and stone paths, squinting and craning our necks to see the top of some of the worlds tallest cacti. We took the obligatory cactus-penis photos, stood in awe of the view at the top and then made our way back down to the car for some much needed shelter from the unrelenting sun.
Photo: Isla Incahuasi (sometimes also known as Isla del Pescado) is covered in some of the tallest cacti in the world, making for incredible views and also providing the perfect opportunity for a cactus-penis photo!
As the sun began to set, we were once again driving along a non-existent track to an unknown destination. It turned out that this time our driver was in the same boat as us. The tour company doesn’t actually make bookings for our accommodation, as small “Salt Hotels” are scattered throughout the region so it is merely a matter of showing up and asking for a few beds.
Three hotels down and no luck, the six of us began to joke nervously as we all hoped we wouldn’t be sleeping in the same car we had spent most of the day. Finally, our guide came back to the car with a smile, he had scored us three rooms in a real “Salt Hotel” for the night! By the time we checked in, we didn’t even care that the walls were crumbling and revealing that it was in fact just a brick building coated in salt to please the tourists!
Photo: So much for a "Salt Hotel"! Even though the floors, walls and ceiling were coated in salt, the chunks crumbling off our wall revealed that it was simply a coating and not entirely built from salt bricks as some places in Salar de Uyuni are
Morning broke on our second day and it was damn cold! As we took our places in the car, we noticed that the scenery had changed significantly. No longer were we surrounded by the blinding white of the Salt Flats, instead it was now a harsh and dusty scene created from an entirely brown colour palette. There was suddenly an excess of dust and jagged mountains and a serious lack of anything living.
Our driver had promised beautiful lagoons today, but watching the landscape rush by outside the car, I wasn’t convinced this place had ever seen life or water for that matter. I’m not gonna lie, after half an hour of driving through presumably never-ending desert, I closed my eyes and slept solidly for the next two hours. If the scenery did change during this time, I was none the wiser, but judging by the blank stare on Monica’s face when I woke up dribbling on her shoulder, I’m pretty confident I didn’t miss anything. Well, other than our friendship reaching that “dribble on the shoulder” level.
We stopped for a short break with incredible views over a distant volcano before piling back into the car, fearful that being forgotten out here was a guaranteed recipe for death.
Upon finally arriving at the first lagoon, Laguna Hedionda, my only thought was stretching my aching body and getting some fresh air. Fresh air was hit-and-miss, as the Spanish translation for the lagoon is “Stinking Lake”, however as soon as I was standing next to our now very dusty chariot, I was mesmerized by the view before me.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of flamingos danced gracefully amongst their own reflections in the still, glassy water. Across the other side of the lagoon it was impossible to make out the shapes of the flamingos and yet the pink hue glowing across the surface in the distance was proof enough of their presence.
Photo: Flamingos on Laguna Hedionda
I watched them from the edge of the lagoon, fighting to hold myself back from walking beyond the "do not pass" sign. Their beauty and grace astounds me as such a lanky and disproportioned creature can somehow still embody elegance.
After a quick lunch that our driver magically whipped up in the back of our 4wd, we took the opportunity to walk ahead while our driver finished packing the car. As we turned to check whether our driver was coming to collect us, an awesome tunnel of wind formed right before our eyes. This apparently lifeless landscape had more surprises than I ever could have imagined.
Photo: Whirly wind being whipped up from the dust as our driver comes to collect us at Laguna Hedionda
Within minutes we were back in the car, and once again surrounded by barren rust-colored mountains. If you didn't know Laguna Hedionda was there you would've driven straight passed it and been none the wiser.
The scenery was mesmerizing and yet apparently so mesmerizing that after another hour in the car I was once again asleep on Monica's shoulder. If we weren't friends before, we sure were now!
Our final (and slightly gimmicky) break for the day was at a rock formation known as “Arbol de Piedra” or stone tree which has been created by centuries of howling, sandy winds whipping past and grinding the stone into a rough tree shape.
When we pulled up to our accommodation for the night and stepped out of the car, the wind pierced through every layer of our clothes. The 4300m altitude was now apparent through our strained breathing and the freezing air. But man was it worth it! Our destination, Laguna Colorado, was laid out before us like a painting. The red glow of the lagoon had to be seen to be believed and when we reached the viewpoint, we once again sat in awe of the magnificent places this adventure has opened our eyes to.
Photo: Simply stunning, Laguna Colorado. The algae gives the lagoon a red glow which apparently changes from blood red to a bright pink hue depending on the season and water levels
After a wretchedly ice-cold night in a powerless brick building, we were back in the car before sunrise to continue climbing to a peak altitude of 4800m. When the pungent smell of sulphur began to leak in through the air conditioning and pillars of steam could be seen ahead of us and we knew we had arrived at the geysers. Bubbling up from the ground from deep crevasses in the Earth’s crust was boiling hot, toxic steam. Remembering that this is Bolivia, there are no railings, few signs and every chance of the ground caving in at any moment, it’s quite the experience!
Photo: This photo doesn't do it justice but all around our feet were small holes bubbling with boiling hot water coming up from the Earth's core
We could’ve taken a dip in the nearby thermal pool, but something about 30 half naked strangers crowded into a bath-tub sized pool along with the token selfie-stick wielding tourist, said no. Just no. Instead we marveled at the streams running from the hot thermal water into the adjoining lake.
The air at this altitude was so cold than within 15 metres of the piping hot thermal pool, the water had once again cooled down and formed a layer of ice across the lake. Such extreme contrasts in such close proximity was yet another nod to the power of ol’ Mother Nature. It also totally justified the 5 layers of clothing I was wearing unbeknownst to my fellow travellers!
Photo: (Left) Hot tub anyone??
(Right) the water surrounding the thermal pool was freezing within 15 metres of the 40 odd degree thermal pool
Our guided tour ended when our driver waved goodbye to us and our belongings, at a non-descript immigration station on the border of Bolivia and Chile. We could only wait and hope that there was some sort of transport from here to San Pedro de Atacama because this was the most rustic set-up we had seen so far in all of our five previous border crossings!
We did the obligatory immigration checks, added another stamp to our passports and eventually, a bus did appear out of thin air, to take us across the border into Chile.
And just like that, we were back in Chile. The same country where six months earlier this whole crazy journey began and where in 10 days, this incredible South American adventure would come to an end.
Little did we know, that in many ways, we had saved the best for last!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.