Monday, September 2, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Amaszonas Airlines 300 Economy Class (LPB-UYU)

***This post is part 9 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Uyuni is the main jump-off point for visiting Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Bolivian Altiplano. Its remote location in the rugged high plains, however, has always made it an extremely difficult place to access. In recent years, the construction of a modern runway and introduction of regular flights from La Paz has finally made it possible to reach this destination without an overnight journey.

No doubt the most grueling method of transportation is by bus. Despite being only about 340 miles from La Paz, this overnight trek can take upwards of 12-14 hours due to the poor road conditions. Buses are notorious for breaking down on this route, so be prepared for even more delays if that happens. In addition, temperatures in the Altiplano can plummet overnight, especially during winter. If the onboard heater fails (or is nonexistent to begin with), your only defense against the cold will be to pile on the thick layers.

Todo Turismo runs a direct tourist class bus that includes hot food, blankets, and even WiFi, but you will be paying more than double the price (230 Bolivianos) of standard buses for the added comfort. Be aware that certain itineraries will require a change of bus in the town of Oruro. There is also a train between Oruro and Uyuni that runs every Tuesday and Friday. It is possible to catch a bus from La Paz to Oruro, and then switch to this train for the remainder of the journey, although this tends to waste more time. Be sure to purchase your tickets at least a few days in advance, as they may sell out quickly.

In 2012, Línea Aérea Amaszonas began operating daily flights between La Paz and Uyuni, which has significantly reduced the transit time. With a scheduled duration of only 45 minutes, it is amazing to realize that you can now save almost half a day of travel and a whole lot of pain. The cost is approximately $130 USD for a one-way ticket, so this is obviously not the cheapest option, but for us, it was worth the extra cost simply because it allowed us more time in La Paz. Also, being able to enjoy a decent night's sleep prior to the three-day Salar de Uyuni tour was a huge benefit.

TAM, the civilian wing of the Bolivian Air Force, also runs flights to Uyuni on Mondays and Fridays at roughly the same schedule and cost as Amaszonas. However, their website is not user friendly, and as of September 2013, it is still impossible to purchase tickets online.

When we originally bought our tickets, the departure time was listed as 7:15 am. Luckily, I reconfirmed our flights on the website prior to the trip and realized that the time had been changed to 6:50 am. We printed out our boarding passes at the hotel (each person must bring two copies to the airport) and turned in early for the night.

The following morning, we checked out at 4:30 am and caught a taxi to El Alto International Airport on the outskirts of town. The cost for the roughly 25-minute journey was 60 Bolivianos, which seemed to be ten more than usual, but our taxi driver claimed there was a surcharge for such an early departure. He flew through the winding Autopista, swerving around other cars at speeds that must have been considered a felony in the States. Fortunately, we got to the airport in one piece... and a lot earlier than expected!

There were only a few people in line at the check-in counters when we arrived, and after verifying our payment credit cards and printed boarding passes, our large backpacks were tagged to Uyuni. We had already selected our seats online, and those were reconfirmed as well. By the time we were finished, a long line had formed behind us, including a large Japanese tourist group that was on the same flight.

Amaszonas check-in counters

El Alto International Airport check-in area

Before going through security, you are required to pay the airport departure tax. Domestic destinations cost only 15 Bolivianos, while international destinations require $25 USD. Once paid, a sticker is attached to the boarding pass and you are allowed to proceed. As with most South American countries, security screening was fairly lax, and we were quickly through to the departures hall.

Paying the airport departure tax

El Alto International Airport is quite small, and the gate area had nothing more than a tiny makeshift cafe and some seats for waiting passengers. We arrived very early, and even made it to the gate while boarding for the earlier Amaszonas departure to Uyuni was still in progress. I wondered aloud if we should try to get on that flight instead, but quickly dismissed the idea since our checked bags probably wouldn't be loaded in time. Amazingly, the airport had complimentary WiFi for guest use.


Small cafe

Waiting area

At 6:20 am, boarding for our flight was called, and a short lined formed at the gate. There was no jet bridge or waiting bus here; we simply had to walk to the aircraft. Strangely enough though, our CRJ-200 was parked near the end of the terminal, and it was a long stroll on the tarmac before reaching our plane. Along the way, we passed by several other airliners, which made for some great pictures.

While walking, an official working the tarmac asked us to stop. In front towards the left was a small aircraft with its propellers running, and the prop wash was blowing directly into our path. We waited and waited, but the plane still didn't move. As more people accumulated behind us and we started to wonder if we were going to miss our flight, the official grew impatient and finally told us to continue walking despite the propellers running. Looking at the small size of the aircraft, I was chuckling at the overabundance of caution, but as soon as we stepped into the direct path of the prop wash... HOLY @#$!%... I thought I was going to be blown off my feet. We ran as fast as we could through the area along with the other surprised passengers. Prop wash and jet blast of any kind is definitely not something to be toyed with!

At our gate

Boliviana de Aviación Boeing 737-300

TAM Boeing 737-200

 AA Boeing 757-200 to Santa Cruz and Miami

TACA Airbus A320

Amaszonas CRJ-200

Línea Aérea Amaszonas 300
Bombardier CRJ-200
La Paz (LPB) - Uyuni (UYU)
Thursday March 28, 2013
Departure: 6:50 AM (scheduled) / 6:47 AM (actual)
Arrival: 7:35 AM (scheduled) / 7:44 AM (actual)
Duration: 0h 45m (scheduled) / 0h 57m (actual)
Seat: 2A (Economy)

We boarded the CRJ-200 via the aircraft stairs and found our seats at the second row. Prior to checking in, I was still slightly worried that we would be flying on a Fairchild Metro 23, the only aircraft type that Amaszonas operated until late last year. Since then, they purchased five refurbished CRJ-200s and have all but retired their entire fleet of propeller planes.

Despite being fairly old, the refurbished interiors looked spotless. The two flight attendants were extremely professional, and all safety demonstrations were conducted to global standards. As we taxied to the runway, I was excited with anticipation, knowing that we were about to take off from the highest international airport in the world. At 13,323 feet, we were already at almost half the cruising altitude of a jetliner!

Decent pitch


I was fully expecting a long roll down the runway due to the thin air, but as we accelerated faster and faster and still achieved no lift, I admit there was a second or two where I became slightly worried. This was by far the longest takeoff I'd ever experienced, and I was certainly glad that the runway extended to an astonishing 13,123 feet. As we finally lifted off, the vast expanse of El Alto came into view, and it was a beautiful sight.

Taxiing to the runway

El Alto

It didn't take long for us to reach cruising altitude, and the flight attendants immediately went to work with the beverage service. A variety of juices and soft drinks were available. I decided to go with the interesting pear juice. No other snacks were provided onboard, even for purchase. While heading south, some stunning cloud formations appeared outside, set against a blazing sun.

Pear juice

As we began our descent, we actually flew above Salar de Uyuni, which was pure white as far as the eye could see. If fact, it was almost difficult to distinguish between the clouds and the salt flat. Taking in the surreal landscape from the air gave us a taste of the scenery to come in the next few days. Just before landing, we caught a glimpse of the town of Uyuni. "Dusty" is how I would probably describe it, and it turns out I wasn't too far off.

Salar de Uyuni


This was probably the most desolate airport I'd ever been to. Exiting the aircraft, all I could see in every direction was barren terrain. There was not a single tree in sight, and no vegetation I could discern whatsoever. Even before 8:00 am, the sun was beating down hard, and we quickly ducked into the terminal building for some refuge.

Uyuni Airport

The vast expanse of nothingness

Once inside, we found our driver from Red Planet Expeditions. However, unloading the checked baggage from the plane took longer than expected, so we sat and waited in the combined arrivals/departures hall. The airport terminal actually looked very modern, and was probably built only a few years ago. Several officers in uniform guarded the building, perhaps an indication of the large military base nearby.

After collecting our backpacks, we followed our driver out to the dirt parking lot and loaded our belongings into the trunk. The ride into town took less than five minutes, so we were a little shocked when he asked for ten Bolivianos per person, instead of the ten Bolivianos total that I thought we had agreed upon with Red Planet prior to arriving. I couldn't help but think that this was a minor bait-and-switch scam on the part of the company and the driver, but we didn't want to start the tour off on a sour note, so we didn't bother arguing with them. Just be sure to confirm the total price of the airport transfer for your entire group.

Arrivals/departures hall

Amaszonas check-in counters

Unless you're on a tight budget or simply crave the hardcore backpacking experience, do yourself a favor; skip the overnight bus and book a direct flight with Amaszonas. It will save you a ton of time and probably some body aches along the way.

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