Thursday, September 5, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Salar De Uyuni And The Bolivian Altiplano

***This post is part 10 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Choosing a Salar de Uyuni tour company online is an unpleasantly arduous task at best. Information is outdated, reviews are questionable, and outfitters seem to pop out of nowhere and disappear overnight. There are only a handful of reputable operators that have become somewhat well-known among tourists, but even they have their detractors.

One of the most dangerous aspects of any Salar de Uyuni tour is the fact that there are no paved roads along the three-day journey. You must travel in a 4x4 on paths carved out by other vehicles in the barren landscape of the Altiplano. Getting lost is a real possibility if your guides are not experienced enough. During our tour, we actually had other companies' drivers stop to ask for directions. And on numerous occasions, they would simply follow our lead. 

The quality and maintenance of the 4x4s are just as important, as the rugged trails and salt can wreak havoc on them. Breakdowns are the last thing you want on a tour like this. Older Toyota Land Cruisers and their Lexus equivalents seem to be the vehicles of choice here, and at least in our case, they mostly stood up to the punishing terrain without any issues. On the last day, one of our tires developed a slow leak, but our guide was able to fix it with a temporary patch.

Most disturbingly, the safety and livelihood of passengers are completely in the hands of drivers who may have a high probability of being drunk. Do a quick search on tour reviews and you will find hundreds of horror stories about guides and drivers who were too inebriated to even walk. Deadly accidents were a common occurrence not too long ago, but those numbers seem to be declining slightly as higher safety standards are adopted.

Beyond the obvious concerns associated with driving a 4x4 into the middle of nowhere for three days, the question of cost can also be incredibly confusing. From my own research, I found that different companies can charge anywhere from 700 to 1300 Bolivianos ($100-$190 USD). Of course, you often do get what you pay for, and there may be significant differences in terms of quality of the tour guides, vehicles, food, and accommodations.

Ultimately, we decided to book with Red Planet Expeditions, probably the most established of all the Salar de Uyuni tour operators. At 1200 Bolivianos per person, they were on the high end of the cost spectrum, but owing to the slightly more favorable reviews and strong emphasis on safety, we agreed that it was worth the extra money.

After being dropped off at the tour office in Uyuni, we went about settling the payment first with the none too friendly secretary. Despite confirming prior to arrival that they accepted credit cards, we were told that they had hit their "monthly limit", and would only be accepting cash now (Bolivianos or dollars). Frustrating to say the least, and we were forced to retrieve additional money from the local ATM. After returning to the office, she then refused to accept a $100 dollar bill because of a tiny tear that could barely be seen by the naked eye. After my friend became angry and threatened to walk out, she suddenly decided the bill was fine.

Not a great way to start off the trip, but thankfully, the other people we met in the office all seemed very cool. With tours departing around 10:00-11:00 am, we had some time to grab supplies along the main street in town. Despite the fact that meals are provided, it is still important to bring extra water and snacks. Back at the office, we were introduced to our tour guide for the next three days... who turned out to be simply amazing. 

Avenida Arce in Uyuni

Gonzoles was his name, and he was actually an American of Bolivian descent who spoke perfect English and Spanish. He was informative, hilarious, and most importantly, genuine in his desire to provide a good tour for all 11 of us. I'll go into more detail later on, but needless to say, I think we were all very thankful we had him as our guide. After getting our two Land Cruisers loaded up with supplies, we were soon on our way. From here, I'll break this trip report down into the three separate days we spent in the Bolivian Altiplano.

Our two Land Cruisers

Day 1:
The first stop was the train graveyard just outside of town. This interesting depot of rusted locomotives has turned into a playground of sorts for tourists, and in some ways, looks almost like a modern art exhibit. You can climb anywhere you want, snap funny photos jumping on top of the trains, or just walk around, taking in the somewhat ironic image of these once magnificent man-made machinery slowly dissolving into the desolate environment.

Train graveyard

Afterwards, we drove to the tiny town of Colchani, a salt-mining community on the outskirts of Salar de Uyuni. There, we were given an informative tour covering the salt refining process. You can also browse a number of souvenir stalls outside, and visit a small museum with some interesting sculptures made of salt. We then gathered for our first group lunch together, which was surprisingly filling and delicious. There were plenty of llama steaks, quinoa, and fresh vegetables to go around. 

Town of Colchani

Next up was the long-awaited Salar de Uyuni. As we left the dirt road behind and rolled onto the pure white surface, I could feel the salt crystals crunching underneath the tires. After we stopped, Gonzoles gave us a brief introduction to the area, and then allowed us to wander around independently. Even with all the pictures I'd seen and stories I'd read, I don't think anything could have properly prepared me for the overwhelming sensory overload of standing in this vast expanse of nothingness.

Salar de Uyuni

Of course, the main thing to do at Salar de Uyuni is to take crazy pictures, utilizing the blank canvas as the perfect optical illusion for depth and scale. I'd seen some incredibly ingenious examples online, and we went about recreating a few of them, as well as coming up with some of our own. For the next hour or so, we jumped, contorted, and got dirty in the salt trying to take as many pictures as we could. Don't forget to bring along some props to make your photos even more interesting!

The weather was absolutely perfect, with stunning blue skies and sweeping high clouds complimenting the white plain. The light can be especially blinding in this environment though, so sunglasses are essential. It is also quite easy to get burned under the high altitude sun if you haven't applied sunscreen. In some areas, natural hexagons have developed during the evaporation process, which makes for a somewhat unusual landscape.

Hexagons in the salt

What I really wanted to see, however, was the mirror-like effect when the salt flat is covered by a thin layer of water. It is tough to see this phenomenon after March, when the dry season kicks in and most of the precipitation has stopped. Luckily, Gonzoles knew of an area that still had quite a bit of water left, and we took a long drive across Salar de Uyuni to get there.

It was an extraordinary sight to see this virtual lake on the salt flat, and it was shallow enough for us to wade far into the distance. Sadly though, the conditions just weren't right to see the mirror effect. The winds had picked up significantly, creating ripples over the water and eliminating any possibility of seeing a reflection. And even if the winds died down, there would have been nothing to reflect because there was hardly a cloud in the sky. 

Dramatic clouds on a completely still day, coupled with low lighting during sunrise or sunset hours would make for the perfect combination of variables to see the mirror effect over Salar de Uyuni. I was extremely disappointed that we didn't get to see that beautiful sight, but hopefully one day I'll be able to go back during the wet season and catch a lucky break with the weather!

Salar de Uyuni covered with water

In the late afternoon, we departed the salt flat and drove a few miles to our first night's accommodation. In recent years, a number of these primitive lodgings have been built around Salar de Uyuni catering to tour groups. Virtually everything inside is constructed from salt, including the bricks making up the walls, tables, chairs, and even the beds.

There was one large dining/common area and a number of shared rooms down a hallway. I would say conditions resembled a very basic hostel. We were lucky to be assigned a room with just three beds, so in essence, we had our own private triple. There was a men's and women's bathroom, each with a shower, which was certainly a luxury out on the Altiplano. Amazingly, the water seemed to stay warm throughout the evening.

First night's accomodation

Dining/common area

We shared the accommodation with two other tour groups, and there were probably a total of 30 people there that night. Each company provided food for their own guests, which was cooked in a kitchen out back. Again, I was really impressed with the quality and amount of food provided by Red Planet. After dinner, we stayed up to chat with Gonzoles about why he decided to move to Bolivia and how he became a tour guide.

Amazingly, electricity was provided for about two hours during dinner, and it was rather funny to see the hoards of people trying to charge their iPhones, tablets, and even laptops on the few outlets available. Just a reminder of how tethered we are to technology these days I suppose. Everyone was fairly exhausted after a long day, and we all retired into our rooms early. Surprisingly, the beds were quite comfortable, and the thick sheets provided enough warmth when the temperatures dropped overnight.

Our room

Sunset outside our lodging

Day 2:
The next morning, we left the lodge around 7:00 am and proceeded south along the Bolivian/Chilean border. Our first stop was the tiny town of Chiguana, a station on the railway connecting Uyuni to Antofagasta in Chile. There is a smaller salt flat named Salar de Chiguana nearby as well.

One of the most interesting things I learned while traveling through the Bolivian Altiplano is that multiple types of quinoa are grown throughout the region. And given the overwhelming worldwide interest in this superfood recently, it has become an important cash crop for local farmers and the country as a whole. However, with the massive increase in demand and subsequent jump in prices, there have been some concern that harvests being sold to foreign markets are no longer feeding the local population, who depend on the high protein levels in quinoa as sustenance.


Six different types of Quinoa grown in the Altiplano

Salar de Chiguana

Fun with railroads

Our next stop was a viewpoint overlooking the massive Ollagüe Volcano at 19,242 feet. Still active, it was possible to see a constant puff of smoke emanating from one of its cinder cones. There were also a number of interesting rock formations in the area that people could climb. One of the few plants that can grow at such high altitudes is the llareta, a tiny moss-like covering that typically takes hold on large rocks and boulders. With such harsh environmental conditions, the llareta can only grow up to 1.5 centimeters a year, so many of the larger examples we saw were thousands of years old.

Ollagüe Volcano smoldering

Rock formations

Thousand-year old llareta

Further south, we reached several lakes all filled with hundreds of flamingos. Unbeknownst to me, the high Andes are home to three species of flamingos that feed on algae growing inside the mineral-rich waters. At Laguna Cañapa, we stopped to admire the birds and wonderful views while resting for a lunch break. The menu included roasted chicken, pasta, and vegetables. 

Vehicle trails in the Altiplano

Laguna Cañapa and flamingos

Lunch break at the lake

Afterwards, we continued on to Laguana Hedionda, which literally means smelly lake. Indeed, the combination of flamingo droppings and algae made for an unholy mix of odors. The benefit was that you could get up close and personal with the flamingos here, as they seemed to be somewhat more comfortable with human presence. With the proper camera zoom, you can get some spectacular shots of these majestic birds.


Flamingo in flight

For the next hour or so, we flew through the barren landscape, climbing higher and higher until we crested at over 16,000 feet. I was still taking my altitude sickness pills and drinking plenty of coca tea, but for the most part, I felt like I had completely acclimatized. At least I no longer had pounding headaches or nausea, although steep hikes were definitely still a challenge.

Just when I thought the terrain couldn't get any more outlandish, I was reminded of why the Bolivian Altiplano is often called the weirdest place on earth. Outside, it looked like we were on the martian surface. No plants can survive here, not even the hardy llareta. At our next stop, we saw some rock formations that had been carved out by strong winds over thousands of years. The most famous of all, the Árbol de Piedra, or Stone Tree, looked like something straight out of a surrealist painter's dream. 

Martian landscape

Árbol de Piedra

Continuing south, we finally reached Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. We were reminded by Red Planet Expeditions even before starting the tour that a separate park fee of 150 Bolivianos needed to be paid here. This is standard practice among all tour operators. The first sight past the entrance was the famous Laguna Colorada, a lake whose color is a stunning deep red, owing to the pigmentation of the algae living inside its waters.

Laguna Colorada

The day before, Gonzoles had told us that there would be a slight change to our itinerary. Typically, after viewing Laguna Colorada, the tour would conclude for the day and we would stay at a lodging close by. The next morning, we would have to leave by 5:00 am to see the geysers and boiling mud pots at Sol de Mañana, then drive about half an hour to the natural hot spring at Laguna Polques for a morning dip.

Instead, what he proposed was that we visit Sol de Mañana in the late afternoon after Laguna Colorada, then continue on our way to Laguna Polques, where we would stay right next to the hot spring at a brand new lodging that wasn't even complete yet. The two benefits would be that we would be the only group staying at the new accommodations, and more importantly, we would have the hot spring all to ourselves for the entire night.

Sol de Mañana

Boiling mud pots

Arriving at Laguna Polques in the early evening

Being the cynical pessimist, I wondered if Red Planet Expeditions was trying to save money in some way, or if they had somehow screwed up our booking at the regular lodges. Thankfully, everyone went along with the new plan because it turned out to be one of the best experiences of the entire trip. Instead of a crowded night sharing the rooms with multiple tour groups, the 11 of us had a fantastic evening at the brand new lodging bonding over delicious lasagna and wine. The sheets were super clean and the owners were incredibly nice.

After dinner, five of us braved the freezing cold temperatures outside and ran down to the hot springs, where we soaked in the warm waters for a good hour under the full moon. The views overlooking Laguna Polques, with the steaming streams of overflowing hot water winding its way down to the lake, were simply breathtaking. Never in my life would I have ever imagined myself bathing in a hot spring at 14,400 feet in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano, overlooking some of the most extraordinary landscape on earth. This was one of those moments that I think will be imprinted in my mind forever.

Brand new lodging


Laguna Polques at sunset

Lasagna and wine for dinner

The only downside to the new accommodations was that the bathrooms had not yet been completed. Of course, that meant no showers and no toilets. The solution? Head out into the nearby hills. Number one is easy, but if you need to do some heavy unloading, find a large rock and start digging a shallow hole for yourself. It may not be pretty, but it certainly gets the job done! Just remember to cover the hole back up with dirt after you finish to prevent contamination and the spread of disease.

Dining/common area

Shared bedroom

Day 3:
Since we didn't need to rush like other tour groups to get to Laguna Polques the next morning, we could sleep in a little and leave by 7:00 am again. Stepping outside, we were greeted by a long row of vehicles all having dropped off their passengers at the hot spring. At that moment, I was incredibly grateful we had this location all to ourselves the night before. The pool was absolutely brimming with tourists at this hour.

Lots of people in the morning

Laguna Polques in the morning

Crowded hot spring

Vicuña skull

We left the crowds behind and proceeded on our way south towards the border of Chile. While most people opt to return to Uyuni after the three-day tour, you can also choose to be dropped off at the border, where a shared minibus will take passengers on to San Pedro de Atacama. The cost of the transfer ticket, typically around 50 Bolivianos, was included when booking with Red Planet Expeditions. We decided on this route since our itinerary continued through Northern Chile.

The last few sights on the third day included the strangely beautiful Salvador Dalí Desert, with its peculiar rock formations and painted mountains. The scenery really looked like it came out of Dalí's artwork. At Laguna Verde, the Lincancabur Volcano formed an imposing backdrop, standing at nearly 19,300 feet tall.

Salvador Dalí Desert

Laguna Verde and the Licancabur Volcano

Finally, we arrived at the Chilean border crossing, which consisted of a tiny building for immigration processing and a lift gate. One important tip is that you can actually get stamped out of Bolivia at the immigration office in Uyuni, which will save you time here at the border. There was already a long line of people waiting at the office when we walked in. Luckily, those of us who completed the process in Uyuni could simply show our passports and continue on our way.

Immigration office at the border

After saying our goodbyes to the tour group, we grabbed our belongings and boarded the waiting Chilean minibus. Of course, we also made sure to give Gonzoles and our driver a nice tip for being such awesome guides.

Just past the border, we began an incredibly rapid descent from 15,000 feet all the way down to 7,900 feet in the valley where San Pedro de Atacama sits. It almost felt like being in an airplane preparing for landing. Ears were constantly popping and immediately, I could sense the increase in atmospheric pressure and warmer temperatures. Sitting on the right side of the vehicle, we were also treated to some remarkable views of Lincancabur Volcano.

One interesting note on the stark difference between Bolivia and Chile. Perhaps just a mile in from the border, we turned onto a brand new paved highway, and for the rest of way into town, the roads were in absolutely perfect condition. Compare that to the three days of bumpy dirt trails we drove on through Southern Bolivia, and it's easy to see how Chile, one of the wealthiest nations in South America, contrasts with Bolivia, the poorest on the continent.

Minibus to San Pedro de Atacama

Hello Chile!

Once we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, the first stop was the Chilean immigration office, where all of our belongings needed to go through a rigorous security check. The empty minibus was then searched by border officers for illegal contrabands. Apparently, even Bolivian coca leaves are prohibited from entering the country. After getting stamped in, we hopped back onto the minibus and continued a few blocks to the bus station. From there, it was just a quick five-minute walk to the main square.

Immigration office in San Pedro de Atacama

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