A 10 hour bus journey, crossing the Chile/Bolivia border, we arrived in the very windy and dusty town of Uyuni which acts primarily as the start point for tours out onto the salt flats. We headed out straight away with our guidebook to find a reputable tour operator, with our book suggesting a few good ones. We found the place we wanted, closed, and stood deliberating whether to wait until the morning or try someone else. Clearly sensing an opportunity and our hesitancy, a short bolivian woman appeared complete with a gleaming smile, as every tooth was lined with gold. Fatima, her name, assured us she operated the best tours in town, and who were we to disagree, particularly as she had some returning tourists in tow who happily agreed they had had a good time with their driver and guide Fernando. The drivers for these tours are really very important as they are not only your driver through some sketchy terrain, but also your guide, cook, and photographer. Furthermore, many of them in the area have drinking problems and so cruise around well over the limit for both speed and booze. Fernando sounded great, English speaking, good cook, doesn’t drink, can take a great photo and with the ongoing Bolivian political problems, tourism was at a low, giving us the position of negotiating a good discounted price. Deal.
The next morning we were at the agreed location at the agreed time. Fatima was not. After 40 minutes we found her and our driver, who strangely did not answer to his name Fernando. Turns out that was because his name was Juan. We met the other two couples we would be sharing the 4×4 with, Pol, Mamon, Pascal and Nina, who were also poached by the infamous Fatima.
The first stop was the train graveyard, which looked like a movie set, rusted locomotives and carriages covered in colourful graffiti strewn across the desert tracks. This was more a stop for instagramming than any cultural or historical reasons. We moved on to a small market where we had lunch and the first of the days car malfunctions, before we drove into the centre of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. Crunchy white salt in hexagonal slabs stretched to the horizon for a 360 view of nothingness, making it difficult to see where the horizon was sitting. This is where the famous perspective photos are made and where Juan came into his own. After multiple failed attempts to do our own, Juan insisted he took over, getting props from the boot and a mat so he could lie on his belly for perfect camera angulation. Having barely said a word prior to this point, he came to life, directing where to stand, which faces to pull and demonstrating every emotion. He took lots of group photos and then took us off for separate couple shoots, which seemed to go on forever. Each time we would say great thanks, thinking we were done, before Juan would insist on one more! When we all thought we were finally finished he decided to direct two videos!
What we thought would be the final stop of the day was an island in the middle of the flats, inhabited by Cacti, hundreds of years old. These cacti provided wood to build basic structures once used for refuge for those crossing the flats from the harsh dust storms. They truly looked like islands in a sea of salt, with cars pulled up like mooring boats. Just as we started to head home for the night, an electrical storm rolled in and stole away the sunset. It was at this point we had our unexpected and final stop of the day. The 4×4 started to lose power, electrics starting to go out, when Pol decided to lower his electric window it was the final straw and we rapidly came to a halt. The window stuck down, cold winds picking up carrying dust and nothing to see but the dimming salt flats. The hour and a half we were stuck here could have been pretty rubbish were it not for the fact we were getting on so well with the other two couples in our car, making the whole thing pretty funny.
Some of our photo shoot…
Waking up early in the prison block like hostel Fatima provided, we were looking forward to the luxurious breakfast promised. A bread roll each and an instant coffee with powdered milk failed to live up to billing, another lie told by Fatima or maybe she just had low standards for breakfast? Sometimes you have to laugh and we remembered we were cruising around South America together, it was just fuel for what the day was really about.
We found Juan had been replaced by Qintin, an equally talkative chap, in an even worse looking 4×4. He didn’t respond fondly when we questioned the reliability of his car, so we left that there.
The day was spent looking at volcanoes over 6000m tall, lagoons, thousands of flamingos and the amazing Lago Rojo (Red lake) before sleeping in a mountain village at over 4300m up. The main selling points for these tours are the salt flats, but the surrounding scenery in Bolivia was stunning. There are no roads and the landscape stretches out in a wash of blended colours like a watercolour painting.
The accommodation was basic and we shared a 6 man dorm with our new found friends, on beds made from concrete topped with an old mattress and blankets. It was comfy enough but thankfully we took thermals and sleeping bag liners as the temperatures dropped to below freezing at this altitude. After a good dinner and a shared bottle of Bolivian wine, we went to bed early ready for a 4am start the next day.
The surprisingly comfortable concrete beds were unsurpringly difficult to leave at 4am, 4300m up, surrounded by 4 strangers in temperatures of -7 degrees. The breakfast of pancakes and coffee with the promise of sunrise over the worlds highest geysers and hot springs made it easier.
Another geyser field, like in San Pedro, but still an amazing sight as the sun came up and the moon still visible amongst the steam. We had them to ourselves before moving to the hot spring pools, where the temperature of the water was a perfect hot bath amongst the cold air, so this time we were more than happy to enjoy them.
Shortly after this we parted ways with our fantastic group, as the other 4 continued south to continue their adventure in Chile, whilst we returned North to carry on ours. We exchanged details, agreed to meet up if any of us are ever in England/France/Germany/Switzerland/Greece, and said a final few words about Fatima.
On the way back, Qintin stopped at a beautiful spot for lunch. Amongst barren volcanic rocks were hidden channels of green, providing an oasis for Llama to graze. We took a short walk to the Lago Negro (Black lake) and were lucky enough to see Viscacha and Vicuna, animals only found in South America.
Despite the shortcomings, the trip was brilliant and we were both surprised at just how beautiful and rich the landscape around this part of Bolivia was. We had a great time with the others in our car and this really made it good fun.
We had planned to head North via bus to the capital of La paz, a 12 hour journey costing around £12, before moving to the Amazon via the town of Rurrenabaque. However, ongoing protests in Bolivia with roadblocks and attacks on buses meant that this was no longer an option. In order to carry on safely we booked (another expensive) flight for the next day. The protests that day escalated, preventing airport staff being able to man our flight, and so it was cancelled until the following morning. This gave us one more night in Uyuni, which we used to chill out, eat some good food and play cards with a few beers.
Next stop, the Amazon jungle of Bolivia.
Blasting this through the AUX in the 4×4, as we sped across the salt flats and the dust storm rolled in, shortly before we broke down.