- San Pedro de Atacama – Chilean exit border
- Bolivian entry border – Salar de Uyuni
- Uyuni town
I had been informed, by the agency, that my pick up was at 6.30am. There I was, sat waiting for the driver until 7.45am!! Luckily, the receptionist at the hostel rang the agency to confirm they were actually turning up. Two others girls from the hostel had said they were really feeling for me and it turned out that they were on my tour too.
So on we got, myself, Kasia (Polish) and Aubrey (American), clicking immediately, and head to onwards to pick up 3 others. First up was Naty and Saty, a newly married Japanese couple (who turned out to be spectacular entertainment), and then Or, our favourite Israeli ex-army macho man!
Queuing for the Chilean exit, Or, Kasia, Aubrey and I ended up in tears of laughter. It turned out that the 4 of us got on like a house on fire, despite me being the baby. We even managed to buy a real cafe latte to drink whilst waiting, ensuring our spirits were super high. Once we were allowed to leave Chile, we then drove through no-mans land to the Bolivian entry customs and queued yet again. All was made much better by an incredible breakfast of smashed avocado and rustic breads before we met our driver for the tour.
Abel, our driver, was 22 and working in order to save and go to pilot school. We were super lucky to have a young driver and we grew to adore Abel like no other man! He certainly knew his stuff around the Bolivian lands too and could tell us almost anything we wanted to know. This included a very odd story about a lama, dog and snake taking a taxi to the geyser fields. They paid their fare but the dog needed change. And that was the end of the story! Hilariously, the message was lost in translation and we couldn’t stop laughing. As it turns out, it was in reference to stray dogs always chasing cars in Chile and Bolivia!
The first few stops of the day were at Lagoona Blanco and Lagoona Verde. Aubrey had a real thing about those little rock towers you see built by tourists and we then made it our mission to run at and destroy all rock towers for the rest of the tour. We’d attempt to do this in the most extravagant ways, charging at them with our bodies or coming in with flying kicks! Or kept exclaiming his heartbrokenness because the army had these towers as a directional symbol apparently. He also referred to the three of us as “chicks locos” which was suitable for the duration of the tour!
Following the lakes, we head to Desert Dali and Montañas Colores, named so because Salvador Dali painted both landscapes. It was a pretty cool environment and so secluded. What enhanced it further was being able to see a storm in the distance and watching the lightning bolts behind the mountains. We also tried coca leaves here. Something akin to brewing green tea in your mouth. They swear by it for altitude and it was a little odd but not unpleasant. After 10-15 minutes of letting it sit in your cheeky, you simply spit it out. “Ciao coca”, as Abel would say!
Before lunch, we had to head in to this rain storm to visit the Aguas Termales (hot springs). Although small and with extremely limited changing facilities, there was something great about being in a hot pool whilst it rains, looking out over a large lake and nature-rich area. Not even the large group of English “lads” and their associated banter could tarnish that! It was here that we learnt about Or’s previous army life and kite surfing hobbies, as well as hearing about Aubrey’s previous travels and Kasia’s life in London. A real bonding experience.
The afternoon was dedicated mostly to the Bolivian geysers: Geysers de mañana. I was in geography heaven from the moment our 4×4 turned in to the area. The ground was an array of different mineral colours whilst the steam from some geysers hissed and roared, and others bubbled boiling mud and sulfur fumes. We were able to walk right up to these geysers. This was initially fantastic for me. That was until I attempted to cross the large steam trail of the biggest geyser, only for my glasses to fog up completely and finding myself blindly attempts to make it through. Little did I realise that I was mere inches from toppling head first in to a boiling mud pool whilst Aubrey looked on in absolute shock about what was going down!
My misfortune continued then with a large gust of wind ripping Or’s Bolivian bucket hat directly from my head. I was chasing this bloody thing across the geyser field and still had to attempt the walk back, head first in to the steam! Still, I was loving every second of the geysers and was so happy to have seen what. Itv Bolivia and Chile had to offer.
The final stop that day was at Lagoona Rojas. This pinky/red water was surrounded by mountains, flamingos and not a lot else. After running away with OR’s jumper when it was freezing, we walked back to the car talking about our mutual interest in coding (boring, I know!). We huddled back in the car with Abel to warm up, waiting for the others to take a hundred thousand pictures of said flamingos.
After a few “Inca Baños” (toilet au naturale), we finished the day in the little village Villa Mar. Us 4 troopers had one room and Naty and Saty had a matrimonial room. We had gone a little loco with the early start and spent an hour crying with laughter at the Israeli army’s penetration attacks! We then spent the evening drinking tea, playing cards and eating dinner. This was also when we first introduced Naty to the word “motherf*cker”, which became her most favourite word of all time shortly after!
It was not usual to have a performance during dinner at the hostel however, the local teacher had had an accident whilst trying to improve the towns electrical infrastructure just two days before we arrived. He had been electrocuted and paralysed and was in hospital. The community we’re trying to raise the money for his care. Although the performance abilities were limited, there was not a single dry eye in the house and everyone gave some money.
That night, we head to bed fairly promptly. However, little did we know how much fun Kasia’s life game and shadow puppets would be. First, we found Or’s answers to ‘how do you see yourself spiritually’ (math) and ‘how you see your relationship with your family’ (family) thoroughly entertaining and then I discovered I was really good at shadow puppets! I made stories with rabbits, lamas, t-rexes, crocodiles and people! Eventually, we fell asleep with Or telling us a story in Hebrew.
The next morning we awoke to a pancake breakfast and very cold temperatures. Abel had asked us to be ready by 8 but he wasn’t actually ready himself then. As such, we went for a wonder through Villa Mar itself. It was here that we met Primo. He ran a restaurant for tourists but invited us in to have a look because his house had a brick facade but then went in to the rock inside. He was also the uncle of the guy who had the accident and proceeded to tell us a little more about what had happened. We thanked Primo and finished our stroll to meet Abel, 45 minutes later than scheduled. But, this was Bolivia after all!
Our morning was spent playing in the rocks – the Cuppa del Mundo (World Cup), a camel, and the Lost City. I was convinced they were geological remains from the ocean floor as there was plenty of evidence of abrasive erosion. Abel seemed to think they were volcanic formations but I’m going with my theory as that also explains the salt on the salt flats! Still, they made for some fab picture opportunities:
We had our lunch in the little town of San Cristobal. They were clearly geared up for the tourists as anyone and everyone came out with their food stalls. Kasia and Aubrey started to play with a beautiful little Bolivian girl too, drawing in the sand with her. Bolivian children are so bloody cute. They have squished faces and a general gorgeous little things. I was envious of their Spanish abilities and being able to converse with the children.
Following lunch, we drove an hour to reach a large rocky area. Abel told us that we needed to walk for about 10 minutes and we would reach ‘Lagoona Misteriosa’. Abel lead the way and scrambled over the rocks which led out on to a large, green oasis. It was stunning; like a big green swamp and home to llamas. We walked across this oasis and turned the corner to find the most incredible lake you have ever seen. Oh wow, it was just so beautiful. I sat and admired the landscape for an hour whilst Or napped and the girls took pictures. It’s a new favourite place of mine now.
Our final stop that afternoon was practically in Uyuni itself. Here, we visited the Cemterio de Trenes (train cemetery) where a a few old steam trains had been left, in their full multi-carriage form, to rust away. They were mostly still whole and spanned well over 300m long. They were awesome to climb and take pictures on and it was exactly this which gave birth to our groups’ “gangsta” image (see below)!
After sufficient photos, we piled in the car and head to our Uyuni hostel. Having bonded over the last few days, the four of us ended up really opening up to each other before dinner that night. The night was much the same as the one before with cards again, but this time also some wine and brainstorming ideas for good pictures on the salt flats in the morning. We were all in bed pretty early though because we had a 5am leave time the next day.
I awoke first to Or’s incorrectly set 3.30am alarm and dozed on and off until our second one came at 4.30am. I got up to get ready and returned to the room just 5 minutes before leave time, to the other 3 still fast asleep! It’s safe to say it was a rushed morning and we missed the 5am call! However, it was salt flats day and we were off to see the sunrise so we didn’t let it get to us at all.
Driving on to the Salar de Uyuni, we were surprised by how much water was sitting in the flats. Max had hoped that I have rain, which seemed odd to me, but made perfect sense once the sun started to rise. This was because we had the most perfect reflection of the sky in the water. There was no horizon, we were in both the sky and on land. The entire experience was stunning and so unbelievably unique. We took some great pictures in the dusk light too and then drove towards the salt hotel for breakfast once the sun was fully up.
Attempting to regain some warmth was challenging in the middle of a building with brick walls and salt chairs, floors and tables! The toilets were also an entirely other experience that we won’t discuss! But once the sun was stronger and we’d had a few hot drinks, we were all stripping off in to our t-shirts and ready to get back out and play in the salt.
It was then time to take those iconic Salar pictures you see from all travellers. We made ourselves small, ran from dinosaurs and zombies, and took a shower in wine in our photos. In fact, wine became a heavy feature of our morning because we’d also brought along a full bottle to drink. The combination of alcohol and altitude meant we were all sufficiently tipsy and thoroughly loving life. We ended up partying on the salt flats and then taking the party to the car when it was time to go.
Abel, being the legend that he was, even joined in with all our singing and dancing and got in to our hyper spirits! It was a sad moment finally leaving the Salar because we’d had such an unbelievable time but we did have one more stop before the tour was over. This was at a market in Uyuni where all and every possible alpaca wool item was sold. Naturally, we purchased a cashmere jumper and a few other items to complete our authentic Bolivian experience. But honestly, how can you resist when the cashmere jumpers were just 70 Bolivianos (that’s under £10, imagine that at home!?).
Abel took us back to the agency in Uyuni to finish what had been an unbelievable 3 days. It was sad to be leaving but our little group of 4 were continuing on together for at least one more day anyway. We did have to say goodbye to Naty and Saty, who had been adorable and made us goodbye origami fish because they were just too damn cute!
Our bus was booked at 4pm so we went for a coffee whilst waiting. When the bus arrived, it was how you’d typically imagine a South American bus; it was small and smelly with locals crammed in the aisles and mad, crazy drivers! One little boy went flying when the driver stopped and landed right next to me. Mummy Gabs soon came to the rescue to put him back on his feet though and we continued to drive through the beautiful winding roads of the mountainous Bolivian landscapes.
There is only one way I can describe my last 3 days: unbelievably stunning and incredibly unique. Nothing will ever compare to driving in the sky, standing on top of camel-shaped rocks, looking out over endless countryside and stumbling across hidden oasis lagoons. What a trip!
So, 137 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and I have salt from head to toe, newly formed abs from laughing so hard and have not been so comfortable with a new group of people for a while. I can only thank Kasia, Aubrey and Or for being so magical and the entire group for making the tour so amazing.
(a very salty) Gabby x