Our main reason for visiting Bolivia was the Salt Flat Tours. We had, just for a change, researched loads and read guide books and blogs aplenty. I was apprehensive about spending so much time, up to 10 hours some days, in a jeep on dirt roads and with horror stories of drunk drivers and awful food it was a bit of a gamble. It was however a gamble that paid off massive dividends and we had the most amazing four days.
We had crossed the border from Argentina, the easiest yet, stamped out at one control, we walked the few hundred yards and suddenly we were in Bolivia, an hour behind and a new flag flying high. The border control just waved us through, no Bolivian stamp in our passports required, much to our disappointment. We were immediately aware of all the beautiful colours of Bolivia. The women in particular often wear the traditional outfit with full pleated skirts with masses of petticoats, two very long plaits and bowler hats. It is a very unusual yet quirky look with the colour of the ribbons in their hair indicating their marital status and the angle of the hat also. They come across as quite a sombre nation but once approached they are as friendly as can be.
We walked to the station and caught a train to Tupiza, our starting point for our salt flats tour. The track winds through the mountains and the scenery was gorgeous pretty much all of the way of the 3 hour journey. As we alighted the train we were delighted to see the town had sent out a welcoming committee. A full procession was taking place with majorettes, drums, trumpets and a variety of other instruments. We stood and watched before another short walk to our hostel and finally relieved ourselves of those awful backpacks. I swear they get heavier each time we move!
The hostel was run by a lovely family, the son Frankie holding fort at front desk, his mother helping with the cooking and his father running the attached shop. We went out on one of their “triathlon” tours with his father, a day of jeep, trek and horse riding. It was incredibly good fun and we were so well looked after, we booked the salt flat tours with them too.
The night before the tour the town was shut down due to a protest by all the locals over their waters supplies. They literally blockaded all entrances to the town and lined up like picket lines at key junctions. A mixture of rocks, trees, barbed wire and anything else available was used to stop any vehicles including the train! It was incredible to witness this but also caused a problem with our tour. The jeep was not in town so we had to send all our bags the night before by motorbike to be loaded up and then trek to the jeep in the morning. We were joined by a lovely French couple who would be our partners in crime for the four days and young Frankie introduced us to our great driver Hector and amazing cook Julia who would look after the four of us. Alice, our new French friend did speak a lot more Spanish than the rest of us so became the translator a lot of the time. I definitely think my Spanish is improving gradually and each day we are learning new words by all this exposure.
Travel bands on and all loaded up, we set off on our great adventure along with three other jeeps. We soon realised we had made the right choice with this bunch as he drove so well for all of the time I never felt ill once even cramped in the rear tiny seats. The views on the first day were just the start of even better scenery as the trip continued. It was all about llamas to begin with. These pretty creatures with their ribbon tags on their ears were everywhere along the route. We stopped many times for photos and even found local women selling llama wool accessories. I just had to buy a pair of llama gloves, they would come in handy as we climbed in elevation and temperatures fell!
We stopped at a tiny mining village for lunch with local children greeting us enthusiastically. We were introduced to the first of lovely Julia’s cooking. It was different every day and so tasty and plentiful. Another difference to many accounts we had read, we had definitely chosen well.
We visited an abandoned ancient mining town, an impressive selection of inca ruins, the whole town had fled when a mysterious lady had apparently arrived infected with disease. It was almost like it stood still in time. Even better it had proper toilets, these were very few and far between in the four days, probably the main negative but somewhat inevitable given the remoteness.
Our first night was very basic as expected and we all huddled up eating our dinner in a very cold room. With no showers, once fed, it was a very early night. We shared our room with the other couple, our first experience of a dorm. Undressing was fun, wriggling in my sleeping bag but I soon got cozy with all the blankets provided. It was a somewhat restless night, a combination of cold and altitude but not the worst sleep by a long shot.
Day 2 was all about lagoons and pink flamingos. It was brilliant blue skies but very cold and to see these beautiful birds on enormous lagoons seemed wrong at this altitude. We had fantastic walks round the lagoons and to see the flamingoes in their natural environment and especially in mid flight was amazing. They are so much bigger than I had imagined and so pink. It was a great spectacle and I even found two pink feathers as a special souvenir. The lagoons were mainly brilliant blue but we were also taken to a green and a black lagoon, the colours all stunning. Bolivia is certainly a country of many colours. We were also lucky enough to have a gorgeous dip in a thermal pool. Overlooking the lagoon and flamingos and with snow caped mountains it was pretty much perfect and the only downside was the hasty dressing afterwards in the cold. The final bonus of the day were sightings of the bubbling geysers, the smell reminding us of our days at Rotorua in New Zealand all those months ago. Alongside these were a strange spectacle of towering ice shards which made yet another great photo opportunity.
Another dorm room for night 2 but a lot better sleep meant we were fully refreshed for day 3. This was all about the stunning rock formations. Like Argentina they were incredible to see and we spent much of the day clamouring upon them for the best pictures and views. Hector came into his own that day jumping around and getting great shots of us all having great fun. It was definitely not for the faint hearted as we clamoured up to view an impressive canyon. We kept meeting up with the other tour groups and I can safely say we were by far the oldest but hopefully still agile and fit enough to enjoy it all.
Our final night was at a salt hostel. This was pretty special and so surreal. We crunched along the salt floors admiring the engravings on the salt walls. We slept on salt beds, ate on salt tables and sat on salt stools. It was so pretty and actually surprisingly warm. After a quick cup of tea we had our first drive onto the salt flats to see the sunset. It was as spectacular as sunsets usually are but the vast expanse of salt feels like you have somehow arrived at Antartica and I kept writing ice rather than salt in my daily journal. Our final dinner back at the salt hostel was as great as ever and we even got to share a bottle of wine. One glass at altitude certainly sent me to sleep with no trouble at all.
It was a rude awakening at 4.30am on our final morning. Thirty minutes later we were all loaded up and back onto the salt flats. As we drove in darkness armed with lots of warm clothes ready the enormity of these really became apparent. There is no less than 10,000 square kilometres, that is half the size of Wales! Suddenly we appeared at an cacti covered island and as we hiked to the summit it really felt like an expanse of sea on all sides instead of salt. We had timed it to perfection thanks to Hector and it was not long before we watched the beautiful sunrise in this amazing setting. An outdoor breakfast at another salt table was somewhat chilly but the sun soon started to gain strength and we went for an early morning wander practicing a few photo shots and I even did some morning exercises and a slightly breathless jog, all to keep warm of course. It seemed a bit crazy but the craziness was definitely going to increase hundred fold as the morning continued.
We drove further out onto the flats and Hector and Julia finally got to have lots of fun too. The poses and photos were all slightly mad but have all turned out so great thanks to their experience of props and angles. We all had so much fun on that morning even hauling ourselves up onto the jeep roof for group photos as a grand finale.
A final very early lunch and a rather strange stop at a train cemetery, yes lots of old trains laid to rest, and we had arrived at Uyuni our dropping off point where we were looking forward to a well earned hot shower.
It had been a truly amazing few days with fantastic company and incredible scenery and wildlife along every inch of the journey. It was certainly not just a salt flats tour, it had been so much more. It was time to say goodbye to the rest of the party as they were headed back to our starting point for their onward travels to Argentina and we have a lot more of Bolivia to discover yet.