I was in a conversation with a very well-travelled American gentleman over a few beverages one fine Argentine evening when we got around to the topic of ‘strangest places you’ve ever seen’. He had told me earlier that he’d visited all 7 continents so naturally, I assumed Antarctica would have to top his list of most unique landscapes.
“No Sir,” he informed me, “that would have to go to the salt flats up in Bolivia. They are completely out of this world dude, like you’re standing on another planet. The sheer magnitude and the fact they’re situated above 4,000m makes the whole landscape completely surreal.”
*We were a few beverages deep by this stage so I doubt the conversation was anywhere near as civilised as I’ve portrayed it here. Still, my curiosity was piqued. I was heading to Bolivia.
I had about 10 days before I had to return to Mendoza for an attempt on Aconcagua with a couple of buddies that were heading over from the States. I therefore jumped on the next bus up to Salta, a 21 hour ride that was extended after the route we were on was blocked by protestors. They had covered the road in trees and shrubs, then lit them all ablaze. Ever since arriving in Argentina, I’d seen more protests than in the previous few years combined. I saw 3 alone on my first day in Buenos Aires. Not exactly sure what the protests were about (if they even needed a reason..) but more power to them I guess.
I arrived in Salta, quickly departed again and was on my way to the desert landscape of Northern Argentina. (I’ve only met one person who liked the town of Salta itself. Hilda, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ve changed your mind by now..) Next stop was Tilcara, a small town steeped in history with human habitation in the area dating back more than 10,000 years. I was a big fan of Tilcara, although the town was pretty quiet due to it being the festive period and all, it had a lot of character, a little oasis in one of the driest parts of the world.
In Tilcara I met my travel buddy for the rest of the trip, a hilarious Slovenian legend named Jure, and along with a couple of other South American stragglers, we made our way to the border town of La Quiaca. From here it’s a short stroll up to the border with Bolivia. You line up for 20 minutes, get 2 stamps (1 for leaving Argentina, 1 for entering Bolivia) and you’re on your way. Most lackadaisical border I’ve ever seen.
We decided to start our Salt Flats tour in Tilcara, although it may have been a little more expensive, we’d heard much better reviews of the services offered here than those in Uyuni. They also offer mostly 4 day tours as opposed to the typical 3 you’d find from the latter starting point. We walked into the first hostel we found and were discussing the tour options with a man who introduced himself as ‘Freddy Kruger’ and proceeded to talk nonsense for the next hour. We checked trip advisor and found an average rating of about 2 stars, including one review about the driver getting drunk and rolling the car. We decided another agancy might be the best option..
Luckily we scoped out the reviews online, finding the highest rating seemed to belong to a tour company called Tupiza Tours. Having expereienced the tour with them, I can’t recommend the company highly enough. They charged us 1,150 Bolivianos for the 4 day tour (which was about 100 higher than another group we talked to but we figured you get what you pay for.) Twice we cruised passed their broken down vehicle, subtly ensuring they knew taking the cheaper option isn’t always the best option. By all accounts they had a great tour experience as well though so maybe the operator doesn’t make such a big difference after all.
Overall the tour was an incredible experience. Over the 4 days we passed through such a unique and diverse series of landscapes, the likes of which I’ll probably never see again. From multi-coloured Lagoons filled with hundreds of bright pink flamingos, to steaming volcanoes & bubbling geysers, to vast herds of traumatised Llama and of course the other-worldly slat flats themselves. I am inclined to agree with the American who said this was perhaps the most unique environment he’d ever encountered. The one drawback was the amount of time spent in the 4wd, which was of course necessary to reach so many different places, spread over over such vast distances.
We were also fortunate to have a great group, besides Jure (Slovenian) and myself (Australian) we had a Colombian, a Mexican and Frenchman. Diverse array of people and we all got along really well. No complaining, no disputes over itinerary and a lot of laughs. I think that is one of the biggest factors in ensuring you have a great experience. It wouldn’t have been the same if you had a group you didn’t get along with. 4 days trapped together inside a 4wd is a loooong time.
We were also travelling with a group of Germans in another 4wd, usually seeing them at the sights and having meals with them (they also travelled with Tupiza Tours). Not once did we see them without a beer in hand. It was impressive. Even on the first day, when there were supposedly no shops, there they were at dinner, beers in hand. 6am on the salt flats? Beer in hand. Good ol’ German ingenuity.
Although we never had any problems ourselves, we heard one story of two unfortunate Brazilian guys. On Christmas day, their driver got drunk (after stealing their booze) and started driving like a lunatic, 100km/hr and all over the road. He then dropped them off at the accommodation, with no further word and drove off. They didn’t see him again for the rest of the night. We’d heard reports of these sorts of things happening before we arrived but thought it was a bit of a Salt Flats myth, until we heard about it first hand..
The Salt Flats in Uyuni really are insane. Not only are they the biggest in the world, they are situated 4,000m+ above sea level. There were a number of people we met throughout the tour having problems with altitude (our driver was chewing coca leaves literally non-stop throughout the 4 days). We also saw the salt flats at possibly the worst time of year. During the wet season, they fill up with water, providing a mirror like display that I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of. I’m sure you’ve also seen the different ‘perspective photos’ of people doing ridiculous poses that you can only get away with on the salt flats. We tried a few, but failed miserably. Those photos will never see the light of day..
Fact of the day: Bolivia holds about 43% of the world’s lithium reserves; most of those are located in the Salar de Uyuni. This could mean heavy scale mining in the near future as world’s demand for lithium increases.
You can check out my travel buddies (Jure) account of the Bolivian Altiplano Experience which has much better quality pics than mine..!