“Bolivia? Why do I want to go to Boliva?”
That was my response when Soon Jeong suggested we go to Bolivia after Peru. She explained to me that Uyuni Salt Flats are in Bolivia.
Checking the South American map, Bolivia looked like just kind of a wide swing to the East as we headed south to Chile. It didn’t look like a much of a detour …on the map anyway.
Honestly, I had no desire to go to Bolivia. My only knowledge of Bolivia was that it was the country that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went to, to escape the law in America. I learned that in the 1969 Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie. But Soon Jeong wanted to see the Uyuni Salt Flats, so Bolivia got worked into our plans.
Uyuni Salt Flats cover an area of 12,000 square Km Miles/KM/ft making it the largest in the world. Its also at an altitude of 11,981 ft. (3,653 meters) In prehistoric times there was a huge lake in present day Bolivia. Long ago the lake dried up and left a few salt flats, Uyuni is the biggest.
However, Uyuni is in Bolivia, meaning it is not easy or quick to get to. Come to think of it, the whole country of Bolivia is rather difficult to get to, and its WAY up in the Andes Mountains. La Paz, the Capital is the highest capital city in the world.
We travelled from Cusco to Puno city on Lake Titicaca. Part of Lake Titicaca belongs to Bolivia. In Puno we got our Bolivian Visas. Soon Jeongs visa was free, I paid USD $135 for mine. It only took a couple of hours. We DID have all necessary documents ready, so it was simply a matter of pay the money and stamp, stamp your good to go. Ahhh the joys of being properly prepared.
The altitude of La Paz made Cusco seem easy. We should have stayed in La Paz for a few days to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude. Instead we stopped for only one day then took the overnight bus to the small city of Uyuni.
Uyuni City is a boring little town quite far from any civilization existing in the middle of the desert. Long ago it was the supply line and pit stop for the trains and workers coming from the mines in the nearby hills.
Today Uyuni City provides accommodations and jeep treks for the hoards of tourists going to the famed slat flat.
Unfortunately, the business owners in Uyuni have a mind that the tourists are a never ending commodity that is to be used and squeezed for every drop of money possible. Example: charging extra for towels. And one hostal that we looked at sold toilet paper at the front desk because they didn’t supply it in the rooms.
We arrived in Uyuni city at 7:00am It is a long story but the short of it is, it took us 5 hrs and 4 hotels to get settled into a place that actually provided everything that they claimed was available in the room- towels and toilet paper included.
We expect and hope, that this attitude of business owners in Uyuni will change sooner or later. The market forces of tourism will demand it.
Our only reason for going to Bolivia was to see the salt flats. We checked 5 travel agents then selected the one that seemed best to us. We signed up for a 3 day 2 night jeep trek into the Uyuni Salt Flats and our trip would end in Chile, in the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
The first day we passed through the salt flats. It was incredible. As far as you could see in every direction, flat, white, salt. Our jeep stopped and all of us got out for some photos. It was not hot because of the altitude. It was bright…very bright.
All total it took about 5 hours to drive across the salt flats. That did not include a lunch stop at Fish Island. I have never seen anything like it. The salt flats were amazing.
There were six passengers, a driver, his wife the cook and their child.
The first night we stayed in a hotel made of salt just on the other side of the salt flats. It was a unique experience. Electricity was provided from 7-9 pm. We paid 5 Bolivians each, for the propane gas we used to have a hot shower.
In Uyuni city I had told the travel agent that I was a vegetarian and she assured me that there would be vegetarian food. Our first dinner had meat and it included a vegetable soup…. that was floating with grease from the meat. ..seasoning ! I did not eat it. I just had rice.
The second day we climbed high in altitude and travelled through the desert. Volcanoes on the horizon accented the skyline. We stopped in a tiny town. There was nothing there except for small store selling coke, cookies, candy and charging 3 Bolivians to use the bathroom. As we left the town an old woman was herding her lamas across the road.
Throughout the day we climbed higher and higher. Everybody in our old Toyota jeep has some degree of altitude sickness. I had a constant, but mild headache and slight nausea. The highest point we reached that was printed on a signboard was 14,030 ft (4,278 meters). I am sure that we got a bit higher than that.
The desert was a fantastic sight. Very desolated and beautiful. Occasionally we saw an animal that resembled a Lama but we were told it was a Vicuna. I saw only the scantest amount of vegetation that could possible be a food source for these creatures. And no water. Yet, the Vicunas survived in this beautiful and harsh land.
The second night we stayed in a larger kind of youth hostal. There were no less than 10 Toyota jeeps parked in front of the hostal. That night one of the cooks we grilling LAMA meat. I was not in the best of conditions to start with but the smell of lama was too much. I had to go outside because I was gagging. Soon Jeong made me some Korean Ramen for dinner that night. I ate in the room because the smell of lama filled the dining hall.
On our last day we got up at 4 am so we could see the sunrise at the geysers. I have been around a bit and I have been to Yellowstone National Park, were 20% of the worlds geyers are. And what we saw were just fumor holes (essentially steam vents) and mud pots (bubbling hot springs with lots of mud in them). Altitude and early morning made it freezing cold. It was a pretty sight with all the steam rising as the sun came up.
Crossing the boarder from Bolivia to Chile was something akin to a lunar outpost. Nothing, nothing and more nothing. In the middle of this a small cement gray building. One rusted sign saying Republica de Chile and another a few yards in front of that saying, Bolivia .
Technically, US citizens have to pay $180 dollars to enter Chile. But not out here.
We changed from our jeep into a nice new 18 passenger Mercedes van. Exactly at the boarder, the two drivers switched. I expect one was a Bolivian national and the other was Chilean.
For 3 days we had been travelling on dirt roads or no roads at all, just desert. Within 500 ft of crossing the Chilean boarder… we were zooming along on a nice paved road. This was refreshing and it hinted at the economic difference between Bolivia and Chile.
Uyuni Salt Flats? An incredible piece of earth and well worth the time and effort to see it.