I took the three day Uyuni tour for a couple of reasons. First of all, I heard the two day tour was a bit too rushed. Second of all, I wanted to see more than just the salt flats and because I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Chile, I figured it was my only opportunity to see this kind of landscape.
My tour group was amazing because we all got along so well. There were seven of us in the jeep all between the ages of 24 and 29. All of our bags were strapped on the roof, so it was snug in the car, but not cramped at all.
The first day, we went to the Salt Flats–the world’s largest salt lake. Right now (South American winter), it is completely dry. It takes hours to drive across and it was gorgeous and desolate. At times, there was no life as far as the eye could see. Everything seemed so dead, but in a scarab beetle kind of way.
We visited an island of rock and cactus where you can buy trinkets and get a birds eye view of the area. You had to buy a ticket for 30 B though, so I opted to just walk around. I walked so far away from the group that I couldn’t hear anything. Complete silence. I came across this structure of salt pieces stacked together with a spoon on top. It was a really friendly sculpture. Sort of like Wilson from Castaway.
We spent the night on the hillside of a dusty, dead, desert town and looked horrible from the outside but turned out to be cute. Everything was made of salt from the furniture to the floor to the bricks of the building and the sunset was amazing.
The second day, we mostly just drove the whole day looking at beautiful scenery and jumping out of the car here and there to take some photos. We saw flamingos, a desert fox, and volcanos.
At the end of the second day we got to the nature preserve and into our hostel. We were just like the seven dwarves with our big wooden beds in one room. I tried to walk a bit outside, but the elevation and cold got the better of me and I had to go inside after about 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, we did not have running water because the pipes were frozen. At this point, we were over 4,000 meters above sea level and it was negative 15 degrees or colder at night. In my rush to get a spot on the tour, I forgot to rent a sleeping bag. I wore all the clothes that I had–including three alpaca sweaters–so I was fine. It was extremely cold, but it would have been that way with a sleeping bag too.
On the third day, we woke up at 5 am and drove two hours to see the geysers. They were so impressive. There were holes where water boiled and mud bubbled. It was a stark contrast to the subzero temperature and harsh wind.
After the geysers, we made it to a natural hot spring. I was the only person in my group who decided to get in. Everyone else was worried about being too cold when getting out but my body retained the heat from the water and I felt warmer afterwards even though I was still a little wet.
The rest of the day was just driving around and looking at different lakes. There was one that was meant to be copper-colored, another that was meant to be green and on that was supposed to be blue. Each was sort of the color it was meant to be, but they all looked a little blue. Either way, the landscape was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
The man in the road
Half of our group was ending their tour at the Chilean border on their way to San Pedro. The rest of us were going back to Uyuni. On our way to the border, in the middle of the road, we suddenly saw a man. We were in the middle of nowhere and had been for hours upon hours, so it was a surprise.
We stopped and the man said he was working illegally in Chile and then they found him, kicked him out and made him start walking through the desert. He ran out of water and fell in the lake trying to get more, so his pants were wet. While the jeep was filled to capacity, we insisted he climb in. We all felt very guilty for being privileged western tourists and gave him our water and food.
Well, during our car ride back, it came to light that this man had been working illegally, but not as a roofer or laborer. Rather, he had walked for about eight days into the desert with cocaine, then made the drop-off at the Chilean border, got paid, and then was walking back the way he came.
Our Driver’s Insights
Our driver told us that going rate for work as a drug mule is US$1000 for 1 kilo of cocaine. I cannot even begin to imagine being so desperate for US$1000 in exchange for that kind of dangerous work. Had we not stopped and picked this man up, he would have died. There is no question about it. He was in a very bad situation in the middle of the desert in winter.
We called our driver Pablo because none of us could understand his name. He only spoke Spanish, but a very difficult dialect that even the native spanish speakers in our car often couldn’t understand. The language barrier was not a problem though because the tour was mostly just looking at landscapes.
Pablo was 60 years old. He worked as a train conductors assistant from age 10 to age 40 and then they said he was too old, so he was let go. For the last 20 years, Pablo has been driving groups into this desert tour. He does one three day tour and one four day tour per week. He had no days off and he makes 2000 Bolivianos per month. We were lucky that he did not drink and he did not carry drugs across the Chilean border that he crosses twice a week. Pablo told us that trafficking and alcoholism is a big problem with the drivers of the tours. I didn’t meet anyone who had trouble with this, but I did hear a couple of stories about it.
One our way back to Uyuni, we encountered our first problem with the strikes. The gas stations had stopped selling gasoline to further the cause of the blockades and we were about five liters short of getting to Uyuni.
Pablo was friends with the other drivers so he was able to get about one liter in a small town and we hoped it would be a Hanukkah miracle situation. He kept turning off the car at every hill and just using gravity until we were completely out of gas. At that time, we were 15 kilometers (over 9 miles) from town in the middle of the desert.
The fourth car Pablo flagged down gave us enough to get to town. Once we were back in Uyuni, we asked to be let off at the bus station but there were in-town blockades, so we had to get out and walk. We all tipped Pablo and we ran to the bus station to try and get bus tickets despite the blockade. We were about to find out that leaving Uyuni would be even more difficult than arriving.