San Pedro is well placed as a starting point for 4×4 multi day tours across the Bolivian salt flats with a destination of Uyuni. The trip can be done in either direction but typically takes 4 days and 3 nights although a 5 day, 4 night package with return to San Pedro is available too.
I got a recommendation of Cordillera Traveller from a friend who had done the same trip a few years earlier. In this part of the world the fact a tour agency or bus service breathalyses it’s employees is considered a differentiating sales factor!
Just outside of town is the Chile-Bolivia ‘border’. It’s no more a border than a set of portacabins astride a rocky road but formalities dictated we stop and pay ‘national park’ entrance fee before heading on.
All lined up were our chariots for the few days – hardy Toyota Landcruisers, dozens of them from the different agencies plying the same route.
My companions for the trip were 3 teenagers from the UK (Sean, Elise and Emily) doing a gap year teaching English in Santiago, Chile and an Argentinian (Hernan) man in his mid-twenties and our driver who both didn’t speak any English.
We headed up into the Altiplane, climbing steadily. You don’t notice the altitude at first as you are looking out over undulating rocky ground but we did climb up to 5000m and that’s when it really struck. Headaches, tiredness, lack of energy and lethargy all begin to take their toll.
In these parts the drivers chew coca leaves to give energy and supposedly help with the altitude. It’s all perfectly normal and legal in Northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru but not in Chile. They don’t so much chew it as put a large ball of leaves in their cheek and let the saliva break it down over time. One German guy in another car didn’t realise this and ended up swallowing all the leaves he was given and didn’t sleep a wink all night! He seemed quite shocked when I told him the coca leaf was the raw material input for cocaine.
The first day involved several windswept lagoons with a chance to see flamingos and llamas. The flamingos live on small crustaceans and the colour of their food imparts their distinctive pink hue.
Of course there were lots of excitement and photos of the first few birds while the ones on day 4 barely got a second glance!
Our stop for that night was in a remote hostel at altitude with 5 of us to a room and thick wool blankets to ward off the cold. The son of the household was a natural performer and completely charmed everyone with his singing while we were waiting for dinner. Having dozens of people passing through every day made him an expert people person.
Up early the next day we were driving through desert landscapes with jutting rocky outcrops only to meet two German cyclists gamely attempting to pedal and swerve through the sand in the middle of the midday sun. I like an activity holiday as much as the next person but this looked no fun at all – we gave them a big top-up of water and wished them well on their way.
Our next stop was in the middle of nowhere to help another 4×4 which had been broken down for 1.5 hours. After a huddle and every driver who passed stopping the (electrical apparently) problem was solved and all the cars were on their way passed more lagoons and a solitary railway line to our next set of lodgings – a hotel built of salt blocks.
Of course we had to check by licking our fingers and tasting it was indeed salt. Amazingly when they brought chips for dinner they had no table salt!
We chose to have an early before 5am to get to the salt flats before sunrise. The salt flats are enormous remnants of ancient lakes which have evaporated leaving behind a thick salt crust with brine underneath. It’s a completely alien landscape with hexagon outlines stretching out in flat regularity in all directions.
In the middle of the salt is Incahuasi ‘island’ covered with cactuses and coral which gave stunning views of the flats stretching out in all directions with nothing but the tyre tracks of the 4x4s.
We had our breakfast and headed off toward our final stop of Uyuni with a bit of a singalong in the car until we reached the Train Graveyard. In the outskirts of the city stand old locomotives, used for the transportation of mineral deposits, have been run into the sand in old sidings and been eroded by the sand and wind over the decades.
The rest of the group headed back to Chile on a minibus overnight while I had the day to look around Uyuni before heading overnight to La Paz.