After 2 fruitful weeks learning Spanish in beautiful Sucre, I packed my bags and said goodbye to everyone. I initially planned to stay for a month, then thought maybe 3 weeks, then finally I’m ready to move on after 2 weeks. Somehow after the one month stint in San Jose, Costa Rica, I couldn’t sit still for more than 2 weeks in a city.
My next stop was the famous salt flats of Uyuni. I took the bus in the morning. It costs 120 Bolivianos (US$15) and takes 10 hours. I don’t remember if there are overnight buses but the ride through Potosi is crazy scenic so it’s worth it to do it in the morning. Bolivia is so beautiful. I couldn’t say it often enough.
Salar de Uyuni Tour
Crossing the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest salt lake in the world, is one of the great Bolivian trips. If you have to visit one thing in Bolivia, let it be this one. Standing amidst the more than 10,000 sq. km of expanse sea of blinding white crust, one loses all sense of perspective. It’s amazing!
Uyuni is a small town situated in the middle of nowhere. It originally blossomed as a railroad junction, and even if this is still an important aspect, no doubt tourism is now its main source of prosperity. It primarily serves as a gateway for tourists visiting the salt flats. Evident in the number of hostels and internet shops, souvenir and artisans shops, and not to mention side by side tour agencies.
I got off the bus station about 7 in the evening and was immediately flocked by people pushing brochures on the Salar tours. I met travelers in Sucre who’ve done it so I already had an idea on the tours and how much it costs (between 700 to 1200 Bolivianos). I’ve heard mixed reviews from different travelers. Some were really happy with their guide, others complained of not enough food, bad hostel and of old clunky jeep breaking down.
So which agency to choose?
I have learned earlier on this trip that on many popular tours, you’ll have an operator with tons of resellers. I experienced this in the Sahara Tour in Morocco. We all booked with different agencies, paid different prices, but ended up in the same tour bus. There would be agency recommendation in guide books but I find to be already obsolete by printing and distribution time. So I prefer to use the internet, especially TripAdvisor because the reviews are fresh and recent. Or a really good way is to get recommendation from travelers who’ve done it or from your hostel.
The typical Salar de Uyuni tour is conducted in 4×4 vehicles (usually Toyota Land Cruisers) with 6 travelers and the driver who at the same time the guide and the cook. The itinerary for the 3 days tour are basically the same as we kept running into the same people during the trip and at times even staying in the same hostels. The first day includes the train cemetery and drive through the salt plains stopping at the salt hotel for lunch and popular creative photo session at the flats. I was really looking forward to this even if it’s so touristy thing to do and so many people have done it. I’ve met travelers in Uyuni who thought it was lame and wouldn’t do it. I’d roll my eyes and thought, whatever. I dislike these types of “travelers” who thought they’re so high and above “tourists”. If you’re on a tourist trail, you’re a tourist.
Now in booking a tour, I would strongly recommend that you take the 3 days / 2 nights one instead of the 2 days /1night. The price difference is not that significant but the experience will be worlds apart. Trust me that it will be one of the (if not the) most beautiful series of landscape you’ll see in South America: red mountains, unusual rock formations, hot springs, geysers, red and green lakes, volcanoes and giant cacti can all be found, as well as some wildlife, including llamas and vicuñas.
Uyuni : 1 Day too Many
I made a mistake of not booking a tour when I arrived or wake up earlier to look for a tour. It should have been easy for a solo traveler. Unfortunately I wasn’t early enough and had to stay one full day in the super dull town of Uyuni. My hostel didn’t have internet, I think not one has, so I couldn’t even pass time online. I tried the internet shop but it was so slow I couldn’t even get into hostelworld to book for a hostel in La Paz.
Anyway, I ended up booking a tour next door. The agency actually look a bit dodgy with not much in it that after handing over my 700 Bolivianos, I was afraid the shop will be close the next day. She asked me to write my name on a paper and that’s it. No receipt to hold on to. If she were recommended by my hostel, I wouldn’t be so worried, so then why did I book with her in the first place, right?
The only reason is that she was so nice and friendly. She just started this job and was very enthusiastic and kind of innocent. And if you’ve traveled around Bolivia not on an organized tour, you’d understand me that it’s rare to find a friendly, enthusiastic Bolivian. It must be the cold weather that makes people cold and unfriendly. Even people in retail or hospitality businesses are not nice. I’ve experienced many times feeling like I’m bothering someone ordering food in a restaurant. My usual demanding self wouldn’t do in this customer unfriendly nation. I could never say “unacceptable service, let me speak with your manager!” Because they’re the proprietor of this business. Somehow it never occurred to them that good customer service could mean more business. They just don’t give a shit. So, this is why I booked with this nice girl. Because she gave a shit.
It turned out to be decent trip. We had a 4×4 Land Cruiser in good condition with a safe driver. He’s also the “unenthusiastic” tour guide and the cook. The food is not gourmet but sufficient. We even got a bottle of Bolivian wine while in Lake Colorado, which strangely my 4 Irish + 1 Aussie travel mates declined. I can’t (don’t want) to drink the whole bottle so we didn’t open it. I probably should’ve because the 2nd night was so cold, I couldn’t sleep. Anyway, none of them wanted the bottle, so I took it with me and drank it with another mate in La Paz.
Bolivia is definitely worth a visit, if only for this trip. Add it to your bucket list to check one day.