Alright, now we’re getting into one of the true highlights of the whole South American continent, Bolivia’s southern deserts & the Salar de Uyuni. No that’s not hyperbole, but yes I did just want to throw the word “hyperbole” in there cos it’s a pretty fucking impressive word.
Now what the fuck is so cool about driving out into a desert in the middle of nowhere, you may be thinking. You’ll be about as bored as a midget at an amusement park right? Wrong, motherfucker, and let me tell you why – on this trip you will see natural phenomena so strange you will swear your guide is slipping a tab of strong acid into your coffee every morning. On that note, this is going to be a more photo-centric post than most, as the photos do more justice to just how crazy this landscape is than my rambling words ever could. While it may look like I’ve gone a bit cray cray on Photoshop & altered the colours in these photos, this is actually how this part of the world looks, it is un-fucking-believable.
While out here you’ll also get to experience a feeling of true isolation unlike anything else – when your guide turns off the jeep, the silence is unbelievable, and you’ll feel like you’re the only person in the world, spine-tingling shit amigo. Finally, when you see the salt flats AKA the Salar de Uyuni, maybe with a thin layer of water reflecting the sky so you are literally staring into infinity, you will experience a mind-fuck like no other, and my god it is good.
Okay, some quick logistical details to kick things off. This part of Bolivia is a designated national park, and visiting is only permitted via an organised tour, so no jumping in your jeep & going to check it out on your own, unless you fancy an altercation with the Bolivian popo’s followed by some nasty prison butt-sex (probably). You have two choices for your tour – the more common 3 day trip which starts & finishes in Uyuni, basically doing a loop, or the longer 4 day trip starting in Tupiza & finishing up in Uyuni. My recommendation is to go with the latter, for several reasons:
1. Tupiza is a pretty cool little town, surrounded by amazing countryside that looks like the wild west that you can go horseback riding around. In contrast, Uyuni is an absolute godforsaken shit-hole, possibly the worst town the WTF has ever found himself in. You’re going to have to visit Uyuni at some point on this trip, but you’d be better off making it only once rather than twice.
2. The Tupiza-Uyuni trip takes in parts of the region missed by the shorter trip, all of it pretty dazzling – you’ve spent a fair bit of time getting down to this southern part of Bolivia, you might as well make the most of it while you’re here.
3. On the shorter trip you visit the famous salt flats AKA the Salar de Uyuni first, whereas on the Tupiza-Uyuni trip this is the conclusion of the tour. The salt flats are hands-down one of the true wonders of the world, and they make one hell of a climax to the Tupiza-Uyuni trip – in other words, on the longer tour you’re saving the best til last.
Right, so how does this whole tour thing work then? Basically, you have a 4×4 to get around in, and all your gear is carried on the roof. The driver doubles as your guide, plus there’s a cook – our cook was called Flora & she was an absolute fucking legend at turning out tasty meals every damn night in what were definitely not 5-star cooking facilities. Anyway, that leaves room for 4-6 passengers. 4 passengers is comfortable, two in the middle row & two in the back, 5 would be a bit more cramped, and you’d have to be a total sick weirdo to want to have 6, unless you get off on being uncomfortably close to random people you’ve just met for several hours each day.
There are loads of places in both Tupiza & Uyuni offering tours so shop around – you can also just take a day tour out onto the Salar de Uyuni, but seriously you’d be missing so much awesomeness if you did this, so don’t. It’s especially worth checking that your guide speaks English, our guide Felix didn’t speak a word of it, although fortunately we had a Spanish guy in our group who could act as translator - if it weren’t for that we would have been screwed. If you’re travelling solo it’s pretty easy to meet people at your hostel or wherever to share a trip with, the WTF met 3 others on the bus down to Tupiza, not only did that provide someone to talk to on the 10 hour bus trip, but we were able to get on a tour of the deserts & Salar de Uyuni the very next day – result.
Also just a word on accommodation – you’re in the middle of a fucking desert here people, so don’t expect anything flash. You stay in lodges scattered around the national park, and to call these places rustic would be generous, in the same way real estate agents describe a dilapidated shit hole of a house as “a doer-upper’s dream” or some shit. You can expect no electricity, no hot water, and on at least one night your bed will literally be a block of concrete with some blankets on it. You’re at altitude too, so the nights are freezing – one particular night the WTF had no less than 10 thick blankets over him, about half a metre of covers piled up, no exaggeration (or hyperbole for that matter). So yeah, bring your warm gear, expect to be sleeping in it, and if you think you’re getting a hot shower to warm up at the end of the day you’re avin’ a fucken laff mate. Despite all that, it’s pretty fun staying at these places – all the tour groups head for them at the end of the day, so while you won’t see a soul throughout the day, at night you’ll have loads of people to chat to, have a game of cards & a few beers (there is usually at least one random old Bolivian lady selling beers, or BYO from town before setting off on the trip).