Uyuni is kinda okay, really

Salar de Uyuni map (image from www.2wonders.com)

I’VE HEARD DEPRESSING ACCOUNTS OF Uyuni from a fair few travellers, things that could easily put you off ever visiting the place. ‘Get there and book a tour straight away’, one girl told me, ‘don’t stop. There’s nothing to do, it’s dusty and cold and boring’. Harsh.

I did, however, want to visit the town for the same reason most backpackers head there: to access the unusual landscape of the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, something so intriguing and alien to a small town British girl like me.

Nine hours after leaving Sucre I arrived into Uyuni having passed through Potosi, the highest city in the world. Altitude was being kind to me on this day. After wandering through the town for a few minutes, I bumped into a friend from Sucre at a juice stall. He was trying to rejuvenate after the rave on the salt flats. ‘Our hostel is great, but full’, he said.

Plan B. I hunted down another friend and checked into a big, empty hostel on the outskirts of the town before heading out to book a tour of the salar and the surrounding lagunas, mountains and rock trees, an overall experience that Lonely Planet states as ‘must-do’ (LP haters, don’t let their endorsement put you off).

With so many tour operators in town, who to book with? Red Alert had been suggested to me, but they were expensive, nearly double that of others. ‘Worth it, though’, a backpacker had told me in Sucre, ‘great food, attention to detail and they really look after you.’ I couldn’t justify the cost.

It turned out that, having left things until late in the day, we didn’t have as broad a choice in any case. Out of those remaining open, Andes Salt Expeditions came highly recommended.

We checked the list of people already booked on to the tour. Similar ages, a predominantly English speaking mix. We got a run-down of the itinerary and costs. We would have a guide (one that spoke English), a well-maintained vehicle and a sober driver. I paid up my 700Bs. (£62.99/$101.30) for the three day, two night tour that would set off the following morning. A quick, easy arrangement.

Following the example of the person who’d written Rock Star as their profession on the details sheet, I went for Explorer, my friend chose Social Club Co-ordinator. I hope that the Rock Star wasn’t really a rock star. It could otherwise all get a bit embarrassing.

We were just about set. Time to repack bags, stock up on snacks and get a good night’s sleep.

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Included with Andes Salt Expeditions packages is daily jeep transport, an English speaking tour guide, three meals per day (not breakfast on first day or supper on last), basic accommodation and optional drop-off to cross the border over to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Although you do make a stop at a small village near the salar where you can stock up with warm woollens at pretty standard prices, for the rest of the trip it’s difficult to buy what you want, crave or need. I’d suggest bringing: warm clothes (including hat and gloves, and if like me you’re cold hearted or blooded, fat woolly socks); 150Bs. (£/US$) for National Park entry; snacks (and smokes, if you need); water; coca leaves and coca catalyst. The other guys also brought beer and wine for evenings sat around chatting in isolated hostels (I was on antibiotics, none of that for me). Hot showers cost an additional 10Bs. (£0.90/US$1.45).

I also hired a sleeping bag from the tour operator for 40Bs. (£3.60/US$5.80), which was the best decision I made. The hostels are BASIC and COLD, particularly on the second night at over 4,000m in elevation.

And the problem of drunk drivers needs to be taken seriously, something that has been highlighted by many doing the tour out of Uyuni. The best advice is to talk to other travellers before you book, and get their recommendations for a tour operator.

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9 Comments

Filed under bolivia, natural wonders, nature, south america

9 responses to “Uyuni is kinda okay, really

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  5. Can you tell me what coca leaves and coca catalyst are? Thanks!

    • Yeah, coca leaves are actually plant leaves that are used as the base in cocaine production… but HIGH quantities are needed. In low quantities – such as when chewed or used in tea – it has a mild stimulant and numbing effect (so maybe the miners, for example who have to work long, difficult shifts stuff their cheeks full of the stuff in order to help get through their long shifts). Coca leaves – chewed or in tea or sweets – are meant to help with altitude effects, are not considered a drug and are easily available in markets and shops in some countries in South America (others view it as illegal so you can’t cross borders with a bag of coca leaves, for example). I don’t really know what the catalyst is made up of… I tried two different sorts, one that had a black, squidgy appearance and tasted pretty sweet whilst the other usual one is chalky and grey. When you use a catalyst whilst chewing coca leaves, the effect is much intensified. I never got a numb mouth, for example, from chewing coca leaves alone (maybe I didn’t chew enough?) but with the catalyst I went numb quickly.

      • Wow. So interesting! Numb in your mouth only? Or kinda numb-headed? How are the coca leaves and catalyst sold? By the pound? In bags? Just curious. Do you have a photo?

      • No, I didn’t take a photo. So silly! My friend Gareth – a travel writer – has put together a ‘How to chew…’ video that might be of some interest. Usually sold in a bag or from huge sacks in the market place. And the numb feeling was only in the mouth… for me, in any case.

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