Tag Archives: Uyuni

How to travel from Uyuni to La Paz in style

Stories of a rough night ride linking Uyuni to La Paz by bus didn’t get me particularly excited about my leaving date. ‘I’m thinking of taking the train’, said my friend Nathalie, so I thought about it too. As did Carl and Patrick and Moritz and Blair. We thought and thought and talked. And then we went to the train station to book. Enough thinking.

You’ll have to go first class’, said the ticket man. I wondered whether tourists always got fed that line. At 112Bs. (£10.49/US$16.33) it was double that of a standard ticket. But, if we wanted to leave that night? Come on! Stop over thinking. Buy the goddam ticket.

At the last-minute Blair bailed and bought a ticket to go the opposite way. As happens whilst on the road, my Uyuni tour crew had started to break apart. Would we catch up again with Blair? With Lance? With Gemma? Maybe. All part of the randomness of travel. Move on, let them go. No time to get sentimental.

At just gone midnight the train rolled in. To be fair to the ticket guy, all carriages were stuffed full. People pushed on board, squishing in. Martin, a 6ft6” blonde dreadlocked Swede had got one of the last standard tickets. I imagined him trying to crush himself in there. Quite a mission. Would he get any sleep?

Our carriage, first class, didn’t exist. Like a scene from Harry Potter, we were sent down to the end of the platform to wait in the dark for a special, additional carriage to be brought in. I felt such a tourist. It was a little elitist and embarrassing. And somewhat mystical too.

Choo, choo. It turned up. We climbed on board, but my friend Carl got stopped. ‘Breathe on me’, instructed the conductor. Carl sucked in and exhaled. I held my breath. The boys had been on the beers all night.

Somehow, who knows how, the train crew were satisfied that Carl wasn’t drunk. If they’d witnessed his cheery, loud address taking centre stage at the front of the carriage as we chugged away from Uyuni, they may well have gone for a second opinion.

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Part of the departing crew enjoying the comforts and space of first class

The carriage was empty, save for me and my four travel buddies and a handful of others. We each moved on to a double seat. Bedding, hot, super sweet tea and a ham and cheese roll were handed out to each of us. The perks of first class. Not really that fantastic, but a gesture, a nod towards the double cost.

I ended up drinking unwanted teas, cup-loads of sickly sweetness passed forward for me to finish. I started to feel a little nauseous and stopped. ‘Drink your own’, I finally told them, ‘I’m sugared out’.

The train started its 312km journey, moving smoothly towards Oruro. I tried to sleep. The blanket was a bit funky. At first I thought it might be the sleeping bag that I’d borrowed from one of the guys. Nah, it was definitely the blanket, so I pushed its mustiness away from my face and pulled the cords in tightly on my hoodie.

I mustn’t judge guys so harshly, I thought as I started to doze off, because many smell pretty damn good. Some even know how to wash and not just cover travel funkiness with smelly sprays. And with the gentle sway of the train and the warmth of a million layers and the thoughts of guys and good smells, I drifted off into a light sleep.

Six hours later we arrived into Oruro, took a short taxi ride to the bus terminal, bought tickets to La Paz for a group discount rate of 15Bs. each and grabbed some api and buñelo breakfast at a roadside stall.

Fed and watered, we nearly missed the bus. French Nathalie did an action hero jump onto the moving vehicle, trying to hold the doors open for me to follow suite. It didn’t happen. I waved her goodbye. We’d meet again. At least she was on board with everyone’s bags.

Not quite ready to totally give up, the rest of us ran behind the bus, flapping and shouting.

Fifty metres along the road, the bus stopped. It suddenly all made sense. In order to get into the bus terminal, one had to pay an entry fee – a terminal tax  – of 15 centavos. The locals didn’t want to spend out so they gathered around the corner and waited for free access to the bus. Smart move.

I clambered onboard and collapsed into the seat next to Nathalie.

Three hours of girlie chat about life and love and everything in between and suddenly there she was spread out below us: the mass of La Paz, beautiful and scary all in one. I felt claustrophobic panic and tingly excitement and every emotion in between. I’m not a fan of cities but wow! – if you’re going to do cities , then this is quite the place.

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Hello La Paz

And it felt so lovely, so different to arrive into the hectic belly of a city with a small group of friends. I’m used to fending for myself on arrival or otherwise sharing the fun with one other travel buddy. In a group, it was easier and enjoyable, if a little more awkward to organise.

Even the prospect of staying in the most full-on gringo haunt in town didn’t horrify me as much as it might usually. With these guys, anywhere could be fun. I had to keep an open mind and see whether the Loki hostel would eat me alive and spit me out, or just full on disagree with me.

Or maybe, just maybe, it could surprise me and I’d love the place. Time to find out.

So in terms of travelling to La Paz in style, I guess we’re not talking helicopters or private jets, we’re not dreaming up visions of horse-drawn carriages full of sumptuous cushions and throws, and we’re steering somewhat clear of the luxury of speed and smoothness. But! – in terms of public transport travel in Bolivia, going first class on the train from Uyuni to Oruro is really quite spacious and comfortable whilst the bus ride for the next few hours is no big drama at all.

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Train timetable available here. The train from Uyuni and arriving into Oruro only leaves on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and tickets sell out fairly quickly (unless you’re happy to go first class).

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Rock my world

I can never fully get my head around the connotations of ‘being someone’s rock’, whether it is a good thing or not. It sounds, to me, like it should be a compliment (‘he’s my rock’, ‘solid as a rock’), signifying security, sturdiness, strength.

But, I do wonder would I really want a rock in my life? Wouldn’t a bird be more fun and free? Or a grain of sand that drifts along on a burst of wind, forms new landscapes but is then blasted off again before any permanence can take place? Wouldn’t it stop me feeling weighted down?

Maybe it’s my own restless nature that drives these thoughts, my own inability to feel grounded and solid like a rock. But whilst strength is an attribute I can relate to, security and sturdiness smack of a bit of boringness to me.

On Day 3 of the Uyuni tour, however, I would encounter rocks that would make me rethink by being anything but boring. I love being challenged.

Bring it on.

It was gone 09:00am on a brisk April day when we stopped off at a collection of rocks jutting out awkwardly and obviously on an otherwise flat desert landscape. A few jeeps clustered at one end but the main rush of tourists had long left to do border drop-offs.

Not having any of our tour group transiting on to Chile bought us a couple of hours sleep-in, something my altitude tired body was seriously grateful for. The double beauty of this situation was that we also now didn’t have to share this rock garden with anyone else. Nearly.

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Still busy despite rush hour being over

We climbed and clambered, photographed and peered through corroded spy holes. Shapes had emerged from these hunks of rocks, delicate curves and smooth edges, precipices of chiselled stone, all created by nature’s craftsmanship.

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The rock garden

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Framed

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Guys go for the climb

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Girls on top

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A rock tree

These soft stones, I realised, were in a constant state of change and would keep adapting until the last formation gave way to a crumbly disintegration, the final fragments joining other grains of sand in a desert sea, free to go with the flow of the whispering wind.

Who knows what timescale we’re talking about, but these ‘solid’ rocks were creating beauty, movement and stories; changing and adapting. They certainly weren’t ‘stuck’. They were, I realised, just stopping momentarily on a much bigger journey.

Later in the day the desert roadsides became increasingly strewn with sharp-edged rocks, density increasing until we finally stopped by the Valley of the Rocks.

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Walking in to Valley of the Rocks

Created by volcano lava flow, the rocks here are tougher – individually and as a group – chunked together, stocky things with the odd touch of elegance thrown in to soften the overall visual impact.

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Entering the Valley of the Rocks

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Rock waves

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Valley of the Rocks

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Hanging out at Valley of the Rocks

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Beautiful, crazy rock formations

And then I encountered the stone that sealed the deal.

Just before we left the Valley of the Rocks, Gonzalo, our guide, showed the group a rock on which grew yalreita*, a fuzzy, dry growth of green with a mossy appearance. Yalreita, Gonzalo told us, grew over years and decades until it died off. In death it became drier still. Locals sought it out, carried home hunks of the flammable cast-off and used it to fuel fires and keep some Bolivian cold at bay.

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I love this rock!

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Yalreita growth giving warmth to the masses

So a stone that provides an environment that gives life to a plant that gives warmth to humans? Rocks are far more complex than I first thought.

Maybe being called ‘solid as a rock’ or someone’s rock isn’t so bad after all (not that I can claim to ever having had those comments directed at me). For the time being, I’ll be my own rock. I feel pretty grounded in myself, just not settled in a certain place. As it turns out, complexity and solidity don’t have to be exclusive and being a rock, I realise, definitely doesn’t have to mean stuck and boring.

And when I’m ready to be rock steady, I’m sure I’ll be able to be solid and settled for someone else too.

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*I’ve tried to research yalreita but with no success. If anyone has any further insight or an alternative plant name, I’d love to hear from you and correct this post.

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Driving with the dust devils

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Driving into the desert

Whilst Day 1 of the Uyuni tour had given us vast salt landscapes with little in the sense of navigation markers, Day 2 started the journey into dust, desert flats and gentle, sandy hills that rolled away into a far distance of snow capped mountains.

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Desert dust and moodiness

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Cloud and snow cover

As with the infinite whiteness of the salt flats, drivers steered a confident course through a drifting landscape. In sheltered places, tracks from earlier jeeps showed us the way.

We stopped briefly in what has been dubbed the Salvador Dali desert due to its surreal make-up and surroundings. A calm, settled desertscape, on this day the sunshine mimicked visual expectations of warmth that one would typically expect in such sandy, desert settings.

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Surreal Dali-esque desertscapes

But these Bolivian deserts were cold.Day and night. Each trip out of the car required us to wrap up, scarf up, hat up.

On Day 3 we arrived at yet another lake amidst flat dusty ground, mountain chains and a heavily pregnant sky. Clothes hugged in closely to our bodies, the wind sought out gaps, licking us with an icy tongue.

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The sky about to give birth

I ran away from the lake and my group, out into the emptiness of a drawn out desert: I wanted to feel the impact of this place, to momentarily measure my human insignificance against the magnificence of nature. The wind joined me in my desert dance, and we spun around together. But eventually, Wind drove me back to the crew, blasting sand in my face and forcing the clouds to drop a hailstorm bomb.

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Dancing in the desert

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Sandstorm and hailstone pain

Driving, dancing and a bit of drama in the desert. Why would you want it any other way?

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Ghost town for food before the home run

And then after a last lunch in the ghost town of San Cristobel, a dust storm kicked up. Inside the vehicle the air became stale and temperatures rose as the sun cooked the car. But opening a window and inviting in the dust devils for a goodbye drive? That would have just been silly.

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Last stretch dust storm

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Is this the most bizarre tourist attraction in the world?

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It sounded like the most boring place to visit. When another traveller had told me a few weeks back that they really hoped to visit the train graveyard in Uyuni, I looked at them as though they were crazy.

“Really?” I asked, “You’re not joking?” They weren’t joking. What strange times we live in.

So why the enthusiasm? Didn’t they have better things to do, places to see? And what the hell was a train graveyard in any case?

The tour I’d booked the day before through Andes Salt Expeditions started with a morning trip out to Cementerio de Trenes, the train cemetery or train graveyard.

I stepped out of the jeep after a 2km drive and gathered around with my new tour buddies. It was quiet, a little awkward; people were in ‘I’ve-just-met-you-friendly’ mode, polite but a little standoffish. I stuck with my friend Carl.

It was fresh and clear. Little fluffy clouds dotted a sunny blue sky and a slight, chilly breeze whispered to me: Keep an open your mind! Go and enjoy this strange place!

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The Train Graveyard, Nr. Uyuni, Bolivia

Our guide, Gonzalo, gave a brief overview and history of the place. While Uyuni had been a central hub in transporting goods between South American countries from the 1880s onwards, things started to slow down – a result of the closure of a number of mines? – and the railway was decommissioned. Everything just stopped. Like that.

Now the trains stand there gradually decomposing. Why not, then, make the place into a spectacle?! As one report suggests, this is ‘a trainspotter’s sick dream’. I’d have probably chosen a different word in there, but you get the gist.

Post-history lesson we went and played. If nothing else, the Cementerio de Trenes was a big playground with swings and seesaws and things to climb on and not a hint of health and safety in place to spoil the fun.

We jumped and ran about. Creativity and big kid syndrome kicked in. Oh happy, carefree day.

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Schwiiiiiiiiiiiiiing….! Playtime at the Train Graveyard

What can I do next?!

What can I do next?! Carl on a mission

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Erm… improvisation

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See-saw fun

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Chill out time

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What is everyone else doing?

Some other guys playing train-top chase

Within an hour we were back in the car, had picked up our bags from the agency and were headed for the salt flats themselves. Some of the others had partied at the rave a few days earlier so were less enthusiastic about seeing the place, but me, well, this was the whole point of being here, right?

I was excited.

And then the chaos started to unleash as the boys each cracked open a can of beer and switched Gonzalo’s music for their own, cranking up the volume.

Did I get lucky or unlucky, bunched in with five guys, Gonzalo and the driver? The other car drove along in silence: four well-mannered girls, one guy and the driver.

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Party boys. Party car.

Back in our jeep, Gonzalo nodded along to the tunes and we all threw in a few restricted dance moves and adopted alter egos. While the Social Club Co-Ordinator set to work, the Rock Star put on a pair of shades, and some collaborative whoops were thrown into the music mix.

The party reputation of our car started to build. I would either grow to love or hate these boys, I realised.

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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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