The one thing we absolutely had to do in Bolivia was tour the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and the incredibly beautiful high dessert volcano laden land that lay just south. We debated many ways to do the tour, to start in Tupiza ending in Uyuni taking the bus back to La Paz or to do a one day tour from Uyuni. Eventually we settled on taking the tour from Uyuni ending in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
We arrived late in Uyuni and we began our search for the perfect tour company the next morning. There are over 80 companies surrounding the center of town. We had several recommendations for the high end companies of Cordillera and Red Planet where there are English speaking guides and newer vehicles but we also heard from several people that “they are all the same.” It was overwhelming trying to pick the ‘right one’. We ended up walking into Uturunku which was recommended by one Austrian man we met on the street in Sucre. It seemed fine and well and they were leaving in two hours. We left a deposit, returned to our hotel, packed up and off we went.
We came back to the ticket office at our specified time to find no one there and no vehicle in sight. We waited around a bit then were called from across the street by a woman letting us know to come there. It was an entirely different tour company but they were going to take us. A German man and Colombian woman were already in the vehicle. We greeted them and hopped in the very back after our guide put our big bags on the roof of the 1998 Lexus LX450 that we would be traveling in. We drove around the corner and picked up a young French couple from yet another tour company. I think this is very common. When one company can’t fill six seats (the required minimum to make the trip profitable for them) they throw everyone together.
Our first day was absolutely incredible, everything we could have wanted. We enjoyed the company of the two other couples as we made our way across the Salar, stopping to take goofy pictures, exploring the bizarre “Fish Island” in the middle of the lake and eating our lunch out of the back of the 4×4 truck. Although aspects of the tour felt too touristy for us such as dozens of other Landcruisers caravanning to the same spots, we enjoyed ourselves. Our driver left us in the middle of the Salar to watch sunset as he went to the hotel to prepare dinner. Watching the sun go down over the endless white salt felt like being on a different planet. It was a spectacular moment I’ll never forget.
That evening we stayed in a salt hotel on the edge of the flat. I read that these are not great for the environment but it was a very unique experience. The tables, chairs, walls were made entirely of salt blocks and the floor was covered in salt. There was even a small white kitten who looked exactly like a miniature of my mom’s cat Blancita. Our guide, Adrian, let us know he would prepare tea for us and serve us dinner. We dined wonderfully that evening. After dinner Adrian told us that he had to go see his daughter who lived in a nearby pueblo. The tea never came. I found this odd. Adrian told us sunrise was at 5AM, breakfast would be at 5:30AM and we would leave at 6AM to begin day two of our tour.
The next morning Kurt and I were up just before 5AM ready to watch sunrise over the salt flats. We walked outside and saw it was still nearly completely dark. We didn’t understand why we believed Adrian’s time estimate of sunrise. We knew it was later. However, we noticed Adrian outside helping a fellow guide with his car, holding a beer can in his hand. Kurt tried to say hello and Adrian ignored him. We had read nightmarish stories of drunk drivers on these tours but thought (or hoped) we had the odds in our favor. We told our fellow group what we had seen and the Colombian woman, Monica, tried to converse with him in the kitchen where he was tucked in a corner eating a plate of rice. He ignored her too. By this time it was already 6AM and we had no breakfast. The other groups were well on their way. Adrian finally showed himself and started packing the vehicle around 7AM and was obviously still drunk. I told Kurt I wouldn’t get in the car with him. I didn’t care if we lost our money. It wasn’t worth it. We confronted him as a group and told him this. He explained to us that he had gone to see his daughter but his ex-father-in-law didn’t allow him to visit with her and he was upset so he drank, but that he was fine now. Kurt suggested that Micheal, the German, drive the vehicle for a while so he could rest and recover. Adrian agreed on the condition that we not tell the tour company. This solution, although very unorthodox, was acceptable.
We piled into the car, with our now German driver and set off, only an hour behind of schedule. We meandered through the end of the Salar and made a stop for a large herd a llamas crossing the road being guided by a man on a bicycle. At one point we passed a few vehicles (coming the opposite direction from Chile) and the drivers looked at us bug-eyed when they saw our blonde blue-eyed driver. Two hours later, we stopped in the town of San Juan for snacks and water. Adrian told us “10 minutes.”
After about 25 minutes we couldn’t find Adrian. Monica went looking for him and found him in a kitchen of the tienda eating more food. We were among the last of the caravan to leave this town and continue our journey. Adrian insisted on driving this part of the road because it was tricky. He seemed much more sober so we decided to give him a chance for a bit with Michael in the front passenger seat for close observation. He followed another truck sometimes too closely. We were followed by another. Adrian seemed to be driving with too much confidence to prove to us that he was alright. About 20 KM outside of town, he drove too quickly over a harsh dip. We heard a loud noise from the undercarriage. Adrian pulled over, as did the over vehicles surrounding us. He popped the hood. A hose on the underside of the transmission had split and most of the transmission fluid had leaked out. The vehicle in front of us let out it’s six passengers. Adrian got into that vehicle and the two guides headed back to town. They said they would return in a half an hour which really means an hour in Latin American time. We waited on the edge of a high desert with looming volcanoes in the background. When they returned, they attempted to fix the vehicle but it still wasn’t right. Adrian told us that we would have to go back to San Juan to get a new vehicle. We piled back in the truck, as the truck in front of us took off to continue with their tour, and Adrian started the engine.
The car wouldn’t drive. It just stalled. There was no one in sight, no cell service and no one coming anytime soon. Several hours of attempting to add transmission fluid to get the car running made us crawl 4 KM towards San Juan. Finally, Adrian hiked away from us to find a point with cell service to call the company. They said they were sending a new car from Uyuni, an hour and a half away. We ate our lunch, took small walks in the picturesque valley and complained to one another about how horrible our day was and how we wanted our money back. At one point I picked up my iPhone and saw a calendar alert reading, “April Fool’s Day.” I didn’t realize it was April 1st. We had to laugh. Around 4PM our new car and driver showed up, an hour later than the time we were told. We transfered into the new car, bid farewell to Adrian who by now was covered in transmission fluid and off we went.
At first we were all upset. Monica demanded our money back as it was 4PM and we were just now beginning our tour. We had not seen any of the highlights we were promised that day. The driver was very short with us as I think he was unhappy that he was called to do this tour. He probably was not getting paid the full amount. It was tense in the car. Kurt began to soften the mood when he asked Marco, our new driver, some personal questions. We found out that this Bolivian guide is fluent in English, Spanish, Italian, French and Quechua. He was actually a superior guide!
We stopped at a dramatic volcano where we saw uniquely shaped lava formations supposedly made when this area was covered by an ocean. We were the only group there. We saw several lakes just as the sun was going down. We felt very lucky to see these places without the herds of Landcruisers and 50 other tourists snapping shots. It was special to be there with just the six of us and our guide. It ended up being a real treat.
The sun went down around 7:30PM. Shortly after, Micheal asked Marco if it was dangerous to be driving out there at night. He said yes, that it was. He could lose the trail as many tire tracks zigzagged across the desert floor. There is no highway out there and there were no other vehicles. We were in the middle of an isolated high desert at over 4000 meters, hours from any village. The valleys we were traveling through are higher than all of the peaks in Colorado. At one point we lost the path briefly. Micheal got out to help Marco steer the truck to avoid falling into a ravine. He said that it appeared to be teetering when he returned to the vehicle. We continued on. Marco told us that we could get lucky and see a puma. Kurt joked that it would be a good place to get abducted by aliens. Shortly after, the music of a friend of ours from Peru started playing on Kurt’s phone without him turning it on.
Suddenly, we saw a vehicle appear off to our right. It’s headlights were on and it drove straight for us. I thought, “this is strange.” Quicker than I could imagine, the car stopped in front of us. Four men not in uniform jumped out, surrounded our truck and pointed machine guns at us. My heart stopped. I thought for sure that we would be killed. Kurt thought we were going to be kidnapped. They wouldn’t stop pointing the guns at our vehicle as they told the driver to get out. They demanded to know what we were doing. At some point we figured out that they were Bolivian drug enforcement agents. They got on top of our car and searched around our bags for cocaine that they thought we were trying to smuggle to Chile. Then, one man who looked exactly like our Peruvian friend who’s music randomly came on Kurt’s phone just minutes before shown his flashlight into our truck and told us to have a good night. He was very polite. This event took less than 5 minutes but felt like an eternity. They mistook us for drug traffickers because it is extremely uncommon for tourist vehicles to be out there at night.
We still had an hour more of night driving before we landed at our hotel. At this point I prayed that nothing else would go wrong and we were lucky that nothing did. We stopped at a few sights in the dark and Marco shown his headlights on a monument so we could see it. Arriving at our hotel, we saw a desert fox. The women at the hotel prepared us a late dinner. We were exhausted and went to sleep immediately after.
The followng morning we were supposed to arrive at the Bolivian border exit by 9AM to transfer to our Chilean transportation but we talked Marco into reversing our path a bit so we could see Laguna Colorado, a large flamingo filled lake that is red in color. He agreed and we woke up at 5AM, had a quick breakfast and arrived at the lake for sunrise. We were the only ones there. It was another special moment. It was bitterly cold outside and we had no mittens so Kurt and I ran around rubbing our hands together to generate heat but it was totally worth it. Standing at 4000 meters alongside a warm red lake with steam coming off the top as flamingos woke up was breathtakingly beautiful.
After the sun came up fully, we got back in the truck to race to the border to make a 10AM departure van for Chile. We stopped at a bed of natural geysers to put our hands in the steam pouring from the ground and take photos along the bubbling volcanic mud. Kurt made a mud mask. We stopped briefly at the hot springs but didn’t have enough time to get in the water. The temperature was perfect. We drove through the Dalí desert and passed the White Lake. Our last stop in Bolivia was Laguna Verde where we saw the Licancabur volcano behind it. The landscapes were unbelievably grand. Our driver pulled over several other times so we could catch some last photos of perfectly reflected mountains in the still water. We saw another desert fox! We made it to the border crossing just in time as we hugged good bye to our tour-mates and headed to the office to check out of the border on the day our visas expired. What an incredible way to end our Bolivian trip!