Tag Archives: salar de uyuni

Iain’s Birthday Blockade: How to escape from Uyuni…

After our four wheel drives had successfully managed a three day Salt Flat Tour over bumpy terrain, without so much as a broken part or a flat tyre, we didn’t imagine we would find ourselves stuck in the desert in yet another 4WD only a few days later. On Iain’s Birthday no less. With our wheels spinning in the sand to no avail and an angry farmer waving a stick or possibly a shotgun quickly gaining on us, after we sped past him only a few moments ago, our hopes of reaching Potosi were dwindling.

Welcome to the Real Bolivia. Clarkson take note.

Like most we had settled on the customary one night in a hotel in Uyuni after our three day tour across the Salt Flats. As temperatures had reached -25 degrees and with the accommodation having no heating or hot showers we were dying for a bit of Bolivian luxury when we reached Uyuni. The next day showered and refreshed we headed to the “bus station”, or rather the row of ticket sellers that line one street, to secure some tickets to Potosi. Finding all but one of the ticket booths shut, we made enquiries with the only willing seller.

The closed ticket offices should have been our first clue but we quickly established no buses would be running from Uyuni today. When we enquired as to why the response was one word…”Bloqueos” or roadblocks. Accepting this as a good enough explanation we booked tickets for the 10am bus the next day and settled on another night in our hotel and the seemingly quiet town of Uyuni. Queues for the bank can be pretty lengthy in such a small town….

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The next day, bags packed, we boarded our bus and waited. The bus left promptly but paused on the outskirts of town. When our police escort joined us we knew the “Bloqueos” were more than simple roadblocks. The only road to exit town was lined with seemingly not so menacing protestors…mostly elderly Bolivian ladies. However as we approached and the large sticks, poles and rocks became apparent we knew something was up.

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Suddenly our police escort was nowhere to be found and the little old ladies did some fairly serious damage to our bus and only narrowly missed the driver. Windscreen cracked and driver’s window broken we retreated back to town.

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These roadblocks and protests had been apparently going on for some time. The government want to build a new bus terminal and the locals disagree with its location as far as we could establish. To make their point the town was on lock down – nothing was going in or out by road.

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Our bus company assured us they could get us to our destination and so a few hours later after a few botched repairs and a town meeting we set off once more.

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This time we were heading off road, with our curtains firmly shut to hide us and to protect us from any broken glass. We were now navigating the local rubbish dump, in a 3-coach convoy. And this is the three drivers discussing what to do next when our coaches inevitably got stuck…

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Back in town once again we decided to give up on the coaches and take our only remaining option. The prospect of spending yet more time in a 4WD didn’t thrill any of us but nor did staying in Uyuni…we had eaten in every restaurant and drank in every bar already.

Failing to secure any 4WDs from the tour companies we began trudging the streets. The local taxi drivers were promising us they could traverse the desert terrain and get us to Potosi but having experienced the coaches attempts we held out. Thankfully that’s when we bumped into Mariam, an English speaking Bolivian trying to get home to Sucre, who had been on our bus earlier. With a few phone calls and calling in a few favours, she managed to secure us four 4WDs to transport us, herself, and the gaggle of foreigners we had acquired in the panic.

The drivers looked nervous as we crossed the rubbish dump and they looked even more worried when we started to make our way through a valley. Even the little dirt roads through this wilderness had been blocked with stones and tyres by the protestors – cue some heavy lifting from the boys.

Upon seeing the aforementioned angry farmer waving the nondescript object, our driver, who is in the lead, decides to floor the accelerator and try to skip round the next set of tyre blockades. Stuck and the track now blocked by our own transport, the four drivers set off to reason with the farmer. Thankfully they return successful and the said farmer begins instructing us all how to orchestrate our escape…

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(The farmer is in a blue jumpsuit and green hat)

After some huffing and puffing, mostly from the boys I’ll admit, we were eventually free and back on the dirt track. After some further tense moments and deep intakes of breath we made it to the open road. Top Gear Bolivia Special Eat your heart out…

After arriving in Potosi we later learnt that things in Uyuni got considerably worse over the next few days. No transport was able to leave, protestors had quadrupled in number, the police force had abandoned the town, and the dirt roads were more successfully blockaded. Dribs and drabs of people made it out by 4WD but the drivers were forced to become ever more inventive with their routes. These protests are common in Bolivia, so we are told, so we will just have to kick back, relax into it and enjoy the rest of the journey. Wish us luck!

Salar de Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

So spending 3 days bouncing around in a four wheel drive may not sound appealing to most but if you’re travelling in South America it’s likely the Bolivian Salt Flats are on your “must see” list. For us this was certainly the case.

When we mentioned temperatures of -25 degrees and no showers to Sam, who usually travels with a 3 star minimum, we were worried he would be on the first plane home but even he’d admit roughing it was worth it.

From San Pedro we boarded a mini bus and made our way to the Chilean boarder. Although there was a bit of a wait, as all the tours leave at a similar hour in the morning, crossing it was a breeze. But once we crossed we fully appreciated just how much snow had fallen in the desert…and so did our driver who was willing the van up every slope, wheels spinning away. We made it to the Bolivian border…that’s if you can really call a few huts a boarder crossing.

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It really is as remote as it looks and for many of us this stop was also our first use of the “Baño naturale” that we would become very familiar with over the next few days. After our friend Victoria enquired as to the location of the bathroom, the guard pointed to the vast expanse of snow around.

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Passports stamped, next job was to transfer all our baggage to the 4WDs…

Thanks to Victoria for the picture!
Thanks to Victoria for the picture!

Then before we had chance to catch our breath, and at over 4,000m we really needed to, we were on our way with our excellent driver Jorge (Hor-hey) at the wheel. In a convoy of three we sped across the flats leaving a dust trail behind.

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During the 3 days the scenery was breath-taking and changed dramatically from sandy desert to of course salt…lots of salt.

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We toured the many lakes, from frozen to Flamingo filled…

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Only stopping briefly to warm up in a thermal spring…

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We admired mountains and rock formations…

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And gawped at geysers and boiling mud…

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We watched the sunrise over the salt flats and admired the cacti…

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We traversed train tracks…

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And like many before us we spent hours playing with our cameras on the Salt Flats…

 

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The Four Ramblers

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We finished up at the train cemetery; a truly fascinating place to explore…it brings out the kid in everyone…

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The food along the way was beautifully prepared and presented by our drivers…

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And the accommodation and facilities were basic but beautiful in their own way…

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It’s fair to say we spent every second of driving with our faces pressed against the windows barely blinking and we made some good friends along the way.

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We knew we would be roughing it but after 3 days our hearts sank a little as we pulled into the town of Uyuni and we realised the trip was over. Though the prospect of a warm shower and central heating was pretty appealing…

Preparing for your trip

We had heard some horror stories about some of the companies that operate on this route, so on our arrival in San Pedro we careful researched the companies. With a few recommendations we settled on Cordillera.

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This blog post isn’t meant as a plug for their company but we were happy with our experience and would recommend them. They are not the cheapest but you get what you pay for. Our drivers were safe, a lot of fun and looked after our every need. But even though with paying a little more for quality and safety here’s what to expect…

Cold weather – we cant emphasise this enough! Although it may not be the case all year round bring lots of layers, as our nights got really cold! You may not appreciate these layers until you are trying to sleep in minus 25 degrees with no central heating. We slept in about 3 layers with blankets piled high and we rented the extra optional sleeping bags!

Basic accommodation – with no showers for at least the first night! When booking with Cordillera you are pre-warned of this fact. Also this was not a problem for us as the last thing we wanted to do with freezing temperatures was take off our layers! The second night is spent in a salt hotel, were the bricks are made of salt and the floor is scattered with the stuff. I had to stop myself asking for some salt with dinner…

Basic food – it was plentiful but basic. Vegetarian options were the meals minus the meat but you serve yourself so you can fill up on the veg and carbs We stocked up on lots of snacks and really appreciated these as we bumped along in 4WDs.

Altitude sickness – our experience wasn’t as bad as some stories had made out but at nearly 5,000m on the first night the chances are some of you are going to suffer from it a little. Iain got his headache before bed whereas I got mine when I woke up the next morning. Stock up on some painkillers and cocoa leaves before you leave San Pedro and force yourselves to drink water as much as possible. If you wake up in the night, drink some more!!

You will be Vamos-ed! – with a lot of ground to cover expect shouts of “Vamos!” or ‘Lets go!” at regular intervals. The drivers were happy to stop and pull over for any photo opportunity but also need to keep to their schedule. We never felt rushed and our group began shouting “vamos’ ourselves to much hilarity…we blame it on the altitude.

Sunburn! – You are at altitude so despite it being very cold, wear some sun cream, especially when on the white sun reflecting salt flats! Or like Sam expect to be called “Ruby Lips” for the next week!

But most of all enjoy! It really is worth it!

 

The Ducks in Dry Places: Atacama y Salar de Uyuni