We had selected our tour company, Cordillera, through a recommendation from our Scottish friends Adam and Jen. Feeling comfortable with our decision we handed over our money and prepared ourselves for our four-wheel drive adventure; three days and two nights across desert and salt flats from San Pedro in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia.
Day one began with a very relaxed border crossing into Bolivia - a quick stamp and we were ready to rock.
Eleven of us were divided into two jeeps. Our packs were wrapped in tarpaulin and strapped precariously to the top of the ‘Toyosa’ Land Cruiser along with the petrol tanks. The six in our jeep included Jen and Polly, two Canadian girls, and Cam and I. A crew dominated by Kiwis and females.
As the day progressed it soon became apparent that we would be seeing some extremely out of it and breath taking scenery. Our route took us through increasingly high terrain passing aqua blue lakes, multi coloured mountain ranges, and hundreds of flamingos. We took a walk around the shores of Laguna Colorado, a red lake rich in algae and plankton which thrive on the magnesium and borax abundant waters.
We also enjoyed a quick dip in the natural hot spring before heading to our accommodation for the evening. With night time temperatures of around -20 C we had been warned of the extremely cold night that we would face in the drafty refuge. Preparing for the worse we donned most of the clothes we owned and jumped into bed for a very early night.
Sleeping at nearly 5000 m above sea level took its toll on all of us. Despite that we were all taking Acetazolamide to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness, the majority of us had a sleepless night. We could all feel our hearts working that much harder to circulate the oxygen around our body. The temperature, however, was very manageable and like most stories and advice from other travellers was not nearly as bad as we had anticipated.
Day two provided more fantastic scenery and a surprising amount of wildlife (including flamingos, tarukas, viscachas, lamas and alpacas) considering the incredibly barren and hostile environments. We visited the rock tree - a stack of rocks eroded by the harsh desert wind over the years. It was somewhat impressive - but we found it more enjoyable to climb up the other rock formations to get the sweet views across the expansive desert. Later we enjoyed more climbing, this time over an ancient lava flow - putting our fitness to the test.
After a big second day of driving and many more photos under our belt we headed to our accommodation for the night - a hotel made of salt. On route we came across a severe sand storm; a phenomena typical for this time of the year as the rainy season approaches. At times we had zero visibility and were glad to make it safely to our salty lodgings for the evening - to unwind and enjoy a meal of lama chops and fries.
The next morning was a very early start. Rising at 3.30 am we packed our gear in anticipation to leave the hotel at 4 am and head directly for the long awaited Salt Flats to watch the sun rise. Our driver, Juan, slept in and by the time we hit the road it was close to 4.30 am. Slightly disappointing considering we had an hour drive ahead of us and time was of the essence. Within minutes of leaving it soon became obvious that our driver was very off form. Until this point we had been extremely impressed by his ability to handle the vehicle on the difficult tracks at speed. We had heard many stories from other tourists about drunk tour drivers and that sometimes even the tourists are required to drive the jeeps themselves. Unfortunately we also found ourselves in this predicament which came to a head when he drove full speed over a very large ditch in the road resulting in our heads bashing into the ceiling of the car and giving us all a dam big fright. We all bolted from the car and requested that Cam drive the remainder of the journey but Juan firmly refused. We had no option but to continue and thankfully we made it safely to the Flats to see part of the sunrise amongst. Juan had left his phone back at the hotel so drove the 2 hour round trip to retrieve it, mean while leaving us on the Flats to enjoy the scenery and be thankful that we had made it in one piece.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, at approximately 12,000 km2 it contains up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The expanse of infinite bright white against blue sky is truly unbelievable and makes for some fantastic photo opportunities.
By the time Juan returned with his phone he was well hung-over. We spent the reminder of the day playing incredibly loud dance music and asking repetitive questions in order to keep him awake. Our last stop was Isla Inchahuasi, an island located in the middle of the Salt Flats covered in incredibly tall cactus. We had breakfast on the island and hiked to the top to take in more of the scenery.
We arrived safely into Uyuni around midday for a well deserved burger and beer. Once the shock of the day had worn off we were able to laugh and reflect on how truly awesome and certainly memorable the whole experience had been.
That night we board our 12 hour overnight bus journey to La Paz. Again we have heard horror stories from other travellers about this journey but are all far too exhausted to be concerned.