Friday, July 16, 2010

Uyuni, Part 1: Tourism, Bolivia-style.

Jeff may have been short on text in the last post (posted a couple minutes ago - if you haven´t read it, scroll down first!), but I´m not promising the same...

Our next big adventure was to go to the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), the biggest salt flats in the world. They´re so flat, they´re used to calibrate satellites´ altitude measurements. That´s flat. But to get there, we needed to get a tour put together. That turned out to be quite the adventure...

We took a bumpy bus from Potosí to the small town of Uyuni. I expected to be bombarded, Tanzania-style, when we got off the bus by people trying to sell us tours and so on, but we were only approached by a couple people, and they were not terribly pushy. This is one reason why I love Bolivia. We got a hotel room, dumped our stuff, and headed out to talk to several agencies before choosing one.

I had collected tons of advice on how to book a tour, including stuff about not visiting certain things because they´re ecologically unsound, asking to go the opposite direction from the usual tour loop to avoid crowds, and checking out the cars before booking to see that they look mechanically sound. All the advice was worth about junk. Every tour agency does exactly the same tour, and with only two of us together in a car of six or seven passengers, we couldn´t make a lot of requests like which way to go. The main ecologically unsound site, a hotel made of salt that has bad water treatment and was polluting the salt flats, is no longer running as a hotel. It has converted to being a museum because of the pressure put on the government by environmentalists about it. (Incidentally, the museum/ex-hotel was closed when we visited - total moot point. So glad we wasted the effort of asking the tour agencies about it.) All of the cars are kept somewhere besides the agency, so we couldn´t see them. Even if we had, it wouldn´t have helped - they all look new, since the salt flats (and the drivers, I might add) do so much damage to cars that the engines don´t last long.

At some point, we got tired of going from place to place and getting exactly the same information, so we just booked a tour at the place we happened to be at. The tour included a night in a (non-polluting) salt hotel for the first of the two nights, a Spanish-speaking guide in our car and an English-speaking guide in a car that would accompany us, two English people and one Irish person as our fellow travelers to fill the car, etc. By the time we booked the tour, we had met another traveler, Anna, trying to do the same thing as us, so we all booked together. We went and had dinner, then crashed early, safe in the knowledge that it was all taken care of.

The next morning, we got to the crazy business of getting train tickets, getting snacks, getting lots of last minute things that take forever in Bolivia. But we made it into our car, and met our fellow travelers - an Italian woman, Albarosa, and an Israeli couple, Michael and Shahar. We were a little surprised, having been told we´d be with English and Irish people, and they were also suprised, having been told to expect Dutch people in their car. But we brushed it off - just a shift of cars, that´s all.

When our car took off, we were not accompanied by another car. The English-speaking guide was not part of the deal anymore, apparently. Oh well, I need to work on my Spanish, so I didn´t figure that was an extra that I cared about. Our guide, Freddy, and his wife/our cook, Elizabet, were very friendly and extremely helpful. We took off for the salt flats for our first day of travel - and it was incredible.

The closed museum/ex-hotel was one of the first stops. Because it was closed, it was fairly quick, but it had an interesting collection of flags that made it seem a little like we were at the south pole. Funnily enough, the US flag (ours), the British flag (Anna´s), and the Italian flag (Albarosa´s) were missing, but the Israeli flag was there. The Ayamara flag, an indigenous group in Bolivia, was flying high, so we adopted it:

Next stop, an island in the salt flats. The Andes are very dry, so there are a lot of cactuses here:

Next to the part that anyone who knows anyone who´s been to the salt flats has heard about, or seen pictures of. The salt flats are really flat. -How flat are they?- They´re so flat, they mess with perspective!

Sorry, that flopped. But the pictures didn´t:

That last one makes us look like atheletes. But we only cleared maybe a foot off the ground - trick photography, done like this:

For most of the time in the salt flats, this is what we saw:

Finally, we got out of the salt flats and off to our hotel. We were interested to find out what the inside of a salt hotel looked like, since the museum/ex-hotel we toured had been closed. We never got to find out, though - we were dropped off at this place:

You can tell we´re thrilled. Them´s mud bricks, not salt bricks. When we got there, it was totally abandoned, as far as we could tell. Freddy, the guide and driver, dropped five of us and his wife here, and took Albarosa to another hotel. This is when we realized that we had been shifted to another company from the one we had booked with, and that all bets were off. Even worse, Albarosa had booked her tour for a much higher price than ours (we never asked how much, but her hotels were much fancier than ours, and she was shocked that six people plus the guide and cook were being crammed in the car, so we´re guessing it was a -lot- more than what we paid), and all she got for the extra expense was nicer hotels and earlier waking times, since she had to be picked up before us both mornings. Ah, unregulated tourism...

But at least she got a decent hotel. Ours was so crappy, no one else ever showed up except the owner, who was kind enough to turn on the electrical generator for a few hours. We were all a little put out by the situation, but we slept there anyway. It made for a lot of jokes, actually. And we got to know each other very well...

I´ll write more later (yes, it´s possible to write more - succinct, I ain´t) about days two and three. I´m signing off for the evening now, though. Cliffhanger!


  1. Those pictures are really amazing!

  2. Fab pics - I loved that place - when I went it was under a foot of water which made it feel like driving across a massive lake - but you could still see all the salt formations underneath. Awesome place! Keep on enjoying!!! T & Ibs