South America Travel Tips

Wonderful Uyuni: 3 days in 4*4 (Part 1)

There are two ways to get into Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama: via bus (meh) or via 4*4 tour (yeah!). What a wonderful way to get to see Uyuni, one of the most “impossible” places on Earth!

The tour is 3 days and 2 nights long, takes you out of Chile and inside Bolivia, with final destination the Uyuni salt flats. It includes 3 cooked meals per day, basic accommodation and – best thing of all – the whole tour is done in a 6-seater 4*4 Toyota Landcruiser where the driver is also your tour guide.

Day 1 ~ Reaching unbelievable heights

On day 1, the tour agency came to pick me up at my accommodation in San Pedro at around 7.30am. Then we got to the Chilean border to get my passport exit stamp. A few miles later we stopped again, this time at the Bolivian border, where in 5 minutes you’re stamped and welcomed to the country.

Another few kilometers and the minibus stops at Paso Portezuelo del Cajón, in the middle of nowhere, at 4,480m of altitude, where the “exchange” is made. While having breakfast, my suitcase was transferred from the Chilean minibus to the Bolivian Toyota, I got to know our Bolivian driver/guide and finally we were ready for the real tour.

Landscapes were already unreal. In here you get to appreciate the perfect shape of Volcán Licancabur, as well as some other colours and flora that are only present at these impossible altitudes.

When you spend 3 days with the same group of people, you really hope they’re going to be nice. In our Toyota, thankfully, I ended up with a French and an English couple, great people. And our guide Juan Carlos, with whom I spent talking the whole day as I was seating in the front seat, was a star. His friendliness, knowledge, availability and driving skills on a very challenging terrain made him the perfect guide.

Funnily enough, I was automatically “hired” as the official translator of the group, as the other guys didn’t have much Spanish. It was fun and at the same made me a little proud – after almost 3.5 months I can say I’ve become self-sufficient with the language, despite it’s still pretty basic and “made up” at times.

Anyway, the first Bolivian stop was a beautiful white lake called, well, Laguna Blanca. Only 7km from the border, this first stop already set the pace for what was to be featuring the day. A few pics taken, the first glimpse of Bolivian skies, and then back to the jeep towards the next place, Laguna Verde.

Laguna Verde, apart from its wonderful color, has a great view of the 5,900m high Volcán Licancabur, now unactive. It’s shape is undoubtedly the most perfect shape for a volcano.

On the road, at an altitude of almost 4,500m, we spotted a funny fox, waiting on the roadside in the middle of the day for some food, and a few vicuñas, the most common animal around here, able to adapt to desertic condition and almost no plant available for eating.

The volcanic landscape gets even more unreal when you drive beside the Pampa de Dalí (or Desierto de Salvador Dalí), an incredibly smooth terrain beside an ancient volcano that has some weirdly shaped lava rocks in the middle of it, like if they were handpicked and placed there by hand. It’s altitude is 4,750m.

The obvious reference to the Spanish painter is due to the surreal landscape!

We then drove to the Laguna Salada, which as you can see from the pics is unbelievable. In there you can take a walk or swim in the thermal pool (full of people – no go), and then enjoy your first cooked meal of the day in one of the locals’ kitchens.

Back on the jeep again, we drove another bit to reach 4,900m of altitude and admire the volcanic activity.

Then, an unbelievable multicoloured lake appears in the horizon, and perfectly pink flamingos can be seen once you get closer to the shore. Pity these photos don’t make justice, you can basically see the whole rainbow colours on the water, thanks to a combination of different minerals.

Unfortunately, the shore is also a cemetery for a multitude of baby flamingos, which didn’t learn to fly before the arrival of the winter.

I switched seats with the French guy, and relaxed a little on the back. Now, a final 2 hours drive was to take us to our accommodation in Villamar, a settlement in the middle of nowhere that has only hostels. We got a basic dinner, rested a little, got no shower as the queue was too long (about 50 people needing to shower at the same time), and possibly had one of the best sleeps of my last 10 days.

Day 2 ~ Rock climbing and lagunas

On day 2, after a good night sleep, we left the refugio for a quick roundtrip of the Villamar area. In here, lava rocks eroded by water and wind created a Grand Canyon-alike experience.

We got a bit of rock climbing done (lots of fun, yet quite dangerous to stand on these rock formations with nothing under you), and while doing so we met a group of Bolivian women and children, who were about to spend the day washing clothes in their bare feet in the middle of a small river. They said they could wash their clothes at home, but spending the whole day out with their loved ones while looking after their lamas and washing clothes was a much better option.

Another bit of driving through the Pampa de Catal, and here’s a beautiful lake, called Laguna de Catal. A quick walk through a green valley takes you to the top of the canyon, and amazing colours, views and fauna can be appreciated. Just wonderful!

Then, another short transfer to la Boca del Dragon, another amazing view point on top of a canyon. At this time we were starving, so thankfully we got a cooked meal in Alota, and soon after took a few pictures of the Quebrada de Zora, where you can start appreciating the cultivation of quinoa, very popular up here (and possibly the only thing that would grow above 4,000m).

Quinoa cultivation means… quinoa beer (as well as quinoa as you know it)! Our guide stopped in San Augustin, another tiny town in the middle of nowhere where we could buy quinoa beer (and I got an ice cream as well). Result: a happy boy!

Beer and ice cream over, Juan Carlos drove us to Julaca, a ghost town (well, apparently it has like 2 people living there, who are also the owners of the only 2 shops in town for tourists…). In here there is an abandoned railway and we had fun taking some pictures!

Finally, a drive through the Salar de Chiuana, to reach our accommodation, a lovely hostel made of… salt bricks!

Dinner and a bottle of wine on the house, hot shower (finally, and worth the extra 10 pesos bolivianos), and an early night: at 4am we were due to load the jeep and leave on time to see the sunset in the Uyuni Salar.

But – hey – Uyuni deserves it’s own blog, as I took a load of pics 🙂

Hence why this is Part 1 (I mean, wasn’t this wonderful already?) – you can already access Part 2 by clicking here.

Trust me, and I know you’ve loved this pics so far, but Uyuni is impossible to describe, even through pictures.

I’ve done my best, but also if you have a little place in your “bucket list”, add Uyuni to it. You won’t believe your eyes.

Here’s the next part again:

Hasta luego!