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The Best Time to Visit the Salar de Uyuni: Never

[This is part 3 of the 4-part Salar de Uyuni series. Click here for part 1, “That time I got stranded in the Bolivian desert”]

BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR: DAY 1 CONT.

Nuevo Amanecer Hostel, Salar de Uyuni

Our accommodation for the first night was a hostel in the middle of nowhere. The “Nuevo Amanecer” hostel is located in a “village” called Atulcha, but best of all, it’s made of salt.

Nuevo Amanecer Hostel, Salar de Uyuni

The power was also out. Fantástico.

“Everything is dark, like my broken soul”, I thought.

But it wasn’t so bad, after all. It turned out that those Peruvian hostel workers were rather…romantic. We’re talking candle-lit benches. Candle-lit rooms. Candles everywhere. Frankly, it was a fire hazard.

The food was even more surprising. It was so good! I can’t remember what they served but it was great.

I recently read a blog post from an American couple who felt the need to rant about the hostel and its menu. They were particularly offended that the Indigenous workers had not served them a Thanksgiving dinner. It took all my might not to go off in their comments. Pushing aside their lack of sensitivity regarding the food itself, I can tell you that this place is like most hostels. If you’re looking for luxury, don’t go on a Salt Flats tour. Moreover, if you’re an insensitive twonk, please do everyone a favour and stay at home.

We stuffed our faces that night until the announcement came. One of the hostel workers announced that the electricity was back on, and that anyone who wanted to use the shower had to report to… the kid next to him.

A six-year-old kid was stood by the bathroom. To add insult to injury, he requested payment from anyone who wanted a shower.

It was in this moment that I realised that the “no electricity” claim was a lie. But it didn’t end there.

I walked into a little shower stall…

I turned on the shower…

I looked down…

And there It was.

A scorpion stood at my feet.

The strangest part of all this is that I didn’t feel the immense fear that I SHOULD have felt. My soul had become a very dark place.

So, I did what anyone would do. I kicked the scorpion with my flipflop.

That’s right. I kicked it with my flippy-floppy. And carried on with my shower.

It could have killed me in a split-second. 430 million years of evolution versus a Primark flip-flop. Sometimes travelling is awful and I wonder why I do it.

BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR: DAY 2

After 24 hours of hell, day two managed to blow my mind. We’re talking multi-colour deserts and lagoons abundant with flamingos and other Andean wildlife. We’re talking bubbling geysers, smoking volcanoes, and herds of grazing llamas. It was incredible.

First, we were taken to Sora Canyon to see llamas in their natural environment, followed by a drive through the Eduardo Avaroa National Park – my favourite part of the trip.

Stop 1: Sora Canyon

Jeep tour through the Salar de Uyuni

Llamas drinking water

Llamas at Sora Canyon, Uyuni

Just me, herding my llamas.

Stop 2: The Siloli Desert

Strange rock formations in the Siloli Desert

Stop 3: Eduardo Avaroa National Park & Laguna Colorada

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth (besides the poles) – receiving less than 1mm of rainfall each year. Interestingly, the setting – which is known for its “Martian” look – is actually used to test Mars rovers in simulations.

A lake at the Eduardo Avaroa National Park

Jeeps at the Salar de Uyuni

To add to its mystery, flamingos forage in pools of salty water, bright pink against the wind-sculpted canyons.

On this occasion I got lucky. As if the setting didn’t feel dreamy enough already, tornadoes began to form in the sand.

Flamingos at the Colorada Lake

Flamingos and tornadoes at the Colorada Lake

I realised at this moment that the final destination is not as important, or fulfilling, as the journey.

How to Avoid Being Lynched: Run Away

At the end of this mind-blowing day, we took a break in the tiniest town you’ve ever seen. Six buildings kind-of-small.

I played football with some local kids there until I decided to grab a drink from the town “store”. Because I realised that the owner lived there, I also asked if I could use the bathroom. She sternly replied with “Dos Bolivianos” (30 cents).

I got back in the jeep and our driver began to drive off. He also decided to share with us that the townspeople lynch people for any wrongdoings. I looked down at the drink in my hands and realised that I did not pay for it.

BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR: DAY 3

Ah, the final chapter of my Salar de Uyuni disaster. The final day of my trip passed quickly, thank Jesusito.

As part of the day three itinerary, we drove deeper through San Pedro de Atacama – stopping at the “Dali Desert” and Volcan Licancabur.

Jeep Tour through the Salar de Uyuni

First stop: Volcan Licancabur – a 19553 ft volcano located on the Bolivia/Chile border.

Volcan Licancabur at the Eduardo Avaroa National Park

Volcan Licancabur

Our next stop was the “Dali Desert” – named so due to the uncanny resemblance with Dali’s work. His paintings often featured surreal desert landscapes and elements of time (and psychoanalysis). Although it is unclear whether the desert inspired Dali’s work, you’ll see the shocking resemblance when you’re there.

Here is a very dark, awkward picture:

The Dali Desert, Bolivia

Maybe there’s an eerie resemblance to the Dali painting because the rocks were placed there? Who knows. I guess mystery is part of the charm in this wonderfully weird place.

I also want to give a shout out to our driver here. We were worried that we didn’t have enough gas to get back, but we managed to drop the girls off at the Chilean border and get back to Uyuni in time! All was well in the end.

My Salar de Uyuni Verdict

Am I glad that I went to the Salt Flats? I think so. The scenery was jaw-dropping. I would, however, do many things differently. This includes ignoring a lot of online nonsense, so if I’ve not already put you off the Salar (I’m sure lynchings are rare!), I’ve compiled a handy list of everything you need to know to make your trip smoother than mine. I’d also like to reconsider the original title of this blog post. I guess that the best time to go to the Salar de Uyuni is anytime – as long as you remember to pack the damn Pringles.

Click here to read “8 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting the Bolivian Salt Flats”.

Is the Salar de Uyuni on your bucket list?

My Salar de Uyuni Disaster: Car Chases and Salty Pringles

[This is part 2 of the 4-part Salt Flats series. Click here for part 1, “That time I got stranded in the Bolivian desert”]

My Salar de Uyuni Disaster

We had ten minutes until every jeep in town left for the salt flats. That meant that we had ten minutes to find enough seats.

I flung myself around Uyuni to find an ATM. After about eight minutes, I miraculously found one that accepted my card. I ran back to the driver and threw my money at him. Rack City.

I want to point out here that my driver asked for fifty bucks for a three-day tour. A quick Google search, however, will reveal just how much the famous operators rip-off tourists. If you pre-book a tour online, every company on the first page of Google (including Banjo Tours, Kanoo Tours, and Red Planet Expedition as recommended by TripAdvisor) will charge you anywhere between $200USD and $1600USD for the same tour I paid $50 for. Always book when you’re there, people!

We loaded our stuff on to the jeep. “Finally, the madness is over!”, I said. But something always goes wrong when I say that.

Everything seemed normal enough at first. We drove out of Uyuni and into the desert.

But then I noticed two other cars coming towards us. Our driver put his foot down. “They’re chasing us”, he said.

It was the strikers again. They were trying to cut us off from entering the salt flats. So, I guess I went from trying desperately to get into Uyuni to desperately trying to get out within two hours. Life is really funny and humorous tehe.

The chase lasted around half an hour before we managed to lose them. One of the most bizarre experiences of my life. But this was still not as bizarre as what happened next!

BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR: DAY 1

Our first stop was Colchani, a very tiny village where the salt is made.

The main attraction here was a house made entirely of salt. They like to call it a museum, but it’s more like a tiny little house with two rooms.

Perhaps the strangest part of this ordeal was the Kamasutra statues. No, I’m not joking. Literally, we were greeted inside by statues of creatures in sex positions. Absolutely done with all this s***, I whipped out my salty Pringles.

Here are said statues for your viewing displeasure:

Salt sculpture of a person bending over

Then it was time to make our way to the salt flats.

On the way, we took a super-fast lunch break in a salty tent. La comida was surprisingly tasty! Meat-eaters were given a plate of salad and Llama/Alpaca, whilst vegetarians were given quinoa.

A car, Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats

 

Salt Flats Lunch

Now it was finally time for the main attraction: the Salt Flats!

After a long-ass day in the desert, I suddenly found myself engulfed by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles. An evocative and eerie site. Nothing will prepare you for the feeling you get when you’re standing in a never-ending sea of white. After my nightmare in the desert, this felt like a wonderful dream.

I visited during the dry season, when the ground hardens and polygonal patterns of salt rise from the ground. At certain times of the year, nearby lakes overflow and a thin layer of water transforms the flats into a stunning reflection of the sky. You’ve probably seen the pictures. This probably sounds like the more appealing option, but due to the lack of rain, we were able to drive to places that wouldn’t have been accessible in the rainy season (such as Isla Incahuasi).

Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

 

Salar de Uyuni

 

Salar de Uyuni flags

Certainly not my usual Christmas surroundings!

BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS TOUR: Isla Incahuasi

We also stopped off at Isla Incahuasi. This is an island covered in Trichocereus cacti, surrounded by thousands of square kilometres of salt. It’s a surprisingly lonely, otherworldly place.

Isla Incahuasi, Bolivia

 

Isla Incahuasi

 

 

Isla Incahuasi

Salar de Uyuni salt bricks

Edit: I have since learned that just after my visit, the flats were used as the battlefield location for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. More importantly, it was used for “La La La” by Naughty Boy Featuring Sam Smith. FYI.

For Part 3, “The Best Time to Visit the Salar de Uyuni: Never”, click here.

That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert – Scorpions, Car Chases and Angry Italians

Whether you’re considering a trip to the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, or you’re a regular reader who enjoys laughing at my misfortune, this post is for you. If you’re not the laughing type, click here to skip to part 2 (I have never met someone who is not the “laughing type”, but this trip taught me to prepare for all possible evils).

Here goes.

On Christmas 2016, I was dumped in the middle of the desert by a bus company.

Allow me to provide some context. 48 hours before I opened my eyes in the desert, I woke up in a shed in La Paz.

Now, you probably have a few questions already.

“Why did you wake up in a shed?”. Well, my friends. On occasion, I make poor judgements when booking rooms on the internet. I paid for a room in a house and ended up in a shed. Good times.

To throw in a sprinkle of discomfort, La Paz is the highest city in the world. I was already suffering from altitude sickness when I arrived (and awful asthma), so I decided to let this false advertisement slide and sleep through my stay. Don’t expect any accommodation tips in this post.

La Paz, Bolivia

On a positive note, I was lucky to be alive. Bolivia is infamous for its dangerous roads. And by that, I mean complete lack of. If you don’t trust the bus driver, don’t step on board because you will need to trust him or her with your life. The one time I felt brave enough to look down on my bus journey to La Paz, I saw a mere inch or two of room between the wheel and the cliff’s edge. I nearly peed myself.

Anyway. After a day of huffing and puffing up and down the hills of La Paz, I decided to say ciao to the shed life. What better way to do so than to cross another thing off my bucket list? I decided to head south to the salt flats.

If you’ve never heard of the Bolivian salt flats, or “Salar de Uyuni”, these are the biggest salt flats on the planet. They are a wonder of the natural world, but getting there can be a logistical nightmare. Especially if your name is Amber.

La Paz to Salar de Uyuni

On the way to the bus station, my taxi driver raced up and down the rocky hills so aggressively that he punctured his tire. But did that stop him? No, it did not. He flew through La Paz like an injured gazelle on wheels.

But I was more surprised to see tears in his eyes. I paid him triple because a) he had punctured his tire and b) he bloody well deserved it. La Paz is a very poor city and I would recommend sparing some cash here. Five bucks might be nothing to you, but it will feed someone else’s family. Imagine what twenty would do!

Okay, seriousness over. When I entered the ‘Todo Turismo’ office I was faced with another problem. The manager announced that there were strikes in the desert. That’s right, people were on strike in the desert. Something to do with housing permissions.

The strikers were putting up barricades which might force us to stop a few kilometres before Uyuni – a small, dusty town which acts as a jumping-off point for the Salt Flats tours. The manager asked us to sign something before stepping onboard.

But what’s a couple of extra kilometres in the desert? Nada mate.

I signed the paper, got on the bus, had my dinner and fell asleep.

Everybody lies

I woke up as the bus came to a halt. Everyone was looking around. I checked the clock: 7 am.

Right now, you’re probably wondering how far out I was. A kilometre or two?

I hate to break it to you, innocent reader, but we were about ten miles from Uyuni.

“They lied!”, you’re thinking. Well, yes. Everybody lies.

It’s important to mention here that this bus was full of tourists. Bolivians would not have kicked off. But Brits, Spaniards, Americans and Australians don’t like bumps in their vacation. Everybody got off the bus and began yelling at the bus driver.

Apparently, the strikers had put more barricades up, and he would not drive through because they would throw rocks at the bus. He did, however, say that they would call our tour companies to get us picked up in the afternoon. But what about the people – myself included – who had not pre-booked a tour? We were absolutely forked.

In desperation, I asked the driver to call a taxi from somewhere. Those of us left over would pay the fee, given the situation. Nope. He mumbled and walked off. But unlike him, I had no food or water left. Considering I was in the driest place on Earth, this was not ideal.

I had to make a decision. I could:
a) Stay, watch the bus drive off, watch the others get picked up, and cry.
b) Start walking.
c) Cry.

I commenced plan B.

That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert

I explained to the others that no one was coming for me. To my surprise, I was followed by three other Europeans! Woo friends.

The desert was getting hotter with every step. The girls pulled their backpack covers over their heads. I regretted not buying one. When we passed the first barricade, we couldn’t believe that it was just four men and a burning tire. All of this for these posers?!

Funnily enough, after a mile or so, we saw a coach coming towards us. We couldn’t believe it! How did this guy get through the barricades? European guy ran over to the coach and asked him to give us a ride in the other direction. He agreed! Our saviour! Almost.

Suddenly a group of protestors ran over and hijacked the coach. While we looked at each other in disbelief, I ignorantly said: “When things go really wrong, at least you have a good story to tell!”.

For miles, we walked. And walked. And walked. I began to wonder if we were as far from Uyuni as the driver claimed we were. Hours had passed and there was no town in sight! But despite the risky situation we were in, we managed to make something out of it. European guy shared his Oreos. Of somewhat less value, I shared my embarrassing travel stories.

After some time we caught up with another group. Walking to Uyuni, Bolivia

I was amazed to see that a girl at the back of the group was dragging several bags (!!!). I had one backpack. ONE backpack and I was utterly exhausted. I caught up with her to take two of her bags and gave evil looks to the other people in her group. People suck.

Speaking of help, we got ours close to Uyuni. It was a napping taxi driver. Oh, the irony.

He drove us the rest of the way to Uyuni…but things were about to get even weirder.

For part two, “My Salar de Uyuni Disaster: Car Chases and Salty Pringles”, click here.

That Time I Got Stranded in The Bolivian Desert

One Day in Bogotá – What NOT to Do

1/3/2017- in which Amber is involved in a crash, is detained at the airport and gets put onto her first international naughty list. Welcome to “When Travelling Goes Wrong: The Colombian Edition”.

Bogotá is one of the top 3 most dangerous cities (in the world) for women to travel on public transport. But honestly? The scariest thing on my bus ride was the four-year-old girl staring at me. Had I killed a puppy? Was I ugly? I felt a sense of dread.

The British inside me said, “Say sorry like you do when people walk into you”.

The worn-down traveller inside me said “Don’t look at her! You are strong. You can open a can on your own!”

As always, I was weak. I looked at her. And I smiled. My kindness cupeth overfloweth.

So, what happens when an overly-apologetic English girl finds herself in Bogotá? At night? ALONE? *DUNDUNDUNNN*

Not much to be honest. The hotel was fine. Creepy guy was the standard level of creepy.

Above all, I was impressed with myself. I’d crossed the border from Ecuador in the South-West and managed to avoid being kidnapped. Good times!

The disastrous fun, ironically, happened the next day…

One day in Bogotá – what NOT to do

So what went wrong?

First of all, my cab driver ran over a guy on a bike on the way to the airport. Lots of yelling and screaming “Hijueputa” and “Caremonda”. Neither of them pulled out an AK-47 which, frankly, was a bit disappointing.

Despite this painful detour, I made it to the airport in one piece. “Thank goodness!”, I thought. “I can finally go home!”.

The lady at the arrivals counter thought otherwise:

“We have to detain you”.

It turns out that I forgot to get a visa for my changeover in New York – a task which I had remembered whilst sipping a cocktail in Salento. Obviously, I did not leave my cocktail.

I’m escorted down what I like to call the “naughty hall” – named so because everyone looks at you like you’ve done something really naughty. There’s also a lot of security clearance so I feel important.

As per my instructions, I go on to a computer to apply for my visa. It turns out that I can’t do this because I have no money left on my card. Typical Amber lol. Oops, x2.

Oh wait, I have a debit card! Or not, it expired TODAY. Literally today. Oops, x 3.

If the system wants to f*** me, I’m gonna f*** the system. In my untamed rebellion, I use the expired debit card. The form clears, although I wonder if I’m going to get into trouble for that. I send my sister a message telling her that I love her in case this all goes south.

Okay. Alive: check. Visa: pretend check.

Now it’s security time. I run to security and fling my bag on the rack. As with all security checks, I try to appear innocent even though I have done absolutely nothing wrong. I try to act cool. I try to smile at the security guard. I try to act fast so that I can get my drugs through quickly. Only joking.

After my usual display, my bag is stopped and so am I. A scary-looking woman approaches me.

“What the f*** is wrong now?”, I think to myself. Obviously, I think this. I’m English, so I smile nervously. Did someone use my bag to smuggle drugs? Did the cab driver stash the cyclist in there? Oh boy.

She begins to give me a lecture in Spanish, which basically translates to “You tit. You have items in your luggage that are not allowed. Go back to England you tit.”

She pulls out said items and throws them angrily into the trash can. Were they drugs? I do not know.

“Sign your name here”.

She puts my name down on the naughty list. Damn.

To summarise: During my time in Bogotá, I literally did not get out of the cab OR the hotel… Yet I still managed to scare the s*** out of myself. Or, as my friend Matt put it, I “final chaptered the shit out of that book”. Please make a note to write that on my gravestone whilst I ignore my responsibilities order another cocktail.

Thanks, Colombia… you cheeky rascal!

Amber lying on the floor

If your travels in Colombia fell wayside, please tell me in the comments. This is mainly to make me feel better. Hasta luego, parce!

One day in Bogotá – what NOT to do

[In case you couldn’t be arsed to read the article above, I didn’t see a single thing in Bogotá.

I DID, however, spend 12 hours there. Which, frankly, was more than enough for this disaster-prone nitwit.

If you came here to plan the perfect day in Bogotá, check out this awesome post from Explore Parts Unknown.]