From Atacama, we planned to take the 9h bus to cross the border of Bolivia and go directly to Uyuni. However in the town centre many agencies offered 3 to 4 days tours in a 4×4 from Atacama to Uyuni, passing through the mountains and National Park of Eduardo Avaroa in south Bolivia. We thought it would be a nice option!
Because of the winter season, the agency we chose explained that the southern border had been closed for 2 weeks due to heavy snow, but luckily, the day we booked the tour the border had re-opened.
2 French girls we met in Atacama booked with the same agency which allowed us to negotiate the price, only they were leaving on Sunday and we were leaving on Monday.
On the Sunday evening, the agency called us to tell that the border had closed again because the road was too dangerous… It was true, we heard from the girls a few days later that they almost had an accident and that their car got stuck in the snow for several hours…
But our trip was still on for Monday, only we would travel north to another border, the border of Ollagüe.
We were picked up at our hostal at 4AM and driven to the border in a mini van. Once we arrived in Bolivia the driver served us breakfast and shortly after our guide, Daniel, picked us up in his 4×4. He stored our luggage on the roof of the vehicle and our group of 7 was off for a 3 day adventure.
There was Tine a Belgium girl, Victor from France (cool dude with his leather jacket, Peruvian hat and small suitcase!), Gregor and Andrea, a couple from Switzerland, Adrien and I, and of course Daniel.
We drove to the south, through a dry landscape of many active volcanos and stopped in 3 different lagunes to observe pink flamingos. The further we drove, the higher we got in altitude and the colder it was! Daniel and Victor started to chew on a few coca leaves.
After lunch we entered the National Park and the heavy snow started. Because we took a different route, we weren’t be able to go until the Laguna Verde or the Geysers Sol de Mañana, but Daniel drove us to Laguna Colorada despite the weather conditions and that is where we would spend our first night, at 4.800 meters.
We thought we would be quite alone on the road, but we were 7 or 8 4×4 cars following each other. The bad side of taking this tour in low season (winter) is that the weather is unpredictable, and it is not always possible to see everything. The good side is that, as Daniel told us, in high season it’s not 8 but 30 to 40 cars following each other…
It was a good thing we weren’t completely alone because the snow had covered the roads and the guides had to stop a few times to figure out the way together. Also some cars got stuck in the snow and everyone stopped to help dig them out.
A snow storm started when we arrived at Laguna Colorada, we just got enough visibility to see the strange multiple-colour lagune in a freezing atmosphere. Just after, we drove directly to our accommodation: a refuge, lost in the mountain… no heating, no hot water, electricity only available until 8PM, and of course no need to mention but no internet or reception. The snow kept falling and temperatures dropped rapidly to -15 degrees Celsius. Inside the building, it must have been close to 2 degrees. We had a warm dinner, sitting all together at a table, wearing all the closes we had. To keep us warm and forget about the cold, we played cards for a while. Of course no one dared having a cold shower… only a “French shower”. Electricity and lights shut down at 8PM didn’t stop us from playing with phone and head lights. Daniel dropped by to wish us good night and explain that, due to the high altitude, some of us might experience sickness in the night. He said there was not much to do, and he hopped that no one would get seriously ill because there was no help available in kilometres around…
We spent a very cold night… No one got sick but we all felt a little the symptoms of altitude, short of breath and somehow light-headed. Adrien and I woke up with a really strong headache. But, we all made it through the night and had a “French shower” again in the morning.
The car was covered in snow, however we were able to make our way towards Villa Mar, through a landscape of clay rocks of all shapes, an area that used to be below sea level millions of years ago! The snow stopped eventually as we decreased in altitude. We took a walk around the Laguna Negra, drove through several villages, quinoa fields and stopped in a ghost town where surprisingly there was a bar. We tried quinoa and coca craft beer, very nice!
At the end of the second day, we arrived in the south part of Uyuni Salar and slept in a salt hostal. It was the greatest feeling ever to have a hot shower, and we all gathered around the one and only heater for dinner and card games again.
We walk up at 5AM on the last day to go see the sunrise in the Salar. Unfortunately the sky was cloudy and we didn’t see much of the sun, but the feeling of driving on pure salt and see only white desert all around was incredible!
Uyuni Salar is the largest salt desert in the world. It is more that ten thousand square kilometre surface at 3.600 meter above sea level. In the middle, there is the Incahuasi island covered in hundred years old cactus. Quite a surreal place!
We had breakfast after our small hike on the island, still in company of 4 or 5 other cars. Then Daniel drove us further into the Salar where no one was around to take the typical pictures where all sense of perspective is lost. We spent a good 2 hours trying to make the best pictures, which resulted quite harder than we thought, but a few good ones came out.
The Salar was dry, it is better to visit during rainy season when the desert is covered in a thin layer of water. The reflection of the sky in the water makes the best mirror pictures ever!
Daniel was cold so he waited for us in the car chewing on his coca leaves. We still don’t know how he managed to keep all the leaves in his mouth without spitting them out! Adrien tried a contest with him but the winner was obvious.
We arrived around 2PM in the town of Uyuni. Daniel had promised us llama meat for lunch, we thought it was a joke but we sure did eat llama and it tastes like pork!
A sand storm was starting and we made it just in time to see the Train Cemetery, but the wind was blowing more than 80km/hour so we quickly made our way back to the centre. Daniel lives in Uyuni, he was happy to go back home and have a day off the next day, spend time with his family. He drove us to the bus station and we said goodbye.
Tine decided to stay overnight town. Victor booked a bus to Tupiza. Our plan was to stay one night in Uyuni as well, but we saw that the city didn’t have much to offer, so we followed Greg and Andrea on a bus to Potosi. The 4 of us were continuing the adventure together!