The easiest, most interesting way to enter Bolivia (especially for Americans) is through a Salar de Uyuni tour. I highly recommend it.
This tourism of remote, southern Bolivia is relatively new. Only in the past ten years have tour agencies offered this 3 day/4 day tour. Not all tour agencies are created equal, especially for this tour. Guide books recommend checking agencies carefully (particularly if you begin your trip in Uyuni, Bolivia rather than San Pedro, Chile). In the past deaths have occurred, usually from drunk tour guides/drivers. As time goes on, companies become more reputable and the trip becomes safer. We had no problem with our trip, but we were careful to look at four or five different tour companies in San Pedro before signing on to one.
As interest in this trip grows, so does the prices. Ten years ago the price was around 60.000 Chilean pesos per person. Now it is regularly 100.000 pesos. It really sucks, but I would say it is still worth it. Particularly as an entry point into Bolivia. The whole trip is four days, three nights, and roundtrip from San Pedro (where we began) or Uyuni, Bolivia. The most common practice among backpackers, however, is to be dropped off in the other city, finishing the trip at three days, two nights. We chose to “hop off” the tour in Uyuni to continue our travel further in Bolivia.
One reason this is a great entry point in Bolivia (besides the views): ease of entrance and reduced visa for Americans. Normally, Americans have to pay 135 USD reciprocity fee to get a year-long visa into the country. Bolivian customs/border workers also regularly require proof of yellow fever vaccine, departure tickets, and other inconvenient things. However, there is a rarely-advertised 30 day visa for 60 USD. Not many Americans know about it–we didn’t until we arrived in San Pedro and asked around at tour agencies.
We ended up chosing World White Travel and paid 99.000 pesos per person. This hurt. This was over 300 USD between the two of us. But we decided it would be worth it (and I think it was). The cheapest tour agency we found offered the tour at 90.000 per person, the most expensive at 106.000. We decided not to go with the cheapest because they didn’t seem to know all the ins and outs of the Bolivian border crossing. Their 4×4 jeeps were probably liable to break down in the desert as well, which would have been absolutely miserable, if not dangerous.
Our tour bus picked us up at 7:30 am, outside our hostel, and drove us to the border crossing. Because it is winter, high in the mountains, there was snow on the road. We had to wait at the Chilean border for two and a half hours before we knew the pass to the Bolivian side of the border was open. We used that time to get to know our companions: two girls from Spain, one Manhattanite, and one Swede. We got along great and decided to pile into the same 4×4 jeep later that day. We finally got word the border was open around noon, which was great news. If we had to wait any longer, sites on the tour would have to be cut.
The Bolivian customs buildings were high in the volcanoes and mountains, and everything was covered in snow. Because the government workers are used to tons of tourists coming through every day, all they want to see is a passport and US dollars. Even though the posters on the wall declare that entry will be refused without yellow fever vaccination proof and other paperwork, we were never asked for any of it. They really just wanted our money. We told them we would stay in the country 28 days, they took our money, stamped our passport, and we were done. Simple as that.
Then we met our tour guide/driver and loaded all our bags and five liters of water onto the jeep. We were told to bring five liters apiece, which I think was a little excessive. Three probably would’ve been just fine. Six of us piled into the 4×4, and we began out journey. The guides only speak Spanish, but most of us on the trip could understand at least some Spanish. Two were native speakers from Barcelona, so that helped.
At this point we were easily 13,000 feet above sea level. Maybe more. I was popping pills, taking three mgs of dexamethasone a day, and it made a huge difference. For people who get altitude sick, be aware that this tour takes place in high altitude. The lowest we ever got was around 11,000 feet in Uyuni, Bolivia. While altitude affects almost everyone, the majority of the population only feels the slightest of symptoms: shortness of breath, insomnia, increased bathroom needs, and maybe a little fatigue, starting around 8,000 feet (give or take). This is all very manageable and if you’re in that group, don’t worry about the trip, but don’t expect to sleep well. If you’re like me, however, well, take medicine. Because you’ll be in a jeep all day for three days, and no one wants to get puked on. I did well–I didn’t even get a headache and I slept better than the others in my group, probably because of the medicine.
Our first stop along the tour was Laguna Blanca. This was the first of several altiplano lakes in the Bolivian mountains. It is white because of the minerals suspended in the water. At this point, we were about 14,000 feet high.
This tour, I should add, was cold. I wore pajama bottoms under my jeans, two pairs of socks, a cami, two shirts, a thick scarf, and my jacket. It’s just so high (and the beginning of winter) that the wind bites right through you. Also, the wind is very strong, and our driver said that’s pretty normal throughout the year.
Our jeep, I believe, was the fun one of the trip. Several jeeps all go at the same time, from different companies, so you get to know the other vehicles and their occupants. We always had music playing and we went through Catalan, Swedish, and American music during our three days.
The air was fresh and crisp so high in the mountains, and we could see for miles. As we traveled through the desert, there were no roads, and we all realized how isolated we really were. There is absolutely nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever been that remote before, where the nearest town is several days’ drive away through deserts and around volcanoes. Every once and a while we would pass dilapidated stone shacks. Our driver said they were for the llama farmers that came up in summer. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine living that way. It gave me a greater appreciation for the convenience of living in/by a town in the States, where the grocery store is not far. Even the farmers I know in the States don’t live days from a hospital or food market.
Our second stop, Laguna Verde, is also green for the types of minerals in the water.
The wind was very strong–so strong we had to stay away form the edge of the cliffs. I almost fell off a cliff into a waterfall in Patagonia, and I didn’t want to test my luck again. The sky, as you can see, is an unbelievable color. Our group would just silently stare out the window, up to the clouds, watching the clear sky.
Geyser de Sol Manana was the highest we went on our trip, and is the first day. So not too good for acclimatization. However, we spent at most 45 minutes at the geysers, so anyone that feels sick doesn’t have to stay too long. It is a little over 16,000 feet. South Base Camp of Mt. Everest is 16,900 feet, just for comparison. This is high, especially considering the last time I was at 14,000 feet (Pike’s Peak, Colorado in 2000) I was crying and vomiting. And rolling around on the gift shop floor (okay, okay, I was 10. Give me a break).
We quickly moved along (everyone was out of breath just hiking fifteen feet away from the car) and headed to Laguna Colorada. This is the third colorful lake in the mountains, and by far the most striking. In the summer it is swamped with flamingos.
It was our first time to see a red/pink lake before, and wow, it was breathtaking. We really enjoyed our time out there, even though we were panting walking uphill.
Our refugio, where we would spend the first night, was just 10 minutes drive from this lake. This whole area is a nature reserve, and the only lodging places are very, very basic. The building is built from adobe and has no showers or heating. It only has electricity for two hours a day, when they fire up the generator. And it gets cold overnight, without heating. We ate great Bolivian food, played uno, and when the electricity went out burrowed under our covers and tried to sleep. Before sleep, Jordan went out to get some photos of the Southern hemisphere’s stars.
He did a really good job, I thought, and was able to capture the nearby volcanoes as well. Those buildings are the refugio and the outbuildings.
Isn’t nature beautiful?