Bolivia wasn't a country that I had read much about, let alone planned to visit. However, there is one place in Bolivia that you must not miss whilst in South America, the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni), the world's largest salt flats, sitting at 3653m above sea level and covering an area of 12,106sq miles it truly is a sight to behold.
Once I started reading up on this trip and the various companies I wondered how safe it actually was. If I had known then what I learnt through the course of the next 4 days I might have re-assessed the “need” to actually go on this tour. But more of that later. For now, I had a good recommendation of a tour operator from a Canadian friend who had done the trip the week before. Reassuringly, the Bolivian drivers for this company didn't drink at the wheel or fall asleep whilst driving. And yes, I'm being very serious.
So, with a tour company I felt I could trust, and a 4 day tour that started and ended up back in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, I was all set. An early start saw us filling up two 4x4s with a real mix of nationalities. Aussies, Irish, Norwegian, German, French, Swiss and Dutch. Thankfully, Christophe who was travelling in my 4x4 had just studied Spanish for the last 3 months so became our official translater as the Bolivian drivers do not speak any English.
The first stop was the Bolivian border. As you can see, there is not much too it. Just a cabin with a lone official who is there to check your documentation and give you the all important entry stamp into Bolivia. With that done we were off for the long drive through the Bolivian desert to the first national park. As we ascended higher and higher, a few of us started to feel the effects of the altitude. This is where the famous “Coca” leaf comes in. This is the plant from which cocaine is derived but for all Bolivians it is a natural as drinking a good old cup of tea. You take some of the coca leafs, stick them in the side of your mouth and let the leafs do their stuff. The theory is that as the minute levels of cocaine are extracted, it deadens the effect of altitude sickness. I have to admit, I did feel better but was never really sure whether it was the leafs actually working or whether it was more of a placebo effect.
Over the next 4 days we saw some of the most amazing landscapes, many of it surreal, like something you imagine to be on the surface of the moon. We visited active geysers, many natural lagoons, saw more flamingos than you could shake a stick at and the coup de grace on the first day, a dip in thermal hot springs. I was in two minds whether to strip off and get in, as it was damn chilly in the Bolivian mountains, but how glad am I that I did? It was amazing, so so good. Despite knowing I was at a hot spring, the temperature was a very pleasant surprise. I just wish we had longer than the 25min bathe we had. More fun was had afterward, trying to get dried off and back into our clothes, al fresco, with my silly little travel towel. Try that whilst maintaining your dignity.
The accommodation for the trip was basic to say the least and some of the food left a lot to be desired. Some of the guys on the trip really enjoyed it but a salad on a bed of cold fries was not my idea of good tucker. And have you tried drinking Bolivian wine? A warning. If you like wine and don't want to be mentally scarred, stay away. Stick to the ubiquitous Coke that is served with every Bolivian meal. I was mightily glad to be back in San Pedro at the end of the week, tucking into a juicy hamburger, chips and cold cerveza.
So, what did I learn about the Salt Flat tours through the course of my trip. Well, in the last 2 years at least 18 tourists have been killed in accidents directly attributable to bad driving, drunken drivers and a blatant disregard for safety. A very sobering moment awaited us as we finally reached the Salt Flats. A memorial to 12 tourists, and their drivers who died in 2008 when the two 4x4s they were travelling in collided head on, exploded and everyone burned to death.
Considering that the Salt Flats are so huge, and so flat, the mind boggles as to not only how could two jeeps crash into each other, but what speeds must the drivers have been going to cause the deaths of everybody in both jeeps. It's frightening.
That was why I was glad to have discovered this at the end of the trip, and was glad to be back safe and sound. I for one will continue to sing the praises of my tour company, Estrella del Sur, for their good, sober, very friendly drivers.