Salvador Dali’s Pinball Parlour
The best way to get a grasp of the remote beauty of Bolivars Salt Plains and multi coloured Laguna’s is definitely by 4wd, and a 3 day tour from San Pedro in Chile to Uyuni in Bolivia is all you need.
Our chariot takes across the harsh salt plains
You can book your trip easily a day prior to leaving and most tourist offices offer the same tour; look for a company that offers accommodation at the Salt Hotel on the second night and then it’s up to you to find the best price, you can always talk them down a bit, but you should end up paying around 70,000 Chilean pesos.
The crossing from Chile to Bolivia involves a tedious checkpoint on the Chilean side with random bag searches for drugs and an exit stamp in your passport, then a 50 minute drive to a small Bolivian outpost border check point, which is nothing more than a stamp on your passport and a cup of coca tea.
The tour I went on had decent food and reasonable accommodation as far as Bolivia goes. Make sure you have some warm clothing and it’s a good idea to have a sleeping bag for the high altitude chill. The driving can be a little bumpy at times but the 4wd’s are reasonably well kept and the guides try and seat their passengers by language which can be either blessing or a burden, as it’s good to be able to share the same humour and culture but it’s also good to mingle with the world.
Rock trees are an unusal but spectacular sight
As far as safety goes the only thing you need worry about is altitude sickness and the best way to deal with this is with coca leaves and by staying away from alcohol; chewing coca leaves tastes pretty average but coca tea with a bit of honey or sugar is the way to go.
A cultural note…the stigma of coca leaves being just like cocaine is a fallacy. Coca leaves are actually very good for not only altitude sickness but also for indigestion, fatigue, reducing hunger and more. A visit to the coca museum in La Paz is a great way to find more information on the coca plant and its amazing properties. By the way, coca leaves are not considered a drug! it’s only after a lengthy process of refining do you get the drug cocaine!
So back to altitude sickness (hypoxia) – it’s something you need to think about on this journey; with a dramatic climb to around 5000 meters you are more than likely to experience the chronic headaches and flatulence associated with altitude sickness, which in my mind actually helps break the ice with your new travel companions! After the initial couple of disgusted faces from the ladies, they too soon joined in the percussion of high pressure gas expulsion as your body works in ways you can’t explain. A truly bed warming moment!
Vacunas roam the salt plains freely and add to that sense of mystique
As we wound our way higher and higher, many of us were revisiting the many fables told of cars colliding, killing all on board due to an untimely game of chicken, up and around these mountains. But as far as we saw the drivers were all reasonably safe and diligent, checking their engines, tires and driving no differently than any other crazy driver in Bolivia. I personally felt safer here than I did on a freeway in LA.
A decent camera is a plus as you’ll have the unique opportunity of seeing so many beautifully coloured lakes infested with pink flamingos and crazy looking vacuna (llama looking creatures), not to mention the constantly changing landscapes from salty plains to bizarre rock formations that inspired Salvador Dali’s unique abstract paintings.
The Salt Hotel is a definite must see and stay, built entirely out of salt; the walls, tables, chairs and even the bar is carved from salt bricks. The floor is carpeted with a thick layer of rock salt which has a tendency of flicking up your legs on the way back from the shower – take a pair of sticky wet havaianas. On that note, the salt has a tendency to dry you out a little so don’t walk to quick, thereby flicking salt too high up your leg as you don’t want to end up with a piece of beef jerky in your pants when you wake up in the morning!
The bar within the Salt Hotel is a ‘must see’ on your journeys
If you’re a couple travelling together the guides are pretty good at accommodating you both with a room of your own. On the first night the accommodation was a little more basic and you are more than likely to share your quarters with the rest of the group so earplugs are a must with an orchestra of snoring and the groaning of painful altitude suffering travellers a constant.
On the last day an island like a tea cake in a sea of sugar pops up through a hazy mirage on the horizon, made of ancient corals overwhelmed with magnificent, old, but grand cactus – this has to be one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, a truly out there place.
Just a quick note of recommendation to the masses due to the amount of people I’ve noticed travelling at present wincing away from truly amazing experiences.
A lot of travel books will tell you not to go here or there and not to do this tour or that but you have to remember that even in your own back yard your liable to get into some trouble in one way or another so I recommend you get out of your comfort zone for a minute and experience what life has to offer you. That by the way shouldn’t be taken to the boundaries of someone else’s imagination as you should know your own limits.