Salt Flats – Bolivia – Part 2 – The Tour

Salt-Flat-Tour-55-Laguna-Colorado-Llama

NOVEMBER 2018:


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OVERVIEW:

PLEASE NOTE: The currency in Bolivia is Bolivianos (BOB). I will refer to them as ‘B$s’. At the time of writing, US$1 = B$6.91.


BOOKING MY TOUR:

I booked my 4D/3N Uyuni Salt Flat Tour in Tupiza. Please read my post on Tupiza for more details on how to find a tour, tour prices, and general tips / information.Tupiza-Valle-Hormoso-Tour-Map

I booked the Standard / ‘Classic’ Tour with Natural Adventures. This takes you south from Tupiza into the National Park. You go as far south as Laguna Verde near the Chilean border before turning north to the famous Uyuni Salt Flats.Tupiza - Natural Adventure Tour Details

Before confirming my booking with Natural Adventure, I asked for the name of the Driver/Guide and checked his reviews on the internet. All of the reviews said that he (Milton) was excellent and gave him 5 stars.

In summary:

  • SECRET: I paid a discounted price of B$1,150 (down from B$1,250) – please keep this to yourselves – read how to get a discount in my post on Tupiza – play the Tour Agents to get a discount but don’t let them know that you know how to play them (don’t ruin it for the people who come after you)
  • This price excluded B$221 in expected extras (e.g. park entry fees)
  • This excluded any Driver/Guide/Cook tips
  • Pick up was to be from my hotel at 7am
  • (Unlike 2 other unscrupulous Tour Agents that I talked to) Natural Adventure said that, at this time of year, I didn’t need a sleeping bag … the beds came with sheets and blankets and November was one of the warmest months

GENERAL TIPS:

When you start your Tour, you will usually have a driver/guide, cook, and four passengers crammed into an off-road 4WD with luggage on top and groceries crammed behind the back seats. The driver and cook sit in the front 2 seats. Two people sit in the second row seats. The two people in the very back row have the short straw, with little leg room, and limited views out of the windows. Chat with your fellow travellers, and decide in advance on a fair way to rotate seats. Seat rotation will make a huge difference to the quality of your trip. We decided to rotate about every 2 hours of travel (excluding stops).Salt-Flat-Tour-4-4x4

Take a SMALL (be considerate to your fellow passengers!) backpack with you in the 4×4 containing the few things that you need for the day. Your main luggage goes up on the roof and is inaccessible during the day.

You will get to altitudes of 5,000 metres and stay overnight at altitudes of 4,000 metres. Make sure that you are acclimatised. Read up on altitude sickness in advance so that you can manage yourself and any symptoms. You may want to take Acetazolamide tablets or Coca Leaves to help with altitude sickness.

While it can be hot and sunny during the day, in the winter months the temperatures plummet at night … and, you will be staying in very basic accommodation with no heating. Bring warm clothes. If you are renting a sleeping bag, you may want to bring your own sleeping bag liner.Salt-Flat-Tour-1-Valley

Expect everyone to take lots of photos. Expect limited electric supply and/or outlets at your accommodation (sometimes electric is only on at specified hours each day – sometimes you have to pay to access the electric). Expect everyone to want to recharge their devices at the same time. If you can, take:

  • A car lighter socket USB charger so that you can do some charging on the road; and/or
  • A Universal Multipoint so that a single wall socket can become many; and/or
  • A solar charger / powerpack

There are no shops nor restaurants etc, so bring everything that you need. Check if bottled water is included — it doesn’t hurt to bring some along. You are also advised to take:

  • Toilet Paper!
  • Soap!
  • Towel
  • Camera & Charging Equipment
  • Props (to take funny photos)
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Sun Glasses
  • Torch
  • 2 Litres of bottled water (water should be supplied but you may find this 2 extra litres makes the difference)
  • Bathing Suit (you may not shower the first 2 nights, but you visit a thermal spring on Day 2 – you will want to jump in)
  • Baby Wipes (for when you can’t have a shower but feel grubby)
  • Moisturiser (it is very dry at altitude)
  • Enough cash for the B$221+ additional fees and any extras (e.g. alcoholic drinks) that you want to buy on the way. You may, also, tip your driver and cook at the end of the trip
  • A deck of cards (or something) to help while-away the evenings

Expect to have no wifi.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-17

Expect to be ‘blown away’ by the scenery and the experience.


DAY 1:

THE DAY:

I was scheduled to be picked up from my hotel at 7am. By 7:20am they had not arrived. I sent a Whatsapp message. They responded quickly saying that they were 5 minutes away. They arrived at 7:30am with the other 3 passengers already inside: Simon & Solene (France) and Annika (Germany).Tupiza-Casa-Baron-Frontage-2

The boss from the office was there. She said that there was no cook but our driver/guide (Milton) would sort things out on the way. She said that there was a 5th person who wanted to join our group and asked if this was OK. We were promised a discount of B$100 each if a 5th person came. On that basis, we agreed to take the 5th: Evelyne (Switzerland).

Evelyne had arrived that morning on an over-night bus. We picked her up from her hostel and waited whilst she withdrew money from an ATM. Milton went to the market to stock up on food. We finally set off at 8:15am (not the 6:30am they say in their brochure).

We drove up winding roads.Salt-Flat-Tour-3-Winding-Road

And stopped off at a couple of canyons. At one, we had a morning snack of Llama meat Tomales. Salt-Flat-Tour-2-Cactus-Valley

At 4,000m we stopped to walk in a field of llamas.Salt-Flat-Tour-5-Mina-Abaroa-Llamas

For lunch, we stopped in a small adobe village (Mina Leoplan) with several other tours. This is typical of your trip. It is a set route and you can expect to meet other tours at lunch time and at your nightly accommodation … as well as at the sights on the way.Salt-Flat-Tour-10-Adobe-Village-StreetSalt-Flat-Tour-6-4x4s-Stopped-for-Lunch

What typically happens, is that you eat in a restaurant that services all of the tours. The restaurant, basically, just rents out their facilities: their kitchen for cooking and their tables for eating. The meals were simple and there was always too much. A typical meal looks like this:Salt-Flat-Tour-8-Day-1-Lunch

We had time to have a look around this little village.Salt-Flat-Tour-7-Adobe-Huts Salt-Flat-Tour-9-Adobe-House

After lunch we stopped at Ciudad del Encanto. Entry Fee B$10. This is a soft rock formation shaped by rains. You can only look … you cannot climb.Salt-Flat-Tour-11-Ciudad-del-Encanto-1 Salt-Flat-Tour-12-Ciudad-del-Encanto-2

At Carahorca we paid B$15 to enter Ruta Lipez. Our first stop was Pueblo Fantasma: an abandoned mining town.Salt-Flat-Tour-26-Puebo-Fantasma-Exit-Road

Soon afterwards, we reached our highest point of the day at Laguna Morijon and stopped to take in the view.Salt-Flat-Tour-28-4855m

Late that afternoon we entered the National Park. Entry Fee B$150.

THE NIGHT:

Our next stop was our 1st night’s accommodation at Quetena Chico.Salt-Flat-Tour-33-1st-Night-Accommodation

There were 3 dorm rooms. Ours had 5 single beds. There was 1 power point in the room so I plugged in my Multipoint which gave us enough sockets to recharge everyone’s equipment. Fortunately, power was available all night. There was a Multipoint outside of the dorm rooms for shared use but we preferred to keep our equipment in-room for safety.Salt-Flat-Tour-34-1st-Night-Dorm

We unpacked and headed for the dining area for tea and crackers.Salt-Flat-Tour-31-1st-Night-Cafeteria

Soon afterwards the Valle Hermoso Tour Group arrived. They were not very happy. They had broken down on the way. We saw them fixing the 4×4 at lunchtime but without success. They had to wait for a replacement vehicle to arrive from Tupiza. They had spent most of the day waiting for transport and catch-up driving (with no time to stop at any of the sights along the way).

We were, now, a group of 9 (excluding drivers/guides and cooks) sharing a basic bathroom with only 2 sinks.Salt-Flat-Tour-29-1st-Night-Bathroom

And 2 toilets (one of which was locked up and unavailable overnight).Salt-Flat-Tour-30-1st-Night-Toilet

There were no shower facilities. No soap was provided. No toilet paper was provided.


DAY 2:

THE DAY:

We were at breakfast by 6:30am. Breakfast was stale bread rolls and jam. Drinks were instant coffee, powdered chocolate, and tea bags. We were on the road by 7am. Our first stop was Laguna Hedionda.Salt-Flat-Tour-35-Laguna-Hedionda

We stopped to get close to some flamingos.Salt-Flat-Tour-36-Laguna-Hedionda-Flamingos

And, we stopped several times more en route to the thermal pools.Salt-Flat-Tour-37-BoraxSalt-Flat-Tour-38-Lakeside-HutSalt-Flat-Tour-39-VistaSalt-Flat-Tour-40-Lake-VistaSalt-Flat-Tour-41-Far-Away-Flamingos

The thermal pools were crowded so we continued south to the Salvador Dali Desert first.Salt-Flat-Tour-42-Dali-Desert Salt-Flat-Tour-43-Dali-Desert

Then, we drove further south to Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde.Salt-Flat-Tour-45-Laguna-Verde

When we returned to the Thermal Pools they were less busy. Entry was B$6. There are 2 pools: a hot one and a warm one. The view from the hot pool was gorgeous.Salt-Flat-Tour-47-Thermal-Pools

Our next stop was the Geisers.Salt-Flat-Tour-48-Geiser Salt-Flat-Tour-49-Geiser Salt-Flat-Tour-50-Geiser

Our next stop was one of the highlights of the tour: Laguna Colorado.Salt-Flat-Tour-51-Laguna-Colorado Salt-Flat-Tour-52-Laguna-Colorado

Whilst we were there a group of Llamas made their way down to the lake for refreshments. We could see where they were heading (they love eating the green moss).Salt-Flat-Tour-53-Laguna-Colorado

So, we got there first and sat down calmly. They got used to the fact that we were there and gathered around us getting very close. Alas, other tourists flocked to the scene. They didn’t try and sit down to join in … they ruined it by walking amongst the llamas and spoiling the photo opportunities and tranquility. I had a fantastic shot of a llama but I couldn’t take it because another tourist walked right into the middle of my shot. :-(. But, I was happy with the one that I was able to take. If you like this one, imagine what the one that I missed might have looked like!

Salt-Flat-Tour-55-Laguna-Colorado-Llama

From Laguna Colorado we drove directly to our 2nd night’s accommodation in Villamar.

THE NIGHT:

Our Villamar accommodation was better than Quetena Chico.Salt-Flat-Tour-56-2nd-Night-Dorm

They had 2 bathrooms – each with a hot shower for an extra B$10. We all had a hot shower.

Dinner was served in the hostel next door that had a much bigger dining area.


DAY 3:

THE DAY:

We agreed to get up late because we knew that we would be up before dawn on Day 4. We were at Breakfast for 8am. Breakfast was 2 cold pancakes each with milk jam. We had the usual selection of tea, coffee, and chocolate. Alas, they forget to bring us plates and cutlery!

Anyway, we were on the road by 8:30am. We stopped to visit the World Cup.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-1-World-Cup

As well as other nice rock formations.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-2 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-4 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-5

But, the highlight of the day (for me) was our next stop: Laguna Negra. Here we walked through green valleys of llamas.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-6 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-7

And climbed some rocks to get some beautiful, tranquil views.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-13

Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-15 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-16For others, the highlight of the day was our next stop at Anaconda Canyon where you can walk out on a sheer rock to get spectacular views. Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-2 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-21 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-22

Our next stop was the deserted Jolaca Train Station.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-25

Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-27 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-29From here we drove directly to our 3rd night’s accommodation: a Salt Hotel in Chuvica.

During the day Milton told us that we were not getting our B$100 5-person discount as promised back in Tupiza. Annika (who spoke the best Spanish) resolved to sort this out on behalf of our Group. I was now in a bit of a ‘pickle’ because I couldn’t reveal the fact that I had paid B$100 less than everyone else already … and everyone was asking everyone else bout how much they paid!

THE NIGHT:

We arrived early and started settling into our dorm room at about 4pm.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-32

Again, there was 1 power point that we all shared with my Multipoint. These hotels are made from salt bricks.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-33

Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-38We had 2 bathrooms – each with a simple toilet and hot water shower. The hot water shower was an extra B$10.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-36Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-35Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-34

It was still early, so Milton gave us a choice for sunset: drive into the Salt Flats and watch it from there or climb the local ‘peak’ to watch sunset from there. We chose to do the latter.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-39

The map said that it was a 2.2km round trip with a 200m climb up to 4,200m. It wasn’t as easy as it looked on the map and only 3 out of 5 of us made it to the top. Some sections of the path were very steep.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-4

It was more about doing it than the sunset view itself. We made sure that we took torches. We needed them on our climb back down … but, we made sure that we were back at the bottom safely before it got too dark.


DAY 4:

THE DAY:

We all agreed to be up and gone early … earlier than other groups … so that we could get to Isla Incahuasi before the crowds. We rose at 3:45am and we were on the road by 4:15am. Entry to the island is B$30. You have quite a tiring climb up the isle path to the viewing platform. Once there, we found our spots, sat down, and waited for sunrise over the Salt Flats. Sunrise was 5:30am.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-1 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-2

Once sunrise was over, we took advantage of our height to take some more photos.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-3 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-7

It was, then, back down the path to our 4×4 where Milton had our Breakfast ready: Lemon Cake! In front of us were a Dutch couple travelling in their camper van. They were sitting on the Salt Flats having Breakfast and avoiding the B$30 per person fee.

Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-9

After Breakfast, we took a 15 minute walk on the flats before jumping back into our 4×4 to find our ‘photo shoot’ spot.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-12Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-10

We did the standard suite of photos playing with perspectives.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-36 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-34 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-30 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-23 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-19 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-18 Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-16

But we had the most fun making a couple of videos.

We were doing this for about 1.5 hours!Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-40

After our photo shoot we spent some time at a Salt Museum (which is, really, just a hotel that had to be abandoned when they made the Salt Flats a National Park).Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-46Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-47

We finished off at the Train Cemetery.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-52

We were back in Uyuni before 2pm. Milton dropped us off at the Bus Terminal in the centre of town.

Annika had been talking to Milton about our refund and reminded Milton that he was there when the promise of that refund was made. She left Milton to sort it out with the people back in the office. It was now that Milton said that Simon, Solene, and Annika will get a B$100 refund but not Evelyn nor I.

Evelyn, obviously, felt a bit unhappy that she had been ‘ripped off’ … as she paid B$1,300 to be the 5th person and everyone else ended up paying B$1,150.

I was OK with the result. Yes, I should have gotten a B$100 rebate too … but I had already decided to give it to Milton as a tip. Now, Milton just didn’t get a tip.

This whole 5th person rebate thing wasn’t handled very well by the office and, even though they (probably) did the right thing in the end, it left a slight (and unnecessary) sour taste in our mouths.


UYUNI:

Simon & Solene bought tickets for the overnight bus to La Paz. They had to wait around until 8:30pm.

Annika needed to catch the Minivan to Oruro. After getting her Visa extended at Migration that afternoon, she joined the queue for the next Minivan (they leave when they are full). Travel time is about 6 hours.

Evelyne caught the 4 hour bus to Potosi.

I walked the 1.5 blocks to by hotel: the Joya Andina. I booked the hotel in advance because I predicted that I would want a good sleep and a hot shower … I predicted correctly.Uyuni-Joya-Andina-Room-Entry

I paid US$13 for a Single Room with Twin Bed.Uyuni-Joya-Andina-Bed

I needed my physical passport to check in. They tried the usual trick of using the wrong exchange rate … he tried to convert US$13 to B$95 (an exchange rate of 7.3). I got online on my smartphone and showed him that the exchange rate was 6.91 and that I should be paying B$89.80. I asked him which bank he got his exchange rate from. He recalculated using an exchange rate of 7. I paid B$91.

The room came with a wardrobe (that had no coat hanger bar so it was really just a hole in the wall) and Cable TV (which had 1 English Speaking channel if you were lucky). Fortunately, the wifi was good.Uyuni-Joya-Andina-Furniture

The ensuite was small.Uyuni-Joya-Andina-Ensuite-Entry

With a shower over the toilet.Uyuni-Joya-Andina-Shower-Over-Toilet

Alas, that night when I went for my shower at 6pm, there was no water (neither hot nor cold). Reception had to sort it out and I couldn’t have a hot shower until late in the evening.Uyuni - Joya Andina - Breakfast

On the positive side, I had an excellent Breakfast in the morning.


HEALTH & SAFETY:

There is no reason to feel unsafe. As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-4-11

The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Latin America. It is hard to believe that anyone in your group would steal anything but there are other groups around as well as workers.Salt-Flat-Tour-Day-3-26

I didn’t notice any mosquitos.

Don’t drink the tap water.

I took Coca Leaves and our driver did the same. I chewed a batch between Breakfast and Morning Tea, a new batch from there to Lunch, and another new batch from then to Dinner time. I suffered no altitude sickness symptoms. I also noticed no narcotic effect … I just felt normal. The only thing that I suffered from was a shortness of breath when I exerted myself at the highest altitudes.Tupiza - Coca Leaves B$20

The rest of my group were young and fit. They occasionally tried the Coca Leaves but not often. A couple of them had an occasional headache.

Other groups were not so lucky. We heard stories of people being sick.


GRANDPAcking COSTS:

Read About – GRANDPAcking Costs if you don’t know how to interpret my figures.

SPREADSHEET SUMMARY:

Salt Flat Tour GRANDPAcking Costs

MY ACTUAL COSTS:

My costs are broken down into:

  • Cost of Existence: The basic costs of just being there
  • Cost of Living: The additional costs that make being there fun
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):

I DID NOT live to GRANDPAcking standard. I had GRANDPAcking Standard rooms in Tupiza and Uyuni but was in a Dorm on the tour.

I paid B$280 for 4 nights in Tupiza. I paid B$91 for 1 night in Uyuni. Both included Breakfast.

I paid a discounted price of B$1,150 for my 4 Day / 3 Night Tour and another B$206 in extras (somehow I got into the Ruta Lipez free and saved B$15).

I still had my 1 Month 2GB ENTEL Data Plan that I bought in Villazon. I didn’t need to top it up … for most of the time you have no signal on the Tour anyway.

Outside of the Tour, I averaged about B$37 / day on food and water. I don’t really eat Lunch anymore.

Including the Tour, my COE worked out to be about B$212 (US$32) / day!

COST OF LIVING (COL):

In / Out Costs:  It cost me B$20 to get from Villazon to Tupiza in a Minivan. It cost me B$3 for a Tuk Tuk in Tupiza to my hotel.

Medical:  I spent B$40 on Coca Leaves and another B$65 on creams for cracked feet.

Living Costs: I averaged about B$21 per night on drinks. I spent B$36 elsewhere but I can’t remember what.

My total COL was about B$242 (US$37) / day.

COSTS FOR 2 GRANDPAckers:

Again, costs are broken down in Cost Of Existence (COE) and Cost Of Living (COL).

COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):

Accommodation: I have booked you into Tupiza for 1 night at B$175 and Uyuni for 1 night at B$140. Both include Breakfast. One night in Tupiza should give you enough time to get onto a good Tour.

Tours: I have booked you on a standard 4D/3N Tour at B$1,250 each. I have also included the B$221 each in standard extras.

Communications & Fees: I have included an ENTEL SIMcard (B$10) with a 1 month 2GB Data Plan (B$50).

Food: Off Tour, your budget is B$136 / day. B$15 each for an Almuerzo lunch, B$50 each for Dinner and Drink in a budget restaurant, and a 2 litre bottle of water for B$6.

Including the Tour, your COE is about B$598 (US$91) / day.

COST OF LIVING (COL):

You are US$39 / day over budget.

However, this should be easy to make up with savings made elsewhere in Bolivia.


CONCLUSION:

It was not cold in November. You needed to wear something warm early in the mornings and in the evenings. Otherwise, it was warm and sunny during the day. Our beds had plenty of wool blankets.

We did a lot of driving over a lot of miles but I didn’t seem to get bored.Salt-Flat-Tour-44-Disappearing-Jeep

If you can handle the altitude and you are prepared to ‘rough it’ a little bit and sleep in dorms, this is a must do trip for anyone visiting Bolivia. And, for what you get, it really is quite cheap.

TTFN


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