We weren't planning on going to Bolivia, but when San Francisco-based BFF, Alan Montelibano, heard that I was going to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, he convinced me to take the tour of the Uyuni salt flats in bordering Bolivia. He said it was the highlight of his visit. Plus Filipinos aren't required visas to Bolivia.
With that, I was sold.
While still in the Philippines, I emailed our hotel hosts for tour agency recommendations, except that searches on the internet turned up rave reviews, as well as nightmare tales. I told Nicolas that we'd have to take our chances and choose an agency ourselves once we arrived at San Pedro de Atacama.Once in San Pedro, we left the choice up to the recommendation of the charming and affable, Vicente Guidi-Morosini, the Italian-Chileno tour guide of Atacama Loft, who had fast become a friend. His initial query among his friends in town turned up the names of two agencies but, upon further investigation online, I found the same rave reviews and nightmare tales. He said to give him more time to ask more friends. Later, he told us that Cordillera Traveller was our agency. He said that a reliable friend told him that all the tours would be the same but that, at the very least, Cordillera Traveller's first hotel would be better than the others. This turned out to be false (and Vicente cursed the reliability of his friend) and, although I had come across the positive and negative reviews of Cordillera Traveller during my initial research in the Philippines, at the end of the day, their office was open when we needed them to be and, as Vicente pointed out, when asked if they had room for us on their tour, they immediately replied, "Yes, we do!" Nicolas and I paid the equivalent of US$220 each for a three-night, four-day tour. The third night and last day was really just to get us back to San Pedro de Atacama. Otherwise, the tour ended at 1 PM on the third day and most people in our group stayed on in Bolivia. There were 12 of us all in all, split into two Toyota Land Cruisers. In our car were me and Nicolas, a French couple (Olivier and Sylvie), and a Swedish couple (Johan and Linnea) and our driver, Rafael.
Although accommodations were spartan, to say the least...
We were one bed shy of accommodating the Seven Dwarves. Our first night's accommodation at the Cordillera Traveller hotel. It had one unisex bathroom with two toilets, two sinks, and no shower.
... we all knew what we were getting ourselves into and we were lucky that there were no divas or primadonnas in our group and that everyone was easy going and in good spirits.In spite of the headaches, that is. Altitude sickness is a very real concern here. We climbed to almost 5000 meters on our first day and almost everyone had headaches. Nicolas had it worst. He got extremely sick, which was exacerbated further by the smell of sulfur at the geysers. He could barely move and suffered from nausea. He became very sensitive to sound. His condition only improved when Rafael gave him some meds and hooked him up to some oxygen.
Breakfast (at the Bolivian border): bread, ham, cheese, coffee and tea
Missing from the pic is Nicolas who was sick in bed, and me, of course, because I was taking the picture.
Dinner (also at the hotel): vegetable soup, pasta with tomato sauce, frozen peaches, and bottled water Second Day
Breakfast (also at the hotel) - bread, butter, jam, manjar, scrambled eggs, coffee and tea
Lunch (at a restaurant): fried rice, tinned tuna, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, oranges, and Coke
Snacks: crackers, coffee and tea
Dinner (at the salt hotel): vegetable soup, steak, french fries, and wine! Hurrah! Third Day
Breakfast (at the salt flats): bread, butter, jam, manjar, yogurt and some sort of corn puff cereal, coffee and tea
Breakfast (at the Bolivian border): same as First Day Breakfast
End of tour. Again, because we were in The Middle of Nowhere, Bolivia, we didn't expect much, so we didn't mind the sausages and tinned tuna and if (we suspected) the soup and the mashed potatoes came out of packets. We were pleasantly surprised that we had any vegetables at all! We just smothered everything with mayonnaise and ate with gusto. The wine was a nice touch and was very much welcome. They even gave us lollies in the car! To call us "happy campers" would be an understatement. We were beyond exhilirated. We were all blown away by the amazing scenery around us and were grateful for the professionalism and dedication of our guides and the hotel/restaurant cooks and staff. We were in an extremely harsh environment and the staff was doing their best, and we appreciated their service and the opportunity to be in this astounding, awe-inspiring place.
And, boy, what scenery we beheld! Here are the highlights:
The bizarre Isla Incahuasi, where cacti grow out of a mountain of calcified coral. By the way, the blue is salt, not water.
And of course, the Salar de Uyuni...
... and flamingos.
We also saw some viscachas - squirrels with bunny heads.
We were all waiting to leave for different destinations at the same cafe near the Cordillera Traveller office in Uyuni. Left to right: Beth, Raoul, Sophie, Hart, and me.
This is Bernardo who drove us three hours to our hotel in Villa Mar, then four hours the next day to the Bolivian border. He had the worst taste in music but, at the end of the trip, gave us sage advice, not to stress too much. I'm not sure if or why we seemed stressed to him but "Calma corazon," he said repeatedly. Here, Bernardo, Linnea and Nicolas are saying, "Calma corazon." We emptied our pockets of Bolivianos for him.