When I’d originally booked this trip, the flight from Bolivia to Uyuni was at the annoying hour of 6:30am. That would mean getting up around 4:30a at the latest to head to the airport on my second day in Bolivia. UGH. Just as I was leaving DC I got an email…the flight had been retimed to 5:35am, and the reason was given as “due to a maintenance service in the International Airport EL ALTO in La Paz city and will be closed at about 4 hours, from 12:00 pm to 16:00 pm during all month MAY.” Uh, exactly how does that affect a 6:30 flight? No clue. However, I resigned myself to a 3am wakeup call to get to the airport no later than 4:30…an hour before my flight, and hopefully a little sooner.
Woke up, out the door in about 20 minutes, and soon I was queued up to check in at El Alto. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an airline bragging that they fly a “new fleet of CRJ-200s.”
Check in was super quick, although I was kicked out of the bulkhead I’d reserved online, because I was told my Spanish wasn’t good enough to be sitting in an exit row. Boo hiss. It was still about 1:15 before the flight, so I had time for a quick (and pretty awful) coffee in the check in area, with a much better chocolate muffin.
Security was completely painless and took maybe two minutes, and soon I was in the rather decent departures area:
Boarding was called about 30 minutes before the flight, and we walked probably 300 meters across the tarmac to our plane:
Upon boarding, the flight attendant handed each passenger a goody bag:
Amaszonas flight 300
La Paz, Bolivia (LPB) to Uyuni, Bolivia (UYU)
Depart 5:35, Arrive 6:35, Flight Time 1 hour
Canadair CRJ-200, Registration CP-2742, Manufactured 1997, Seat 2F
Upon boarding, for some reason, the seats on this plane looked and felt really familiar. Only when I pulled up my phone to check out its history did I see why…it was a former United Express plane, and still had the United Express seats. So, this is hell. My least favourite aircraft (the CRJ) with vestiges of United Express. Great. Door closed about 5 minutes early with the seat next to me empty…and we started to taxi….a few minutes later, we headed back to our parking position and opened the door.
A rapid stream of spanish followed from the cockpit, with the simple english translation of “something wrong with the plane.” Great! Well, ten minutes later “something” was fixed and we were off! The flight was a quick 45 minutes or so, and the flight attendants did do a quick beverage service from the trolley. Can’t really complain…beats United Express!
Landing in Uyuni, it was cold. Really cold. -4C or about 26F according to my phone, and I was just in jeans and a lightweight pullover. Brilliant planning Jason, brilliant. I’d prebooked a driver/tourguide for the day, since I’d been told there were essentially two options in Uyuni: hang around town for one of the 6-people-packed-into-a-Landrover backpacker trips for about $50 a person, or book a private driver. Since I only had one day and no clue when I’d come back, I opted for my own driver so I could do what I wanted and stop however long I wanted.
My driver was waiting in the arrivals area as the sun rose, and we threw my backs in the vehicle and were off. He waid we had to wait for a permit from the police in town, so we had about an hour to kill before we could head out. We headed into a small restaurant/cafe for coffee and a light breakfast, and slowly after us it began to fill up with backpackers who’d taken the 10+ hour overnight bus from La Paz. They all looked like death, and I was beginning to think the extra money I’d paid was well well worth it.
Permit obtained, we headed out to the “train cemetery” at the edge of town. Not much to see, but since it was featured in just about every travel article I read on the town, I figured we should stop. At least it was a cool contrast with the brilliant blue skies:
Stopped in town to pick up some snacks and waters, and in the centre of town was this…unique…sculpture:
Next stop was my hotel, the Hotel Luna Salada. It’s a good 30 minutes out of town, right on the edge of the saltflats. The hallways/common areas are open to the elements, so it got very very cold. This was the walkway to my room…note the floors, which are made entirely of crushed salt:
We were set to head out on the tour at 10, so I had an hour nap which made me feel much better after having gotten up at 3am! The hotel was cold…quite cold….since the salt walls don’t really insulate things much and it drops below freezing at night. There were electric blankets on all the beds (a first for me) and they kept me nice and toasty warm!
The drive to the salt flats (with the obligatory 15 minute stop at a local craft market along the way) was pretty good…and upon entering the salt flats the driver really gunned it. It felt weird to be speeding across the salt with no roads, no markings, just a sense of direction.
I’d told my driver I wanted to see an area where water had gathered, to get a pic of the salt with the reflection. He knew right where to go, and we found an area where water was a few inches deep. We had to drive very slowly in this area, because supposedly if you drive too quickly the water splashes up on the car’s undercarriage, and will corrode things, shorting out the electrical systems due to its high salt content and stranding you:
Then, we drove deeper into the salt flats, maybe another thirty minutes or so. The salt here was incredibly dry, and packed into geometric patterns:
We continued to drive and eventually reached the Isla Incahuasi, an “island” in the middle of the salt flats that’s covered in cactus. This was a picnic stop for most of the trips, however we were the first to get there. It was nice, because I was free to hike all over the island for an hour taking pictures before it was time to get lunch. Keep in mind the elevation here was about 13,000 feet above sea level still, so hiking up the island was some major effort:
Got to the bottom and my driver was napping, but no big deal since I was in no rush. He quickly woke up, put up an umbrella at one of the small tables on the beach, spread a tablecloth on it, and proceeded to unpack a picnic feast. Smoked lake trout, fruits, a couple of salads, the works. It was probably one of the nicest tour box lunches I’ve ever had. Major credit to them! He said the hotel had provided it (I booked the tour through the hotel, although it was run by a private company) and I was pretty impressed.
After lunch, it was a 30-40 minute drive to the old salt hotel. Many years prior, someone had the idea to build a hotel in the middle of the salt flats. It turned out to be both a financial and ecological nightmare, since everything (including waste) had to be brought in and out. It was closed soon after, and now serves as a museum and rest stop.
There’s also now a Dakar rally in Bolivia that goes through the salt flats, and outside the hotel was this monument to it, even though the actual route goes nowhere near here:
A few shots of me near the hotel, doing obligatory tourist poses. I especially like the middle one:
Last stop of the day was some natural mineral springs, where areas rich in minerals bubbled up through the surface of the salt creating small pools of mineral rich water:
On the way out, I asked my driver to stop at an area I’d seen where miners gather salt for processing. The salt belongs to all the people of the area, and anyone who wants is free to farm it as long as they’re local. Note the small mounds gathered up for collection:
Got back to the hotel with about two hours before dinner, and some time to attempt to update my blog on the insanely slow internet connection. Eventually, gave up and had a couple beers with an Irish couple in the lounge area:
Should have gotten to dinner right when it opened at 7, since a large german tour group descended on it and took up every available seat. Dinner ended at 9, and at 8:30 was finally able to get a table and enjoy the small buffet. Mystery meats described as “chicken and beef” along with a tomato salad and some quinoa:
Then, by 9:30 it was off to bed, with another VERY early morning coming up thanks to Amaszonas airlines….