After a fairly painful night bus from La Paz to Uyuni, where we were thrown off the bus seemingly in the middle of a desert town at 5.30am, the last thing we wanted to do was book a salt flats tour there and then. But, as the people trying to sell tours were so persistent and had clearly woken up early for our benefit, we thought we may aswell have a look around, and we were lured by the charming man telling us he had coffee, wifi and a shower in his office (all lies FYI).
We already had a group of 6 together so were fairly confident that we could book our tour for the next day with a transfer to Chile no bother. Whilst wandering the streets of the not-so-charming Uyuni, we were approached by Fatima, who promised us not only an amazing tour with a great but ‘secret’ price, but also a hotel for that night, with hot showers and wifi, and, after the night bus from hell, that was all we needed.
We went to Fatima’s office to discuss the tour and prices. She promised us that the drivers for her company don’t drink drive which is always a relief to hear, although I’m sure that should go without saying. She went into great detail about the tour, even phoning up her ‘friend’ who was ‘the head of immigration’ to check that we wouldn’t have to pay to get into Chile. Oh Fatima, you charmer with your friends in high places.
So despite hearing SO MANY people telling us to shop around, Google the company and make sure you inspect the jeep and meet the driver (the tour is effectively three days in the desert and salt flats in a 4×4), we decided to just go with Fatima because, you know, who isn’t occasionally swayed by a charming woman who promises you wifi and is mates with the top dogs of Chile?
When we got to our hotel (we will give this one to Fatima as it did have wifi and hot showers), we decided to actually google the company. Whilst you always get some bad reviews, there are normally a couple of good ones to restore your faith. Poor Fatima, however, had NO good reviews. In fact, people described her as a ‘con artist’, her trip as a ‘scam’ and Fatima herself as a ‘criminal’. But we thought we’d go with it, because what is life without a little risk? (It was too late to cancel).
The next morning we were at the office bright and early to meet the lovely Fatima and her extremely grumpy husband showed us to our 4×4 to meet our driver.
We walked past all the gleaming brand-new jeeps, to ours, which was, by a clear mile, the shittest one there. It has two cracks in the windscreen, a chip in the windscreen and only one of the windows opened. It also had playboy stickers stuck to the windmirrors. Our drivers name was Luchio and he had a tattoo of an AK47 on his forearm.
However, we won’t judge a book by it’s cover as he was an absolute babe and although he speaks no English I understand a lot of what he says because he talks very slowly at me. So, quick shout out to Luchio and the jeep which surprisingly didn’t break down.
So Fatima had, so far, delivered. Luchio was a very safe driver which made up for the state of the jeep.
Our first stop was a train cemetery, where we not only climbed on top of rusty trains but also inspected the roughly 20 other 4×4’s which were there and determined that yes, as expected, ours was by far the worst.
After lunch we headed to the salt flats, which are hands down one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in my life. It’s rainy season, which means that the 12,000km of salt flats become the world’s largest mirror. We cruised along the salt flats listening to Luchio’s music of choice, 90’s power ballads.
In the dry season, you can take amazing perspective photos. I stupidly thought you could in rainy season too so bought a toy dinosaur for 10 Bolivianos.
We spent a very long time on the salt flats whilst Luchio took photos of us from the jeep because he didn’t want to get his feet wet (understandable).
We left the salt flats, squeezed back into the jeep and had a long drive to our first hostel. We also randomly gave a hitchhiking policeman a lift. Oh Luchio, why you such a great guy.
It was at the hotel where Fatima had her first blunder. Apparently she hadn’t booked us into the hotel, and they had no rooms other than privates. These were more expensive so we had to pay an extra 5 bolivianos each.
5 bolivianos equates to roughly 50p. So it REALLY wasn’t a big deal. Plus we got private rooms. To be honest I would have paid that anyway. But we all just have it in for Fatima because she’s screwed over all those poor Trip Advisor users, so obviously those in our group heading back to Uyuni are going to demand our 5 bolivianos back from her and they won’t rest until they get it.
The room was a lot nicer than I expected. Yes, it had no glass in the toilet door windows, (or anywhere in the hotel for that matter) so a lot of toilet eye contact was made, but we did, for some reason, have a huge flat screen TV in our room. Who cares that you see everyone on the toilet when you can watch tennis in Spanish all night? They had their priorities sorted.
After dinner of chicken, fried bananas and chips (all in the same pan) our group went to bed as, in my opinion, the only thing worse than heading up to 4800m altitude the next day, is heading up to 4800m with a hangover.
The next day we ate a typical Bolivian breakfast of bread and only bread, then piled into the jeep for the next day’s adventure. The second day was the day of lagoons, mountains, flamingos and feeling like my head was about to explode from the altitude. Nevertheless, it was unbelievable scenery and all I can do is post too many photos which just don’t do it justice. We had lunch by a lagoon surrounded by mountains and it was probably the best view I’ve ever had whilst eating lunch.
Next was the tree rock, which is, effectively a rock in the shape of a tree. Here was also significant because I used the most disgusting toilet that has ever existed, in the history of time. I am honestly quite surprised I made it out alive.
Next was the Lagoon de Colarada which was bright pink and even better had bright pink flamingos on it. They were so cool and maybe my new favourite animal, I might even prefer them to penguins.
We headed away from the lagoon further into the desert to our second hostel. Fatima wasn’t wrong when she said this was basic. Shout out to Fatima for actually being honest for once. But nevertheless, we had dinner whilst listening to the girls on the table next to us bitch about their guide and we really tried not to feel smug
The next morning we were woken up at 4am which was painful but made a lot better by the fact that for breakfast we were given pancakes with dulce de leche. It was our final day on the tour so for the last time we all piled into our shitty jeep and tried not to catch hypothermia as it was roughly -10 degrees outside.
We saw some amazing geysers whilst huddling like penguins, then headed to the hot pools for sunrise. Luchio’s usual promptness meant we were there before all the other backpackers, so that was good as they were mainly all British and if there’s one thing I hate more than tourists, it’s British tourists.
From there it was onto the Chilean boarder. After taking a few more photos of the incredible desert we finally reached Bolivian immigration, which was, it seemed, a tiny shack in the middle of the desert during a -10 degree hurricane, and that’s honestly not an exaggeration. I couldn’t even fill in my immigration form because my hands were so clenched up, and for someone who hasn’t had a real winter for a good 12 months, it was a big deal. It reminded me of my third year hockey days.
From there we met one of the best bus drivers yet, who continually told all the confused backpackers that their bag was too big to fit on the bus. He then gave us sandwiches as we had been waiting on the bus for so long for all the others (again thanks to Luchio for always being early).
The bus finally left and we surprisingly made it to Chile. Surprising because Fatima is useless and I was convinced she had sold us fake tickets, and also surprising because I didn’t think our old and rusty bus would survive the great speed at which the driver was going through the desert.
The Chilean border control was possibly one of the most nerve wracking things I’ve ever encountered. We all placed our bags on the floor in a line and stood behind a long table whilst a dog raced up and down the bags over and over again. It was here that I, and probably most of the people in the room, convinced themselves that they were about to get thrown into a South American prison because we had accidentally packed drugs and forgotten about them.
Luckily, the trauma ended when the dog attempted to pee on one of the bags. I think they realised the dog had had enough for one day and we were all released back into the Atacama Desert to find somewhere to stay for the night.
So, Luchio was sober, Fatima didn’t mug us off and we are safe and sound in Chile at a slightly less painful height of 2800m but with slightly more painful hostel prices of £10 a night instead of £3. I have been reintroduced with my old friends, bad wifi and refrigerated Coke Zero.