Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

Salt-cones-and-cloud-reflections-at-sunset-on-the-Salar-de-Uyuni-Bolivia1

Photo by Paul & Paveena McKensie from Wild Encounters 

For many years, I dreamed of visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia.  At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, it is a the largest salt flat on earth, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see.  During the rainy season (December – March), it transforms into an immense mirror, producing an astounding reflection of the sky and clouds above.

When it came time to plan my trip, however, I found the process of selecting a tour operator so perplexing that I almost chose to skip Bolivia altogether.  Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is essential to ensuring you remain safe.  Dozens of tour operators based in Uyuni offer tours of the Salar, but the challenge lies in identifying one that is both reasonably priced and responsible.

Two types of tours are offered: private tours, which are reliable but pricey and group tours, which are cheap but potentially unsafe.  The price difference between the two is significant.  While a four-day private tour costs about $1000 per person, the standard three-day group tour costs about $150 per person.  Many budget travelers opt for group tours and emerge satisfied with their experiences.  Others, however, return with horror stories.

In 2008, ten tourists died after two jeeps from competing agencies crashed into each other on the Salar and the gasoline each vehicle carried on its roof exploded.  Though no one is certain how this collision occurred, it is common knowledge that many tour drivers come to work drunk or deliberately fall asleep while traversing the Salar.  During my own trip to the Salar, I was alarmed to hear a rumor that some budget operators serve as fronts for drug trafficking gangs.  By posing as tour operators, these gangs are able to both launder their money and deliver drugs in the same jeeps used to transport tourists.  Not surprisingly, they often offer the best prices since they do not actually rely on tourism to finance their operations.

Given the risks that come with booking a group tour, and the fact that even the most reputable budget operators fail their clients on occasion, it is advisable to pay more and opt for a private tour.  This is undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable choice.  By booking a private tour with a reputable company, you will stay in the best hotels, eat well and be able to stop whenever you like for photos or bathroom breaks.  In contrast, even on the best budget tour, you will be crammed into a jeep with up to eight tourists and sleep in dorm style barracks with an outhouse.  If comfort is important to you, the private tour is the way to go.

If, however, you are on a tight budget and don’t mind sacrificing creature comforts, booking a group tour should be safe as long as you select a reputable company.  During my visit to Uyuni in December 2013, I heard consistently positive reports for two budget operators in particular: Cordillera Traveler and Red Planet.  Below I have included a list of reputable companies, recommended to me during my time in Uyuni, that offer both group and private tours.

Group Tours

Cordillera Traveler

Red Planet

Licancabur Tours

Private Tours

Fremen

Ruta Verde 

Hidalgo Tours

Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia

No trip to the Salar de Uyuni is complete without a detour to the desert in the extreme south of Bolivia, bordering Chile.  This region centers around the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, a wildlife reserve founded to protect endemic species, including the vicuña and several varieties of flamingos.  The landscape is hypnotic, gentler than the Argentine Puna to the south, with softer colors and more ethereal light.  Majestic snow covered volcanoes give way to rolling sands that turn deep yellow at sunset.

It is also surreal.  The only sources of water are toxic, brightly colored lagoons, which contain key ingredients for beauty products and cleaning supplies, like borax and beta carotene.  Pink flamingos equipped with a special mechanism for filtering out these toxins populate all of the lagoons, except for the shimmering green waters of the Laguna Verde, which is laden with arsenic and is thus too poisonous even for the flamingos.

Equally strange are the rock formations, like those found at the Arbol de Piedra and the aptly named Valle de Dali, which appear eerily similar to the works of surrealist painters.  Smoky geysers and warm hot springs add to the bizarreness of this place, as do the hoardes of backpackers that descend on this otherwise desolate terrain.

Desierto Siloli, BoliviaLaguna Colorada, BoliviaLaguna Verde, BoliviaLaguna Hedionda, BoliviaGeysers, Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, BoliviaLaguna Hedionda, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Outside the dusty, bitterly cold town of Uyuni in the high desert of southern Bolivia lies the largest salt flat on earth, the Salar de Uyuni.  At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, the Salar is immense, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see.  In the dry season, from April through November, a layer of sediment forms a hexagon pattern across the surface.  In the rainy season, from December through March, water floods the Salar, resulting in a perfect mirror image of the sky and clouds above.

Millions of years ago, a sea covered this region of Bolivia.  With the uplifting of the Andes mountain range, the sea shrunk into smaller lakes and eventually dissolved entirely.  The salt that remained coalesced on the surface, creating salt flats high in the mountains, the largest of which is the Salar de Uyuni.  In addition to salt, the Salar is rich in minerals and includes the largest deposits of lithium in the world.

The remnants of once active volcanoes float upon the surface of the Salar like misplaced rocky islands.  These islands have developed fragile ecosystems, consisting of towering cacti blooming with flowers and small rodents known as vizcachas.  The sight of the cacti against the backdrop of the gleaming sea of salt is surreal, as is the entire Salar.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Isla de Incahuasi, Salar de Uyuni, BoliviaIsla de Incahuasi, Salar de Uyuni, BoliviaSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaFlags, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The Bolivian Altiplano

Atocha, Bolivia

Crossing the border from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazón, Bolivia, the differences between the two countries are immediately apparent.  Though both sides of the border display a heavy indigenous influence, the Bolivian side is poorer and more chaotic.  The streets throng with litter, mud and market stalls packed with pirated goods.  Women on sidewalks stoop over steaming skillets or sit idly by mounds of spices, coca leaves and vegetables.  People talk in hushed tones and switch to indigenous languages in front of tourists.

Upon first entering Bolivia, I longed for Argentina, with its homemade cakes and alfajores served with the afternoon teatime ritual known as merienda, the flowing wine, the gregarious and friendly people.  However, as we traveled along the Bolivian Altiplano from Villazón to Uyuni, our principal destination, my initial discomfort evolved into utter fascination.

The Bolivian Altiplano, a high desert similar to the Argentine Puna to the south, is home to many deserted mining towns and discarded trains, a testament to the region’s long and troubled relationship with the mining sector that rocketed Bolivia to riches during the Spanish colonial era.   Indigenous women donning English top hats, long braids and layered skirts present another constant and ubiquitous reminder of the country’s origins.

And yet, beside these reminders of the past, there are also conspicuous signs of the excesses of the modern world.  Luxury vehicles, Range Rovers and Lexus SUVs, are everywhere.  Many of them are said to be stolen, brought into the country illegally through the porous border with Chile.  Floods of ecstatic backpackers and Japanese tourists also run rampant.  Tourist agencies and hostels call to them with glaring posters, wedged between discreet handwritten signs advertising the small hole-in-the-wall businesses frequented by locals.  This constant juxtaposition between old and new, between tradition and disorder make Bolivia fascinating.

Atocha, Bolivia

Atocha, Bolivia

Colchani, Bolivia

Train Graveyard, Uyuni, Bolivia

On the road to UyuniOn the road to Uyuni

On preparing for a trip

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Tomorrow I leave for a month long trip, first to the desert and salt flats at the intersection of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and then to Easter Island.  I have been fantasizing about this trip for many years and preparing for it actively for the past two months, pouring over maps, contacting hotels and tour companies and immersing myself in books, films and documentaries about the regions I will be visiting.

Each time I travel somewhere new, I try to learn as much I can about it, not just from my guidebook, but from those authors and filmmakers that know it intimately.  This process allows me to visualize myself there before I arrive so that I can adjust quickly to my new surroundings and take full advantage of the trip.  The more familiar I am with a place before I arrive, the deeper I can go once I’m there.

Here are the books, films, documentaries and T.V. shows that have guided me in the preparation of my upcoming trip:

Chile/Bolivia Desert Region

1) Nostalgia for the Light: Breathtaking documentary by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán about two parallel searches in the Atacama Desert: for cosmic origins and people who disappeared during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  Highly recommended!

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7f4MLL-Hk

NYTimes Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/movies/nostalgia-for-the-light-chile-documentary-review.html

2) Prófugos: One of my favorite TV shows of all time!  Follows a group of Chilean drug traffickers on the run from law enforcement.  Season 1 begins in the Atacama Desert, where the traffickers have come to pick up a truckload of cocaine from Bolivia, and tracks their subsequent escape from Valparaiso to the snowy mountains near Santiago and the volcanoes and forests of the Lakes District.  The cinematography is beautiful and will introduce you to Chile’s varied and magnificent scenery.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsMvr5zQHsY

Comcast Link for Streaming: http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/watch/Prófugos/7115856309296967112/full-episodes#episode=7747768056666408112

3) Alicia en el País: Independent film based on the true story of a 13 year-old Bolivian girl who walked 180 km across the desert from her home in an indigenous community of southwest Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) in search of work.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBA0Yu4xZkQ

 

4) Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes by Nicholas Robins: A historical look at the colonial history of mercury and silver production in present day Bolivia.

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Mercury-Mining-Empire-Ecological-Colonial-ebook/dp/B008561F0K/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Easter Island

1) The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, by Terry Hunt, Carl Lipo: Recommended to me by friends on Easter Island as the most reliable and well-researched account of the mysterious series of events that led to the building of the Moai statues and the decline of the once flourishing society that built them.

Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Statues-that-Walked-Unraveling/dp/1619020203

2) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond

The classic account on why societies fall apart, highlighting Easter Island as a central example of how environmental damage leads to collapse.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Succeed-Revised-Edition/dp/0143117009/ref=pd_sim_b_12

3) 180 Degrees South: Documentary that follows the journey of Jeff Johnson, as he travels from Ventura, California to Patagonia, Chile, retracing the 1968 journey of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (founders of Patagonia and North Face).  On his way to Chile, Jeff takes a boat, which accidentally lands on Easter Island.  He remains for several weeks and falls in love with the island.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWBz_pxYC0A

If you have any other books or films to recommend about either of these places, leave a comment below or email me at virginia@deeper-skies.com.