We travelled from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, 3 days, 2 nights, commencing 27 December 2014. This journey was in a Landcruiser piloted by Silvio. The car, driver, food, accomodation and all else were packaged and provided to us by Cordillera Traveller.
I don’t think I had researched this too thoroughly as I had in my mind this was a trip to see the salt flats. It was much more than that. The salt flats arrive day 3, or rather we arrive in the salt flats on day 3. The salt flats are the advertised highlight of the trip. I thought the previous two days were equally high on the lighting scale, with parts even higher. This trip was one of the top three Latino experiences. The reason is that the desert landscapes, mountains and lakes are spectacular. I don’t think I have witnessed such a combination of colours and dryness, on such a scale, anywhere else in the World. I hope the pictures I took capture this.
I think this is a trip that everyone should contemplate before their knees cease to operate smoothly. Our fellow travellers, crushed into Landcruisers, or waiting to be crushed into Landcruisers, had one thing in common. They were all about the same age. I estimate that the median age was around 25 years. I witnessed more backpacks on the pedestrianised main street in Uyuni than exist in any outdoor/adventure hypermarket. The addition of myself and Alex to this mix of fresh faced individuals had inconsequential impact upon the median age, but a more considerable impact upon the average age !!! This observation does though say something about this area and this trip. It says the emphasis is on experience and the adjective “luxury” isn’t one you will be using. I’ll talk about the uncomfortable bits which we did experience and were tolerable.
Youth is wasted on the young and the unforgettable drama of South West Bolivia should be mandated to a broader demographic.
The cars are Toyota Landcruisers with a 2-3-2 seating configuration. There are a number of tour companies who operate this route either in the direction we did it, or in reverse, or as a round trip.
There is much annoyance on the internet that these companies work together to ensure that a vehicle has at least five paying passengers and more usually six. The annoyance being that you research and book one company, and then discover on the morning of departure that you are travelling with someone different. An even greater annoyance if the someone different offers the trip at a lower price!!!
From what we saw the tour operators were very effective at optimising operations. We saw no vehicle with fewer than five paying passengers plus a driver. Except ours…………We were four people but we paid for six in order that we could fill the vehicle with our long legs and personal effects. Personal effects and big bags are all wrapped to protect against the dust and tied to the roof, unavailable until the end of the day. We thought that paying for the empty two seats to remain empty would be money well spent. At the end we congratulated ourselves on our prescience and this investment which we named wise.
The trip we took had three Cordillera Traveller vehicles in loose convoy. Around ten other vehicles from other companies (I think all Landcruisers also) were following roughly the same route in our direction.
One of our three vehicles broke down briefly. All three drivers helped to get it fixed and an hour later it was fixed. This was no hardship for as as we stared at viscachas while this was happening. And they stared back at us. A viscacha is a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel and lives on, goodness knows what, in this dry land.
I found the vehicles very comfortable, the suspension was terrific. Our vehicle did not have seat belts in the back two seats, I was told this was the same on all Landcruisers and conforms to Bolivian regulations.
The route is very dry and very dusty. The dust finds its way into many, perhaps most, things including nose, hair and clothes and has an odour that is obvious the instant you pick up your trousers in the morning.
There are terrible stories on the internet of travellers experiences of taking a tour on this route and the worst experiences relate to the drivers. Lonely Planet indicates there have been a number of deaths attributed mainly to drunken drivers.
Our driver was called Silvio and he was excellent. He spoke clear, slow Spanish. He made sure we were fine. He made sure we knew what was happening each day, and before, and after, each stop. He was proud of his car and kept it clean (well tried his best, the dust was always going to win).To my observation and my sensitive nose he was not drinking alcohol and was getting sufficient sleep to operate carefully. He was a very careful driver, ignoring the buffoons who wanted to race and he knew the road very well. He made a fabulous tuna salad picnic lunch on the second day. He even asked for feedback which is astonishing for a culture, which in my short experience, is absent a customer service mentality. Our driver deserved a generous tip and I only wish we had given him one. (We did, we did , an effort to inject a little humour).