Issue - October 2007

October 2007

In this issue, Linda Quibaa invites you to read about French language in Cochabamba. If you have plans to travel, do not miss the article by Lucy Witter on the Salar de Uyuni. And Walter Sanchez, from the Archaeological Museum talks about the Inca more...

October 2007

Salar de Uyuni

The Cocha-banner went to visit Bolivia´s top tourist attraction, speaking to fellow travellers to get their advice about how to do it best...

by: Lucy Witter Projects Abroad Volunteer Warrington - United Kingdom

The experience is otherworldly, dreamlike, surreal. Basking in sunshine under a clear blue sky in the centre of a perfectly even, brilliantly white frozen sea of nothingness stretching as far as the eye can see is a memory that cannot be forgotten. The silence is eerie, broken only by the soft crunch of your footsteps, and the light tinkle as shards of salt are scattered across the ground. The setting sun paints the sky and the distant mountains orange, pink and purple, before dipping beneath the horizon to reveal a sky brimming full of twinkling and even shooting stars. The place is Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world, and Bolivia’s biggest tourist attraction. Tourists simply cannot leave Bolivia without making the trip, and there is a lot more to see than just salt.

A wealth of agencies across Bolivia offers tours of the area, of varying lengths and routes. So how can you find the best deal and make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime visit?

Although it’s possible to purchase tour packages from virtually any city in Bolivia (and even beyond), you will undoubtedly find greater choice and better value for money if you find your tour in Uyuni itself. You won’t need to allow too much time between arriving in Uyuni and beginning your tour, as there are always spaces even at the last minute. Just head to Uyuni the day before you intend to depart. Getting there may be more difficult that it would appear, for the town of Uyuni is tiny and isolated, surely housing as many tourists in its numerous hostels as permanent residents. Similarly, every other building in the centre is a tourist agency, through which agencies in La Paz and Cochabamba are probably operating, and adding their own fees to the cost.

But before you leave, what should you take with you? If you are in Uyuni on a market day (Thursday or Sunday), you can pick up some things there, but bring what you can - most importantly, plenty of warm clothing. It gets very cold up in the windswept, exposed altiplano, especially during the freezing cold nights when temperature can reach –20oC. The hostels are basic and normally without heating, so although the beds have blankets, you will be more comfortable if you take a sleeping bag. Take thermals, several warm jumpers, thick socks, a hat, scarf and gloves so you can brave the cold to see the stars at night, for they are more than worth it.

However, don’t assume that the coldness means you won’t need sun cream: at this altitude, the sun is very strong, and reflects brilliantly off the salt flats and the lakes, so take high-factor sun block and a good pair of sunglasses. If you are doing a three or four day tour, you will get the chance to take a dip in the reinvigorating hot springs, so don’t forget your swimming costume. The thought of stripping off in such cold conditions may be unattractive now, but after three days without a shower it will seem ideal. There is a myth that hot showers are available in one of the stopovers for a fee, but you might consider taking wet wipes, for if you do findrunning water it will most likely be freezing cold and therefore unwanted.

Electricity in the hostels is often only turned on after dark and turned off at around 9pm, and the nights are pitching black, so a flashlight is essential. For the same reason, take plenty of batteries for your torch and camera because you are unlikely to have sufficient access to electricity to recharge them. You may be able to buy batteries in some places, such as the shop on the Isla Pescado, but do not rely on it. There is not a lot to do in the evenings, so it may be an idea to take a pack of cards. There is an interesting little bar called La Magia de San Juan in the town of San Juan, a popular stop for the night after leaving Salar, which is worth a visit for a mug of spiced vino caliente and to hear the proprietor warble on his Andean flute. If you know about Salar, you will surely have seen photos of people appearing to stand on the tops of giant ketchup bottles, so you might consider taking props to create similar optical illusions.

Although meals are provided, you might want snacks, and you may need to take your own drinking water. Finally, you will need around 100 Bolivianos to pay your entry into various places (Volcán Thunapa, the entrance to the Laguna Colorada, the Isla Pescado or Inka-wasi, the museum in San Juan) and perhaps buy snacks and souvenirs. There is an ATM Uyuni, centrally located on Calle Potosí.

Getting to Uyuni requires a little planning. Whilst there are several bus companies that serve Uyuni from Oruro, such as Trans Azul, some services from Potosí, and even some luxury buses direct from La Paz, the road is bad, to say the least. If you do decide to brave the bus, be sure to carry your sleeping bag, for the nights are very cold. It’s common to find ice on the inside of the windows in the early hours as the temperature outside plummets to 15 degrees or more below zero. Make sure your belongings are secure during the journey to avoid having to search for them amongst sleeping Bolivians at the other end of the bus when you arrive. For a more comfortable journey, take the overnight train, which departs from Oruro several days a week (Wednesdays and Sundays at 7pm).

It is recommendable to book your place in advance. The route is smooth and although taller passengers might struggle for space, the carriages are dusty but not too cold. On the other hand, the train reaches Uyuni at the rather inconvenient time of 3am in the morning. Arriving at 6.30am by bus may not be ideal, but the offices of the bus companies are warm, and within an hour or less, tour agents will be inviting you inside their gas-heated offices to give you their spiel. If you are feeling in need of a hot shower but will not be spending a night in a hostel before you leave, you do not have to miss out – some hostels offer hot showers for a fixed price. It’s worth it, as you’ll be lucky to find even a freezing cold shower during the tour, despite what the tour agents may tell you.

So, finally, how should you choose your tour? It may sound obvious, but do not feel obliged to take the first tour you are offered. ‘Ranking Bolivia’, a café also on Calle Potosí, compares all the tour agencies and the tours offered, and will find you the tour that best matches your specifications. Shop around; even until eight or nine in the morning agencies are pursuing more tourists to fill their tours departing that day. Although it’s true that most tours stop at the same places at the same time, there are significant variations that you should consider when choosing your tour. First is the number of days you want to spend travelling and how much of the area you want to see. Although the salt flats can be ‘done’ in only a day, there is a wealth of other less famous but still impressive sights that should be visited if you have the time.

Four day excursions go all the way to the frontier with Chile, continuing south after a day or two on the salt flats to the beginnings of the Atacama Desert, taking in vividly coloured, flamingo-inhabited lakes, sleepy frigid towns somehow reminiscent of the wild west, ancient mummies curled up inside tombs of fossilised coral, fascinating rock formations including the much-photographed ‘árbol de piedra’, ferocious geysers and boiling mud pools breathing sulphur-infused steam, and the chance to bathe in natural hot springs.

Although all tours return to Uyuni, the final day is largely spent travelling back from near the Chilean border, perhaps visiting some sites of interest – sleepy villages and rock formations – along the way to break up the journey. So if a Salar tour is your final excursion in Bolivia before moving on to Chile, you can finish your tour early in the morning of the final day and take a bus to San Pedro, cutting out nearly a day of travelling in a jeep. It is also possible to do the longer three or four-day circular tours in reverse, meaning that you will spend the first rather than the last day travelling the long distance to the border with Chile.

The advantage of this alternative is that you will arrive to the salt flats – generally agreed to be the most impressive part of the trip – at the end of your tour, normally in time for sunrise, allowing you more time to take it all in. Some tourists believe that this is the best way round because you save the best for last rather than seeing the most exciting attraction first and getting bored over the next few days. Prices vary, but for standard packages expect to pay $20-30 for a one-day tour up to $70-$90 for a full four-day tour.

Certainly for the longer tours, you will be spending a lot of time in a jeep with your tour crew, eating the food they prepare. Better tour agencies will provide, on request, a list of meals provided during the tour. If you are vegetarian, don’t forget to ask what food they will prepare for you. Expect eggs and cheese. Although all agencies will provide drinks with meals, some do not take drinking water, so you may need to buy some in Uyuni to take with you. With most budget tours, your driver will be the closest thing you will have to a guide. Often the drivers will give a minimum of information about the sites you visit, and will only answer the questions you ask. For a more enjoyable and interesting tour, ask to meet the crew and take their friendliness into consideration before signing up to a tour. If you don’t speak Spanish it will be easier for you if your ‘guide’ speaks at least some English and many do not. You could ask about the other tourists that have already signed up to be in your group – they may play an even bigger part in your experience.

All this said, however, if agencies are short of a full jeep of tourists for all or some of the tour, you may find yourself sharing a vehicle with tourists who have booked with another agency, and perhaps have paid a different price. In some cases, you may have to change vehicle halfway through – and therefore change your crew. It may not make much of a difference to your experience, but ask if you are not sure.

But for all the advice available and the number of tours available, it will be difficult not to enjoy your time in Salar however you spend it, for the sights you will see are what make it so special. Just one last point: if you fancy yourself as a bit of a joker, get your salt-related jokes in early. When sitting eating lunch round a table made of salt outside a hotel made of salt in the middle of some 10,582km2 of salt, “Is there any salt for the chips?” will only work once.

Say hello to the french language
In South America, most people think learning French is not very useful. A Spanish teacher in Projects Abroad confessed to me that at university, teachers tell their students that French is the official language in only two countries!....
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