Uyuni: Salt Flats, Drunk Drivers, Spanish Lessons

Now that my adventures in La Paz were over I needed to move on. Time to go South to Uyuni in a cold, draft, frosty window over night bus. Thankfully I had two seats to myself so I could move over and avoid the wet spot that had accumulated on my seat due to condensation from the window. The first 10 hours although cold were pretty smooth and easy to sleep. But by 3:30p.m. we hit the bumpy roads Bolivia is notorious for, and everyone on the bus was awake and braced themselves in their seats until our arrival at 7a.m.
It was so cold in Uyuni and just dropped my stuff at the tour company and headed to breakfast and warmed myself at the fire in the middle of the room.
There are several tour options:
1.) 1 Day: Seeing the cemetery of trains, the salt hotel, Isla de Pescado and the salt flats.
2.) 2 Day: See all as in the 1 day plus stay over night in a salt hotel, seeing the sunset and then hiking to the mummies/cave and to the look-out of the volcano.
3.) 3 Day: Same as the 2 day plus drive down to the park and see geysers, hot springs, animals and desert. This is a great option if you are crossing the border. But if you are returning to Uyuni is a horrible 10+ hour drive back, versus less than 3 hours to the border.
As I was not crossing the border this time I opted for the 2 day tour. I had actually booked all of this back in La Paz. Hoping for less hassle. Which you will read was not the case. I have learned that when I just book as I go I spend less and strangely enough have better service. But I wanted to make the comparison to be sure and now I am. I errors of this booking process will be revealed in this and the next blog posts.
By 11a.m. I was finally sitting in the front seat of a Toyota mini-van with a driver/guide and 6 other people. Three from my bus earlier, a Japanese guy, a German guy and a Slovak guy. Heading first to see the cemetery of trains. Essentially a whole bunch of rusty trains that have been abandoned now that the railway is closed. Not really sure why this is important, but I do find it interesting that the graffiti on most of the trains consisted of scientific equations, like E=MC2.
After which we headed into the salts flats. Seeing piles of salt being harvested and the a hotel made entirely of salt, including the furniture.
The salt flats themselves are huge and are an endless source of salt. However, only for the locals they do no exporting. The middle of the salt flats can not be harvested because it is do hard, so it is only dug up along the side, from 1-8meters deep.
From the cactus laden Isla de Pescado you can just see kilometers and kilometers of white. Looking like snow and ice, instead of salt. Here is where most people take funny pictures. Using the white backdrop to create funny depth perceptions.
We took some creative pictures while taking swigs from a bottle of Sanguina (Bolivia liquor) and waiting for our driver/guide. He finally came out a little happier than before. He’d been drinking. I should have known, since he did yell at his friend, another driver, as we left the salt hotel that we would meet him for a beer at the Isla de Pescado.
Regardless we piled in the car and made to our salt hotel an hour away. As everything is white and there are no roads, the drivers must use the mountains and the previous tires tracks to find there way. Much like sailing in an ocean it is easy to loose your way. Consequently, since there is no specific route, no cellphone coverage and cars often breakdown, leaving you stranded for hours or days. However, as I already indicated we arrived safely with only a brief stop in the middle of the salt flats to enjoy the sunset. The driver actually left us there while he drove away to reserve our rooms. Fortunately he did come back for us.
The salt hotel is just a dormitory style hostel with very few amenities. It was warm though. We waited around after dinner for Primo, our driver/guide to tell us the plan bu he never did. So we all turned making it an early night, thinking we would have to be up early to hike to the volcano.
Morning came and no wake-up call from Primo. Regardless, our whole group was up by 7:30a.m. watching the rest of the groups eating their breakfast and reviewing the days agenda. We wondered around, asking all the guides and cooks if they knew where Primo was. No. At 8:30a.m. one of the ladies felt sorry for us so brought us tea and 2 packages of crackers with dulce de leche and jam for 7 adults. Obviously not enough, but we thanked her and ate. Now really annoyed me and some people from my group went outside yelling, “Primo! Primo!” Nothing. Finally at a little after 9a.m. he showed up. He was completely wasted, couldn’t stand, was propping himself up against the van, slurring his words, and was totally baffled as to why were we upset. He kept saying there is time. He’s going to make breakfast and then he will drive us to base of the trail.
After 20 minutes it was clear breakfast was not coming. Then he said just get in the van and he will drive us to the trial head. Which according to him and all the guides was 40 minutes away. It was along a very steep and bumpy road. There was no way any of us were getting in a van he was driving in that state. Tourists from other groups tried to convince their drivers to drive them and then come back for us, but they kept saying it was too far.
Being the best Spanish speaker in the group I was designated as the one to tell Primo off. I was really surprised at how well I managed. Granted he was drunk, but I also explained myself to the cook, who was sober, and trying to tell us to get in the car with Primo.  Getting angry and arguing is a great test of how well you know a language.
We all decided we would just walk and Primo as the guide should come with us. At that point Primo vehemently denied being a guide, saying he was only a driver. Hmph! This tour was proving to be a dude. First, 7 people, when maximum is 6. Second he should have had a cook with him. Third he was suppose to be a guide and driver. Fourth, he wasn’t even a driver. He was drunk!!!
We all started to walk as Primo still insisted that we ride with him. This whole time me and John we video taping his drunkenness. I told we were walking and if he wanted to show us he can drive he can drive and we would meet him on the path. He started to follow us,but it was ridiculous. I stopped him and told him to sleep it off and we would return for lunch and he better have it ready this time.
We walked along the rugged terrain for 40 minutes to the trail head. Where we found several drivers chatting and listening to blaring music. They just laughed at us. Clearly they had enough time to come back and get us. They were just jerks. I think these other drivers made me more upset than Primo’s drunkenness.
It was another 40 minutes to the cave of mummies which we had to pay for. It was suppose to be bs/30 per car, but since we came by foot the guy tried to ask for bs/10 each. We had already lost 3 from our group, so with only 4 left, that meant bs/40. I didn’t buy it. So we ignored him until we got to the entrance of the cave and asked another group and paid the original bs/30. Which I got back from Primo when we got back down.
It was pretty interesting, but without a guide we had know idea the significance of these mummies. So a couple pictures and hike up to the first look-out point near the volcano. It was a very steep, hot 1.5 hour hike up. Which was made even harder on empty stomachs and an initial hour hike to get to that point. In the end 3 us made it and it was well worth the view.
Back at the base, a hungover or maybe even still a little drunk, but not apologetic, Primo was waiting with lunch. We ate famished from our hike on virtually empty stomachs.
Handing our packs cautiously to Primo, each of us eyeing trying to access his competency in getting us back safely. Which I think none of us thought was great, but got in the van anyway, hoping for the best.
Personally this was really hard for me. I grew up with a father who drove us around drunk all the time, and who regardless of getting his license revoked still drives drunk. I thought once I could take control as an adult I would never need to get into a car with a drunk driver again. Now here I was. I hated being in this position.
Miraculously we arrived alive after a very angry 1.5hour drive back by Primo. It drove fast, hitting every possible pothole and with clenched jaw and hands.
Again my Spanish came in handy as I negotiated bs/150 back for each of us.
So in conclusion, salt flats are cool, drunk drivers are not. Don’t go with Sol de Manana or Crystal tours.
With all the salt around and drunk drivers I think they should start manufacturing smelling salts to wake up the idiots.

3 responses to “Uyuni: Salt Flats, Drunk Drivers, Spanish Lessons

  1. Pingback: Salar de Uynui – sunrises, salt and not so scary afterall | Somewhere about there·

  2. Looks like using Cordeilla Travelers is the way to go. Glad your trip was worry free. It is a beautiful place and I hate to have people miss it because of horrible tour companies.

    • Yes, it’s a real shame. I’m glad you shared your story as it made us more cautious and prepared for our trip. Thank you.

      Honestly our driver/guide did not explain much about anything, including the mummies, either. We were just happy he was a careful driver so we forgot about the lack of guiding.

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