Trial by Ice…and Salt

The salt flats of Bolivia are world-renowned and nary a traveler to this part of the world can resist the urge to visit them. Assuming you don’t want to risk certain death by driving yourself through this forbidding terrain, there are two options for doing so: 1) a quick half-day trip from the southern Bolivian town of Uyuni or a 3-day tour ending in Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The 3-day version (the reverse of which is also popular) includes the Eduardo Averoa Nature Reserve, a pristine mountain wilderness punctuated by mineral-stained, multicolored lakes, steaming volcanoes, and mysterious rock formations and populated by flamingos, Andean fox, and herds of perhaps the world’s most adorable animal—the vicuna.

Arctic Fox at the Chile Bolivian borderVicuna walking by our truck

Taking this tour was perhaps the most difficult decision of the trip for us. We knew the scenery would be magnificent and the experience unforgettable…BUT the potential hazards involved were many. Here’s what my Rough Guide had to say:

Bear in mind that wind-chill temperatures can drop to anything from -25 C to -40 C and that you should bring sun block and sunglasses to counter the very real possibility of snow blindness, as well as a good sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothing.
It’s difficult to recommend any particular agency: all offer pretty much identical tours, but are prone to the same problems—late departures, dangerous (and often drunk) drivers, insufficient food prepared in unsanitary conditions, inadequate accommodation and vehicle breakdowns are all possibilities no matter which company you choose…Despite all the hassles and potential pitfalls, however, these tours are well worth the trouble.”
The Rough Guide to South America, 2004 edition, p. 259

You’ve gotta love this kind of endorsement: “You’ve absolutely got to go, but we’re not responsible if you die along the way.” Fortunately in the three years since the Rough Guide was published a few more tour companies have come onto the scene. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers and dozens of reviews in the San Pedro de Atacama Tourist Information Office, we felt confident that Estrella del Sur offered safe, sober drivers and decent food. Our problem would be the cold.

Anyone close to me knows my wintertime mantra, which slips out any time I experience the slightest chill: “I hate the cold.” My distaste for low temperatures was a big factor in setting our itinerary to follow the sun and also made our packing much easier. Never encountering winter meant we didn’t need to pack bulky parkas, hats, gloves, and snowpants. It did mean, however, that we were sorely underequipped for the altiplano where we would sleep in a primitive shelter with no heat in temperatures well below freezing. We stocked up on a few woven essentials in Argentina, but I wasn’t confident they were enough to prevent us from turning into human popsicles in the Bolivian wilderness. Ever the optimist, Tom assured me our motley assemblage of clothing layers when combined with rented sleeping bags and wool blankets would keep us alive.

The only thing now preventing us from going was fear: not of freezing or dying but of bad parenting. If a meteor should strike, an earthquake hit, or aliens descend from on high, we would be the parents who had hauled young children into one of the world’s harshest environments so they could see some pretty birdies and take some cool pictures. I emailed another RTW family from Belgium who had made the trek one month earlier and they assured me that their two children—ages 8 and 10—had not only survived the excursion but loved it as well. We were sold. We booked with Estrella del Sur, bought some oxygen tanks in case anyone contracted altitude sickness (we’d be ascending to 5,200 meters or 17,000 feet), cleaned out the town’s supply of 5-gallon water bottles, and hoped for good weather.

The Estrella del Sur bus arrived at our hotel just a few minutes after 8:00 am on the first day of our tour. So much for late depatures. We picked up the 12 other travelers—all twentysomething Canadians and Europeans–who would be our companions for the next 3 days and were on our way. After about an hour we reached the most primitive and yet strangely efficient border post we’ve encountered in our 23 land border crossings. We forked over $2 each—an illegal yet common charge assessed by third world immigration officials—and in exchange got computer coded tourist cards and stamps in our passports.

While we waited for the rest of the group to be processed, we each absorbed the barren, surreal setting in our own way: Tom grabbed his camera and began snapping pictures, Dax checked out the ramshackle government buildings, McKane wandered over to inspect the carcass of an abandoned bus, Kieran and Asher trampled through a pile of snow which soaked through their sandals into their socks and soon were both yelling, “My feet are freezing!” and I jumped up and down in a futile effort to stay warm. Estrella del Sur earned big bonus points with the entire group when they set up a table boasting a hearty breakfast of ham and cheese sandwiches and a variety of warm drinks including coffee, hot chocolate (always our choice), and the local favorite coca tea (it does wonders for altitude sickness—just don’t take a drug test for two weeks).

Dead bus at the bolivian border

Bolivian border crossing

While we shivered and ate, our 4×4 drivers, who would also be our guides and cooks for the next 3 days, loaded our gear onto the roofs of their Land Cruisers. Our driver was Simon, a round-faced, gap-toothed, 31-year-old Bolivian who spoke as much as English as we do Spanish and consistently greeted us with, “Vamos, amigos!” Simon proved to be everything the guide books warned us he would not: sober, cautious, friendly, and a master chef.

We knew that we were lucky to have Simon and even luckier to have Estrella del Sur when we pulled away from the border post. There we left a group of freezing, angry travelers whose company had abandoned them in this bleakest of venues. The bus that had been promised to take them down to San Pedro had yet to materialize and for all we know, they could still be there today…waiting.

Over the next three days we witnessed a mindboggling variety of landscapes and spent quality bonding time with a few dozen fellow travelers. Together we shivered away our first night in the shelter (where we awoke to ice inside our rooms and struggled to keep our noses from getting frostbitten), chatted away our second night in the Salt Hotel (yes, it was really made of salt blocks—the kids licked the walls to be sure), and scarfed Simon’s most excellent pancakes at Fish Island after watching the sun rise over the Salt Flats on our third day. I could write an entire book describing the many things we saw and did, but once again I’ll let Tom’s pictures do the talking. (We took over 350 in the flats alone, so he’s devoting an entire post to it.)

Kids freezing in our first hotel, notice ice on the windowKids licking the wall at the salt hotelDax at the white laguna

Anne at the Green LagunaPortrait at the laguna colorado

Flamingoes on parade

Flamingoes flying away

Vicunas on parade across the alteplano

Anne holding up a stone treeDax standing on a hill

For those considering a similar tour, please, please, please use Estrella del Sur. Of the five Bolivian companies operating in San Pedro de Atacama, they were the only one to receive positive ratings across the board. Cordillera received mixed reviews, but one of their drivers fell asleep at the wheel while guiding a group we hung out with the first night. Another group (we don’t know which company they used) got so fed up with their driver’s drunkenness that they begged him to stop and “sleep it off.” Instead of heeding their advice, he threw their luggage off the roof and left them in the wilderness. Ouch.

Estrella del Sur has no idea I’m writng this, nor did they offer us any discounts or special treatment. They simply delivered on all their promises and through careful preparation and prudent hiring eliminated all of the problems that seem to plague other companies. The fact that they had a hot lunch waiting for us in Uyuni when we arrived was just icing on the cake!

Estrella del sur toyota taking off on the salt flats

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3 thoughts on “Trial by Ice…and Salt

  1. Okay, I apologize and I take back everything nasty I ever said about Bolivia. Now I understand why you said it was something you “had to do.” These pictures are beautiful and the experience you shared would make it all worth it to me. [I am relieved you made it through safely!]

  2. Hiya

    I´ve just read your account of your trip across the salf plains. We are going to be oing the same trip in about 4 weeks and I was just wondering if you have any contact details for Estrella del Sur ?


    Pete and Julie

  3. Pete and Julie,

    Sorry, I don’t have any phone numbers or email addresses. The way it usually seems to work out of both San Pedro and Uyuni is that people show up at the office (they’re both really small towns so they offices are easy to find) and book tours on site. Estrella del Sur wanted a 2-day advance on booking, which we did so we could hang out in San Pedro, but other people convinced the owner to add another car to the tour and let them sign up the night before.

    Have fun! It’s simply beautiful.


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