Expreso del Sur from Uyuni to Oruro

Our plan to avoid Bolivian roads of lacking quality began with taking the train from Uyuni to Oruro and then continue to La Paz by bus on the nice 4-lane highway that runs from Oruro to La Paz.

The execution of the plan began by buying tickets, the ticket office opened at 09:00 the day of our trip, why we arrived there at 09:14. The first challenge of the day was finding the man that handed out queue numbers, he most of the time hides in a back office, but sometimes comes forth and shows his face. Apparently we were not the first to think about going by train as the station was full of people and we got number 29 and the current number was three. We stood around for maybe 15 minutes and number three was still haggling prices or something similar. Yet again I found the man with the numbers and asked what he thought about my number, he said that maybe one and a half hour would be to expect. He also told me that yes, there will probably be tickets left when it is your turn.

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With this wisdom at our hands we went back to the hostel to pack up our things and check out. When we got back to the station some 40 minutes later the number 18 was shining bright on the screen that announced the numbers. Sometime one hour before noon it was finally our turn, and €30 later we had two tickets in our hands.

 

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We bought the expensive version of the tickets which meant that we were sitting in ejecutivo class with nice reclining seats, some snacks and a pillow and blanket. Linn made the notion that the blanket was as heavy and thick as a horse blanket, I am inclined to concur, but it kept us very warm!

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After 7 hours we arrived in Oruro station, the sun had been up a few hours and we got to see some nice views before rolling in to the station. Now we just had to get some breakfast and walk to the bus terminal to get the bus to La Paz where there is a hotel waiting since Linn chose to use some of her “Hotel Credit” she got for christmas and book us three nights in advance.

Uyuni

We booked a hostel for one night after our great adventure in the salt desert, and the plan was to take the train to Oruro in the morning after. It turned out that the train does not run at Wednesdays, only at 00:05 on Thursdays. Because of this we had to spend one day in the city of Uyuni, and the city of Uyuni is more or less focused around getting away from there. Be it not on a tour to the salt flats, then maybe we can interest you in bus ride to La Paz?

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There is not much to do. In the evening when we arrived we ate pizza at a place called Minuteman Pizza which was very expensive in Bolivian terms, but rather cheap compared to Chile. If I remember correctly €18 bought us a large pizza, a beer and a coke, and it was probably the best pizza we had since we were in Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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The day after we had breakfast and packed up our bags, spent two hours queuing for train tickets and still had more or less 12 hours to fill with joy before it was time to get on the train. There is a rather large food market which we strolled around for a while, longing to be able to have a proper kitchen to cook food in when we come home.

After we spent one hour in the food market and another walking around the town, we still had many hours before Minuteman Pizza opened again and we could enjoy dinner there. I brought up my trusty map app, OsmAND, and saw that there is a museum on the other side of the rail tracks. Said and done, we took a walk there.

Upon first sight it became apparent that my map is ahead of its time, the museum is not close to being finished. Not having much else to do we walked closer and saw that it was a train museum and to be able to get the trains in they have already put them there, and were now building the walls. I asked one of the workers if we could enter and take a look, and to our surprise he welcomed us in to the museum/construction site.

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The trains here were very much more complete than the ones in the train graveyard from the day before, and were probably rolling not too long ago when they were brought in to the museum. I emitted the quote that “These trains would probably work if someone put in a few thousand hours”.

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It was a lot of fun to see these trains that must be at least 100 years old, and still in such a good shape. It would also be interesting to see if they are going to do some renovation work to the actual trains before opening the museum.

Time was dragging on and after a few episodes of criminal minds in the sofa at the hostel it was yet again pizza time. And later rather than sooner it was time to get to the train station, next stop Oruro and directly after it, La Paz!

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 3

The last day of the tour, and the day of the salt flats! Everybody felt better than the days before and we were happy to see the final and most anticipated event, the salt flats!. The night before our guide had told us that we could start the tour one hour later because of the rain. But 06:00 am our guide hadn’t showed. All the other drivers were ready but where was Richard? Around 08 am we spotted him in the kitchen barely able to sit up, he was still a bit drunk from the day before…

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After some coffee and a cake he was ready to begin our last day. It felt a little bit odd that the only drunk person out of the seven in the car was the one to drive. Fran in the front seat tried to have a conversation to help him to stay awake. But just after a few minutes the cars in front of us forced him to stop. The other drivers talked to him. Diego in our car said he could drive if Richard only showed him the way but if the police in the area caught us – it would not be good. So we continued slowly to the first stop.

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The salt flats had the mirror-effect the day we visited and it was so freaking cool.

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Jons only concern was that the mirror effect in the flats didn’t gave any private room to take a leak. But somehow he managed and was this happy.

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The problems for Richard didnt end with a hangover, Jon discovered a flat tire just before departure to the next stop. An extra tire was found and after a little time we were on our way again. To see the dry part of the salt flats. This phenomenon with both mirror effect and dry parts are very rare we were told. Still amazed by the view Fran and Diego in our car asked Richard to ride on the roof. And yes, we could sit on the roof if we took responsibility. Glad we did. Maybe the best ride this trip.

Before we needed to say goodbye to our new friends in Uyuni (they were going back to San Pedro with another car) we saw a train graveyard. Lots of hugs and “see you” we went to our pre-booked hostel and slept a few hours before we had dinner. Completely exhausted, but such a great experience from the trip, and with lovely people everyone of them!

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 2

The night was a pleasure since the magical pill I got from our guide the day before. My head felt heavy but no headache. All six of us had a coca tea for breakfast just to be sure, and then some pancakes. And just before we begin, this day all pictures in this post are taken by Fran or with her camera (except the last one).

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07.00 am it was time to get going to the first stop of the day, Árbol de Piedra.

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Árbol de Piedra, or the rock tree, is a stone that has been shaped into looking like a tree by the wind blasting it with sand from the desert around it.

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We had lunch at one of the lagoons (this one with some flamingos). I don’t remember what was special about this one (And yes, I was a little tired of all of the lagoons. Don’t misunderstand me, they were beautiful and they were uniquely placed in the landscape, but they may have been a few too many on the tour for my taste).

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Our guide stopped the car and showed us a some a rabbit-like animal called Viscacha on our way to the hostel for the night. And we saw some llamas as well.

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This was a day with lots of time in the car, and Jon told me later that we could have been at the hostel long before we actually arrived. Richard took a detour to show us the view!

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Over all we are surprised by the quality of the food, before we went on the tour the agency we booked with said that there will just be some basic food so make sure to bring lots of snacks. We had pancakes for breakfast, some kind of protein at lunch and a three-course dinner, every day! And the last night we got a bottle of wine. (As did our driver…)

Before we went to bed we went to a small carnival near by (as did our driver…). It was some dancing, music and some fire in the rain. We went back to to go to bed and get some sleep after 30 minutes (but our driver didn’t…).

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni – Day 1

The day before we were headed to the salt flats tour we stocked up on snacks and water as we were told by the tour operator. We brought 9 liters of water and a lot of crackers and chocolate. There was reports on the food not being plenty and of sub-par quality, hopefully crackers and chocolate would help us then. We also bought coca leafs to chew and make tea of to help with altitude sickness. Finally we bought a thick jumper each, and I bought a winter cap. It is cold at high altitude!

The first day began with waking up at 06:30, grabbing our already packed bags and breakfast that our hostel kindly had prepared for us. The bus took us first to the Chilean border control, conveniently located in San Pedro. There we got our exit stamp as we both had been good enough not to loose the receipt that we got when entering Chile.

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After this the bus drove us to the Bolivian border control, at an altitude of about 4000 meters even walking made us need to stop to catch our breath. The border control is quick and without anything fancy, EU passport holders just get the stamp, others might have to pay and get the stamp. At no point did anyone mention anything about a “fee” to get the stamp other than the official one for US citizens among others.

After getting the stamp we were served a very nice breakfast, leaving the one we brought from the hostel redundant. We were asked to arrange ourselves in groups of six in each group, we found a great group!

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In the picture above, taken by Fran who was the 6th member of the group is, from left to right:

Diego, German, Linn, Felipe and me, Jon. We all had a great time together during our trip through the desert, along with our driver Richard. And thanks to Fran who brought a real camera we will have very good pictures from the whole tour!

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Here we have our first stop to actually see something on the tour, Laguna Verde, the green lagoon. The green color comes from minerals that are stirred up by the wind. We were actually lucky to see it as the wind started blowing just as we made our stop.

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Back in the Land Cruiser for a while before we arrived at Desierto de Dalí which is a part of the desert that got its name because looks very similar to the paintings of Salvador Dalí. If you imagine some melting clocks in the frame above you might understand where they got the name from. (picture by Fran).

After another while in the car we visited some hot springs which we got an opportunity to take a dip in. at 38 degrees Celsius it was more than welcome. It really gets cold at altitude, we were wearing double jumpers, a wind jacket a winter hats but still felt cold at times. The only bad thing about the hot springs was that you needed to get up after a while as we had to continue to our next destination.

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At a lovely altitude of almost 5000 meters my headache was getting worse even though I tried to chew as much coca leafs as possible. Linn was also enjoying a worsening headache combined with some dizziness.

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But you have to sacrifice something to see the planet do things like this. A big field of geysers with some gray boiling substance was presented to us. Some of the geysers even gave away big whiffs of smoke, with a smell of sulfur, somewhat hard to decide if it smelled like matches or a fart.

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After yet some more time in our lovely car we arrived at our stop for the night (photo by Fran) at an altitude of 4700 m. Here we were served a late lunch consisting of mashed potato, sausage and a salad. After all we had done during the day, nothing ever tasted so good!

Linns altitude sickness was getting worse, and the plan was to leave the hostel for a while to see a nearby lagoon that is home to a lot of flamingos. When walking to the car Linn almost fainted and decided to stay and try to get some sleep. I and the rest of the group drove to the lagoon while I was teaching them some Swedish words and they taught me Chilean slang. Cachai? Snö. Filete.

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The lagoon was colored red by algae and is housing a population of at least a few hundred flamingos. A lot nicer than to see the few flamingos in a zoo living more or less in their own excrement (at least that is how it usually smells). The flamingos were not even that afraid of us, we could get rather close to watch them dredging the lagoon for food.

After our flamingo spotting we went back to the hostel to have some coffee and some well earned rest. Most of the day was spent sitting in a car, but that takes its toll when it is at high altitude. Linns altitude sickness had worsened further, symptoms including nosebleed and getting rid of the lunch. We made her some coca tea and our driver Richard gave her a pill. In the end I think that the pill did the main part of the work and the coca tea was there as a helper, but she felt a lot better and slept like a baby.

We all slept great, the beds were not too comfortable but we got many thick blankets and stayed warm even though I and Linn did not have any sleeping bags with us. The exhaustion from a day filled with too many things did also help to make sure we slept good.

Laguna Cejar

Our second tour that had its start in San Pedro de Atacama was the one to Laguna Cejar. It is actually not only one lagoon that is visited, but five. The thing that caught our, and especially my, interest was that two of the lagoons were possible to swim in, and are as salt as the dead sea. I long ago saw pictures of people swimming in the dead sea and got very fascinated about it, it looked very relaxing and strange.

The first stop on the tour was to pay the admissions, this time a hefty €18, but here showers etc. are supplied to get rid of the salt after the swim in the lagoon. Our guide started explaining about the salt flats of Atacama, that the lagoons are situated in the middle of. The salt is roughly 1000 meters thick, and floats on water that is below it. The salt is there because very long ago the ocean used to be there, and when it got cut off by the mountains it ultimately dried up and left all the salt.

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The first lagoon we saw was the one actually called Cejar. It was only for viewing and not swimming in, why our guide Carlos (who spoke really good English!), said that go there first and take a few pictures, then change clothes and enjoy a swim in the two lagoons which you can swim in.

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Ahh! Why can not all water you swim in be like this, as long as you dont roll over to your side you can lie there all day long, relaxed! Some people even brought phones and cameras as the water lifts you so high you dont have to worry about them getting close to it.

Apparently one of the lagoons is 35 meters deep, and the other one of unknown depth. A descendant of Jacques Cousteau had been there with the intention of getting to the bottom of it, but gave up at 100 meters depth. It therefore remains a mystery how deep it is.

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Did I mention that the water is SALT?! This is Linns legs, even after showering. Because of our salty and wet hands we didnt capture how it looked before the shower, but it will suffice to say that the showers were a welcome amenity.

After everyone were finished getting amazed by the salty lagoons and got cleaned up we got back in the tour bus and headed to the next stop, Los ojos del salar. The eyes of the salt flat is two sweet(!) water “eyes” in the middle of the salt flat, and the fact that there is two of them and that they are adjacent to each other gave them their name, as they look like two eyes.

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It is two rather big eyes, in the middle of the desert.

The reason they are not salt is probably because a nearby river disappears underground and shows in these two holes in the salt flat. The only salt in them is what the wind brings there, and after a dip in one of them I can account for the fact that they are very much like our lake Mälaren at home, maybe a bit cleaner.

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The final stop was at the last lagoon, this one was in the process of evaporation, that is the water is on its way to leave which creates a very white layer of salt, similar to the salt flats in Uyuni.

The day was finished with some Pisco sour, cheese, olives while watching the sunset. Wikivoyage was completely right about the fact that the tourists are way more chatty on their way back from the tour.

Valle de la Luna

Our first tour with Sol Andino Expediciones was to Valle de la Luna. As all the tour agencies  sell all tours, not all are run by them, rather the cooperate and you can book with one agency and get the tour arranged by another. We chose Sol Andino since they reportedly run their own Salar de Uyuni tours, and this is apparently the most important tour to have a good guide on.

The tour to Valle de la Luna however, was carried out by another tour agency which I cannot remember the name of. Nothing wrong with this, it is a 4 hour tour and you are not left to the elements if the guide and driver are drunk or rude, you can simply walk back to San Pedro, or call a taxi.

The tour started at 16:00 and we got in a small bus that took us to the first stop, where we paid the entrance at €3 and had the last opportunity to visit a bathroom for a while.

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Our second stop was to get some background about the landscape, it was given first in Spanish and later in English. Somehow the English part felt a lot shorter than the Spanish… But not to worry, we got enough information about what we saw. The landscape was like nothing else, made up of sand, stone and salt that had been carved by wind and water over millions of years.

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Views like this gives a good hint of where the name comes from. It really looks like it could be a landscape found on the moon, or in a star wars move for that matter. Walking around in this landscape was interesting, it was nature as we had never seen it before.

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At the end of the tour we left the valley and drove up to a mountain beside it, there we watched the landscape transform as the sun set. After the sun has set we were driven back to San Pedro and left in the middle of the town, happy that the nature on the tour was interesting and strange enough to trump the fact that San Pedro is such a touristy place.

San Pedro de Atacama

After Antofagasta our travel plan had a line to Calama, and then a dotted line as we were unsure about how to proceed. We knew that we wanted to see the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, but we were unsure about the best way to do that.

The consensus of all travelers we met along the way was that the best way is to go to San Pedro de Atacama, and from there take the three day tour that ends in Uyuni. Since Uyuni is located at around 3700 meters above sea level and the tour there reaches 5000 meters we would need time to acclimatize in order to not suffer too much from altitude sickness. San Pedro at 2400 meters seemed like the perfect place to do this.

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Located out in nowhere, San Pedro only exists because there are beautiful nature around it, and the town is built around tourism and the only thing available to do there is to eat a surprisingly good pizza and go on different tours.

We chose to go on three tours including the one to the salt flats with the company Sol Andino Expediciones. The other tours were the Laguna Cejar, a lagoon that is as salt as the dead sea and Valle de la Luna, a landscape that looks like belongs on the moon. They had the three tours listed at a total of €180, and we asked for a package price and only paid €156.

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We stayed in a nice but central hostel called Mama Tierra, at €29 a night for a double room including hot showers, wifi and a bottle of water each day it was well worth the money. We booked in advance on hostelworld, this turned out to be a good thing as there was numerous people coming by looking for a bed for the night, but it was always fully booked. The tours on the other hand were easy to book the same day or just one day in advance.

Antofagasta

During our stay in La Serena we heard that our next planned stop, Antofagasta, is not a nice place to visit. Nothing to do and hard to find hostels. And a quick look around the internet it seemed to be right. After a discussion we decided to stick to the plan. Antofagasta is one of the most important industry cities in Chile and a big port city.

Jon found a B&B pretty close to the beach. And it was hot during the days. The two days we were in the city we stayed on the beach. No sand at the beach and a bit chilly but still nice.

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Jon forgot the sunblock and the result? The next day we spent in the mountains (in the shadows) and eating Chinese food that was good and very cheap!

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You’ll notice pretty quick that you are in desert.

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We are a little allergic to touristic tours and the last evening we were planning where to go next. The plan: San Pedro the Atacama. This city sounded very touristic to me. A place that exists just for people like us to do tours. Expensive and not worth it. But it was the best option for our coming events and a good place to adjust to the height (more about that later).

Restaurant: Jack Fish

In La Serena we found a few good restaurants, and one great! The great one was called Jack Fish, or more precisely Cevicheria Jack Fish, Sushi and Rock.

The place is run by a rock enthusiast who also possess a great interest in Japanese cooking. The restaurant is small and seats just eight persons, or the double if the persons already know each other well. There is always rock music playing and the place is styled in red, white and black. All in all a very complete and well defined style that made us really like the place.

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And the food, the food is super great! We actually visited Jack Fish two times during our stay in La Serena, but only brought the camera the second time. For this reason we only have pictures of the sushi, but the Ceviche was both beautiful to look at and tasted good when eaten.

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The classic south american sushi with cream cheese, I think we are starting to like it!

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If you go to La Serena and feel like you want to eat something great, go to Jack Fish, the food is great and the place is definitely unique!