My South America Trip – Part 5 Uyuni

We checked out and left at 5.00 am as our flight was at 7.50 am. The hotel was very kind and helped us prepare packed breakfast in brown bags. We called them the night before for this arrangement. The Cusco airport is relatively small so once the counters were opened and we have settled all the check in procedures, there was nowhere to go. There were a handful of stores and some of them were not opened this early. Level 1 of the airport had absolutely no seating so we proceeded to the 2nd level. We had another 1.5 hr to burn so we found ourselves some seats at the 2nd level to have our packed breakfast and also take a short rest.

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Photo Courtesy: Trip Advisor User Raoul G

The announcements are all in Spanish and there is no signboard. For international flights, the gates to enter for your custom checks is located on the first floor right between the bathroom and the lift (opposite the money changer). The doors to the international departures only open about 1 hr before your flight so you will have to wait at the 2nd level.  The 2nd floor custom checks is only for domestic flights.

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Photo courtesy : Trip Advisor user Jorge Q

There is only 1 money changer in the airport. If you have not changed any Bolivian boliviano, this is your last chance to do so and it is crucial that you do this before you board. I will explain why in the next paragraph.

For entry into Bolivia, Singaporeans will require a VISA. You can check on this site if your country needs VISA.  It is free to apply for a VISA before your trip at the embassy. However, it is almost impossible to do it beforehand here as there is no embassy in Singapore. We were directed to the embassy in China or Japan to do so. You can do so before you land in Bolivia in the embassy in Lima or Cusco as well, however if you choose VISA on arrival, do pay extreme attention to this part.

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Once you land in La Paz and exit the plane, you will see a row of immigration counters. The VISA on arrival counter is on the far left of the counters when you are facing the counters. You will need these on hand for the application :

A) your passport  B) VISA fee of 667 only in Bolivian boliviano ( approximately USD 100 )  C) your itinerary in Bolivia D) your flight ticket details out of Bolivia E) your accommodation details in Bolivia.

Note that you will need to provide a photocopy of all of the above which the immigrations officer will be keeping. The officer will take a digital photo of you and your VISA will be pasted onto your passport ( as the picture above)

We learnt these the hard way as we prepared USD as mentioned in other sites and I forgot to bring my set of photocopied documents. So an officer had to bring us to a money changer beyond the immigrations as well as a photocopy stand to copy our documents. This money changer limits the amount of money you change per time to earn more commission and the copying of documents costs us a few cents. While it is not very difficult, it just created additional hassle for us and we became one of the last to claim our luggage when we were done.

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Example of the luggage tag from my other flight

This is the other thing to take note. At check-in, you will be given a tag for each luggage you check in. Remember to keep this as you will need to give this little tag back to the officer at Bolivia airport before you can exit the arrival gate. This is done to prevent the taking of wrong luggage. We lost our tabs and the officer could not let us exit until his superior decided to let us go by taking the other tag which was pasted on our luggage.

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The La Paz airport is pretty small and there are 2 cafe and 1 burger joint. There are also various smaller convenience stores and souvenir stores selling water and local produce. There is an Entel mobile store offering travellers mobile services like pre-paid data cards. The queue in store does not move at all even after 2hrs and the staff do not speak English at all so we gave up getting a data card. We settled for a quick bite at the burger joint before boarding our flight to Uyuni.

As the plane makes its descend, you will notice that the landscape of Uyuni is very flat and vast. There are no high-rise buildings at all. The airport is very tiny and you will disembark the plane from the tarmac and walk to the airport where you can watch the porters bring in your luggage from the plane. There is no conveyor belt but just an old but effective manner of placing the luggage in a row and let passengers claim them.

When you exit the airport, you will find a couple of small taxis getting you to take car. It will cost about 10 bolivianos per person. Do not be surprise if they will try to squeeze the car full with passengers and luggage. Our car was packed because the boot could only take 3 luggage and they squeezed 1 more in front and made the owner put her legs on top of it. The lucky thing is the ride is only about 10 mins so the uncomfortable trip was still bearable.

We were going to stay in town for 1 night before spending our next night in the flats in one of the famous salt hotels. We chose to stay in the Hotel de Sal Casa Andina which is located right in the town centre. Rooms at Hotel del Sal Casa Andina are built with salt blocks and feature details of Andean décor. The only room available at my time of booking was the triple room so we had plenty of space. You can distinctively smell a salty taste in the air when you enter the hotel but it is not overpowering. The shower rooms were huge and spacious with good hot shower facilities which is much-needed at night when the temperature dips by 50% compared to the day time. Thick blankets are provided with each bed. The hotel has only approximately 10 rooms and a small breakfast area providing hot meals in the morning. There is also a lounging area with campfire and heater for those who likes to relax at the lobby in the night.

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It was only 3.00 pm after we settled down and decided to take a walk around the town and grab some food as well. The town was very dusty with thick sand and fine dust in the air when ever a vehicle passed by. For those who are sensitive to dust and sand, the suggestion is to wear a face mask. Do note that the locals are very used to it and you might get some looks and stares from wearing the face mask. The local market is set up by the main road with stores selling food, drinks, detergent, clothes to even toys. These are where the locals buy all their household items. All of the stores close by 5.00 pm and buses will arrive to pick up the store vendors back to the neighbouring towns where they might be staying.

As we signed up for the night gazing tour at 11.00 pm, we decided to take a nap back at the hotel. We did endless research and decided to go with Got Salt Bolivia for a USD 400 package which covers the night gazing tour as well as a full day salt flats tour the next day. This is a private tour with a 4 wheel drive which can be pricey to the other options available. Our driver and guide picked us up and passed us boots to get ready for the night gazing session. As the temperature gets to as low as 6 – 10 degree in the flats at night, it is necessary to wear a thick down jacket.

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As we drive further into the open flats, it got darker and further from the lights of the town. It got to a point where it was pitch dark and you can hardly see anything outside the car. It is amazing the driver manages to find his direction in the darkness and making expert turns at places where there is absolutely no marker. How he does it is still beyond us.  We drove for about an hour before we reached the best spot for viewing the milky way. Unfortunately, I could not get my camera to work and the settings were not right so there are no pictures of the milky way. We could only use our eyes to capture the beauty of the sight ahead of us.

When we reached the designated spot, it was pitch black. The only glimmer of light we could see was from the moon and the stars and some very faint glow from the city. The entire sky was full of stars reflecting on the clear salt flat. The milky way was alluring us with star sparkling like diamonds. The gradient colour of the sky changes with each movement of the milky way. This is an experience I can never forget especially with my camera failing me. The guide explained all the visible stars to us using an app on her phone. We were offered hot tea while taking in the sight in front of us.

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We started our full day tour the next day from 11.00 am and the temperature was warm and sunny. The first venue we went to was the train cemetery. The place was crowding with tourist. This is called a train cemetery as it is filled with rustic trains and locomotives from the late 1800s. Different structures and carriages are littered all over for people to take photos. With the blue skies and antique train carriages as a backdrop, you see all kinds of poses and dangerous stunts people do to take the perfect unique photo.

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We are no different and took a series of jumping shots or posing shots by climbing onto different structures. This is my favourite out of the series with the perfect jump.

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On the way out to the flat, we made a stop at Colchani town where all the salt from the flats is being  processed by the locals. You will see some very basic factory with manual tools processing and packing the salt and you will also find many alpaca fur handicraft as well as products made from salt. Something to note: if you intend to buy magnets made from salt, our high humidity climate will melt down your magnet unless you intend to place it in the dry box. Mine only survived 3 months before the only thing left was the small piece of magnet.

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The drive out to the flats take another 30 – 40 mins before you reach the first area to alight and take pictures. You will see many jeeps driving around on the flats like Lego cars from a  distance. The vastness of the flats is amazing and the scenery changes with each 5 mins drive; from the colour of the flats to the colour of the skies.

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Our first stop was an area where the flats ooze sulphur water. These areas are not safe for the farming of salt as the salt is polluted by the sulphur water. There will be multiple groups of people taking perspective pictures and here’s my attempt at picking up my guide using my phone camera.

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We decided to drive out further north to areas where there is still a catchment of water from the rain so we could take our reflection pictures. We delayed lunch so that we could reach the area before the crowd drives over so that we can get pictures with no people.

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While we fooled around taking pictures after pictures.. our guide and driver started to set up our lunch from the back of the car trunk. Do note that if the water splashes onto your clothes, salt crystals will form on your clothes from your body heat and there will be white patches on your clothes. This is absolutely normal and the salt can be washed off thereafter.

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We had our lunch right in the middle of the flats under a nice beach umbrella and picnic table. Menu was simple but yet very local with quinoa, beef, sausage, potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, greens and banana. This was a good time to understand the local culture and facts and Bolivia better while chatting with your driver and guide. For non-private tours, the jeep will drop you off at one of the local hotel to settle lunch on your own.

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We made another stop at Playa Blanca which is the first salt hotels inside the flats for a toilet break and more photos around the area. There was an island of flags which I presume was brought by the many tourists and surprisingly we could find the Singapore flag! Just a stone throw from the hotel is the DAKAR monument.

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Our last itinerary for the flats was to catch the sunset on this wonderful landscape. We drove for another 30 – 40 mins to get to the same location where we did the star-gazing tour. To complete our Uyuni experience, we checked in to the Hotel de Sal Luna Saladar.

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The hotel was at the edge of the salt flats and is about 27 KM away from Uyuni town. The property itself was huge with many different wings of guest rooms. There are also plenty of lounging areas all around the hotel. All around the hotel, they had heaters to warm up the areas as it was quite chilly at night since the hotel is situated right in next to the flats. The structure of the hotel is made of salt bricks but unlike the one in town, there wasn’t so much of a salty smell for this hotel. The rooms were very modern. We were given the 3rd floor from the lobby and it is impossible to bring our luggage so we had the hotel porter bring the it for us. There were cute chimney areas, reading room and game room for guests to relax in their own quiet corner. The hotel provides 2 bottles of water per room and this is definitely not enough. We regret not buying the big bottles of water from town as the salt flats really dehydrate you and the water sold in the hotel is quite exorbitant. So do bring your own if you are staying here.

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As our last night in Bolivia Uyuni, I ventured out around 11.00 pm to try my camera again and these are the results. The sky was not as pretty as the night before due to the light pollution from the hotel and the cars. What you see with your naked eye is really 10 times better than this. Perhaps it is time for a better camera.

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We had our breakfast with a view the next morning. The spread was quite substantial and the breakfast room is quite busy in the morning for guest rushing for their tours. As we had no further itinerary until our flight, we simply relaxed in the hotel until our flight to La Paz in the evening.  We took the transfer from the hotel at a few USD ( I can’t remember the cost ) with a few other guest who were rushing off for their midnight bus to La Paz.

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We reached the tiny airport at 6.30 pm for our 7.00 flight. They are very strict on luggage weight restrictions and I had to pay an extra USD 10 for my luggage which was over the limit by 4 KG. There is also a need to pay a tourist tax of a few USD dollar after checking in and getting your boarding pass. There is only 1 café and 2 stores in the airport and not plenty of seats so if you arrive too late for your flight check-in, do be prepared to stand around to wait for boarding. There is also no x-ray machines in the airport for your carry ons, so officer search your bags by hand. Do not be shocked by this as long as your keep your eyes on your belongings.

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