How to Survive the Bolivian Salt Flats

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Definitely a highlight of our entire South America trip, the Bolivian Salt Flats are a must in South America – but it is important to read up and prepare before you go! Here are our top tips to survive…

1 . A good 4-season sleeping bag.

We brought our own for the trip and they were necessary for the Salt Flats. It got to -20 degrees Celsius on the first night, with my water bottle freezing, however inside my sleeping bag I was very toasty! Some tour companies will let you rent some, but it’s always good to have your own.

2. Water and snacks

We were told to bring enough water and snacks to last us three days – for everything. We ended up bringing more than we needed as they did actually provide us with some drinks at lunch and hot tea in the evenings. However, if you run out, there are not many places along the way to restock. All meals provided were good – we ate well and didn’t starve!

3. Wrap up warm

Wear thermals, even in the day it is cold. Layer up as it can get warmer/colder quickly

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4. Take it slowly

The altitude in some places is very high. We slept on the first night at 4800m, which resulted in massive headaches and me needing to go on oxygen for 5 minutes upon arrival at the refuge. Most people on the trip were altitude sick at some point. When you are able to go off and explore the sites, refrain from walking too far. Although it would not normally be strenuous, with so little oxygen, our bodies tire much more easily and we end up paying for it later in the day. If you push yourself too far and need to go straight to Uyuni due to illness, your entire group (6 of you) have to go together, meaning the rest cannot complete the tour – you need to push through as best you can!

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5. Go in the hot springs

First day, crazy windy, freezing. Getting changed into my swimsuit outside and sitting in some springs? Nope. I would rather keep warm in my clothes. However, I was eventually persuaded, through fear of FOMO and it looking clean. It was worth it as my bones and muscles really warmed up in the natural springs, and it made a difference for the rest of the day!

6. Brush up on your Spanish

This wasn’t relevant as a fluent Spanish-speaker, but I can see the issue if you don’t have anyone in your group who can speak Spanish. Our driver spoke several languages including Spanish, Quechua and some broken English. He spoke all the time in Spanish with us, and it would have been impossible to understand his advice, his knowledge as a guide, his jokes or anything really, without Spanish. It would have been much less enjoyable if we had no clue what was going on. Luckily 4 out of 6 of us spoke Spanish, so we were able to translate for the English-speakers.

7. Research your tour company carefully

We had heard many horror stories of drunk and dangerous drivers, rip-off tours etc. so we carefully chose a reputable company that was a little more expensive but that we knew would look after us and get us there in one piece!

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Our awesome guide, Casimiro!

8. Have an amazing time

It was a blast, and we saw so many things on the three day trip – not just salt flats but cacti as old as 1,000 years, lagoons, volcanoes and crazy rock formations.

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9. Book a nice hotel to stay in when you get to Uyuni/San Pedro

We were the only ones staying in Uyuni after the tour – everyone else went straight on to Potosí/Sucre/La Paz. We booked a lovely 4* salt hotel, with a warm shower and comfy bed. We ate at a fancy restaurant and had an early night (before watching Game of Thrones of course!). This was all I needed after roughing it for three days in the salt flats. An 8-hour bus journey to Sucre would have been unbearable after all that!

Next time…on to Sucre – the capital of Bolivia!

 

South America: Geiser del Tatio

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Alarm ringing at 4am, it is freezing in our desert-home abode with no heating. I have thermals which keep me from being unbearably cold, J. decides he doesn’t need thermals and will be fine (that goes so well….).

The geysers are at the highest altitude yet of the trip, this means two things – freezing and altitude sickness. Unpleasant.

This tour is considered one of the most popular, so guesses are it would be the best. However, in comparison to the incredible geysers in Iceland (which are free by the way), I felt a bit disappointed – especially after the amazing Piedras Rojas tour the day before. The cost was considerable too (10,000 pesos each!).

We spent an hour at the hot springs area however the hot springs have been closed for the foreseeable future due to a health and safety issue. So we were stuck, waiting around in the cold for an hour doing nothing, as there was no alternative. You would have thought they would have considered an alternative arrangement?

Anyway, it was absolutely freezing, even with thermals, so I don’t know how J. survived. (note: he wore thermals for the days after this…).

The tour only lasted for the morning, so we had time to have lunch before our other tours. However, due to a sandstorm, they had to be cancelled, a real shame. Unable to reschedule as it was our final day in San Pedro, we were at least able to get our money back.

However, it gave us time to stock up on water, snacks, warm clothes and mentally prepare for Bolivia, which everyone kept advising us was going to be freezing, isolated and crazy – we couldn’t wait!

Vamos a Bolivia…

How to celebrate your birthday in the Atacama Desert

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We scheduled our South America trip for August. It was the summer holidays meaning I had the whole month off from work but also my birthday. I did not want to be on a bus/train/plane on the day, but rather doing something different.

The day was spent in the Atacama desert on the Piedras Rojas tour. This was the best tour of the trip, a whole day thing which was tiring but worth it.

We left at 7am, early but not as early as some other tours we did! Our first stop was the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons which are home to three different types of flamingo. However, in the deep mid-winter, the majority of the flamingos had gone off to somewhere a little warmer, while the remaining few decided to hang out as far away from the humans as possible! (Entrance fee of 2,500 pesos).

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It looks warm but actually it was freezing!!

After a warm breakfast of eggs, coca tea and bread, we headed into the mountains to another lake. No flamingos this time, but it was spectacular. Surrounded by snow, it was freezing, but worth it (2,500 pesos entry again). Here James very kindly put snow down my back, what a nice thing to do on my birthday…. (hmmm…).

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Caught in the act!

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So much snow!!

The next stop was by far the coldest and most windy – las piedras rojas – which is where the name for the day trip comes from. This lake, so high in altitude, was frozen, and we spent half an hour jumping up and down on the ice.

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On the frozen lake!

After lunch, we visited a little church and stopped on the side of the road to take some pictures with a sign showing we were on the Tropic of Capricorn which was pretty cool! I was not expecting that to happen in the tour!!

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I made a wise investment in some baby alpaca wool gloves in Tacapao village, which would help me survive the cold days and nights in the Bolivian Salt Falts.

Dinner was going to be a fancy meal, but San Pedro was just a little too expensive. I was happy with our usual 5,000 pesos meal deal. Altitude sickness meant loss of appetite and I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

It was an incredible birthday, packed in with so much to see. It was really special. Exhausted but the alarm was set for 4am the next day for the Geyser tour…

San Pedro de Atacama: the final frontier 

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Descending into Calama airport in Northern Chile, the Atacama desert lay before us. A dramatic landscape of mountains and endless desert – otherworldly.

Calama is the smallest airport imaginable, but it is extremely modern and efficient. We grabbed our backpacks and were out of the airport doors within minutes, a relief when we compared it to the hours of queues upon arrival at both Lima and Santiago.

We had organised a shared transfer to San Pedro by ringing our accommodation that morning, and we spent the 90 minute ride chatting to our new Brazilian friends who we would bump into for the next few days. Chile was full of Brazilian travellers, so it was great to practice speaking Portuguese!

Our accommodation was on the main road, however it was the last house at the very end of town, right by the edge of the desert. It did not take more than 5-10 minutes to walk to the main restaurants and bars; but at night, with no streetlights and only our torches, it did feel a bit unnerving. Luckily San Pedro is very safe, so I shrugged off that feeling and allowed myself to be amazed by the incredible views of the stars instead!

On the Friday, San Pedro was hit by a sandstorm and so,  with regret, our tours to the Valle de la Luna and stargazing were cancelled and we did not have time left to re-book for the next day. As we were staying on the edge of town, we had less protection from the storm. Walking back from lunch, face entirely covered by my sunglasses and neckerchief, I made it back, but not without sand all in my hair, nose, ears and eyes! After a good shower, it was time to go out again, for it only to happen again! It’s hard to live in the desert…

Food was a challenge at times in San Pedro as you are limited for options and therefore prices for a decent meal in a restaurant were costly. However, if you walk around the corner from the main square, we found several places offering a main and a soft drink for 5,000 pesos. We didn’t eat amazing meals, but were well fed and it didn’t break the bank.

Definitely shop around for tours, as we found that if you book several tours with the same company they will give you incredible discounts than if you were to book separately.

In the next blog… find out how I spent my birthday in the Atacama Desert!

 

Robyn

Santiago: I loved the Wine Tour, just not the 🍷 

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I don’t really like wine and spending $14~ on a wine tour just seemed like a waste of money for me. But I went anyway and it was great! Let me tell you why…

Summer is the best time of year to go to a vineyard, as you can see the vines and all that. However, we went in the Chilean winter – not much point in going to a vineyard when the branches are empty,  is there?

So we didn’t go to a vineyard. We went on a wine tour only a few metro stops from Santiago city centre – way easier to get to than most wineries! That winery is called Santa Carolina, and it is one of the top wineries in the country. They export all over the world.

We were a bit disorientated on the map coming out of the metro exit but some friendly road workers shouted us across to them to offer us some assistance. When we said ‘Santa Carolina’ they said that it was ‘the best wine in all of Chile’ and that they were proud of it, before pointing us down the correct street.

Basically, Santa Carolina’s original set up was right here in Santiago. They have kept the original colonial buildings and cellars for events and tourism but have moved the vineyards further out of the city. It was fascinating to learn the history of the company and see how it has expanded. There is a palm tree in the colonial house which was planted by the founder in the 1880s – it is still there and is the most incredible thing to behold. Just like the company, the palm tree has stood the test of time!


Our hostel had called up to reserve a place on the English-speaking tour at 11am. Out of 20 people, we were the only two English speakers – everyone else was Brazilian! So the tour was done in Portuguese. I was not so fluent in my translation so I don’t think J. would have been able to put up with it for the entire tour. Luckily the guide also spoke English. After giving all the info in Portuguese, everyone would move on and she would do a little private English tour for us two which was great.

The views of the snow-capped mountains nearby was breathtaking.


On to the wine! So, we had three tastings – one white and two red which went up in quality/price each time. Quite frankly, the wines were not for me, but I was not the only one to not finish my glass in the group. There is never any pressure to drink the wine anyway which is good. I was actually asked if I was 18 so I could participate…. I just had to answer that it was my 23rd birthday in two days…

We finished in the gift shop where we paid for our tour and you could purchase wine. However after paying, we were offered two small bottles of red to take as a gift! So James carried these wine bottles for three weeks of our trip around South America.

The low-down:

booking: book through your hostel/hotel to reserve in advance. Tours in English, Spanish, Portuguese

how to get there: the Santa Carolina winery is a short walk from the Rodrigo de Araya metro stop

Returning to Peru: 3 things I’m looking forward to

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When I visited Peru back in August 2013, I did say to myself that I would return one day, but I didn’t think that day would come only four years later.

In less than two months, I will throw my backpack on and return to South America, on a journey which will not only cover Peru but also parts of Chile and Bolivia. I absolutely loved Peru, although it doesn’t always bring back fond memories, considering the terrible altitude sickness I suffered from on our treks.


I am looking forward to exploring more of this country, and returning to some familiar places.

Practice my Spanish…

When I first visited Peru, I had only been studying Spanish for one year at university. I managed to hold conversations and barter in markets but it will be great to go back and hopefully speak Spanish with more confidence.

Visit some new places…

I’m looking forward to spending a few days in the capital, Lima, at the end of our three week trip – all I saw was the chaos of the airport, which is making me nervous about stepping out of those airport doors again! We will also be visiting Lake Titicaca which I didn’t see last time either.

 Retrace my steps…

As well as seeing some new sites, I am really looking forward to returning to familar ones. We are spending about 4 days in Cusco. I loved Cusco as it had such a great feel to it and the markets were incredible. It will give us some time to chill and see the sites and maybe do a day trip somewhere.

I am also returning to Aguas Calientes (love the eggy hot springs!) and Machu Picchu. J. really couldn’t go to Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, now could he? It did mean forking out a fortune though for the train tickets but it had to be done.

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Machu Picchu

I wish I didn’t have to do the early morning hike there though from Aguas Calientes. I have done it before, and I don’t need to prove I can do it to anyone, not even myself, as I have already done it. The bus this time is appealing, but J. wants to experience it himself, so he is going to have to deal with me whining and complaining all the way up there!


There is so much more of Peru that we aren’t exploring this time, as we are wanting to see the Atacama desert in Chile before working our way up through Bolivia circling round again to Peru, but that only gives me the excuse to go back…

What do you love about Peru?