Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Uyuni Salt Flats Preparation Day: What To Bring, What To Wear, How To Choose An Operator

South America is a huge continent, with countries differing in their terrain. With all the variety that the continent offers, choosing which countries to visit can be daunting.

Matt Harding dancing in the Salt Flats convinced me to choose Bolivia. 

Matt Harding of Wheretheheallismatt

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.

The Salt Flats. Uyuni, Bolivia.

That is not best photo to capture the magnificence of the Salt Flats. Magnificent is an understatement to begin with. I wasted a couple of minutes trying to select what photo to put in here. 

Getting to Uyuni is not easy. Getting to Bolivia is already a challenge, from where I live. While there is an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni (which is is only around $30), I was scared of bus robbery, and I was a female travelling alone. I bought expensive tickets from La Paz to Uyuni airport via Amaszonas for BOB 2,272 (approximately $330). As far as I know, this is the only airline that flies from La Paz to Uyuni. 

PRICEY, I know. If you have the time and patience, go for the bus. 

The plane that took me to Uyuni

Four seats per line. A very narrow aisle. Huge backpacks cannot fit those overhead cabinets. 

I arrived in at 6:45 AM Uyuni Airport after a short 45-minute flight from La Paz, Bolivia. I hailed a cab outside to take me to the city center – 10 BOB. 

A snap of the small Uyuni airport

I got a private room with ensuite bathroom at Hostel Oro Blanco for $29. There are also dorms in Uyuni, but I thought I could use some rest after travelling for more than a week now. I used the day to rest and prepare for the salt flats tour the next day.

The "center" of the town

The town was empty when I arrived. Really. A ghost town. I had to ring a bell in my hostel so that they’d open the door for me. 

The buses from La Paz (it took 12 hours and costs $30, according to my hostelmate) arrived at around 7AM to 8AM. They only have two or three hours to have breakfast, find a tour operator and gather supplies. I allotted an entire day for that. 

Napping docs

Uyuni was a small and boring town. Really boring. I got bored and locked up in my warm room to read ebooks. I went out just to eat. I guess I was so bored because I wasn't in a dorm room. I didn't find other travellers hanging out in the common room and not a lot were out eating. 

What to Bring to the Salt Flats in Uyuni, Bolivia

I left my laptop, half of my clothes and other toiletries in the hostel. 
The tour operator provided the necessary list of things to bring:
What is necessary

Here’s what I bought and brought:
  • Sarong – always handy. Served as a blanket and dust cover.
  • A pair of brown jeggings (stretchy jeans)
  • Black sports leggings (I purchased from Uniqlo)
  • Three pairs of flimsy leggings for layering.
  • Two pairs of knee socks
  • Two pairs of short socks
  • One thick pair of socks to be used for sleeping. I will really be cold at night.
  • 3 long-sleeved Heattech from Uniqlo
  • 1 tank top
  • Swimsuit - for the hot springs. 
  • Windbreaker
  • Fleece jacket - please have a really warm jacket. This is a lifesaver.
  • Scarves
  • Towel
  • Face mask
  • Wet wipes
  • Headlamp
  • Toilet paper
  • Ipod (or your music player) with an aweseome playlist
  • My tried, tested and trusted pair of Merrell shoes
  • Slippers
  • Pairs of underwear. Note that you may not be able to shower so bring pairs.
  • Selected toiletries: toothbrush & toothpaste, moisturizer, sunblock, lip balm, lotion/cream. Expect that your skin and lips may dry up.
  • Sunglasses. The glare of the sun will be too harsh without this. Do not proceed without one.
  • A pair of huge double-layered gloves – purchased in Uyuni market for 25 BOB.
  • A hat that goes to my ears – also from Uyuni market, 25 BOB
  • I also bought a 90 BOB poncho because I thought it would look good in the photos. But I didn’t get to wear it because it was so unflattering – oh yes, there’s room for vanity.
  • Four litters of water (6 BOB per 2L-bottle) and an extra liter of water. I know that some people stay away from drinking too much water from travelling. Unfortunately for this trip, I learned how to drink water frequently and I can’t adjust that easily from drinking 4 liters a day to 1 or 2 liters a day.  Good thing the meals served come with water.
  • Junk food stash. I replenished some of my supplies from the stores in Uyuni. Snickers were priced like diamond but I didn’t mind.
  • A fully charged camera with battery, with an extra fully-charged battery. While there may be opportunities to charge your gadgets, don't take chances. 
  • A spare memory card.
I packed them in a wheeled luggage. All my jeepmates had backpacks. I don't think it matters. You won't be carrying your stuff around anyway. It stays in the jeep during the day and at your hostel during the night.

I also brought the Philippine flag because I noted that Filipinos who had been there mentioned that there was no Philippine flag. Check out this and this blog entries when you plan your Bolivia trip. 
I haz the PH flag! It was small. I just bought it from National Book Store.

I also rented a sleeping bag (the type that can withstand winter weather)  for 30 BOB. The warmth it brought at night as so worth it.

Charge your electronics. Keep your gadgets with you when you sleep. Not for safely. But your body warmth will prevent the batteries from getting discharged.

They pile up all your things up there then cover it up. So make sure you have your essentials in your day bag.

Be prepared not being able to shower for 3 days. I took the 3-day tour which started at around 9-10 AM on Day 1 and returned by 5PM on Day 3. You can take showers but it will be so cold. (I did, I did, I couldn’t help it).

This shower thing is a big deal for me. Filipinos are used to taking a bath every day.
Me? I am a shower junkie.  On a normal day, I shower in the morning before leaving for work, then do a half-shower (dry hair) before I go to bed. When I sweat a little extra from exercising, I shower in the gym or as soon as I get home; then I still shower before I go to bed. Yeap, 3 showers a day. Logic? I want to keep my bed sheets clean. The after-shower clean feeling is always uplifting. I think that clean feeling has been ingrained since childhood. But in the cold and freezing terrain of Uyuni, logic is frozen. It is simple too cold to shower.

Wow, I just effortlessly typed an entire paragraph explaining my feelings on taking a shower.

To my fellow women, gals, sistahs, please avoid doing the 3-4-day salt flat tour when our monthly friend visits. It will dampen the fun. I was glad that my monthly visit was over when I arrived in Bolivia (okay TMI now, I just shared my shower habits above). If you’ll do a daytrip to the Salt Flats, that’s fine. Imagine not being able to bathe for 3 days during your period. Icky, right?

Selecting a tour operator in Uyuni
I fully utilized all my research skills to find a recommended reliable tour operator in Bolivia. I wasn’t trying to find the best or bang-for-the-buck package. Something decent would suffice. I read Tripadvisor reviews, blog reviews and forums. My efforts were almost futile. Most of the tour operators do not have websites nor email addresses. Tripadvisor reports for one operator have the same number of praises and complaints. 

Usual tour options:
A 1-day tour of the Salt Flats - if you are pressed for time or if you cannot withstand the cold, go for this. 
A 3-day Uyuni loop tour. The tour starts and ends in Uyuni. I got this.
A 4-day trip that starts in Uyuni, Bolivia and ends in Chile. (Filipinos need a visa for Chile).

Those colorful papers posted are customer reviewes. 

Because I had the entire day to scout for tour operators, I took my time. After 6 operators, the process got dragging and repetitive. When you press them for more details, they cannot expound further. They have limited English but they know the tourist-catch-phrases.

“salt hotel”
“salt flats”
“hot meal”
“safe 4x4 Land Cruiser”

The hostel recommended three operators. I found one, but it was too expensive. I found the second one, but it was closed. I also found the third one, a few steps away from Hostal Oro Blanco: Full Adventure Tours. A motherly woman patiently entertained my questions. I signed up with her. Her 3-day Uyuni loop costs 700 BOB. A pretty good deal. [I do think that this they are a subcontract of another tour operator. My jeepmates got their tours from another operator.]

Food during the tour is simple. [I forgot to take a photo of the menu]
Don’t expect a feast, but you will be fed just fine. We had enough food for all meals.
There's carbs, proteins and fiber to keep your bowel movement regular. I just shared my shower habits, I'd rather not discuss my toilet habits. #TMI

Hot water, biscuits and spreads for breakfast

Some of the reviews I read mentioned that food wasn’t enough for everyone. That’s just sad. Thankfully, we had enough. 

Don’t expect the meals to be very tasty or very hot. It will fill your tummy, even though it may not be as delicious. Just feast your eyes on the views.  

If you’re vegetarian, you have to inform your operator beforehand that you don’t eat animals. I hope they remember that and pack enough food for you. 


If you are a Filipino planning to go here, please take a shot of the Philippine flag and send it to me. 
I'd like to know that it is still holding up out there. =)

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