Hello and Goodbye La Paz – my poor last-minute decision to see the Uyuni Salt Flats (Part 2)

Many people get excited by the idea of going on spontaneous adventures…especially when traveling… and many more love doing as much as they can while they’re abroad to check off their bucket list…

But you know what?

I’ve learnt from my recent experience in La Paz that making spontaneous decisions or desperately chasing your bucket list while you’re traveling aren’t necessarily the best ideas.

It really depends on lots of things (for me, the most important factors are how you feel and how prepared you are ~ if you’re really not in the mood and under-prepared then there’s a chance that you’re not gonna have a good time)

Lately I’ve been wondering ~ “why do we need to see so much in such little time?”

And “why can’t we just accept that we can’t see everything, embrace what we’re capable of seeing and slow down to just enjoy where we are!?”

I’ve met so many people who rush around to see as much as they can…it gives me anxiety just thinking about it.

OK ~ let’s continue the story of why I had a shit time in Bolivia. For those who haven’t read part 1 of my La Paz / Uyuni Salt Flats story – I rushed through Peru to La Paz, Bolivia and made a last-minute decision to go to the Uyuni Salt Flats. As soon as I made that decision, there was nothing but a snowball of stress and problems which came my way.

*Note: the quotes in this story are based on my shit memory (they’re not 100% accurate)

PANDA TIPS

General

Tour Cost

Packing List

CHAPTERS

Where was I?

After buying a bus ticket to Uyuni, I had to rush from the bus station back to my Couchsurfing hosts’ house (which took WAY too long), catch an Uber back to the bus station while picking up my laundry on the way…

I knew traffic was bad but I didn’t realise it was THAT bad ~ we were so stuck in traffic…and I just made it to the bus 10 minutes before the bus was leaving (the bus company told me to arrive at 9:30 for my 10:00 bus. I arrived at 9:50).

Somewhere along the line, I foresaw that MAYBE I’d have money problems so before I made the grand decision to go to Uyuni, I asked my new travel buddy Donovan for a HUGE favour:

“If worst comes to worst and for some reason I can’t access my money, can I borrow money from you and pay you back?”

It was already embarrassing because we barely knew each other but I felt like I needed to give myself some security. Personally, I HATE asking to borrow money, even if it’s from family. Thankfully this guy was sympathetic enough…

Donovan: “Sure…I have enough to cover for both of us for the tour and spending. Just no splurging.”

Me: “Of course! Thank you so much!”

FINALLY! A little bit of luck was on my side.

Arriving at Uyuni

The bus journey to Uyuni was so nice that I slept like a baby (when we arrived, I wanted the ride to be longer so I could sleep more ~ we got there 20 minutes earlier than they said. That’s 20 minutes more sleep I could have had)!

I was supposed to meet Donovan but had no internet access to contact him. Instead, I met with at least 3 or 4 ladies who were trying to sell tours to me as soon as I hopped off the bus. It was pretty intense because I was still waking up and was hardly in the mood to be talking about tours.

Me (to one of the ladies): “I want to find my friend first.” (in Spanish)

Lady: “We can give you Wi-Fi”

My eyes lit up ~ when you don’t have a sim card while you’re overseas, getting access to wifi is like gold (how sad we’ve become right?)

Me: “ok”

I started following the lady down the road for about one block and then realised that I should go back to where the bus dropped me off because that’s where Donovan and I agreed to meet.

Me: “I’m going to go back.”

Without a care in the world for the lady – I just left and started walking back.

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The streets of Uyuni

On the way back, I saw this fair-skinned guy with a blue cap waving his arms at me ~ it was Donovan!

*Yay*

I thought it would be more difficult to find him, especially without any internet.

Donovan: “Well you got here earlier than expected.”

Me: “Yeah I know I wanted to sleep more!”

Donovan (after chuckling): “I already went to two companies to check the tours, every other company seems to be closed at the moment. One guy quoted 600 Bolivianos (AUD$124) for the 3-day tour. They said the other offices would open at 7:00pm”

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In case you wanted to know what Donovan looked like!

Hunting for a Salt Flat Tour Company

Tip #1 Expect to pay anywhere between 600 – 1500 Bolivianos for the 3-day Salt Flat Tour

Me: “Yeah it’s the public holiday today so more companies might be closed but I’m sure some will open up soon.”

Donovan: “Do you want to go to speak to the guy that I spoke to?”

Me: “Yeah sure.”

We made our way to Guy # 1 straight away.

Guy 1: “Welcome, please have a seat!”

Me: “Thank you. Please tell me everything about the 3-day tour.”

I’m not going to go into detail about what the guy said because it was a long-winded explanation with a map showing us exactly what we’d be seeing and doing over the three days, but it went something along the lines of this:

General Info about the tour

  • All meals are included
  • You stay in basic accommodation
  • You have a driver who can only speak Spanish unless you pay more

Itinerary

Day 1

  • Train graveyard
  • Small souvenir town
  • Salt museum
  • Lunch at the museum
  • Cactus Island
  • Salt Flats
  • Watch the sunset at the Salt Flats
  • Retire at a Salt Hotel with dinner

Day 2

  • Lagoons and volcanos
  • Lunch
  • More Lagoons and some with flamingos
  • A random area with huge rock formations and the famous ‘Rock Tree’ (a natural rock shaped like a tree)
  • A very special red lagoon with flamingos
  • Retire at a basic hostel in a shared dorm

Day 3

  • Geisers
  • Natural hot springs
  • Another area with volcanic rock formations
  • Lunch in a beautiful village
  • Back to Uyuni

The guy was so enthusiastic while explaining everything to us that I was almost sold…but I knew it was wise to check with other companies first, especially after my friend told me to spend at least 1000 Bolivianos to get a good tour.

Guy 1: “There’s already an Australian and two Germans in the group. I will put you with an English-speaking group.”

I couldn’t help but ask more questions about paying for hot showers, toilets, wi-fi, the type of food we’d get, the type of accommodation, etc. (this became really important to me because during the Salkantay Trek, we had to pay to use wi-fi, toilets and showers which was super frustrating because the tour itself already cost a decent amount).

After asking more specific questions and trying to get as much information as possible, we discovered a few more things:

  • Accommodation was basic
  • We had to pay for hot showers
  • There was no wi-fi available
  • Food was basic
  • Most toilets weren’t free

I wanted pictures and detailed information of the things we’d get on the tour but when I asked for them, the guy didn’t show any pictures of the accommodation or food and didn’t really answer my questions. Instead, he showed us a video of peoples’ feedback of the tour (a not-so-clever way to distract us. All it did was frustrate me that he didn’t really answer my questions).

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Getting information about the tours

After the video finished, he even started writing Donovan’s details on some registration paper.  He even asked me for my details (nice try to close the deal buddy).

Me: “Thank you for the information. We’re just going to check other companies first.”

Guy: “You don’t want to go?”

Now he just seemed desperate to get the sale.

Me: “We’re going to check other companies first.”

Guy: “Oh ok. Please take my card.”

Me: “Sure. What’s the latest time we can buy the tour?”

Guy: “8:30 to leave at 10:00”

Tip #2 if you’re on a budget, you can catch a night bus from La Paz to Uyuni, arriving early enough in the morning to go on the tour straight away – since the 2 and 3-day tours include accommodation, you don’t have to worry about finding accommodation in Uyuni

Tip #3 if you can avoid staying in Uyuni, it’s probably a good idea. There’s not much to do in the town

Tip #4 you can even get a bus back to La Paz straight after doing the tour

He handed over his business card and we made our way to the next company. A few more places opened by the time we left.

Donovan: “There’s two companies with good reviews that I really wanted to check. Salty Tours is one of them but it’s still not open yet.”

Me: “I’m sure they’ll open up soon.”

Donovan: “Well they said they would open at 7:00 but it’s already past 7 now.”

The next place we walked into looked much nicer ~ more like an official office and they had big posters including good Trip Advisor ratings.

We were welcomed by a young, Bolivian lady.

Chica: “Bienvenido, sienta por favour.” (welcome, please sit).

Me: “Gracias. Tu hablas Ingles?” (thank you, do you speak English?)

Chica: “No…basico.” (No, only basic English).

Me: “No te precoupes…quenta me, el tour por tres dias.” (No worries. Tell me about the tour for three days).

She went through the spiel…it was practically the same as Guy #1’s tour but she had fancy pictures to show us. The main difference was the price ~ instead of 600 she was asking for 800 with a Spanish guide. It cost even more to get an English guide ~ she wanted 1200.

Me: “That’s really strange because the first guy we asked wanted 600 with an English guide.” (I’ve stopped with my Spanish now lol but I was speaking Spanish at the time).

Chica: “Can I ask which company it is?”

Me: “Company XX” (I can’t remember its name)

As soon as we said the name, her face went dark:

“Oh nooo…that’s a really bad company and they are lying if they say they can get you an English guide for 600. For an English guide with any company it’s at least 1200. I can do the Spanish speaking guide for 700.”

Tip #5 English guides are almost double the price

It seemed pretty good and the place looked legitimate. But I was determined to see a few more other places before making the decision. We visited a few more offices but there was one problem.

They say information is power right?

Well I beg to differ ~ information can be a pain in the arse. When there’s information overload and you can’t remember who said what, everything sounds the same.

Tip #6 find out what’s important to you in the tour and make sure you ask questions about it to make sure you get what you want.

It was definitely something I should have done. In retrospect, what mattered the most was:

  • Quality of the food
  • Friendly, energetic and caring guide (motivated and passionate)
  • Seeing sunrise and sunset at the Salt Flats
  • Having interaction with the locals
  • Compatibility of the other people in the group

If I realised this, I would have figured out what questions to ask first to fish more effectively. But to be honest, I think many of them aren’t completely honest most of the time anyway so you have to take what they say with a grain of salt unfortunately.

There was one guy that approached us on the street. His company was called Betto Tours and he seemed really nice. He wanted 600 Bolivianos for the tour. The tour itself seemed OK – more or less the same as the others.

By the time we finished chatting to Betto Tours, Salty Desert Tours (the reputable company Donavan wanted to check out) had opened its doors…but the tour seemed exactly the same as the rest. I really couldn’t tell the difference between this company and the rest. The worst part, they wanted 800 Bolivianos for a Spanish Guide and 1200 or 1300 for an English-speaking guide. Even though they were reputable, there was nothing they which screamed they were different from any other company.

We couldn’t justify paying the extra ~ it was either the Chica or Betto Tours. We ended up deciding Betto tours.

When we got back to his office, I had high hopes that I could pay with my debit card because the last thing I wanted to do was to borrow money from Donovan (remember I was having money-access problems where my card wouldn’t work in 90% of the places or the place simply wouldn’t accept my card).

Me: “Can I pay with my card?”

Mr Betto: “No. But you can go to the ATM.”

Me: “No, I can’t use my card at any ATM. I must be at a bank. My card is special and I can’t use it.” (it was getting so tiring for me to repeat myself when it came to this situation)

Mr Betto: “Maybe the national bank is open but it’s the public holiday so most of them are closed.”

If the banks were open then I wouldn’t have been in this predicament ~ to fill you in on my situation: I had a credit card and debit card, both which were subjected to credit card fraud while I was in Brazil and my 3rd debit card expired last December. I’ve basically had no easy access to my funds for 2 months and getting a replacement card has been an absolute impossible headache. Doing Western Union every single time would end up costing me too much and due to my unluckiness of getting poor advice from my bank, I ended up with an emergency debit card (the only card I have now). Getting an emergency card seemed like the best solution in my situation (blog on this here) but it definitely caused me A LOT of problems, especially in La Paz because this particular card doesn’t work at ATMs. I can access my money ONLY when I go into a physical bank.

I was only facing this issue because the banks were closed due to the public holiday ~ by the time we came back from the tour, the banks would be open and we wouldn’t have this issue, well, as long as we could make it back before the banks closed.

Me: “Is it possible to pay you a deposit and then pay the rest when we get back?”

Mr Betto: “Sure! Or you can get your friend to pay for you first and you pay him back? It’s easier this way.”

Me: “No I don’t want to do that.”

He hesitated but agreed to my terms and Donovan paid for both of our deposits.

Mr Betto: “Can you please write your names here?”

He wanted us to fill in our basic details on some registration paper.

While I was filling in my details, I couldn’t help but wonder…

“What time do we get back from the tour?”

Mr Betto: “Between 5-6pm”

Me: “So if we get back before 6pm then I can make it to the bank on time.” (the bank closed at 6pm)

Mr Betto: “Yes, I will tell your driver to come back faster on the way back.”

Me: “Great”

Next step: finding breakfast

Donovan: “Is there anywhere you would recommend for a good breakfast?”

Mr Betto: “Yeah, next door, very good!”

Donovan: “Ok”

We just took his word for it and followed his advice (we had no idea at the time that he had some relationship with them).

Sadly, the food was far from good and overpriced…but at least they had free Wi-Fi (I could use the wifi to check my bank account)

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The overpriced cafe we first ate at

Tip #7 expect overpriced and crappy quality food in the restaurants in Uyuni

We paid about 30 Bolivianos (AUD$6.19) for a coffee and two slices of very processed white, sugary bread and scrambled eggs.

Once we finished, we walked over to the banks so Donovan could withdraw some cash. I hopelessly tried my card too but it didn’t want to work.

When we got back to Mr Betto’s, Donovan handed over the money to cover his part of the tour and then we quickly went to some small shops to buy some basic snacks and toilet paper for the journey. It made sense ~ from the blogs I read, we were supposed to bring extra food and toilet paper for the tours…but for me, I only had about 50 Bolivianos (AUD$10) for the whole 3 days. I had to preserve my money for true emergencies…and that meant that I couldn’t splurge on unnecessary snacks. I felt so desperate to save my money that I even refused to buy toilet paper even though I knew it was a necessity for the trip.

I should have enough toilet paper left over from the Salkantay trek.”

I thought to myself.

10:00AM When the tour was supposed to start

We stood right outside Mr Betto’s office…waiting. He was nowhere to be found and presumably on the streets trying to hunt for more customers. His doors were barely even secured ~ all he had was some metal hook he used as a ‘lock’ for the door. It was nice knowing how secure our stuff was in there. Well, if we could go inside, why not? We still had to organise our luggage for the trip. We unhooked the door and went inside to get ourselves organised. I decided to leave my laptop behind in the trust of Mr Betto, hiding it as much as possible in my clothes.

OK –  we were ready! Now all we had to do was wait for our tour guide to show up.

The sun was shining brightly and the roads were filling up with other 4-WD’s from all the other tour companies except for ours. We met 3 young Germans who were doing the 2-day tour with the same company while we were waiting…but we didn’t get much of a chance to talk to them because they had a different guide to us who took them away earlier than us. All I remember was being envious of all the snacks they had.

Right before our guide arrived, two other German girls and a Bolivian couple joined us. We quickly introduced ourselves to each other. The two Germans could speak both English and some basic Spanish but the Bolivian couple couldn’t speak a word of English.

10:30AM When our tour finally began ~ a quick glimpse

A light metallic brown car pulled up in front of us ~ we finally had our car and our guide! Woohoo!

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A picture of our guide which I took later

I could go into the long story of what we did during the tour but I’m going to spare you the pain and only share the highlights and lowlights (and pictures of course! Definitely can’t forget those pictures because they are oh-so-instaworthy!).

If you can’t remember and want to know what we did and saw, click here for the itinerary

 

Before I go into the details, I need to highlight that my money problems were a massive stress (and challenge) for me. It heavily influenced my actions and I’m not going to lie ~ it took away hugely from the beauty of my experience. Throughout the whole tour, I kept stockpiling tissues I got with our meals or when I paid to use a toilet (yep I took more when I could so I could make my stash last longer). Sadly, my method only lasted 2 days. I had to ask to use other people’s toilet paper on the last day. I also ended up taking leftover food from our table and other peoples’ tables and stocking that for the next day as a snack since I couldn’t afford to buy snacks.

Tip #8 Bring one roll of toilet paper, lots of snacks and water for the trip. Even though you get fed on the tour, there’s long commutes in-between and you get tired and hungry.

Tip #9 Make sure you also have sunglasses, sun protection, sanitiser, swim-wear and a towel

Tip #10 Be prepared to see a lot of otherworldly landscapes. Throughout the whole trip, I couldn’t help but be in awe and amazement at the landscapes I saw. I had no idea that Bolivia’s nature was so different.

Tip #11 You must also be prepared for very long commutes between the sites (and lots of napping) in the 4WD. It’s tiring but gives you plenty of opportunities to have many naps along the way (a very good thing if you’re in need of sleep like I was).

Tip #12 All tours from Uyuni didn’t seem to include the entrance fee of 150 Bolivianos into the National Park – which you must pay to complete the tour. Yes, tourists pay 5 x more than locals (which only have to pay 30 Bolivianos).

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The ticket to the National Park which we had to pay 150 Bolivianos for – make sure you keep your tickets because you need it to re-enter the place if you leave

Main Lowlights

  • It’s VERY touristic – I kind of felt like a Chinese tourist on a big tourist bus (but a 4WD version). Every pitstop we went to, there were at least 50 other tourists (probably 100) – but it’s fine when you reach the Salt Flats because they are so spread out that you get a lot of space to yourself
  • The food – it started off great and quickly became mediocre
  • Our guide – generally he was OK but I really could see he lacked passion when he was explaining things to us and he was so slow in driving. The tipping point though was when I asked him to help me get back to Uyuni before the banks closed so I could get money to pay for the tour and he said that it wasn’t his problem.
  • Having to pay to use the toilet EVERYWHERE – this led me to using a natural toilet as much as I could. At one stage I was peeing behind the car in the open (any car driving past could see everything).
  • Our lodgings not including toilet paper
  • Having to pay to have a hot shower
  • Not having Wi-fi access, especially at the places of accommodation – the Salt Hotel offered only 20 minute internet access for 10 Bolivianos
  • Our group – didn’t gel very well, especially with the language barrier from the Bolivian couple
  • On the second day, we saw so many lagoons that I ended up being ‘lagooned out’
  • The tour was inflexible – it seemed to be a super organised and tight schedule and we didn’t get an option to ask our driver to stop if we wanted to
  • We didn’t get to see the sunrise at all
  • We didn’t get offered to go to see the stars at the Salt Flats, which would have been awesome (I can only assume this I actually have no idea).

Some snaps of the food, accommodation and tour

Main highlights

  • The Uyuni Salt Flats are unreal
  • The red/pink lagoon
  • The landscape for the whole drive is amazing – it’s never boring
  • On the first night you get to stay at a Salt Hotel (yep a hotel made of salt) which is pretty awesome
  • All lodgings provided us with about 5 blankets each so we were nice and warm. We had an extra sleeping bag but it really wasn’t necessary.
  • The hot springs – they were amazing at that cold time of the day and all for a whole 6 Bolivianos!
  • The Geisers – they were also out of this world
  • Seeing all the llamas roaming around
  • Seeing some wild animals which I hadn’t seen before
  • The weather being perfect for all three days
  • Going to the Chilean border – always a cool thing getting to the border in my opinion.

Highlights – mainly my silhouette 😉

Returning back to Uyuni

We made it back to Uyuni at around 4:45. I had enough time! As soon as we got back, I went to the national bank. At first, they said they’d accept my card with a 3% commission…but when it came to actually getting the money, they wouldn’t accept my card because it didn’t have a chip and was a debit card. There was nothing I could do. The worst part was, I ran to the next bank to try my luck but faced the same problem…again and again.

There was nothing I could do except ask Donovan to borrow money.

After Donovan paid my share for me, we wandered around trying to find a restaurant which would accept my card and which had wi-fi so I could try paying my debt to Donovan (because the café next to Mr Betto’s didn’t want us sitting around using their wifi).

Eventually, we found a place. The wi-fi was decent…but when it came to paying for the bill with my card, it was rejected.

I had to borrow more money…again. Argh!

We also bought bus tickets back to La Paz straight away (we went for the cheapest one for 70 Bolivianos) and surprise, surprise, I had to borrow more money from Donovan.

I was getting pretty sick of this problem. I had enough. I still had some Brazilian reals left over which I could exchange to at least reduce my debt by a little bit (which is exactly what I did)

Before I knew it, we were on a bus back to La Paz but guess what? My money problems didn’t get any better in La Paz. I faced exactly the same problem with every single bank I went to ~ they wouldn’t accept my card. I ended up using Transfer Wise to pay Donovan back and luckily I found a really nice Englishman on Facebook and an Australian who was willing to withdraw money for me (via online transfers).

After a lot of tears and bawling my eyes out, I finally found a solution to my problem!

It was about time.

I finally had a little bit of luck come my way.

That’s pretty much everything I wanted to share with you (I hope you enjoyed).

The moral of the story?

Don’t rush so much just to succumb to your own expectation of needing to do something or to check off a list. And be prepared at least a little bit even for spontaneous decisions…especially when traveling! At least have the financial capacity to do what you want. If I could foresee what I went through, I would have stayed in La Paz, enjoyed the celebrations for the public holiday, probably found a solution for my money problems and gone on a shorter tour with much less stress and worries.

Regardless of the difficulties I faced, I’m still glad I saw some other-worldly landscapes. At some points of the trip I wondered whether I was actually on earth – I mean Bolivia has some SERIOUSLY unique landscapes which are out-of-this-world. Sometimes I even wondered if I was on the moon – I said to my tour mates “If I was on the moon, this is what I’d imagine for it to look like.”

 

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