Otherworldly Uyuni

There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.

Zen

We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.

The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.

Train conductor on a ghost train

Horror train

After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.

Salt reflections

Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.

On the tripod

Kiss kiss

Big cactus

Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.

A flamingo

Layers of colors

Mathias on his stone

Tuva and the stone tree

The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.

The milky way

The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.

All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.

Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!

Cars in the desert

Posing by the green lagoon

A llama

Salt desert jeep

Shadows in the salt

Interesting stone

Flamingos fighting

No fly zone

Mirror mirror

Thermal pools and the Milky way

See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.

Magnificent Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and a must-do if you are in Peru. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see how the Incas managed to build a sacred retreat high up in the mountains of Peru. Given that the Inca empire only lasted for a hundred years (before the Spanish conquistadors came and destroyed them in the 1500s) it’s truly amazing to see how much they built and the technology they had developed.

Sunrise on Machu Picchu

There are several ways to travel to Machu Picchu, none of them especially cheap (more on that later), but all of them start from Cusco, which was the Inca capitol. Cusco itself is a nice town with lots to do for adventure-hungry tourists (there are about 200 travel agencies across town), but as Mathias got a bad case of altitude sickness we had to take it pretty slow the first days. Cusco really is a “tourist town”, which has both its positives and negatives. Positives being many good restaurants (we especially recommend La Bodega 138 and Jack’s Café) and options for tours, and negatives being that you feel that everyone wants to get some money from you and exploit the tourists as much as possible.

Back-alleys of Cusco

Under the arc

To get to Machu Picchu we opted for the popular scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town), spending a night there and walking up to Machu Picchu early the next morning. From Aguas Calientes it’s about an hour and 10 minutes brisk walk, mostly steep uphill, to get to Machu Picchu. We started in the dark at 5 o’clock in the morning in pitch black with only the stars to guide us (ok, and a headlight), which turned out to be a little late to get started as there were several busloads of people already in line at the top when we arrived 6:10. Not a big problem, but we were hoping to get a look before there were people everywhere. We did catch the sun rising above the mountains and the first light on Machu Picchu, which was spectacular!

Mathias gazing at Machu Picchu

Sun rays over the mountaintops

We managed to spend a full 10 hours walking around, taking pictures and relaxing while taking in the view of Machu Picchu. There are several tracks around the main “urban area”, and also tracks further out to the Sun Gate (great views!), the Inca bridge (a bit disappointing), and Huayna Picchu if you have the tickets (we didn’t :( ). We walked around marvelling at the views and the many many llamas grassing in the area (even a baby llama!). It really is a spectacular location and we can imagine this to be a retreat for the wealthy (which is one theory).

A llama grazing

Jump!

The explorer

Tips on travelling to Machu Picchu

There are mainly four ways to do Machu Picchu:

  1. Doing the Inca Trail. This is the highlight for many backpackers. A 2 or 4-day trek through stunning views and several Inca ruins. Price is about $400-500 and it must be booked several months in advance. We talked to some Brits who booked it two months ahead, but this was in the shoulder season (April).
  2. Booking a shuttle tour. This is the cheapest option, we found it for about $125 including the shuttle to the hydro station, a night in Aguas Calientes, the guide at Machu Picchu and the shuttle back to Cusco. There is a one and a half-hour trek from the hydro station to Aguas Calientes.
  3. Booking a tour with train. This includes the bus to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes, overnight there, bus to Machu Pichhu in the morning and a 2 hour guided tour, and the return train. The cheapest we found this for was about $225 p.p.
  4. Booking everything yourself. This is what we did. We booked with Incarail both ways for $106 each (Perurail is another option for trains),  bought our Machu Pichhu tickets (PEN 128=$49 each), stayed at the first hostel we found (Hostal Inca II for PEN 65 total including breakfast), and walked up to Machu Pichhu (we took the bus back which is about $10), and took shuttles betwen Ollantaytambo and Cusco (10 PEN pp each way). Our total ended up nearly the same as the cheapest tour with train, but we loved being masters of our own time an being able to spend all the time we wanted at Machu Picchu. We had a Wikipedia article on Machu Picchu (on the iTravel app), asked some of the guards around, and slyly overheard some of the guides in the passing tour groups, and all in all got a lot of information without our own guide!

There are also other tours such as jungle tours and more adventure filled tours to get to Machu Picchu. We didn’t look into that but they are probably not in as high demand as the Inca Trail.

  • Whatever option you choose, bring lots of water and snacks as it gets hot and tiring walking around Machu Picchu and the food outside is pretty expensive (it’s a bit of a no-no, but the guards didn’t check any bags as far as we saw)
  • The best time is before 9 am and after 3 pm, because of the sun and the crowds (much better pictures!)
  • Book early for cheaper train tickets, and also if you want to do Huayna Picchu!
  • A free map is available at the entrance after they have checked your tickets
  • Bring some information about Machu Picchu either on your phone (iTravel!) or in print if you don’t want to spend the money on a guide ($25)

Traditional woman

Girl in traditional clothes

Chewing llama

Tuva petting a baby llama

Me and the llama having a moment

The main plaza

Check out more pictures from Machu Picchu and the rest of Peru here.