Hello! My name is Ilona and I am an avid traveller from Northern Germany. While I have always loved travelling, I soon realised that my annual leave did not grant me enough freedom to see all the places I wanted to see. That is why I quit my job in May 2017 and took, Read More
I have never told any travel stories on this blog before. Almost all of my posts have been about things to do in specific places. But this story is one that I want to share with everyone, because it is one that I enjoyed a lot and also because there are far too many negative stories about the Salar de Uyuni out there.
When I plan a trip, I do a lot of research. I enjoy spending hours in front of a computer, looking up far-away places that I could travel to. I especially enjoy it when it’s four in the morning and I’m having a horrible night shift. It makes me realise that things will be better one day.
There was only one moment during my research that I wondered if I shouldn’t rather keep my job, do more night shifts and keep safe. It was when I researched the Salar de Uyuni.
At first, it sounded exciting. I knew I wanted to see the Atacama desert and when I read that you could do a three day tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, my first thought was that I wanted to do it. Then, I opened my guidebook that warned about drunk drivers, freezing cold nights and one out of five people declaring this trip a never-ending nightmare.
I thought that maybe the author had had a bad day when writing that chapter and started my research online. The very first blog post I opened was about how the Bolivian driver was so drunk on the second day, the tourists just loaded him into the trunk of the jeep and drove themselves.
That was when I decided to stop all research. I wanted to see the Salar de Uyuni, so I would have to cross the border and do the trip. There was no use in reading up on dangers until I would be too afraid to go. And now that I’m sitting on my bed in our hotel in Uyuni, I am very glad that we went. The trip was amazing, definitely one of the highlights of my whole journey through South America.
We started early in San Pedro de Atacama, spending an hour queueing at the Immigration office. This time, I got an exit stamp from Chile. Last time I had been in the country, I hadn’t. Not that anyone had cared so far. But the good news is that if you do this trip, you will be accompanied by a Chilean guide who will make sure you complete all the paperwork you need.
After finishing in San Pedro de Atacama, we went straight up to the Bolivian border. And when I say up, I mean it. We went from 2300m to 4800m in less than an hour. Fortunately, we had already spent a couple of days in San Pedro and had gone up to 4300m on day trips a couple of times. If you are coming from sea level, do not go directly to Uyuni. Instead of enjoying the trip, you will spend it feeling like your skull is going to split open. Not to mention that altitude-sickness can be seriously dangerous.
After having breakfast at the Bolivian border and completing all formalities there, we transfered our luggage to jeeps. A jeep can hold a maximum of six people. The luggage goes on top, so you will need to pack a day-pack with everything that you need. For the first day, that includes a bathing suit and a towel. We were lucky and were only four in the jeep, a couple from French Guyana, my friend and me. Plus our driver, Efraím, who replied with, “perfecto” when we told him that we spoke un pocito Spanish.
In retrospect, I think that Efraím spoke far more English than we spoke Spanish. But he took a lot of pleasure in giving us explanations in his mother language, repeating things slowly over and over again until we finally understood. I learned a lot of Spanish words from him during those three days and can now have conversations about every single mineral you can find in the Andes and altitude-related headaches. While tours generally do not include English-speaking guides and drivers, most of them seemed to speak at least a few basic words. And if you really do not speak any Spanish at all and are worried, be assured that there will be someone in your jeep who will understand basic Spanish and can translate for you.
Having introduced ourselves to Efraím, we started driving north. The first day took us past a couple of lagoons. I won’t bore you with their names, I’ll just tell you that each and every single one was stunningly beautiful. The farther we got along, the more flamingos we saw, until we finally reached the red-coloured Laguna Colorada at lunch-time. Thousands of flamingos live in this lagoon, their pink bodies a great contrast to the dark-red water, the multi-coloured mountains and the blue skies above.
Besides lagoons and flamingos, we came past herds of vigunas, crossed surreal-looking desert landscapes and stopped at geysers and bubbling mud-pools. At an altitude of more than 4900 meters, the smell of rotten eggs made me feel dizzy, as if my head was wrapped in cotton. I was still well off, compared to my friend who almost passed out. It must be a common problem because Efraím told us that we couldn’t stay longer than ten minutes so we wouldn’t breathe in too many of those toxic gases.
That night, we stayed in a refugio close to the Laguna Colorada. We shared a room between the four of us. Knowing that nights up here would be cold, we instantly grabbed the blankets from the two remaining beds and shared them between us. I ended up with four heavy blankets and two lighter bed covers, which was more than enough for the night. In fact, it was so much that I felt like I was getting crushed by the heavy blankets.
I did this trip at the end of November. If you’re coming in winter, ask your travel agency about the possibility of renting a sleeping bag in addition to the blankets. Winters are freezing cold at this altitude and the refugios do not have heating. You could also buy blankets in San Pedro de Atacama. In fact, if you do not have any proper winter clothes, I highly recommend you buy warm clothes before leaving on this trip. They are not expensive, and they make your life so much better. In November, I was wearing a woolen llama jacket over my fleece jacket, plus a scarf, hat and gloves and I was fine in even the coldest places. In July, you’re going to need far more clothes than that.
Hot showers, by the way, are available for a fee and are a great way of warming up after a cold day.
The second day, we went further north, always driving parallel to the Chilean border. We saw more volcanoes, deserts, strange rock formations, vigunas and, of course, more lagoons with more flamingos. No matter how many of those pink-coloured birds I’ve already seen, I’ll never get tired of watching them. They are incredibly funny, especially when searching for food.
That afternoon, we saw first traces of people living permanently in the area. We came across a tiny village and shepherds with their llamas, before stopping in the village of San Juan for the night. This time, we stayed in a salt hotel. The walls really were made of giant blocks of salt – I tasted them. It was warmer than the previous night and I slept very well, until my alarm woke me up at four in the morning.
We drove straight from the salt hotel to the Salar de Uyuni. The sky was slowly getting light as we drove through the salt desert. We eventually stopped and got out. Everything was quiet, except for the salt crunching underneath our feet. A white landscape stretched out until the horizon. The sky behind us turned pink as the sun rose. It was one of the most magical moments of this trip.
After sunrise, we visited Isla Incahuasi, an island overgrown with cacti in the middle of the desert. We had breakfast in the parking lot and then drove out into the salar, until the white stretched out to the horizon. It was here that we started taking the famous Salar de Uyuni pictures, playing with perspective and the two accessories we had brought along – sprite bottles and an empty can of Pringles. Our guide brought out two plastic dinosaurs and we had a lot of fun taking pictures in the desert.
Our last stop was the Cementerio de los Trenes, a graveyard of old trains that was once used to transport minerals from the mines onward into the big cities. We climbed the rusty trains, took a couple of pictures and then finished with lunch in Uyuni.
If we had wanted, we could have gotten an onward connection to Potosí or La Paz on the same day. We prefered to stay in Uyuni and recover from the early morning start, leaving the town on the next day. That afternoon, we bought some souvenirs and mostly relaxed, looking through our photos and laughing at the ones from the Salar de Uyuni.
It was an amazing trip and I’m glad I went. We hadn’t had any trouble at all. The accommodations are basic, but they were clean and I was warm enough during both nights. Our driver was amazing, keeping us safe on those unpaved roads and making sure we got the most out of our experience.
The company I went with is called Cordillera Traveller. They have offices in both Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama and I can highly recommend them if you’re planning on doing this trip yourself. Don’t let any bad reports scare you off because you will be rewarded with stunning scenery, thousands of flamingos and, of course, the salt flats.
San Pedro de Atacama is one of those places where you can find yourself staying a lot longer than planned. Located in the middle of the Atacama desert, it is not the town itself that makes the stay memorable. It is the many attractions in the surrounding area that can easily keep you occupied for a week, if not longer. Here are some of the highlights that you should not miss:
Located north of Salta, almost in Bolivia, the Quebrada de Humahuaca is a place unlike anything else in Argentina. A gorge in between two mountain ranges offers multi-coloured hills, forests of cacti, a unique culture and many historical sights. It is not a surprise that this valley was declared a world heritage site by Unesco.
One of Paraguay’s biggest tourist attractions are the Jesuit missions located in the south of the country. When researching Paraguay, I could not find much practical information about them, so I decided to put together a guide on how to visit those ruins and also the ones located on the other side of the river, near Posadas in Argentina.
If you’ve never heard of the Jesuit missions, they are settlements founded by the Jesuits in colonial times. They were inhabited by natives, who were westernised and educated in Christianity, but in return were protected from enslavement.
The Jesuits’ power grew so much that the Spanish crown got afraid of them and eventually expelled them from South America. Their missions fell into disrepair and their ruins, located in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, can now be visited.
To visit those sites, you should base yourself either in Encarnación, on the Paraguayan side, or in Posadas, on the Argentinian side of the Paraná river. Regular busses go from one city to the other. Remember that if you are not travelling with a South American passport, you will need to get off at immigration on both sides of the border to get stamped in and out of the countries. You always need two stamps in your passport for one border crossing.
The largest Jesuit mission in Paraguay is located in Trinidad. To get there, you must first go to the bus terminal in Encarnación. From here, you will find lots of busses leaving towards Ciudad del Este via Trinidad. The bus drivers will find you and sell you tickets. If not, just ask around and someone will point out the right bus to you.
As of November 2017, a bus ticket costs 10.000 guarani. If you do not have any Paraguayan money, you will see lots of money changers at the bus terminal. Just say ‘cambiar dolares’ (or pesos or whatever you have) and people will direct you towards the closest person willing to change money.
With that money, you buy a bus ticket (and also a bottle of water if you don’t have one yet) and then leave for Trinidad. Make sure to tell the bus driver that you want to see the ruins in Trinidad and he will eventually tell you where to get off.
It is a fifteen minute walk northwards from the bus stop to get to the ruins. Here, you will buy your entrance ticket and are then free to walk around the archaeological site as you wish. We barely saw any visitors when we came here, so this is a great chance to have a tourist attraction (almost) all to yourself.
When you are done visiting the ruins in Trinidad, you should continue to Jesús. There are two ways to get there and both require you to walk back to the main street. Turn right and keep walking until you see a gas station to your left. This is the road leading to Jesús and from the intersection, you can either take a bus that is supposed to leave hourly or a taxi that will be waiting there for you. It is also here that you can find a small and cheap restaurant, if you get hungry.
We went by taxi and paid 40.000 guarani for the round trip. Our taxi driver dropped us off in front of the ruins. The ticket you get in Trinidad is valid here as well and allows you to enter Jesús. Once we were done, the driver waited for us in the parking lot and took us back to the intersection in Trinidad.
From here, you can easily catch a bus back to Encarnación. Just wave at any bus going past. The fare is another 10.000 guarani for going back to Encarnación.
The Jesuit missions in Argentina are just as easy to visit as the ones in Paraguay. To get here, you have to start in Posadas. Try to arrive at the bus terminal early enough – the last bus you can take is at 12:30pm. You need to ask around the bus station for someone to sell you tickets to San Ignacio Miní. Don’t buy your return ticket yet, as you do not know how long you will need and can easily do so on the bus back.
Once again, you should tell your bus driver that you want to go to San Ignacio so he can let you know where to get off. From the bus station, you walk northwards to get to the ruins.
While the Jesuit missions in Paraguay are well preserved, standing tall in grassy areas, the ones in Argentina are overgrown by jungle. Some have been reconstructed, others have been left as they were found. The one in San Ignacio Miní is the one that has seen the most reconstruction and you can easily spend an hour or two here to see everything.
Once you are done with the ruins, you need to get back to the bus station. While it is possible to visit the other ruins by public transport, it involves a lot of walking and takes a long time. The far easier way is to take a taxi from the bus station. We paid 450 pesos for the taxi (as of October 2017), including wait time at both Missions.
The first ruins we visited were in Loreto. They are the most crumbled ones and in many places, you can barely see the rocks overgrown by jungle. From here, we went on to Santa Ana. At both ruins, guides showed us a museum and the layout of the missions, so we knew what we were looking at.
From the mission in Santa Ana, it is a very short drive to the bus station. Our driver dropped us off here and a local guide selling delicious cheese bread helped us flag down a bus to get back to Posadas. In case there is nobody at the bus station (which is highly unlikely), just wave at a passing bus and say “Posadas” to the bus driver. They are very helpful.
On a side note, I have heard of people who have done the missions on both side of the border in one day, starting in Argentina in the morning and then crossing over to Paraguay. It is doable with a taxi, but if you have come that far already, shouldn’t you take your time to properly enjoy those sites?
Let me know if you’re planning on seeing the missions in Argentina or Paraguay. And if you found this guide useful, I would love to hear some feedback.
I did not know much about Paraguay before going there. In the guidebook, I had vaguely read up on Jesuit missions in the country’s south. I knew that Ciudad del Este was a shopping town located next to Iguazu Falls. And I knew that Asuncion was Paraguay’s capital.
So when it came to crossing the border, my friend and I made a rough plan. Go to Asuncion, see the Jesuit missions and figure out everything else along the way. Up until we arrived in the capital, I did not have a clue on what to see there either. It wasn’t until half an hour before our bus arrived that I finally opened my guidebook and looked into it.
Now, if you’re planning on visiting Asuncion, let me give you one piece of advise. Don’t count on spending days in the city without running out of things to see. You can do a day trip to the countryside, but the capital itself can easily be visited in one day. If you’re wondering on how to spend that day, here are the main things to do: