16th - 17th November 2003
The road to Uyuni from our camp spot was interesting, with different scenery from the day before. Most of it was through sandy tracks but then it became a riverbed that took us to Atocha. It was a bitterly cold morning and we could not decide if the river puddles were frozen over or just covered in salt deposits. Atocha is a small mining town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, built on the side of valley above the river.
There is a very pretty cemetery just outside the town but the not-to-be-missed highlight according to the guidebook was a Cessna "impailed on a post" in the central square - we assumed that meant it had crashed into a post and remained there as a memorial. We trawled the town looking for the central square - not easy - as to get around the town you have to keep returning to the riverbed, but eventually found it after asking someone where the plane was. When we got there we realised why we had got a surprised look from the man we asked. It was not exactly impailed on a post, but rather mounted on a post. We weren't sure of the significance....
After speaking to a couple of Germans who were looking for a lift to Tupiza - the opposite direction to us - it was back into the river for us. Just by the cemetery the riverbed forks, left turn for Uyuni, right turn to go back to Tupiza via a different route from the one we had taken the previous day.
After a while the road climbed out of the riverbed and we were heading across a flat plane. The road had pretty horrendous corregations and the going was quite slow. Later in the day we passed through a very arid desert section where we were dragging our diff through the sand as the ruts created by the lorries were so deep. Some thoughtful soul had placed a donkeys head by the side of the road as a grim warning.
We made it to Uyuni by late afternoon, a very basic town, and completely isolated. It's not worth spending more than a night there as there is literally nothing to do other than wander round, bumping into various tourists looking for people to make up a group to go out on the salt flats. Everywhere you go you are hassled by agency touts.
Being cheeky, we popped into one of the agencies to draw on their experience of going out on the salt flats. The first agency didn't seem to understand that we only wanted advice and were not looking for a driver and vehicle. The second agency, Toñito Tours, though, were really helpful and pretty switched on. The owner spent time with us describing the route they did, and answering our questions about what was worth visiting and what was not. He assured us that we would have no problems travelling out on our own as long as we entered and exited the flats at the marked causeways.. He said that some agencies might well say to us that it's not safe to go on our own without a guide who knows the flats inside out, but they only say that to encourage you to pay for a guide; it wasn't necessary and with a GPS and our topographical maps, we would not get lost.
Toñito Tours also has its own hotel - the plushest in town by far - and its own restaurant (Minuteman Pizza). In return for all the free advice we felt it was only fair to go and eat in the restaurant. It was well worth it. They cook fantastic pizzas and have a good menu. The eggs and homefries for breakfast caught our attention on the menu so we headed back again in the morning! Chris Sarage, the Gerente Proprietario, is a really nice chap and when we mentioned we were heading out onto the flats he gave us a few GPS coordinates. When asked could he recommend a butcher in town, we got a guided tour around the meat market, allowing us to stock up on Alpaca steaks, chicken and veggies.
Before we left town we went out to the train cemetery for a mooch around. Well Ed did, Sue guarded the car.