I woke up standing at our hotel room door. Am I sleep walking? I thought, feeling that jittery, buzzing sensation that comes with waking up too fast. Then came the knock and the faint “Mama?” in a shaky voice. My subconscious mind must have heard the door next to ours open and close. I was in mommy-hyper-drive since the girls were staying in a separate room from us, so I had apparently launched out of bed before I was even fully awake.
“What’s the matter, sweetie?” I said to Liv as I opened our door.
She stood in the freezing cold hallway looking miserable. “I feel like I’m going to throw up and my head hurts.” At some point during our trips back and forth to the bathroom that night, it hit me. Yep, this is altitude sickness.
Going up in elevation from 1,600 feet above sea level in Santa Cruz to 9,000 feet in Sucre had only affected Brian for one night, so I thought we were in the clear. However, it looked like coming up to 12,000 feet in altitude had gotten us. One kid down to altitude sickness. As I helped Liv I wondered how many of us would bite the dust.
Our trip to Uyuni, Bolivia was pretty unplanned…not a surprise for us these days. Most tourists see the famous Salt Flats of Bolivia through an orchestrated, multi-day tour with a local guide company. As has become our modus operandi, the Carisch crew took the opposite approach. We got a flight from Santa Cruz to Sucre, booked a hostal for our one night there and reserved hotel rooms for our days in Uyuni. We figured all the other details would work out. And they did.
Our taxi for the 6-hour drive to Uyuni fell into place easily in Sucre through our hostal’s management. It was a curvy, jolting ride through stark desert hills and mountain plateaus. We stopped in Potosi for lunch, where our driver squeezed a couple more passengers into our van. Before long we had arrived in the flat, dry, desolate-looking town of Uyuni sitting at 12,000 feet in altitude. This would be the highest point any of us had ever spent the night.
Brian quickly found the town’s main streets with restaurants, shops and guide company offices. Within a couple hours we were choosing from multiple options to tour the Salar de Uyuni the next day.
But now here I was with one kid showing clear signs of altitude sickness. The mother in me wanted to load her into a car immediately and start heading toward lower ground out of fear her mild symptoms could jump to life threatening at any second. However, the optimistic traveler in me insisted she would be fine in a couple hours and we’d all get to spend a glorious day at one of the most acclaimed natural attractions on the planet. Guess who won that bet? Yay!! Optimistic traveler!!!
Salar de Uyuni is absolutely spectacular. The vast whiteness set against the brilliant blue sky was like nothing we’d ever seen. We spent the morning setting up funny perspective photos and cruising around with our guide on the impossibly flat landscape.
We had our lunch at Isla de Pescado, a fossilized coral reef covered with massive cactuses. “I think Dr. Seuss must have visited here,” Liv pointed out looking around at the bizarre terrain. Taking in the stark white salt flats running up to the massive mound of earth covered in tall, fluffy, multi-armed cacti I could definitely see her point.
During the rainy season from December through March, Salar de Uyuni is famous for its amazing mirrored images created by the thin layer of water blanketing the ground. With it being the dry season in Uyuni, we didn’t expect to see the effects of water on the terrain. However, after we asked our guide about it, he drove us over to an area that did have standing water. Ours was one of very few cars out there to experience the mirrored images of Uyuni that day. It was made even better by the incredible sunset we had for it.
When we first arrived in Santa Cruz, we weren’t sure we would make it over to Salar de Uyuni. It required a flight, a long drive, and a stay at very high elevation. With three kids we thought it may not be worth the hassle. Needless to say, that logic seems CRAZY now! (Or as my girls sometimes joke, “Totes cray cray!”) We are so glad we made it to this unique part of our planet.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Salar de Uyuni, DO IT! Should you go, here are a few words of advice:
- If you’ve ever had trouble with altitude or haven’t experienced high altitude before, think about staying in Sucre or La Paz (whichever you fly into) for a few days before you go to Uyuni. It will give your body time to adjust and decrease the chance you’ll spend your days there battling altitude sickness. Our family has never had issues at altitude, and yet it still affected us a little.
- Take some pain reliever for headaches. We had some mild headaches throughout our stay in Uyuni. If you’re really worried about altitude sickness, you can even buy canned oxygen.
- Getting a taxi from Sucre to Uyuni is easy. You don’t need a tour company to arrange it for you. Just ask at your hotel and they’ll call one for you. We can’t say the same for the drive from La Paz because it’s a much longer route.
- Multi-day packages are offered by many different tour companies in which you stay in rustic hostels throughout the area. We opted to spend several nights in the same place (with heaters in the rooms), and it worked out just fine. We didn’t need a tour company. Brian easily found several guide companies in town the night we arrived with availability to take us out the next day.
- Two words: Sunscreen. Chapstick. Don’t forget them, and be sure to use them frequently.
- For the best perspective shots the camera has to be on the ground. It doesn’t work as well to hold the camera and shoot. Smartphones actually work better than high end cameras for the fun shots.
- Even if you go in the dry season, ask your guide to take you to a place with standing water for the sunset. As you can see, it’s an otherworldly sight.