What’s a good place to travel over the President’s Day long weekend? Everywhere within the USA is either expensive or cold; middle of winter at home. Where is warm, good weather, and not expensive in February? The Southern Hemisphere! That reminded me of February-April are the best time of the year to see the “mirror effect” in Bolivia’s famous salt flats – Salar de Uyuni. That is, during the wet season once a year in Uyuni (at around 12,000 feet in altitude) when the world’s largest salt flats (4,086 sq miles) is flooded by a thin layer of water to create the world’s biggest mirror!
I started to research on the shortest way to get to Uyuni to save time versus the 11 hours bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni. I found there are reasonable domestic flights from La Paz to Uyuni. I know American Airlines flies to La Paz which I can redeem with AA miles; cash price is always expensive to Bolivia from Boston. The American Airlines flight arrives La Paz at 6:27 AM which aligns perfectly with the domestic flight at 8:40 AM arriving Uyuni at 9:40 AM with BoA (Boliviana De Aviacion) and most of the tours to the salt flats start at 10 AM. The most popular tour to the salt flats are the 3 days 2 nights itinerary to visit the salt flats and the colorful lagoons in that area and ends either at the border drop off to Chile or back to Uyuni in the afternoon by 6 PM. The last domestic fly back to La Paz is 8:40 PM which arrives La Paz at 9:40 PM. OMG, the itinerary works out perfectly for a long weekend trip!!! I texted my travel addicts group (my brother, my cousin, and their friend Jeffrey) to sell them the idea and they are in!!! Summary of our itinerary and transportation cost:
|Thursday||2/15/2018||6:00 PM AA 1172 Boston to AA 922 La Paz via Miami||35,000 AA miles + $5.60 tax|
|Friday||2/16/2018||Arrives La Paz 6:27 AM, OB 302 -8:40 AM to Uyuni arrives 9:40 AM – 3 Day 2 night Tour||$228 round trip|
|Sunday||2/18/2018||Tour – Uyuni OB 315 – 8:40 PM to La Paz 9:40 PM|
|Monday||2/19/2018||La Paz 3:35 AM to Boston 9:02 PM||32,000 Lifemiles + $90.02 tax|
FYI…the AA flight from Boston to La Paz was over $1,000 roundtrip so it was a good use of miles. We booked in November for travel in February so all the saver awards were gone, otherwise, could be as low as 17,500 AA miles one way only.
I contacted a couple of highly-rated, reputable tour companies from TripAdvisor to inquire for the private 3 days 2 nights for 5 people and found that the itinerary of each of them are almost the same so I picked the cheapest one with Salty Desert Adventures for $250 per person; the price included the private 3 nights 2 days tour (SUV and driver), English tour guide, private rooms with private bathroom, and all the meals. There are cheaper shared tours for less than $100 for the same itinerary but you’ll be squeezed into the car and room with other strangers and shared bathroom. I am semi-OCD so I have to pay extra for a private bathroom and cleaner accommodation! The national park fee is not included which is around 226 Boliviano.
The hardest part wasn’t the planning or routing but rather on obtaining the Bolivia visa. I read that La Paz has visa on arrival but that takes a long time and with the short connection, I don’t want to risk it. Another option is to get the Bolivia visa beforehand from the nearest Bolivia Consulate which is in New York City. You can either mail the application or drop off the application. My first attempt was mailing it with instructions and online application from the NYC office: http://boliviany.org/en/consular-affairs/visas/tourist-visa Before filling out the application, you need to gather the following documents:
- Complete the Sworn Statement For Visa Application – you fill it out online, print, sign, and mail it
- One recent 2″ x 2″ passport type photograph – upload online
- Original Passport with at least 6 months of validity – upload online and mail it
- Copy of the hotel reservation or invitation letter from Bolivian friends or relatives indicating the host address – upload online
- Round trip ticket or copy of travel itinerary – upload online
- Last Bank statement that shows economic solvency (The first page only). Parent’s or Legal Guardian’s Economic Solvency documents are accepted for underage applicants – upload online
- Visa fee for US PASSPORT: US$ 160.00 – money order or fill out a credit card authorization form which I can’t find the form at the NYC office website so I go with the money order
- A prepaid envelope address FROM: YOU TO: YOU to return your passport and visa
The process is 5 business days from receipt of the mail but due to the snowstorm, my mail was delayed that it took over a week to get to NYC. My mail-in attempt failed that I filled out the country of birth incorrectly because the form was poorly translated; I should’ve used Google Translate instead! Thus, the return envelope arrived with just my passport, the form highlighted the area that needs correction and the money order. Due to the Christmas and New Year holiday, I was afraid that if I mail again, my passport will not be back on time for my Southeast Asia trip so I decided to wait after the Southeast Asia trip to try again. My brother and Jeffrey, on the other hand, were visiting their friends in NYC so they dropped off their application and passport. They got their visa after 5 business days with another trip to NYC to pick it up. With their success, after our Southeast Asia trip, my cousin Judy dropped off our passports for us in NYC when she went to pick up hers. A week later, we made a trip to NYC to pick up our passport and visa and it was a success! What a relief that we got everything we need to travel to Bolivia within two weeks!!!