‘Surreal’ is the word most commonly used by travelers to describe their visit to the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats on earth. To be honest I cannot think of a better word to describe it myself (but then again, I’m no native English speaker). We were spellbound by Salar de Uyuni.
The 10.000 km2 of blinding whiteness can be found near the remote town of Uyuni, in the far southeast corner of Bolivia. Because the bus ride was shorter than expected we had some time to explore Uyuni in the afternoon. One hour appeared more than enough to accomplish that, there’s just not that much to see. And since we’d already pre-booked our tour, there was no need to find a decent tour operator.
Because finding a dependable one is a bit of a crapshoot and the Salar de Uyuni tour was one of the things we’d fantasized about for many years, we had decided to book a private tour through a reliable tour company, Ruta Verde. We just didn’t want to get stuck with a bad car, a drunk driver or being crammed with six people in a 4×4.
That it would come at a premium price? So be it. As we probably will never get back here again we wanted to make it count. And it did. The Salar de Uyuni Tour was without a doubt one of the absolute highlights of our six week trip in South America.
Here’s our report about our three day Salar de Uyuni tour ending in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile).
Day 1. Salt day.
We get picked up at our hostal at nine o’clock in the morning. Finally a tour that doesn’t leave at some ungodly hour (though that will change the next few days…). Our driver is José. He speaks as much English as we speak Spanish, which is hardly none at all. No problem, that was our own choice.
Our first stop is the Cementerio de Trenes, the train cemetery just outside Uyuni. The rusty old steam locomotives and railroad cars dating back to the 19th century, when there was a railroad car factory in Uyuni, are fun to climb. But the true attraction beckons us to move on. We want to see the wide expanse of dried salt.
It’s just a short ride before we get there. José explains in Spanish how the salt flats were formed. He’s clearly well informed, but much of it is lost in translation. We get the basics, but the deeper understanding completely eludes us.
Not to complicate things we nod at everything he says. Anyway, there’s not much geophysical knowledge needed to appreciate how special and beautiful the salt flats are. If only there weren’t so many clouds. The flats look more grey when the clouds move in front of the sun. But once the sun comes out the world is dazzling white again. Just the way we envisioned it.
Driving across the flat saltscape is like driving through a winter wonderland, the tracks José follows to navigate across the flats looking like iced over pathways (fortunately being not slippery like ice).
Lunch is near Isla Incahuasi, a small island in the middle of the salt flats covered by enormous Trichoreaus cacti, that grow just a few centimeters each year. As some of the cacti are as tall as nine or ten meters, you can imagine how old they are.
After walking around on the island for a while we set off to a spot in the middle of the salt flats for making some trick photos. With sky and salt flats seeming to merge into one, this is the ideal place for it. But it proves harder than anticipated.
We’ve brought along a lot of props but manage only a few decent pictures. The hard wind blows away our lighter props, but we also struggle with depth of focus. We just can’t get it right. Pity.
At the end of the day we leave the salt flats behind us and drive to the salt hotel where we’re going to spend the night. But it looks nothing like the salt hotels pictured in brochures and travel magazines. It seems to be made of bricks and it has an empty and institutional feel to it.
There’s just one way to find out if this is a genuine salt hotel: by licking the walls. They taste salty, so we guess it’s the real deal.
Day 2. Flamingo day.
At 6.15 AM the alarm goes off after a surprisingly good night’s rest. We’ve got a long driving day ahead of us. The scenery is completely different form the day before, but equally stunning.
We drive through sandy desert landscapes like the Desierto Sololi with the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), have vistas of snowcapped volcanos (some of them active) in the distance wherever we look and pass several very scenic mountain lakes with lots of flamingos.
José again makes every effort to explain how the landscapes have been formed, why the water of the lakes have different colorations and what makes them toxic for most animals except flamingos. Every time we nod and marvel at yet another wonder of nature.
Maybe the most bizarre of them all is Laguna Colorada that we visit at the end of the day. The lake has a red-orange-rusty color thanks to algae living in the water. When we arrive, however, the sky is overcast, it’s cold, it’s windy and we are disillusioned by the sight. But after a little while the sun comes out again and then….. Wow.
We want to stay longer, but according to José it is time to go to our accommodation. After just fifteen minute we arrive at a nondescript village without interesting views. Why did we have to leave early? Apparently José wanted to secure the only en suite double for us. Sweet but unnecessary.
Day 3. Geyser day.
Again we get up early. Four o’clock this time. Phew. Travel is not always fun. But the rewards will be there as well. Driving through the dark we wonder how José knows where to go: there are no lights and few orientation points.
The reason for getting up in the dead of night is to visit the Sol de Mañana geyser field. It’s bitterly cold when we get out of the car. We’re at an altitude of approximately 4.800 meters and the first rays of sun are just starting to appear at the horizon. Our breath fumes as much as the many fumaroles and boiling mud pots that can be found her.
Time to warm up a little and what better way than to do this in a hot water pool. The Termas de Polques are only a short drive away and though the water is supposed to be only 30oC it feels much warmer. The hardest part is undressing in the cold – changing from our winter coats and hats to swim gear – and getting out of the warm water again, braving the cold for a picture.
We only can stay in the water for about twenty minutes because José has to drop us of at the Bolivia-Chile border by nine o’clock and there are still some stunning landscapes to admire, like the Desierto de Dali, with mountains in hues of red and yellow.
The grand finale is at Laguna Verde with the perfectly shaped cone of the 6.000 meter high Volcan Licancabur mirrored in its waters. A fitting end to one of the most amazing places on earth we’ve ever visited. For lack of a better word: surreal.
At the border a car and driver await us to take us to san Pedro de Atacama. A pleasant surprise because in our booking it was not mentioned. We’d expected to take public transportation into Chile. We say goodbye to José, go to customs and head for Chile. 50 kilometers later and 2.000 meters lower we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama where we go through Chilean immigration.
Here our backpacks get searched thoroughly by immigration officials. Maybe they’re checking on drugs, but the search seems mostly targeted at finding fresh food products like meat, vegetables or fruit and seeds, which are strictly forbidden to bring into Chile.
Travel tips Salar de Uyuni
Sleep – Before our tour we spent the night at the Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel. It’s a pretty basic place in the center of Uyuni. The twin en suite room was very basic, but beds were good and the shower was hot. A simple breakfast was included. We had wifi connection in the courtyard only and it was slow.
During the tour accommodation was even more basic, especially the second night, but it was better than we’d expected. But don’t count on luxuries like fine dining (simple), tv (absent), wifi (absent) and strong, superhot showers (a lukewarm trickle). In winter it can be very cold, so bringing a warm sleeping bag (or renting one) can be a good idea. We traveled mid-October and didn’t use our sleeping bags (and that says a lot because we both get cold very easy).
Transport – We traveled by local bus from Potosí to Uyuni. According to our Lonely Planet guidebook it would take six hours to cover the 200 km that separate both cities, but a new road has shortened travel time to 3,5 hours. A pleasant surprise.
Tour – There are several options for booking a Salar de Uyuni trip: 1, 2, 3 and even 4 days. Most tours leave form Uyuni, but you can start your trip in Tupiza as well. The most popular tour is the 3 day tour either dropping you of at the border with Chile – which is very convenient – or driving back to Uyuni (which is a very long ride).
When booking a trip most people arrange it on arrival and end up with six people (sometimes seven) in a 4×4, which can feel cramped. The big draw to do it this way is obvious: sharing a tour with others cuts costs significantly. A standard three day tour will set you back $ 120-150.
We booked a private tour and had to pay for the whole car. All costs were included though. We didn’t have to pay any of entrance fees. On cheaper tours these are added costs. And from what we heard from other travelers we gather that our salt hotel was better quality.
Health – Salt flats and altitude make the sun extremely bright and intense. Therefore a good pair of sunglasses and a hat are very useful accessories to bring along. Since you’ll spend most of the tour above 4.000 meters, altitude sickness can be a major issue, particularly if you’re not acclimatized. Drinking lots of fluids (water) is essential. More on dealing with altitude sickness can be found here.