A trip to Bolivia would not be complete without a visit to the world renowned Salar de Uyuni salt flats. This remarkable area of Bolivia is the result of an ancient, 11000 square km lake that dried up and left the world’s largest salt flat in its wake. It truly is one of the most surreal pieces of nature on this planet of ours.
A trip to the Salar typically begins from the Bolivian city of La Paz or from the Chilean side in San Pedro de Atacama. When I visited, I went from the La Paz direction. In La Paz you can head to the main bus terminal (Terminal de Buses) and purchase an overnight bus ticket from one of the few vendors there that run from La Paz to Uyuni. Many of the tourists I met in La Paz had pre-booked their bus tickets with Todo Tourism (http://todoturismosrl.com/) but being that I wanted to just play things by ear and wing it, I did not. This is a great option but for those looking to save a little more money you can just go to the terminal, pick a company and go that route. The Todo Tourism bus costs 270 BS (~40 USD) whereas booking in person at the terminal can cost as little as 100 BS (~14 USD). However if booking one of these companies at the terminal DON’T go with the cheapest company you can find, you will regret the decision!!!
The bus ride from La Paz takes around 11-12 hours overnight. When I went in May, temperatures outside in this part of the world can dip to -10 to -20 degrees celcius at night! if you go with one of the cheapest companies there is a good chance your bus may not have heat so these 12 hours will be hell for you. When I arrived in Uyuni I heard stories from other travelers of no heat and ice cold buses. So cold in fact that the inside of the windows were all iced up! I decided to spring for a little better bus still costing only 150 BS (~20 USD) for the 12 hour ride but I had a heated bus, a seta that reclined very far, some English movies, for entertainment, blankets and a snack along the way too! Overall it was very comfy and I couldn’t be happier with the journey!
It was around 8PM when our bus left La Paz and before I knew it it was morning and we were arriving in Uyuni! I had not yet booked a tour either as I wanted to make it as much of an adventure as possible and just book things as I go. Fortunately there are a TON of tour companies in Uyuni offering 1,2 and 3+ day trips out to the salt flats. Some tours depart and arrive back at Uyuni while others depart Uyuni and drop you on the Chilean side of the flats in San Pedro de Atacama. I was working my way through Peru, Bolivia and down to Chile so I wandered around Uyuni until I found a tour company offering a 3 day trip, for a good price, ending in San Pedro.
The tour departed Uyuni just before 11:00AM. We headed in our white land rover a few km outside of town to what is known in the locomotive world as the great train graveyard. A set of train tracks used to service Uyuni but it is no longer in service and the trains that used this particular track now sit on the outskirts of town rusting away with each passing day. It’s a very touristy thing to do but if you are fascinated by trains, it is a different look at such machines and lets you explore the machines with free reign (even if the engines don’t work).
After a little morning train exploration we headed back to the jeep and then back in to town where our driver picked up the lunch and food baskets we would be using on the coming days of the tour. Once you leave town and head out to the flats, bathrooms are few and far between and even rarer are any sort of amenities or places to cook food. For that reason, on these tours they bring all the food with them and the driver prepares it for you each meal.
After lunch the real portion of the tour began. We headed about half an hour away from town where you could see the beginnings of the salt flats. Another 10 minutes later and we were literally driving right through the middle of the flats.
It is such a surreal feeling being here. An experience completely out of this world! If you look around, all you see is white as far as the eye can see save for a few cactus plants, mountains and tourists also on the same 3-day tour. It is no wonder that this place is such a contender for the list of seven natural world wonders!
After driving 10’s of miles out in to the flats we stop for some photo ops in a location where there is a bit of water on the top of the salt (I visited in May during the dry season so there isn’t much water around at this time) so you get the reflection in the pics just like in the postcards. Our driver (while not speaking English) was a great sport and knew exactly what to do to make the trip unforgettable. It’s hard to not have your breath taken away by the spectacular beauty of this vast expanse of salt flat. Sitting on top of the jeep you can see these strange patterns formed in the salt which only adds to the unforgettable experience of being in this Bolivian outback.
The next stop on the first day of the trip through the flats is at Incahuasi island (can you still call it an island when the water is all dried up). This giant island in the middle of the used-to-be lake is covered in giant cactus plants. Combined with an incredible view across the flats, this is definitely one of the highlight points of the entire 3 days.
The remainder of the afternoon was mostly spent in the jeep speeding across the flats to the point where we would be spending the night. Shortly before reaching the destination we made a stop to watch the sun set over the flats. Being in a place surrounded by the blinding white of the salt made for an incredible sunset. The white salt combined with the amazing colors of the winter sun above was definitely something to be appreciated.
The first night of the tour is spent at a salt hotel (more like a hostel). Yes! This hotel is literally made of salt. The group I was with included another Canadian, a guy from the US and a German couple. You do have the option of having your own room for a slight price increase. The German couple had their own room so the rest of us were put in a 3-bed room. It was surprisingly warm inside the hotel despite it being well below freezing outside and no insulation in the walls.
All the tour groups congregated here for the night where there was a delicious Bolivian dinner served including wine (for an additional fee), soup, bread and meat. Since power is a scarce resource out here, this was the time when everyone had their phones and cameras out to get them charged up for the following day. Another reason to always carry a portable battery pack with you when travelling! Electricity is a scarce and expensive resource this far out in to the flats in the middle of nowhere so the hotel actually turns off all electricity after dinner until 5AM when we get up to leave.
There are also hot showers available (again for an additional fee of a few Bolivianos) but after a day trekking around in the salt, it was very welcomed. Despite paying for a hot shower, there is no guarantee there will be any hot water left by time you get there. I was one of the unfortunate ones who did not get any hot water. This made for a quick shower in the ice cold water made only worse by the freezing outside temperatures that were coming in through the windows in the washroom.
That evening we hit the bed pretty early after dinner since we had to be up at around 5:30-6:00AM the next morning to get on our way. We had our breakfast at the hotel and were off by about 7:00AM. These days through the flats were long to say the least and you spend a lot of time just driving in the jeep to get from one place to the next since it is so geographically disperse. The early morning was made even worse by the biting winter cold outside and the fact that the jeep did not have a heater. Time to put on all your layers! The sun could not rise soon enough.
The first stop of the second day is at the south side of the Uyuni salt flats in the Chiguana desert. Here there are many rock trees and volcanic mountains (some active, some dormant). The second and third days are also filled with visits to many lagoons. These lagoons are usually filled with beautiful pink flamingos and due to the proximity to the flats, there is usually a lot of white salt coloring that ends up mixing with other minerals in the water to produce some amazing colors.
We made our way even further south to the Siloli desert which is one of the highest elevation deserts in the world and also one of the driest. Here you can find the rock tree, a giant piece of lava rock that is naturally formed in to a shape of a “tree”.
We stopped for lunch along side one of the many lagoons where there was a rare opportunity to use a washroom and, believe it or not, satellite wifi if you so needed and wanted to pay the hefty fee for that.
After lunch we headed to the red lagoon where, again, you can find many pink flamingos out and about. The red lagoon was one of my favorite! The water is a bright blood red color with some white areas from the salt as well as some green and blue colors from the algae and other minerals in the water. Surrounded by volcanic, snow-capped mountains makes it all the more surreal and you really need to just stop for a minute and appreciate the beauty of this amazing landscape.
Nearby the red lagoon we went to the “hostel” (if you could even consider it that) where we would be spending the night. The better description of this place is more like a shelter and that’s it. I had heard rumors that the second night was the coldest and I could now see why. We were at a high elevation of ~4000m, in the winter, and this building had no insulation or heat whatsoever.
There was no electricity in this building save for a few hours in the evening over diner when they turned the few light bulbs on in the place. It wasn’t all that bad though. I mean this far out in the outback of Bolivia you can’t expect a whole lot and everyone tries to be very accommodating. Besides, this is all part of the fun and adventure that I love most about travelling and it gives you a great memorable experience you won’t forget.
There are no hot showers at this place and the beds are just a mattress on top of a block of cement but it was quite comfy and no bed bugs! Our bedroom had 6 beds in it but there were only 4 being used by our group so in preparation of the upcoming ice cold night we divided up the blankets from the remaining two beds among ourselves for some additional warmth. That night I basically put on all the layers I had and slept wearing a toque to keep my head warm. it was surprisingly not that cold once you get settled in to your bed but getting out in the morning was a little more than chilly to say the least.
The next morning was an even earlier start at around 4:30AM. We had some toast and coffee/tea at the hostel before heading out before sunrise. It was so cold I ended up using an empty water bottle I had with me and filling it with hot water from the tea pot so I could take it with me as a sort of mini portable heater to give some more warmth. I sat in the ice cold jeep with the bottle under my shirt just to stay a little warmer. We passed the bottle around the vehicle so everyone could warm up their hands or whatever as needed. It was a little rough for a couple hours until the sun actually came up and started to heat a bit.
The morning began with a trip to some geysers which are caused by the volcanic activity in the ground from the surrounding mountains. The smell of sulfur was really strong here and the ground was warm so the heat was a nice touch. After the geysers we headed to a hot spring for sunrise. I didn’t end up going in since the water was very sulfuric and the thought of going outside in only a swimsuit in these sub-zero temperatures was not all that inviting this early in the morning.
The final stop of our tour was to the green lagoon which actually looked more blue than anything but that just depends on the angle of the sun when you see it. The green color is caused from the toxic copper in the water and like the others it is surrounded by volcanic mountains. Our jeep had a bit of a breakdown at this point so we spent a better part of 30 minutes here while the driver fixed it and we were on our way again.
At this point, we headed to the Bolivia/Chile border where I was dropped off and taken by another vehicle across to the Chilean side and the city of San Pedro de Atacama. I have to say, this border crossing, while in a beautiful landscape was one of the smallest borders I have ever seen but that only added to the authenticity of where I was!
I highly recommend anyone ever travelling to South America to make Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni a top destination on their list. It truly is an out of this world experience and one you would never forget!