3 DAYS IN THE UYUNI SALT FLATS
Itinerary, costs and top tips
There are many attractions drawing backpackers and tourists alike to Bolivia. Perhaps the most famous of all are the Uyuni salt flats. Uyuni itself is a small town in the middle of the nothingness that is Southwestern Bolivia, a place you'd never visit in a million years. But Uyuni is merely the starting point for what was undoubtedly one of the most epic adventures we have ever experienced. With harsh desert landscapes and freezing cold nights Uyuni wins no awards for luxury. Instead it offers you a taste of some of the most spectacular natural landscapes this planet has to offer.
We used a company named Trans Omar for the 10 hour journey from La Paz to Uyuni which cost 100 BOB (£11). The second we stepped off the bus we were swarmed by touts trying to sell us salt flat tours. Having been warned of many fakes being sold at the bus station we pushed our way through (seriously, we had to push) and made our way out onto the sandy streets.
All 50+ of the tour companies are located within a 2 block radius of each other. We had made a list of the top 10 on TripAdvisor and set about visiting each office to compare prices and services. We settled on a 3 day 2 night tour with Andes Salt Expeditions for 700 BOB (£78) which included all food, travel and accommodation. You also need 150 BOB (£16.70) for the National Park admission. Our adventure would start early the following day.
Arriving back at company's office we met the other 4 people and the driver who we would be spending the next 3 days with before piling into the old school Toyota Land Cruiser that would serve as our chariot.
Stop numero uno was the train cemetery, about 2 miles outside of town. The train cemetery is exactly what it sounds like; a junkyard where dozens of massive trains have been dumped and left to rust and erode agains the elements of the desert. This place is a playground for explorers and a urban-style photographers dream. Being so close to town you can visit this spot on your own. A sunrise or sunset visit is supposed to be incredible.
After the train cemetery the next stop was the town of Colchani, a small town with a population of only 600. Here is basically your last chance to buy any additional supplies you may want or use the bathroom before venturing deep into the desert. (Expect to pay between 5 and 10 BOB for each and every trip to the bathroom over the next few days). A short while later we came to a stop at a small collection of water pools. The pressure build-up from the gas below the earth surface results in streams of bubbles shooting turning the pools into mini hot tubs. Pretty cool.
The scene for lunch was a hotel made entirely of salt. Outside this hotel is the Dakar Monument and an impressive collection of 100 plus flags from various countries around the world. We ate our lunch in excitement as we knew our next stopping point was our opportunity to get the famous depth-perception shots which are synonymous with the tours.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain TEN BILLION TONNES of salt. With that much nothingness you can have some serious fun taking an array of funny, creative and outright weird pictures and videos. I have to take a second here to give a special shout out to our tour guide, Raymond, who was amazing in assisting all 6 us for the best part of 2 hours. At one point he set up an empty Pringles can in front of the camera on the ground with resulting video showing all 6 of us, in miniature form, come dancing out of the can. For some extra comedy, set up a camera off to the side somewhere and let it record some hilarious behind-the-scenes footage of you and your group jumping and dancing around trying to capture your photos.
Eventually we had to move on to our next destination. Rising up high above the desolate nothingness of the salt flats is Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island) Can you guess what it is? That's right. An island. Full of cacti. Hundreds and hundreds of cactuses (some 30ft tall) sit atop this hugh mound of salt and volcanic rock. As with many things in Bolivia, admission is extra. 30 BOB (£3.30). As impressive as it is, it's not something we would go out of our way for but seeing as you're already there, surrounded by nothing but salt, it's nice for a little change of scenery.
Back on the salt and back in the jeep we continued onwards, stopping an hour so later to watch the sunset, one which will long live in our memories. I think most companies will only stop for the sunset if the whole group agrees to it as it means arriving at your accommodation for the night later than usual. Given that your driver/tour guide will also double as the group's cook, it makes for quite a long day for them. With the sun now set and the brightness of the salty desert replaced by darkness, we settled in for the 2 and a half hour drive to our resting place for the night. The hotel, naturally, was made entirely of salt.
Day 2 would involve a lot of driving, 4-500 km worth. Our first point of interest of the day was a section of the disused train track. Long and straight, it seemed to stretch for miles over the horizon and off into the distance. Towering above us off to the side was one of the many dormant volcanoes dotted around the desert. The 3 hour drive to our lunch venue was broken up by stops to 3 beautiful Lagunas (Lagoons) - Canapa, Hedionda and Honda. Scores of flamingos scattered around the edge of the blue and green water, set against a backdrop of mini mountains. The stench of flamingo $h!t can be quite overpowering and the sight of it, well, that adds a nice white highlight to the water's shine. Strange, I know.
Lunch done and back on the road, we arrived at Arbol de Pedro (stone tree). A rock formation great for a little exploring, climbing and photography.
We had one more stop on the agenda for the day, Laguna Colorada (red lagoon). This shallow lake sits near the Chilean border. The Borax, Iron and algae elements in the water combine to give the lake a red/orange colour.
Our digs for the second night in the desert was a tiny little "town" just off to the side of Laguna Colorada. The town, whose entire survival is dependant on the tourism from the salt flat tours, consisted of about 15 buildings - 1 was for accommodation and the rest sold over-priced beers and other essentials.
Out here, in the middle of nowhere, the black night sky was illuminated with thousands of the brightest stars I have ever seen in my life. One of the few moments in my life where I have left utterly speechless.
With a big final day ahead of us, our guide was keen to get an early start. 4 a.m to be precise and, in Uyuni, 4 a.m is accompanied by temperatures of around -5℃. Wrapped up in about 6 layers of clothing we were rushed to our first stop of the day just in time for the spectacular sunrise. Even if you've never been to Uyuni there's a good chance you would have seen the geysers. With the rocky ground littered with gapping holes spewing steam and bubbling sulphur, this location would be better suited to somewhere in outer space than on earth. So alien is its appearance that this location has featured in many blockbuster movies as another planet.
Even though the sun was now up, it was still only a little above freezing. Which is why our next stop presented a bit of a dilemma. Hot springs. The perfect opportunity to warm up and relax a little. In order to do that though, we would need to remove our layers and change into bathing suits, exposing ourselves to freezing desert air. Knowing full well we were probably never going to be back here again in our lives we decided to take the plunge. To be honest, as far as to springs go, these ones are kind of slimy and gross but it was nice to feel warm for the first time in a few days. Oh yeah, you have to an additional 15 BOB (£1.70) for the springs.
By this point we had already been through some pretty remote areas but, when we stopped in the Salvador Dali desert, we were met by the most barren and surreal moon-like environment. Thank heavens our driver knew where he was going because there is nothing around to provide any kind of reference point.
Now near the Chilean border Laguna Verde (green lagoon) was our final stop before the long drive back.
One thing that became very apparent on the drive back was the strict code of allegiance that all the tour guides/drivers stick to, even those working for different operators. We came across a vehicle which had come off the road and snapped an axle. Not only did our driver stop to help but each and every one of the next 25+ jeeps which passed also stopped to help.
It's great to know that in such a harsh environment, even if something does go wrong, there is plenty of help that will come to your rescue.
So there you have it - tough, cold and tiring but Uyuni is a truly unique and amazing place and one that we would encourage you to go and see for yourself.
- Be prepared - bring water, snacks and sunscreen
- Altitude and motion sickness can be a problem - have some tablets on hand, stay well hydrated and avoid alcohol (if possible)
- It's cold - bring layers. Many, many layers
- Limited electricity - fully charge your gadgets pre-trip and get a portable charger.
- Don't forget to get your passport stamped when you enter the national park (not required).