Destination Bolivia is full of interesting landscapes, colour, mountains, winding roads and more. One of the most popular places to visit, usually on a tour from the town of Uyuni, are the incredible Salt Plains – Salar de Uyuni. I’ve been to plenty of different places in my life, from the fire pit that is the Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan, to the Sahara Desert in the middle of Niger, but I don’t think I’ve been to a place that gave you the feeling you were on another planet quite like the Salar de Uyuni.
To get out there I took a tour – and unless you have your own vehicle, which I’m not sure is feasible (it might be I never considered the option personally) you are going to look for a tour. There are a range of tours available, and no shortage of different tour companies. You can book from La Paz, you can take a tour that begins in La Paz, but I did it all from Uyuni, a town that is a dusty little place and the jumping off point for the majority of tours to this amazing part of Bolivia.
I did it on something of a budget, but I took a three-day two-night tour. I aid initially 720 Bolivianos, a little more than $100USD, and then paid a bit extra at the second hotel so that I could have my own room. These days I definitely prefer my own room if I can get it.
I arrived late afternoon un Uyuni. I met loads of tourists on the bus from Sucre and talked to them and some had already booked tours and others hadn’t. I really needed to start my tour the next day if at all possible, and also because Uyuni is not an interesting town or one that’s worth wasting a day or two in.
It took a little time to find a hotel, eventually I ended up in the Hotel Avenida, the place I wanted to stay had doubled its price since the Lonely Planet had been written, and was no longer a real budget option. In South America in particular I found accommodation prices significantly more than the ol’ guide book listed them, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re travelling this continent with the Lonely Planet Guides.
I had a look around in the evening for different tour companies, and went into the offices of a couple of places the people I had met were trying. They just were a little too expensive, or they were going for five days instead of three. I had a couple of places on my list, they were already shut so I had to leave it for the morning.
So I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed as they say the next day. This was the day after the last American election, I’d woken up to find Donald Trump President so you know, in some ways I remember this day more vividly.
I went to at least two places I had earmarked but both of them were full for the day’s tour. I was about give up when I walked past an agency just next door to my hotel, Brisa Tours, and they had one space in their jeep. And they were leaving within half an hour or so. So I hurriedly packed my backpack and threw it in the jeep, and before I knew it we were off!
I didn’t have the chance to even check reviews, on Trip Advisor they have only been reviewed 11 times and have 7 five star reviews, the rest are poor or terrible, which I was surprised at because the tour I think meet expectations comfortably. If you’re going, I can only advise you both check online for recommendations, and then when you’re on the ground before making your final decision by talking to travellers who have recently been on a tour.
For me a 3-day tour was perfect. I considered only a one-day tour, which gets you out to the salt flats and train graveyard and back in a day, but the three day tour takes you around the region and you get to stay out there for two nights and see some pretty cool stuff. Also on the longer tours you have the option of heading to Chile. On the third day we arrived at the border with Chile in the middle of the mountains and half our tour left us there and crossed over taking a bus into Bolivia’s neighbour.
In this way it really can help you moving on, if you are traversing South America on a grander scale. Otherwise like me you can get returned to Uyuni and then seek onward transport to wherever you are going. I was going south to Tupiza, and there’s a daily bus, there are transport options to other places in Bolivia – a direct bus to Sucre or Potosi for example, and one to La Paz, and the very slow train to Oruro – but that I think is a couple of times a week only.
For our tour there were five participants and our driver Walter, who was also our ‘guide’, but not in the sense that he was a full on guide who talked you through every little thing. He was friendly though and we all got along well and he explained where we were going and why. Which was all we needed, and we weren’t exactly touring historic sites so there wasn’t that much to let us know about.
So it doesn’t hurt to do a little research before you get there and have an idea about which tour group you want to go with, and if you can book yourself in in advance, I would recommend that. You never know how you’re going to be though – I wasn’t 100% when I went on the tour but I was ok – I felt like I might be about to get sick and in a place like Bolivia where you deal with food and altitude, this can always side track your plans at the wrong time, so it’s nice to have a bit of flexibility too.
Before I go into the details of the tour, the weather I think is pretty temperate and doesn’t change a lot throughout the year, as you are at 3,600 metres or just over for the majority of the time, and you may even go a bit higher I think on the Chilean border. Certainly it was blue skies every day, cold at night, mid-teens Celcius as you maximums. That was early November, going into Summer, in June/July for example it is colder, and much colder at night averaging about minus 13 degrees Celcius then for minimums. Anyways, can be around zero at night in the summer, so keep that in mind.
So as already described I found my tour and left all pretty quickly. Most tours do leave in the morning by nine or ten o’clock at the latest, so that’s something to keep in mind. The first stop was this famous ‘train graveyard’ which is part of most tours – and I should say that despite the dozens and dozens of companies running tours, most tours I imagine cover the same essential sites without much variation.
The train graveyard was quite sad in a way. There was a dignified, rusted beauty to these beasts just sitting out in the middle of nowhere on tracks. Although we weren’t yet on the salt plains, the salt in the air had reached these engines a long time ago and had created what you see today. It’s a huge selfie spot, and to prove what I said above about companies stopping at the same things, there were a lot of jeeps stopped there and even more tourists climbing aboard the engines looking for the perfect selfie. I imagined being there by myself, and how amazing it would have been. It was still amazing, don’t get me wrong, but somehow it was sad. I guess I just don’t like to share experiences with too many people, lol!
Before we knew it we were on the salt plains, the ‘Salar de Uyuni’. White salt across the ground as far as the eye could see. It was mesmerising. In 2016 (and in other years) the Dakar Rally has been held in South America, and you’ll see in my photos that the sign made of salt was still standing when I was there. There’s a restaurant, but we were on a budget tour and we had a prepacked lunch in this sort of indoor picnic area. We spent time doing ‘trick photos’ which are all the rage for visitors of the salt flats, Walter our driver and guide gave us some advice of some simple ones to do.
The Salar de Uyuni used to be an ocean, as you might have guessed, thousands of years ago. Now all that remains of the water is the salt that used to be in it.
Out of the salt plains rises an island, Isla Incahuasi which was our next stop. We went for a walk around the island, which was full of cacti and again provided some jaw-dropping views. Near by were some salt bricks which we laid out to spell words. Again, for the photos! My team had a month earlier won the (football) premiership in Melbourne, they are the Bulldogs, so a spelt out ‘woof!’
The hotel on the first night was not made out of salt, as I sometimes falsely recall, but it was unique in some ways and also it was pretty basic. Actually my diary says it wasn’t salt, and then says it was partially made of salt. I remember the outer walls at least being salt. We had dinner there, there wasn’t a whole lot around.
The next morning was driving around and stopping for photos. There was a stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere – actually all of Salar de Uyuni is the middle of nowhere – crossing some train tracks. Suddenly we were joined by a bunch of other jeeps and the people inside for photos.
The first main stop was at Canyupa Lagoon, and we are now off the salt flats. Despite the lack of salt, everywhere we went was a little ‘other worldly’ in some respect. Here we saw a flock of flamingos, if indeed that’s how you categorise a gathering of these fine pink birds. They are pretty special birds all in all with a real unique character to themselves.
We then headed to the Edihonda Lagoon, another spot for flamingos. Here we could smell the sulphur warming the water, the region is somewhat volcanic. The funniest thing was when the birds stuck there heads deep in the mud, and then pulled them out suddenly. Lunch was outdoors, chicken, pasta and vegies and I liked it, which is nice because all in all the food on these budget tours is not going to excite you in any way – very basic stuff.
In the afternoon we stopped here and there to photograph mountains and volcanoes, and we stopped at these wind-formed rocks called Arbol de Piedra, which reminded me a little of Wadi Rum in Jordan.
I paid an extra 120 Bolivianos for my own room in the hotel at Lagoon Colorada, and that included a bathroom too. I remember the power being weak, possibly a generator or battery there – the first hotel too. Dinner at the hotel, Spaghetti Napolitana.
Checking my diary this morning I woke at 415am and packed by torchlight, so no electricity over night. We left by 430am to catch these geysers in the early morning light – sulphur and water coming up through the surface of the earth. Not quite as impressive as the ones near Rotorua in New Zealand, but still…
We went to a place by a hot spring for breakfast, we had pickets and then some hopped in the hot spring. It was really cold and obviously the spring wasn’t, but I didn’t fancy it.
Then it was another lagoon – Lagoon Verde (green) and this one was at 4850 metres so we did get pretty darned high. After that it was to the Atacama border to drop off two of our party who were crossing to Chile, one of the most remote borders I have ever been to. Then it was practically over by 9am on the final morning – the bulk of the day was journeying back to Uyuni – we got back shortly before 4pm, so this indicates how far away we had gone over the two and a bit days.
On the way back was a lunch stop and a we went through a number of little villages, with patches of green which got larger as we got closer to Uyuni. We saw llamas a number of times on the way back and stopped for photos.
All in all it was a brilliant three days. From Uyuni I organised a ticket southwards to Argentina, and that was to be a challenging day indeed. If you head to Bolivia some day – and 2021 numbers will most likely be down even if international travel is back on people’s agendas – then don’t miss out of this other worldly place, it’s stunning!
Thanks for reading today – May the Journey Never End!