Updated on December 7th, 2020
If you’re interested in seeing salt for as far as the eye can see, photographing yourself sliding off the back of a dinosaur, staying in a Salt Hotel, seeing lakes & mountains of all colours of the rainbow, a rock in the shape of a tree, a fault line, a geyser that reaches 50m high & the best view of the Milky Way you may ever have the privilege to experience, then you’re in the right place!”
Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), Andean Desert & surrounding area
While touring South America in Spring 2017 I chose Bolivia as one of the countries to visit. I think my original decision was based around “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” being one of my favourite films & loving the ladies in the bowler hats (who I now know as the beautiful Cholita’s). It also fitted in nicely between a trip to Argentina with my friend and a tour taking in Peru. I spent 12 days of my time on the Bolivia Highlights Tour with Intrepid Travel. I have to say it blew me away. There were fewer tourists than Peru, but the landscapes were absolutely breathtaking. The pinnacle of the whole tour was the 3 days we spent in the Uyuni Salt Flats & surrounding area.
If you’re interested in seeing salt for as far as the eye can see, photographing yourself sliding off the back of a dinosaur, staying in a Salt Hotel, seeing lakes & mountains of all colours of the rainbow, a rock in the shape of a tree, a fault line, a geyser that reaches 50m high & the best view of the Milky Way you may ever have the privilege to experience, then you’re in the right place! All I can say is Go you won’t regret it!
What did the 3 days consist of?
It really does feel like you have driven to the end of the earth. The town is in the middle of nowhere & has a strange eerie feeling as you walk around the streets.”
Although our main tour was with Intrepid, our time in the Salt Flats area was led by Sol de Manana & they were fantastic. As a group of 11 plus our amazing guide, Julia, we had 2 x 4-wheel drive vehicles for the duration of our tour.
What do you need to take?
Between the sun & reflection off the salt, the effect can be vicious if you don’t protect yourself.
- Water. Enough for the whole of the 4 days. This is really important as you cannot get water along the way.
- Limited luggage. The tour company gives you a soft duffel bag which is all the luggage you are able to bring. The rest is locked up & left at your hotel.
- Warm clothing & lots of layers. The area can get very cold, especially at night & when you get up early to see the sunrise. Layers are essential.
- Travel sickness medication. The roads are bumpy & relentless so take this as a precaution in case you think you may suffer.
Before the tour, we spent the night in the town. We stayed in the Samay Wasi Hotel. Our guide Julia was exceptional & would give us an orientation walk when we arrived in each new location. So, to help you if you don’t have this luxury. These would be my recommendations:
Pizzeria Donna Isabella. We ate here for delicious pizza made out of quinoa.
Also recommended was the BBQ serving tasty smelling meat on the Main Street, near the square. However, the advice was to avoid the salad, just in case.
Extreme Fun Pub. Different & based on a heavy drinking mentality but I didn’t go in the evening. A daytime visit here gave us a great chance to look at photos from the Salt Flats. We were then able to plan our approach for the next day & buy some props if needed!
I love a market & in Uyuni, it’s small but still fascinating to have a wander around. I bought avocados at every opportunity to enjoy for breakfast!
Also, please take the opportunity for a hot shower (although sometimes hot is a rare luxury in Bolivia). It may be your last chance for a few days.
Day 1 – Salar de Uyuni
After packing up & shipping out, our first stop was the train cemetery just 3km outside Uyuni Town. We got there early & it would be my advice to do the same & avoid the crowds. Apparently, it can get very busy! For me, there is something very photogenic about abandoned trains, left to rust in the sun. Here you can climb & photograph them to your heart’s content.
We had an interesting tour of this local salt-producing town. They described the process of how you go from the Salt Flats to the product you use to season your food. I was given a bag by the tour guide which still holds pride of place in my kitchen!
Uyuni Salt Flats
Our first stop here was an old Salt House & Museum for a few photos. If you have a flag from your home country bring one along as the area designated with flagpoles makes a very picturesque addition to the landscape. It was fun to try & find our own national flags for a photo (the British one being tiny & screwed up at the bottom on a distant pole – understated & slightly apologetic!).
We then moved on to the main event which was the photos.
The Salt Flats are 12,000 km² in total, 180 km wide & 19 m deep. The largest of its kind in the world. When the tectonic plates in the sea were raised, it created a lake separated by the mountains. The water then evaporated which left deposits to create the flats, 10 billion tonnes of salt!
Driving across the vast expanse of white rock is hypnotic & you can see hexagonal shapes in the ground where the natural geology of the salt forms into what looks like paving.”
If there is water, then it’s even more magical due to the amazing reflections. We only found a small patch but it still made for some interesting photos as the mounds of salt were reflected (drying before they can be processed).
Fun with Photos
When we found our spot, we were well away. Basically, because all you can see is white, you can play with perspective, taking photos in a really fun & interesting way. All you need are a few props, a photographer who is slightly meticulous & willing to lie on the ground to give endless directions on how to move your body, some friends & you’re well away!
“I have snaps of me sliding off the back of a dinosaur, eating my fellow travellers on a plate, tiny people standing along the strings of my woolly hat & drinking out of a giant beer bottle.”
We also made a group video of us dancing in & out of a Pringles Tube to the accompaniment of the Spice Girls. You can view the (impressive?!) results of these efforts in my Video Diaries.
Incahuasi (Fish Island) is an outcrop in the middle of the vast expanse of salt which again messes with your head. It is all that’s left of an ancient volcano, peering through the unreal landscape. Fossils & spikey cacti cover the island, the oldest cactus being 900 years! It’s worth taking an hour to hike around for the 30BOB entry fee (UK£3.30).
As you admire the vista from the island it seems so surreal to see vehicles driving across what your head is saying is water & then parking up to join you. While we were there, we watched some cyclists approaching which was a thing to admire for both aesthetics & athletic achievement.
Where we stayed was fascinating. That night I slept on a bed made of salt, in a house made of salt bricks & on the edge of the worlds biggest salt flats. It was a unique experience!”
Day 2 – The Lakes
Train to Chile
Our first stop was the remote & seemingly endless train tracks which mark a straight line directly to the border of Chile. It is a working track but without traffic, it is also a great spot for some amazing photos.
Next was a viewpoint of a distant volcano, smoking when we were there & chance of a toilet break. On this trip, not all stops have facilities & here was my first experience of the “Inca Toilet”. Basically, find a spot & take care of business. My advice is to always go with a friend to act as a lookout. I didn’t. It seemed to be everyone had the same idea. I ended up having to change location 3 times as each time I thought I was alone, someone would appear around a nearby rock. What made this worse was that it always seemed to be the same guy with his Go Pro! Anyway, back to the tour…
I was blown away when we stopped at this lake. Between the stunning reflections of the nearby mountains & the majestic flamingos which populate the lake, I could have stayed here for hours. There isn’t much else to say except the peace & tranquillity was mesmerising.
Our second lake of the day, known as the White Lake, again featured beautiful flamingos & was the location of our lunch stop. From here we moved towards the Atacama Desert & the border with Chile. On the way, we passed Laguna Honda (a heart-shaped lake) & the 7-colour mountain, Siloli.
Along with the flamingos, there were also stops when we spotted some of the unique wildlife of Bolivia. Llamas, alpacas, vicuña (a bit like deer & related to the llama), viscacha (a cross between a rabbit & a squirrel), Andean foxes & an emu all made an appearance along the way.
Arbol de Piedra
The next fascinating feature was to see this rock, shaped just like a tree. Its form has been caused by the strong winds which carry sand across the desert, eroding the soft sandstone & creating this interesting landmark.
Our final stop was this mind-blowing lake. It’s 60km2 but less than 1 metre deep. The microscopic algae which breed in the waters & the rich mix of minerals give it a very distinct pink colour. Again, it is a mecca for flamingos, with 3 species nesting in the lake’s waters. The flamingos can be identified by the colour of their legs. The Andean variety have yellow legs, Chileno are red & the very rare James flamingo has pink legs. The vista is totally surreal & very otherworldly!
Very Very Basic Accommodation
The description on the Intrepid website of our accommodation that night sums up my experience perfectly:
“Describing (the hotel as) ‘basic’ considerably oversells it. It looks like a post-apocalyptic frontier trading post and, despite overnight temperatures dropping to -200C in July, there’s no heating, insulation, carpet, hot water or electric lighting after 9pm. For once you’ll welcome sharing a room with ten others because their body heat warms the place up a bit.”
We had to get up very early in the morning (5.00AM?) which was fine. However, when we went to set the alarms on our phones we noticed there was an hour’s difference between us all. It turned out that we were so close to the Chilean border that some of our phones had automatically updated!
Sleeping at Altitude
That night I really struggled to sleep. We were at the highest point (4000m). When I lay on one side, I found it really hard to breathe. The next morning our lovely guide Julia explained.
The heart is having to work harder when lying on the left side. It was the first time on the trip that I felt really restricted by the altitude.”
In addition, for some reason, one of our neighbours decided to “sleep” by playing a Guns & Roses song really loudly on a loop. Even when people knocked on the door to complain it just continued. Needless to say, I will never appreciate “You Should Be Mine” without the feeling of foreboding & exhaustion again!
Day 3 – Geyser Sol de Manana & Hot Springs
Sol de Manana
Our very early (& weary) start in the morning was well worth it as we arrived at the Sol de Manana geyser as the sun was rising. It was freezing cold, so the warming volcanic jets were very welcome but came with a stark warning not to get too close for fear of being burnt. The main geyser is at 4990m in altitude & can reach 50m in height.
The landscape was like another planet & felt like we had literally walked into a Star Wars location. In addition to the main geyser, there were smaller jets forcing hot steam through holes in the ground & bubbling mud.”
Yet another volcano & lake, but this time a green one! Unfortunately, the light on the day we visited wasn’t creating the vivid effect you can often see here. However, with Volcano Licancubar in the background, it was still an impressive sight. The ground here is very high in arsenic and copper which gives the lake its unusual colour.
Salvador Dali Rocks
We headed into the Pampa Jara Desert & saw a collection of rocks in the distance which are named after the artist as they very strongly resemble his painting. It highlights perfectly the surreal nature of the landscape.
Polgues Hot Springs
On the shores of Laguna Salada is a pool of natural hot springs which was the perfect (almost) end to an unforgettable trip. We decided to go later in the day to avoid the crowds at this spot & it paid off. The water is 400C & relaxing in these bathes, overlooking the lake is an amazing memory.
Valley of Rocks
The final stop on our tour took us to this interesting collection of different shaped rocks, standing together right next door to the San Andreas Fault Line. The rocks themselves were impressive & walking around we were identifying shapes & forms in them. For me though, the Fault Line was the part that I was most fascinated by.
It was unimpressive in terms of being photogenic. However, to see this exposed rock poking out of the ground, tracing its way off into the distance & recognise the power & impact it has, blew my mind.”
As we headed back to Uyuni Town for the end of this part of the tour I was in awe of the beauty & landscapes of Bolivia. As a country, it has far fewer visitors than its neighbours like Peru. For me though, that just made it all the more magical. I would recommend a visit to Bolivia to anyone who is considering exploring South America & the highlight of this trip will undoubtedly be a tour of the Salar de Uyuni. You will not regret it!
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