A GUIDE TO THE OTHER WORLDY WONDER OF THE UYUNI SALT FLATS

A GUIDE TO THE OTHER WORLDY WONDER OF THE UYUNI SALT FLATS

After spending some much needed time staying put in one place in Sucre, it was time to get moving again – this time to the harto frio (intense cold) of the Uyuni salt flats and the landscapes surrounding it, in the South-west corner of Bolivia. Every Bolivian that we talked to commented on the extreme cold, but also the incredible beauty, of this desolate yet captivating area of the country.

Travelling to Uyuni

After getting dropped at the station by our Bolivian host family Dad (so nice!) we hopped onto a bus bound for Uyuni, which took about 7-8 hours. Note that in the Sucre bus station there were weird fake bus ticket counters (re-sellers?) that you have to walk past to get to the real ones. We bought our tickets in advance from a travel agent so we were guaranteed a seat on the bus, for about 80 bolivianos each (15 AUD/11 USD). The bus took us via Potosi, but was direct so we did not have to change buses.

Potosi looked pretty damn grim. I know that a lot of people stop there purely to do mine tours, but given they are real, working mines (read: dust, explosives, claustrophobia) we were pretty happy to leave it off our itinerary. No colonial charm here, just haphazard, unpleasant on the eye buildings, and lots of rubbish. Everywhere. Piles and piles of rubbish wherever you are is one of the most affronting aspects of traveling through Bolivia, and it’s truly heartbreaking to see. We tried our best to avoid using disposable packaging wherever possible, so as not to contribute to the problem.

Arriving in Uyuni close to dusk was a bizarre experience. Huge packs of dogs roamed the dusty streets, the temperature was dropping precipitously fast, and locals waddled around in enormous doona-like coats. We had definitely arrived in the wild wild west, or maybe even the Siberia of South America.

Choosing a Tour Company for the Uyuni Salt Flats

After quickly locating our rather bizarre accommodation (prices are relatively high in Uyuni so we took what we could get!) we headed out to lock-in a tour to the Uyuni salt flats for the next morning. It’s possible to book online in advance but to get a cheaper price it’s totally doable to check out tour agencies on arrival and book it in then and there.

We ended up choosing a 3-day, 2-night Uyuni salt flats tour with Salty Adventours, which had positives and negatives that I will go into a little later. We also chose to go with a Spanish speaking guide to practice our Spanish, which had the unexpected side-effect of us touring with an awesome, respectful group of people. Oh and it was about $50 AUD/$40 USD cheaper, woohoo!

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour: The Good, The Bad and The FREEZING

Before heading out on our tour, I did as little research as possible, in order to be surprised by what we were going to see. Of course, everyone has seen the classic Uyuni salt flat photos, but this part of the world had so much more to offer than that!

If you want to keep it a surprise, maybe stop reading here, but if you’re intrigued I’ve got all the deets for you.

Day 1: The Salt Flats, Isla Incahuasi…and some other random stuff

We set off at 10:30am, a pretty civilised time to start a multi-day tour, meeting at the office of Salty Adventours. We were able to leave our large bags at the tour company’s office which was handy, although I would recommend locking your bag as they sit just behind the desk of the tiny space. Make sure you pack PLENTY of warm clothes – I cannot stress this enough. If you haven’t got ample warm clothing (I’m talking 3-4 layers of warmth minimum) it is possible to buy clothes in Uyuni town. Do it.

Our first stop was the train graveyard, which in reality is just a whole lot of junk in the desert. I didn’t find it that interesting, mainly it was a little sad the wanton way humans create so much waste. This stop was only 20 mins though so we were out of there fairly quickly, I definitely think they could scrap that stop considering the already jam-packed itinerary.

Next up was a short stint in a town that I can’t even remember the name of that essentially just sold souvenirs, again an unnecessary stop. The most interesting part of the town was on the way, when we saw a wild Vicuña on the side of the road! So cute.

Around this time I started feeling the altitude a little – even while taking Diamox, a medication that apparently speeds up acclimatisation. It’s important to remember that this tour takes place at altitudes of between 3000-5000 metres, so plan accordingly, either by slowly working up to the altitude in Uyuni town, or acclimatising for a few days there, taking it easy.

We continued on to the ultimate Insta-fodder, the salt flats themselves. I’m not sure what the weather is like during the rest of the year around Uyuni, but in May when we visited there were brilliant blue skies every single day. The blinding white of the Uyuni salt flats was magnified by the unrelenting sun and made for a spectacular sight. We had a few stops along the salt flats, including lunch in a bizarre salt pavilion, which was complete with salt drop-toilets and a salt llama. Interesting.

Our last stop on the salt flats was to take some super cliched photos, you know the ones. It was quite a hilarious experience as none of our group was that into it, but it definitely broke the ice and was a bit of fun.

The last destination of the day was Isla Incahuasi, and I don’t know why I was expecting water in the salt flats! but I was, and so Isla Incahausi was a bizarre and astounding sight.

It’s a tall island marooned in the salt flats that is covered in enormous cacti! Some of these cacti are over 10 metres tall, and considering they only grow 1 centimetre per year, they are some pretty ancient spiky plants. The views from the top were incredible, and it boggled my mind trying to imagine this landscape as a huge inland sea, which is what is was hundreds of thousands of years ago.

We trucked on, and after experiencing an absolutely incredible sunset, we had a long hour and a half drive to our accommodation for the night. As soon as the sun began to set, the temperature plummeted. During May, June and July the overnight temperature can drop to -20 celsius, which is no joke! Our guide had some kind of aversion to using the heater and kept turning it off after asking for it to be put on. When we arrived I was chilled to the bone and could not function!

The hotel was really cool, entirely made of salt, which as it turns out is not actually that practical. The floor was literally loose salt, so it covered your stuff and made you really salty, in both aspects of the word. It was a cool experience but I really struggled to enjoy myself on night one because I was so damn cold! So again – bring triple the amount of warm clothes that you think you’ll need.

Day 2: Lagoons, Flamingos and Colourful Mountains

Setting off at the extremely uncivilized time of 6:30 on day two, I managed to cheat myself into a few extra minutes of sleep by skipping breakfast, score. During today’s traversing, we left the salt flats behind for completely different landscapes.

We stopped by multi-coloured mountains, bizarrely beautiful colourful lakes with crunchy white borax deposits, and tons of flamingos. The landscapes were truly mindblowing and it was such an added bonus to see so much more incredible natural beauty beyond the Uyuni salt flats. The accommodation that night was a little more basic, but had the added bonus of flocks of Vicuña hanging around.

The sad news that there were no showers available that night was partially alleviated by a free bottle of wine with dinner. One of the English speaking guides invited us to the local bar which I’m sure would have been an experience – however, we were all done for at the ridiculous time of 8pm. Which was probably a good thing, considering our departure time the next morning was… 5:30am!!! I didn’t sign up for this. Okay I guess I did.

Day 3: ‘Rustic’ hot springs, more desert and stepping into Chile

Dragging ourselves out of bed in the dark, without power, when it was -15 degrees celsius was not the high point of the tour. But we soldiered on and came to our first stop, some incredible natural geysers that were at an altitude of around 5000 metres above sea-level! I really thought that someone might fall into one of the sulfurous pools, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Next stop was the hot springs…which were…er…rustic? I was really looking forward to relaxing and being warm for the first time in 3 days, but when we arrived we found out we only had 40 minutes to soak! Our group joked about hiding under the water when our guide came, but because one of us needed to get to the Chilean border it was just a joke, sigh. The hot springs themselves were incredible, but the infrastructure surrounding them was terrible! Picture a tiny wooden shack for around 30+ women to change in. Glamorous. Added to that were the surliest, rudest staff perhaps in all of Bolivia! Anyway, the springs served their purpose and I finally felt warm again!

After the springs, we continued to head to the border of Chile, close to the San Pedro de Atacama desert. We visited more lagoons, including the incredible Laguna Colorada which was jaw-dropping. We also stopped by bizarre rock structures in the desert, including the Piedra de Arbol, which were interesting sites.

We saw even more wildlife too, including vizchacas (a cute Bolivian sort of rabbit) and foxes, which was really cool. We weren’t expecting to see any wildlife in such a harsh environment, so it was another added bonus.

We made it to the border of Chile just in time to drop off one of our group to the awaiting bus, and then we started the long drive back to Uyuni. The drive was punctuated by some cool stops, but it was definitely a long one.

When we arrived back to Uyuni, we quickly re-packed our stuff on the street and headed out for a goodbye pizza dinner with our group at the unexpectedly delicious Minuteman Pizza (located inside Hotel Tonio). After that, we were ready for our night bus to La Paz. I really don’t recommend hanging around Uyuni for too long, unless you have a thing for packs of dogs and sub-zero temperatures.

Overall, we had a fantastic experience due to the incredible natural beauty of this area. If I did it again, I would perhaps hope for a driver that had a little more enthusiasm for his job, and definitely a company that allows more time at the hot springs. The takeaway – absolutely do NOT miss this corner of Bolivia if you visit!


Have you done the Uyuni salt flats tour? What did you enjoy, and what would you skip next time?

I’m Stephanie and this year I’m taking a break from life in Australia. I’m traveling South, Central and North America, learning Spanish, eating tacos and seeking out amazing swimming spots. When I’m taking time out from that hectic schedule I like to write, read and relax – and pat cute street animals that I really shouldn’t. I probably wrote most of what you’re reading from my hammock and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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