Bolivian flag

El Salar de Uyuni: Two and a Half Days of Colour…and a Little Bit of Salt

Five Brits and I piled into a Landcruiser one warm, peaceful late winter’s day.  Warm, that is, with just a few gusts of icy cold air blasting us every once in a while.  And peaceful, except for our increasingly urgent need to pee.

“They have water problems here,” mentioned the Chilean with crinkly eyes who had driven us from San Pedro to the Bolivian border, the starting point of our tour through the Uyuni Salt Flats.  “So, no toilet here.  Only out there.”  He gestured into the desert.

Another frontier.  Another poke at neighbouring countries.  Welcome to South America.

Chilean / Bolivian border
Where our Salt Flats journey began

Stuffed with ham and cheese sandwiches, Milo and coffee (Some people had believed Señor Crinkly Eyes’ suggestion that the Bolivians wouldn’t feed us again that day), we were ready and itching to head out and see the landscapes heralded by so many as their favourites in the continent.

Two nights and two and a half days of four-wheel-driving through de desert and Uyuni’s Salt Flats awaited, and we were nothing less than stoked beyond belief to be starting.

Bolivian Flag Waving in the Wind
The Bolivian flag followed us everywhere…

The team

Our group was made up of Victoria and Steve (a beautiful London couple I’d met much earlier in Puerto Madryn where we whale-watched and drank mountains of tea as if we were Welsh), Nick (also from London, a non-typical lawyer and owner of the quirkiest panorama setting I’ve ever seen on a camera) and Michelle and Justin (a well-travelled couple from Yorkshire whose accents had me wishing I could replicate them, despite a lifetime of listening to my own English father put his on).

Oh, and me.  The only one not from the motherland.

We left with Jorge our driver, a Uyuni native and man of few words.  Jorge was working his eighth year as a driver and had been put in charge of the antics of newbie Juan, himself driving behind us with six others.

Salt Flat Tour Vehicles
Typical 4x4s used by tour companies operating through the Salt Flat

DAY ONE

Day One – which I feel should be officially re-named Lake Day – was a veritable water fest.  Lagoons (lagunas) of all sizes and colours were visited, the most notable for almost everyone being the blood-red Laguna Colorada, which owes its colour to a specific micro-organism, to which in turn, the naturally white (!!) flamingos owe their pinky hue.

Laguna Colorada
The shockingly red Laguna Colorada is home to a colourful little micro-organism to which it owes its tone.
Laguna Colorada
Yep, yep. It’s red.

Other highlights of Day One include a dip in a thermal bath, the Sol de Mañana geysers and a strange rock formation reminiscent of Dalí’s works…

Thermal Baths
Definitely worth stripping off for…though with the altitude and the water’s heat, you won’t stay in for long!
Sol de Mañana Geysers
The geysers at Sol de Mañana provide a lot of bubbly muddy entertainment…and stink like hell, of course!

…all before you retire to your lodgings for the night.

Salt Flats Tour Accommodation
Our low set accommodation on night one.

When starting your tour from San Pedro de Atacama, this first night is wildly advertised as the coldest on the tour: And without the benefit of heating, it is well worth renting a sleeping bag (20Bs).

While nothing salubrious, our rooms were large and the building basic but comfortable, which considering the horror stories you hear about accommodation during Salt Flat tours, was excellent!

Dorm room on Salt Flat tour
The shared bedroom was large and the beds were muuuch more comfortable than expected…though do rent a sleeping bag!

DAY TWO

Day Two involves a lot more driving, and after being treated to a pretty sunrise, by 8am we were ready and the 4×4 strapped up with our numerous backpacks.

Sunrise
Worth getting up a little earlier for!

Day Two sees you pass by rock formations including the famous Árbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), flamingo-filled lagoons, desert landscapes, volcanic remains before visiting San Juan (last stop for supplies if you’re having a sugar-craving).

Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda with its perfect mirror-like surface…
Flamingos Reflected in Lagoon
We had our lunch by this lagoon, entertained the whole time by the flamingos and their curious little *chirrrrp chirrrrp* sound.

Flamingo

Don't Pee Here
I especially love that they’ve included the little boy and girl figures!

The second night is spent in one of the famous Hoteles de Sal (Salt Hotels), buildings constructed of salt bricks.  Don’t ask me how they get the salt to stick together – but it’s definitely a new sight!

Salt Hotel Bedroom
While it wasn’t as cold as the previous night, sleeping bags were not available. Putting on everything you own works somewhat!
Dining Room Salt Hotel
Chairs, tables and floor all…yep, salt!

DAY THREE

Day Three begins again at around 8am, heading off directing (and finally!) into the Salt Flats themselves.  For the punter coming from San Pedro de Atacama direction, the flats will be the last thing they see…which, ´course, makes the anticipation all the greater!

Salt
Untreated, this shouldn’t be eaten. Try telling that to all the happy campers though!

After a stop over at la Isla del Pez (Fish Island:  One of many coral island remaining from when the Salt Flats were an immense lake) it’s time to take those famous depth-perception piccies we’ve seen so many of.

Typical Salt Flat Picture
This took so much longer than expected to coordinate!!

Easy right?

No.  Wrong.  So wrong.  Ohhhh, so painfully wrong!

For anyone who hasn’t yet been to El Salar de Uyuni:  Research pictures first. When you’re there, it’s just not as simple as you might think to make these work.  The frustration will short-circuit your brain and you won’t be able to think of anything to create ranging much beyond the obvious.

Research first and copy later.  That is all.

Salar de Uyuni
Kilometres and kilometres of white…

After the excitement / frustration of picture time, the final highlights include lunch (always a plus), the salt mine and Cemeterio de los Trenes (Train Cemetery) in Uyuni itself.

Cemeterio de los Trenes Uyuni
Abandoned trains at Uyuni’s train cemetery…

At around 3pm, it’s good-bye time.  Most people, freaked out by the enormous amount of rubbish strewn around the village opt to stay the shortest time possible in Uyuni before hopping on a bus straight outta there.  But if you dare to venture into the centre after being dropped off by your driver, you’ll find some charm…and couple of good places to eat (veggies alike will like Minuteman Pizza) or to fuel a growing alcoholism at the drinking games friendly Extreme Fun Pub.

As a gateway into Bolivia, or a final hurrah before going south into Argentina or crossing into Chile, a tour through El Salar de Uyuni is a must-see for nature lovers and salt of the earth types…

GETTING THERE

  • Tours through Uyuni’s Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) start and finish from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Uyuni or Tupiza (Bolivia).
  • Prices range greatly and reflect quality, particularly driving quality and accident rating.  Expect to pay around US$150 for a three day tour.  Shop around before choosing your company, using other travellers as your most valuable source of information.
  • Tours include the same highlights, though some drivers will be happier to stop more frequently to let you take photos at other locations which take your fancy.
  • The price includes all food and accommodation, but not park entry.  During the tour, you will be required to pay two entrance fees: of 150Bs and 30Bs (about US$20 and $4 respectively).
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