Bolivia: Uyuni Salt Flats and Beyond

saltflast1I’d heard mixed reports about Salt Flat tours in Bolivia so it was with some trepidation that I booked a three day, two night tour starting in Uyuni and ending in Chile. Some people swore it was the best thing they’d done in South America while others lamented it as little more than a boring and drawn out drive. In the end my worry was for naught as, after an admittedly less than auspicious start, the tour proved to be one of the highlights of my South American adventure.

Who to Use?

Choosing a tour agency can be difficult as there are so many options available. In the end we went with Salty Desert Aventours as they had consistently good reviews across most of the sites we checked online. We opted for a three day, two night tour and the cost was $800 boliviano (roughly £90). This total did not include the $220 boliviano (roughly £25) charge for passing through the park which was levied on our third day. It is possible to haggle on the cost of a tour if you are good at that kind of thing, a fact we didn’t discover until we talked to the other people in our group. If you want to finish in Chile the option to do so is available and this tour is one of the cheapest and most convenient methods of getting there. We emailed the owner, Waldo, a few days before arriving in Uyuni and he was extremely helpful and professional, answering all of our queries promptly and reserving our spaces without a down payment.

The 4×4 provided for our transport was spacious and in good condition and the agency even arranged it to pick us up from our hotel on the morning of our departure. Our driver was quiet, had no English and spoke little but this didn’t bother me as most tour leaders we had met before this point in our trip had done nothing but irritate with their regurgitated-by-rote scripts.

One massive benefit to using this agency is that they arranged private accommodation for us on both nights, not just on the first. Most other companies we researched offered private rooms on night one and a dorm on the second which often housed up to twenty others, sometimes more. The room we got on the first night in San Juan village was surprisingly nice, the food served us by our hosts was very decent and the lodgings were lovely and toasty considering the icy temperatures outside. There was only one shower available and you had to pay extra to use it ($10 boliviano) but, as we arrived before all the other groups, we were able to utilise it without a lengthy wait. The second night’s accommodation in Huayllajara village was far more basic with no showers unless you paid a massive surcharge and lights went out at 10pm. The privacy of a private room, however, still made these conditions preferable to a mass of bodies in a single dorm.

The biggest factor in how much you enjoy your Salt Flat tour will come down to the companions you end up sharing your transport with. We were exceptionally lucky and got on well with our four humorous companions which made the days pass by far more pleasurably than if we had been stuck with people we had nothing in common with.

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We were lucky to do our tour with a great bunch

Prepare Yourself for Uyuni!

All the research my travel companion and I did online didn’t prepare us one iota for Uyuni. It is a grim, Mad Max-like apocalyptic outpost assailed by sandstorms and overrun with feral dogs. The Lonely Planet description is so laughably wide of the mark it could be describing an entirely different place. It consists of a main street with a smattering of bars, restaurants and innumerable agencies offering Salt Flat tours but not much else. In essence, it is a town with little going for it and I’d recommend spending as little time here as possible.

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Uyuni is a barren place overrun with wild dogs

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Panoramic view from our hotel entrance

Unfortunately, you will almost certainly have to spend at least a night here before heading off on your Salt Flat tour. We stayed in Cilos Hotel which was actually pretty decent even if its open plan design acted as a bit of a wind tunnel leading to noisy periods during the night. The hotel is situated on the extreme outskirts of town so don’t freak out like my travel companion who, thinking we were about to be murdered, got in a bit of a panic on the way there when it looked as if the taxi driver was driving us into the open desert.

For food I’d recommend Tika which is somewhat removed from the main strip of other restaurants. Although the food there is pricy by Bolivian standards it is worth a visit for an unexpected fine dining experience and pleasant atmosphere in a town that is otherwise inhospitable and rundown. Treat yourself to some shredded llama and a bottle of red and put off going back outside for as long as you possibly can.

The Tour

The first stop on our tour was the nearby train graveyard which, although interesting, is so overcrowded with tourists as to make it barely worth a visit. All the rusted husks will be crawling with folk posing for pictures destined straight for Instagram, bar one lonely shell resting some distance from the others. If you want to get a few pictures free of the tourist masses then this is your only option. The landscape surrounding the graveyard is as sad as Uyuni itself. There is trash strewn everywhere, with piles of garbage stretching as far as the eye can see and litter clinging to every scrubby weed and rocky outcrop. All this mess makes for a pretty dismal and untidy vista.

Our next stop was at the crowded merchant village of Colchani which sells the selfsame souvenirs you can pick up anywhere else in Bolivia. We stayed here for about half an hour which, for me, was about twenty minutes too long. If you only buy one thing here I would make it a hot snack as it will be some time before you stop off again for the less than impressive lunch provided by your tour agency. A few people told me before I left for South America that they had hated their Salt Flat tours and at this point I thought I was going to end up agreeing with them. After this point, however, things started to pick up.

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The best thing about Colchani was the chance to get some hot food

Our next stop was the actual Salt Flats. Here there are vast plains of white that stretch far beyond the horizon in every direction. Be sure to bring sunglasses with you as even weak sunlight can be blinding when it reflects off the salt. This landscape provides an opportunity to take some unusual pictures where perspective goes out of the window. You’ve probably seen shots of people being attacked by Godzilla (you can pick his figurine up from Colchani), being stamped on by their pals or being held as if they are tiny extras in an episode of Land of the Giants. If you have, they were probably taken here. You’ll be afforded a good amount of time to take your own humorous shots and the flats are so vast that, for a change, you shouldn’t have to contend with other tourists encroaching on your images.

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Panorama of the Salt Flats

Looking closely at the salt reveals a scale-like pattern that makes it seem like you are standing on the back of a giant living creature. For me, the most striking thing about the flats was that the heat haze on the horizon made the distant mountain ranges look as if they were actually giant floating islands. Unfortunately, this optical illusion didn’t photograph very well so you will have to try and spot this anomaly for yourself when you visit.

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The surface of the Slat Flats looks a bit like dragon’s skin

Once we had tired of taking daft pictures of each other diving into open mouths and falling off bottles of water we made our way to the now defunct salt hotel in the middle of the flats for lunch. Here fans of rally driving can pose with giant salt sculptures of the Dakar logo. There is also a platform containing flags from all across the globe which attracts a large crowd willing to wait in line to snap a pic with the flag of their home nation. Lunch will be a pretty basic affair, rice and veg or pasta with a meat option available for non-vegetarians – don’t expect any flavour sensations here. I’d highly recommend bringing snacks with you in order to save your taste buds from three solid days of culinary boredom.

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The Dakar Rally logo near the defunct salt hotel

The last landmark of interest for the remainder of the first day comes in the form of Incahuasi Island which is rare blemish on the otherwise unbroken white of the flats. Incahuasi is an island filled with giant cactus. It is formed from the remains of an ancient volcano that was once fully submerged in the waters that covered the flats thousands of years ago. If you would like to reach the summit of the small island you will have to pay an additional fee of $30 bolivianos. If you don’t fancy paying extra there is nothing stopping you from doing a lap of the island and observing it from the Salt Flats as it is just as impressive from this angle. The island houses a restaurant and snack shop should you wish to fill up on grub or supplies while you are there.

If you are lucky enough to visit the Salt Flats after a substantial rainfall you will be able to take striking images that make the salt plains look like mirrors. The water cover on the perfectly flat ground creates reflective pools that mimic the sky and clouds perfectly and some of the shots I have seen from others were pretty special. We had arrived after an unprecedented dry period so water cover was very sparse. We did managed to find a small pocket of surface water but the resulting pictures were not as dramatic as we had hoped. Fingers crossed that you have better luck in this regard.

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Our less than impressive reflecting pool

The second day of our tour was mostly spent in the 4×4 but we passed through such a dazzling array of majestic landscapes that it never got boring. The scenery changes dramatically on such a regular basis that if you close your eyes for ten minutes or so then open them again you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a completely different place altogether. From surrealist deserts to impressive geysers, snow-capped mountains to volcanic stone gardens, cloud-covered hills to multi-coloured lagoons, the sights are truly special. Highlights for me were the red lagoon with its huge flamingo population and the otherworldly landscape of Valle de las Rocas (Rock Valley) with its Mars-like alien rock towers, unusual plant life and weird wind beaten formations. The precariously balanced rock tree is one of the more famous landmarks during this leg of the tour but it didn’t intrigue me as much as the day’s other sights. Despite being warned by others that the second day was going to tediously boring, I found it to be utterly fascinating, far more so than the Salt Flats from the day before. For me this second day was one of the highlights of my South American trip, if not of all my combined travels so far.

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Panorama from the second day of our tour

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Panorama of the red lagoon

One piece of advice for this leg of the journey: buckle up! The terrain in these parts is rough and the ride gets bumpy. There was one incident where we hit a divot at high speed and everyone in the 4×4 – bar yours truly who was the only one sensible enough to wear a seatbelt – ended up with a bang on the noggin from colliding with the roof of the vehicle. I have vivid memories of seeing the driver come out of his seat in slow motion and my heart was in my mouth for a moment but thankfully he didn’t end up going through the windscreen. Wear your seatbelt, it is better to be safe than sorry in my opinion.

At the beginning of the third day you will enter an area that is rife with geysers and houses a popular hot spring. The spring is usually so full of foreign tourists that the waters are often referred to as a ‘gringo soup’. If your accommodation from the evening before didn’t provide shower facilities, paying the small fee to use the springs is recommended as it will give you a chance to scrub off any dirt lingering from the day before. Currently there are only two tiny changing areas so be prepared to find yourself getting dried and dressing/undressing out in the open regardless of weather conditions. Thankfully there appeared to be a larger changing complex nearing completion so maybe by the time you visit you will have more luxurious conditions in which to get prepared. The views from the hot spring really are something else and you’ll likely be disappointed when your driver insists on your having to leave.

As we made our way ever closer to the Chilean border we stopped at the Salvador Dali desert which was another particular favourite of mine. The sand in this area is impossibly tidy, almost as if it has been raked like a Japanese rock garden, and there are a few small outcrops of golden rock that lend the view a surrealist bent reminiscent of the artist it is named after. The mountain ranges in the background alternate between the snow-capped variety and consisting of beautiful rainbow coloured layers. Wherever you look you are guaranteed to be staring at an absolutely awe-inspiring view.

Your penultimate stop on the tour is likely to be the green lagoon. Usually the lagoon is filled with water that takes on an unusual green hue but, owing to the aforementioned draught, the contents of the pool were almost entirely evaporated while we were there. Still, if you enjoy stacking rocks to form pyramids as is the current backpacker trend then you’ll be in your element in this area – the pyramid towers number in their hundreds here. It was a shame that our final landmark was a bit of a letdown but, despite this, I still felt the tour was thoroughly enjoyable and excellent value for money. Opinions of the Salt Flat tours are obviously subjective but I absolutely loved my visit and would definitely return for seconds if given the chance.

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Unfortunately the green lagoon wasn’t at its best for our visit!

Crossing to Chile

Once you have admired the green lagoon your final stop will be the Chile border. In order to get your passport stamped you’ll have to join a long line leading to a single small office which deals with both entry to and exit from Bolivia. The line is out in the open and the wind can be bitter so make sure to bring layers to help keep you warm. When you make it to San Pedro you’ll want to strip those layers off as the temperature difference between the Bolivian Altiplano and the Chilean desert really is massive – it’s hard to believe the two locations are so close together. After getting your exit stamp and paying a small overland exit fee (the exact cost escapes me, but I think it might have been $15 boliviano per person) you will transfer from your 4×4 to a minivan for the hour or so drive to San Pedro de Atacama. If you are staying in Bolivia you will remain in the 4×4 with your driver for the arduous eight hour journey back to the plentiful joys of Uyuni.

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My first sight of Chile

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