Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
What are the Uyuni Salt flats?
The salt flats of Uyuni or “Salar de Uyuni” is the world’s largest salt flat with an area in excess of 10,000km2. It is located in the Southwest of Bolivia near the Chilean and Argentinean borders. Travellers flock here for the amazing photo opportunities and harsh landscape and typically on 3-4 day organised trips leaving from the town of Uyuni, Bolivia.
Which tour company to use?
There are way too many companies to choose from in Uyuni (over 50 with many changing names) so finding the right company can be a huge headache. We chose Andes Adventures http://www.andes-salt-uyuni.com due to the good reviews online. As is typical in these types of places, the tour companies all know and work with each other and pool their customers so that each vehicle leaves with 6 people. Along the way we also noticed the other tourists all stopped in the same spots and ate the same food so what agency you go with is not such a huge question. We paid 750 Bolivianos ($108) each for a three day tour including a sleeping bag and transportation to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The sleeping bag and transportation were both quoted as extras of 50 Bs / $7.25 each in some companies. A sleeping bag came highly recommended due to the potential for cold nights. Rodora liked having a sleeping bag but Toby said he didn’t really need it; make your own choice. Our coldest night it was 10C in the room, so not too bad overall. This was on September 8, 2014, so it was meant to be cold at the time.
What to bring?
–Flashlight (torch): Often electricity is for a couple of hours at night only
–Camera: With fully charged batteries and a spare if you have it; cold temperatures and lots of photos will take their toll. Bring your charger to charge when they have electricity.
–Sunglasses: It gets really bright out there
–Sunblock: Really harsh sun out there
–Water: Can be expensive to buy it on the tour
–Snacks: 3 meals a day, but you probably want a little something in between
-Props: dinosaur, slingshot, Salta beer to take abstract photos on the flats.
Day 1 – Uyuni to San Juan
Our guide and cook, Ronald, picked us up from our hotel in a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser at 10am and drove us to the agency. Here we met our 4 other passengers, a couple from the Netherlands and a couple from California, USA. After putting all our gear and food on top of the car it was time to get on the road. This is when we got our first taste of the musical play list for the trip; cheesy 80’s and 90’s such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and N Sync would be the focus. Thankfully it wasn’t played at ear damaging levels, so it was more than pleasant the whole trip.
It was only a short drive of around 20 minutes to get to our first stop of the train cemetery. This is leftover trains used for transporting materials to and from the mines of Potosi. It’s now almost like a playground where we were able to pose on top of the old and rusted steam locomotives.
After 20 minutes of train photography we headed to the town of Colchani. We stopped to look at handicrafts made of salt and purchase any supplies we may have forgotten. From here it was a few minutes’ drive to where the main plant for manufacturing of salt for national consumption is located. Here we found large piles of salt on the salty white ground.
We then drove into the famous salt flats of Uyuni. It’s endless white salt hexagons on the ground as far as the eye can see. It was surprising how smooth the ride was through the spectacular scenery. Rodora felt a little bit motion sickness as her eyes were playing tricks with her from the brightness of the salt.
Abstract photography at its best
The salt flats are well known for the ability of abstract photography. This is when the fun began as we got to take multiple silly shots appearing tiny or huge depending on where we were standing. Rodora was extremely happy as she finally appeared bigger than Toby.
During our photo session Ronald, our guide, prepared us an amazing lunch of vegetables, rice and Llama steak, which we enjoyed whilst sitting on the amazing white checkered floor that went on for miles and miles. It was surprisingly hot due to the reflection of the salt flats from the sun.
We would get some more time after lunch to take some photos. Toby was glad that we got a good amount of time for photos; all up it was 2 hours for lunch and photos at this stop. Later in the day as we left the Salt Flats we would get another 30 minutes to do some more photos.
The next stop on the agenda was Incahuasi Island (Fish island). We would need to pay 30 Bs ($4.35) each in entrance fees which no companies typically include. You can choose not to go in, but it is really worth going in and exploring. This is an island made from fossilized coral located in the heart of the salt flats and is covered in Trichocerus Cacti with amazing views of the hexagon salt tiles below. It is said that the Cacti only grow at the rate of 1cm per year, so it’s impressive to see and stand next to the huge ones.
We took the short walk up to the viewpoint which provided amazing views of the salt flats below which seem to never end. Along the walk we passed hundreds of beautiful Cacti almost 8-10 metres high with beautiful yellow-greenish colours contrasting the bright whiteness of the salt flats below.
The last stop for the day was where the salt was a little bit more crumbly and no longer in perfect hexagons. The lighting was perfect for our shadows so we attempted to make a heart and the word salt.
Our driver then took us to our accommodation for the night at a salt lodge near the town of San Juan. The salt lodge had two beds per room and a dining room for eating consisting of tables, chairs and walls made out of salt. We also were given snacks of cookies and hot tea when we arrived.
With some time to wait before dinner we set off for a walk to watch the sunset and were lucky to meet some friendly Llamas along the way.
Dinner consisted of a soup for starter and a main of roasted chicken with generous portions and fries.
Day 2 – San Juan to Laguna Colorada
We started the day with breakfast at 7.30am the usual of Bread with strawberry jam (jelly) and coffee. We both slept well and were even too hot in the sleeping bags provided. Following breakfast we visited the Lagunas Cañapa, Hedionda, Chiarcota, Hona and Ramaditas. We stopped at a desert area with some small canyons and views of surrounding volcanoes. It was amazing how quickly the scenery changed from pure white salt flats, to green hills, to brownish red desert.
We then stopped at a spectacular turquoise lake filled with flamingoes for a lunch break of Toby’s favourite of chicken schnitzel.
After lunch we were lucky enough to pass an Andean fox who posed for a photo along the way.
We then continued to several lakes filled with different types of flamingoes.
The next stop for the day was a visit to the stone tree or “Arbol del piedra” which gets its name because it’s a rock that looks like a tree. The area also consisted of unique rock formations which people were climbing all over.
The final stop was Red Lagoon or Laguna Colorada which is a lake at 4,278 metres that covers an area of 60km2. As you can see in the photo below it derives its name from the red colour of the lake that comes from a combination of red silt and red algae.
After leaving the Laguna and on our way to our accommodation, you pay the fee to enter Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (150 Bs / $21.75). This is again not likely included in any tour fee.
We then headed to our hostel for the night in which it was six people to a room, thankfully not in bunk beds. The sun was starting to set and we could already feel the cold. We immediately drank our hot drinks and sat by the fire to try and retain as much warmth as possible. Toby unfortunately had an upset stomach and went straight to bed. When the sun had set, the full moon then rose over the mountains providing a magnificient view.
We were served dinner of soup, spaghetti and even a bottle of local Bolivian wine. As all the groups received free wine it turned into a party with everyone dancing and singing Spice Girl songs to an iPhone until we got kicked out of the main room and told to go to bed. We felt sorry for the girl cooking pancakes in the kitchen in advance for our breakfast having to deal with noisy gringos.
Day 3 – Laguna Colorada to San Pedro de Atacama
It was a very early start at 5am. Thank goodness we rented sleeping bags as we were nice and snuggly warm all night. It is said to get to -20C outside in July, but it was luckily nowhere near that cold that night. After a pancake, granola and yogurt breakfast and much needed coffee we left just after 6am. Our driver was angry with our group as we took a long time to get ready after breakfast and he wanted to leave immediately. We realized later it’s just because he always wanted to be the first on the road, which was great for us as we didn’t have to deal with hundreds of other tourists as we were nearly the first to arrive each time.
Our morning drive to the Geysers was truly stunning as we watched the Full Moon setting over the mountains.
The Solar de Manana (Morning Sun) geyser basin at 4850 metres was the first stop. Here we witnessed bubbling mud pots, hellish fumaroles and a thick aroma of sulphur fumes. This was also the coldest spot of the tour as it was really early in the morning, high altitude and very strong wind. For those people first visiting an area like this; there are no safety barriers or guides. There are bubbling pools of boiling water and thick mud to step into. Toby saw one tourist walk straight into mud up to his ankles. The nearest medical help is hours away, so don’t be “that stupid tourist” who ruins the trip for everyone.
Next we visited a hot springs “Termas de Polques” which at first were extremely hot to get in to but very relaxing once you were in for a few minutes. The fee was 6 Bs ($0.90) including change rooms and bathroom usage. The overflowing hot water in the cold air made for some nice photos nearby also.
Our final stop was at the beautiful green lake “Laguna verde” in which the green colour of the lake is due to the high concentrations of minerals, lead, sulphur and calcium carbonate.
This was our last photo opportunity and we finally made it to the Bolivia border exit. This was a really basic border crossing where it only consisted of a small hut in the middle of the desert. We would have to each pay 15 Bs ($2.15) and fill out some forms and be done in under 5 minutes.
From here we were put into a large van heading to San Pedro de Atacama with a group of other tourists from other tour companies. We would actually be driving for some 50km’s inside Chile before arriving to the immigration point in San Pedro de Atacama. This would be Country number 70 for Rodora and Country number 40 for Toby.
In summary; Salar de Uyuni is a must do adventure for so many reasons. In reality it’s a really cheap tour, but with the unique and changing landscapes from dry white salt flats, crystal blue and red lagoons to the harsh desert, there are few places in the world quite as spectacular. It was Rodora’s second time in 8 years and the place still ceases to amaze.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/