At over 10,500 square kilometres Bolivia’s Salar de Uuyni is the World’s largest salt flat. We were fortunate to have an incredible adventure exploring the salt flats, the deserts of the Bolivian altiplano, local flora and fauna including giant cactuses, colourful lakes and pink flamingoes with a fantastic group of people.
We decided on a 2 night 3 day tour which started in Uyuni, Bolivia and ended in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Over 100 operators offer this trip (or a slight variation) but after reading some excellent reviews on trip advisor we signed up with Salty Desert Aventours. There is a maximum of six people per vehicle, one up front, three in the middle seats and two in the back.
We were asked to be ready by 10am on the first day of the tour and our driver Grober collected us from our hotel spot on time, we then made our way to the tour office and met our fellow travellers….A US/French couple and a Spanish couple all of whom were very friendly and as keen as us to get on our way.
With cases and other luggage loaded on the roof and carefully covered with a strong groundsheet to keep out the dust we set off to explore….
After a short 3 km drive we arrived at our first first stop….the eerie and desolate Bolivian train cemetery where salt laden winds have corroded the trains and carriages for over 70 years. Some of the engines and carriages still remain firmly attached to their rusty rails whilst others have slowly sank into the surrounding dusty gravel.
The railway was the idea of the then Bolivian president who believed that an effective transport system was needed and encouraged its construction. British engineers were invited to construct the railway and work started in 1888 taking four years to complete. The trains were used by mining companies to transport minerals to the ports of the Pacific Ocean up until mineral depletion in the 1940’s.
Jim and Efren attempting the impossible 🙈 (above)
After exploring this machinery graveyard we all bundled back into the 4 wheel drive land cruiser and were escorted by our competent driver Grober to our next destination…
Colchani is a small village with just one main street and a population of around 700.
Apart from selling traditional souvenirs to tourists the towns’ main income is the production of table salt which is gathered from the surrounding area.
Salt is collected out on the flats and gathered into small pyramids which allows initial drying from the sun.
The next stage as demonstrated by the owner requires heating the salt in makeshift ovens until completely dry, iodine is then added and the finished product is bagged and sold around Bolivia.
Onwards to the next stop….
El Salar de Uyuni….The start of the Bolivia salt flats… height: 3600 metres (12000 ft) above sea level.
Here we were shown the pyramids of salt slowly drying in the cold desert wind and scorching sun. The salt in this area appears a light grey colour due to vehicle movement and dust which blows in across from surrounding parched fields, it was almost reminiscent of melting snow after the roads are gritted during cold winters back home.
Grober explained that the salt is up to 10 meters depth in places and covers an area of around 10,000 sq km. The flats were formed around 40,000 years ago.
Being cut of from any water source due to the continuing formation of the Andes mountain range the once prehistoric lakes gradually dried up leaving behind what we now see today.
As we traveled further on the vast ocean of salt we all noticed how the flats were becoming more of a defined white with definite hexagonal patterns appearing. Apparently these are formed by temperature differences where a layer of water 4cm below the surface builds crystals that grow to form geometric patterns.
Our next stop is lunch and by this time we are all in need of a break. A delicious traditional meal was served in a building made….(yep you guessed) of salt blocks along with intricately designed animal figures and the like. Tables, chairs and TV’s (not quite) all made of salt.
The restaurant was formally a hotel but apparently had to close due to difficulties with waste. It is now a museum and of course a restaurant.
After lunch we moved on again to our next stop. This is where the fun strated with Grober producing various props from his kit. A model dinosaur, a cereal container and a wine bottle amongst others….The photo’s tell the remainder of the story….
Cactus island or Incahuasi (meaning inca house)
This incredible ‘island’ covers almost 25 hectares and is the remains of an ancient volcano which was submerged within the prehistoric lake. Once the waters diminished the top of the volcano became part of the landscape and eventually became home to huge cactus which cover the vast majority of the site.
Among the cactus ancient corals and fossils can be seen within the rocks. This island was apparently used by the Incas (hence Incahuasi) as a resting point between arduous treks accross the flats.
With the daylight gradually fading and with the promise of a spectacular sunset we made our way to the final stop of the day (sunset pic sabove).
As the sun left its last rays and dipped below the horizon it was time to make our way to our hostel. We could now feel the cold air descending and looked forward to our overnight stay.
We were pleasantly surprised with how warm the hostel felt upon our arrival. As with the restaurant earlier in the day the hostel was also made of salt blocks with various tasteful salt ornaments. Our dinner was served by Grober and we were soon tucking in to the delicious food washed down with a glass or two of red wine (which can be purchased at a reasonable cost from the reception).
The hostel is well designed and built on a circular format with a large central area for dining and around ten or twelve rooms including a dorm and separate bathroom. The rooms were surprisingly very cosy and beds were equipped with several thick layers of blankets to keep out the cold.
Although we were given sleeping bags to use (no charge) we found the beds to be warm enough without them.
After a surprisingly comfortable night in the salt hostel we set off at around 7 am to continue exploring the altiplano. Below are some of the unique landscapes we saw, making various stops throughout the day as we drove south towards the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.
Over the centuries the winds have eroded and sculpted the volcanic rocks.
Grober prepared a tasty lunch lunch from the back of the 4×4 while we explored the altiplanic lagoon which is overlooked by the Ollague Volcano.
The lakes of the national park are popular breeding grounds for flamingoes. Following lunch Gerber drove us to three separate ‘flamingo’ lakes where, at Laguna Colorada we were fortunate to see three different types of flamingos (pictures further below).
Arbol de Piedra, the ‘stone tree’ (above) is an example of a rock formation that has been caused by the erosion of soft sandstone. This is a well known formation and several 4×4 tour cars stop to allow tourists to take photographs.
Flamingo lakes (above). Flamingos seem to thrive in the harsh environment at an elevation of almost 5,000 meters which is double that of Machu Picchu!
From a higher viewpoint (above) we could see the red colour of the lake which is caused by the pigmentation of a type of algae. When you walk down to the edge (below) you can see all three breeds of flamingo. There is a warm spring which is one of several filling the lake in the ‘blue’ lake picture below.
Laguna Colorada was in our view the most picturesque lake. This is located inside of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve where you need to pay an entry fee of 150 Bolivianos per person.
From the ‘red lake’ we drove to our second hostel which was not made of salt this time! This was a basic hostel where the electricity was only available between 7 – 9 pm which meant everyone hastily re-charged their phones and cameras!
Following another comfortable nights’ sleep we quickly got ready (in the dark), had breakfast and left the hostel at 5 am for the 30 minute drive to the geysers also located in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. Apparently it is best to view them at sunrise to see the maximum effect of the hot steam against the cold early morning air.
Following the geysers Grober drove us to the hot springs where you can have a dip and soak for an hour or so. The small designated hot spring pool was crammed full of people and the air was about -3 so we wandered a bit further afield and took some more photos.
A quick photo stop as we made our way through the Salvador Dali Desert (above)…
The Green Lagoon and Licancabur Volcano at the edge of Bolivia and the national park was our final stop. It was still only around 8:30 am and still bitterly cold!
From here the bus drove to the border where Jacquie, Jim and us were dropped off. Efren and Carmen were going back to Uyuni with Grober. We completed the border formalities to exit Bolivia and had to board a mini bus (arranged by Salty Desert Aventours) which drove for around 45 minutes to San Pedro de Atacama, where we received our Chilean entry stamp.
To exit Bolivia you need 15 Bolivianos per person. There is no entry fee to Chile but you must ensure you have no food contained within your luggage. The authorities are strict on this and impose huge fines.
This tour was one of the highlights of our year of travels! We were fortunate that our fellow passengers were such good company and it was most helpful that Efren and Carmen were able to act as translators given that Grober spoke very little English.
Lonely Planet states that within the last few years around 17 people have died on similar trips mainly due to incompetent agents and drunk 4×4 drivers. Again we were fortunate that Grober was an excellent, considerate and careful driver. To get the most out of your trip we feel it is important to select your tour company carefully and read reviews in advance.
List of essentials:
- Water: 2 litres each per day
- Sleeping bags: generally supplied by tour company and definitely needed in winter
- Head torch
- Warm and windproof jacket
- Lib balm: We learnt the hard way and ended up with cracked and sore lips!
- Good sunglasses
- Sun block: The air is thin and the Sun’s rays are powerful, especially as you climb higher towards the flamingo lakes
Nice to have….
- Binoculars and camera with a zoom lens (if you’re a keen bird watcher)
- Hiking boots
- Coca leaves to chew (kindly supplied to us by Efren)
Getting to Uyuni
As we were making our way south through Bolivia towards Chile we took an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni. We had previously read that a large chunk of the road would be unpaved so we braced ourselves for a bumpy ride.
However our journey which left La Paz at 9:30 pm was smooth and comfortable right through until we arrived in Uyuni at around 7:30 am the following morning. We travelled with Todotourismo who we highly recommend. They gave us an (albeit basic) dinner, a bottle of water each, coffee or tea and (an even more basic) breakfast. The seats in the almost brand new bus were comfortable and we had ‘semi cama’seats i.e. they recline into a ‘half bed’. Todotourismo provide each passenger with a blanket and pillow too. You can use their website to book tickets online, as we did.