When travelling to Bolivia, one of the big ticket things to do is the salt flats, or Salar de Uyuni. The question is, do you do it as a day trip, or do you stretch it out with a 2-day or 3-day tour? I guess it all comes down to time and budget.
A day trip allows you to get straight onto the salt flats (from Uyuni) and get those clichéd photos. Two days will give you a tour of the flats and stops at lagoons to see flamingoes. Three days will space it all out with stops at a variety of lagoons, a thermal pool, you’ll see thousands of pink flamingos, spectacular rock formations, sleep in a salt hostel and exploring a train graveyard. Let’s not forget an early start to do sunrise on the salt flats.
We opted for the 3-day tour that departs San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, which involves an early morning pick-up, stop at border control in San Pedro, then drive up the mountain to the Bolivian border. It’s high altitude on the border, so get ready to breathe air at 4500 metres.
Thanks to being with the Cordillera group, we didn’t have to queue at Bolivian immigration like the chums in the above pic. Our driver simply took our passports, a list of names and somehow snuck in before anyone else to have our passports stamped. Meanwhile, we just sat and had a basic (complimentary) breakfast.
The group is split into 5 or 6 people per 4×4, and lucky for us, we were just 5. Six can get a little cosy.
We drove a little further, in our new group of five travellers, and stopped at another check point to have passports stamped again and to pay the 150 boliviano fee.
Day one starts off with driving into the drop dead gorgeous altiplano that’s dotted by volcanoes, with stops at Laguna Blanca and Verde, then Laguna Chalviri and the Polques Thermal Pools for a dip, if you want.
A common sight, if you do the tour late in the year, is seeing dozens of whirlwinds drift across the dry landscape and hillsides.
Later in the day there’s a stop at Geyser Sol de Mañana, to see some bubbling mud, plenty of steam and get the occasional nose-full of stinky sulphur.
Lunch is at the refugio near Laguna Colorada, after-which you drive to the lagoon and spend time walking around and snapping hundreds of pics of the desert colours, pink flamingos and llamas grazing on the foreshore. The lagoon is so named because of the minerals it contains, giving it a reddish hue.
The first night is spent at the refugio, which is a very basic mud brick set-up with shared dorm rooms. Our small group of five shared a room. Electricity is limited to a few hours at night when the generator is turned on, so charging devices can become a bit of a scramble. Dinner is provided, which includes tea, coffee and soft drink. You can buy booze, if you like. There are showers and toilets, as well.
After a communal breakfast in the refugio restaurant, it’s time to hit the dusty track and see more of that spectacular landscape. The sky is impossibly dark blue and contrasts incredibly with the earthy and rusty colours of the desert, volcanoes and multi-coloured mountains.
The first stop is at a small cluster of rock formations where you can get out, climb a few boulders and snap even more pics. This is the site of Tree Rock, the one you see in all the postcards. Fifty photos later, and you’re back on the track.
Not before stopping in a rocky gully to see some of the local flora and fauna. You don’t really see trees or cacti at such high altitude, but you can spot a rather unique plant called yareta, something that only grows at an altitude of 3,200 and 4,500 metres. Yareta grows in clumps so dense that they feel like moss covered stone, strong enough to stand on without doing any damage to the tiny waxy leaves. It’s a very slow-growing plant, and the ones you can see in these pics are hundreds of years old.
If you have good eyes, you can spot the adorable little viscacha hopping about the rocks. This little rodent looks like a rabbit, but it has a curled tail. Cute, hey?
Lunch is at the stunning Laguna Hedionda, which is flanked by the 5740 m Cerro Cañapa on its northwest side, and the colourful Los Flamingos Eco Hotel on its southeast shore. A spread of food put together by the driver is served in the restaurant adjacent to the hotel.
While lunch is being prepared, you can wander down to the shore and watch thousands of pink flamingos feed in the milky-blue water. Or simply sit, pinch yourself and wonder if the beauty that surrounds you is actually real.
Next stop, Laguna Cañapa to see more birdlife, maybe another whirlwind, then into the rocky desert and beyond to the dusty town of San Juan.
Hostal Mentarios, also known as the Salt Hotel, is where we spent the second night. It’s share rooms again, this time the two of us shared with one girl from our group. Dinner was quite nice and they even threw in a bottle of red wine for the five of us. There’s electricity all day and night here, plus shower and toilet facilities and local beer to purchase.
The following morning is a very early start, as it involves driving for a couple hours to the salt flats to watch the sunrise. It may be a popular activity, but each 4×4 parks almost out of sight of any other jeeps, so it feels like the entire slat flat is yours.
The enormity of the salt flat is difficult to comprehend, and the cell patterns on it make it feel like a huge, flat and seemingly endless sculpture.
Breakfast is served after sunrise at Isla Incahuasi, or Cactus Island. We were under the impression that the island is undeveloped, but there are loads of tables and chairs made from salt blocks, there are toilets, a cafe, gift shop and small museum. A walking circuit provides stunning outlooks over the salt flats, and its numerous cacti provide the most perfect photo ops in the golden morning rays.
After a few clichéd perspective shots with toy dinosaurs, boots, and maybe some coloured balloons, it’s time to leave this incredible geographic marvel. An obligatory stop in the tiny desert town of Colchani to see a handicrafts market, and then through to Uyuni for lunch and some exploration through the Train Cemetery, or ‘Cementerio de trenes‘.
From the late 1800’s to the 1940’s, Uyuni was an important transportation hub for trains carrying minerals from the Andes to ports on the Pacific. Once the minerals ran out, the mining industry nose-dived. So what do you do with a bunch of trains that are no longer needed? You dump them in the desert, that’s what. Instant tourist attraction.
We booked our 3-day Salar de Uyuni tour trough Atacama Connection in San Pedro de Atacama. Due to us being the only ones booked with the tour company, we joined the group from Cordillera Tours, which we were happy with as they have a very good reputation. They just happened to be more expensive than what we paid through Atacama Connection, hence not going with them in the first place.
Accommodation is inclusive, as are all meals, tea, coffee and water. If you want to buy alcohol at the lodges, it costs extra.
Everyone wanting to do the Salar de Uyuni tour always comes across horror stories of drivers being drunk, causing accidents and sometimes even deaths. We saw none of this with our driver and any other drivers.
The 3-day tour was 90,000 pesos per person and there’s an additional cost of 150 bolivianos once you cross the border from Chile into Bolivia.
If you wish to take a soak in the Polques Thermal Pool it will cost you 6 bolivianos.
Entry for Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island) on the slat flats is 30 pesos.