One the better-known highlights in Bolivia is the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers. The options for tours are either a one-day tour into the salt flats and back or a three-day/two-night tour through the slat flats into the Siloli Desert and around the altiplano lagunas. We of course opted for the longer tour to see more of the beautiful area. We used TripAdvisor to check which tour operators were recommended. After checking prices with three tour operators we settled on the cheapest of the three which was rated #2 of TripAdvisor. The tours start in Uyuni, a desolate and isolated town in Southwestern Bolivia (altitude: 3700m). The town seemingly has more Toyota Land Cruisers than locals and has become an even greater tourist attraction after the Dakar Rally has gone through the Salar de Uyuni the past two years.
Day 1: Salar de Uyuni
We met our tour group and guide at the tour office in the late morning. Our group consisted of: Freddy (our tour guide), Max (from Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean), Kurt (Switzerland) and Valentina & Pablo (Santiago, Chile). Our first stop was the same as every other tour group leaving that day – the Train Cemetery. There were at least 30 other Land Cruisers all packed with tourists and needless to say, we weren’t interested in staying too long. The Train Cemetery is basically a bunch of early 1900’s trains abandoned in the desert just off the old tracks. The trains are antique steam powered coal trains which were used to transport minerals.
Shortly after we left the Train Cemetery and before we made it to the Salar, our truck got a flat tire. Luckily, we were carrying a spare and our tour guide doubled as a mechanic and we later found out, electrician (he pulled over to fix another truck that had multiple confused people playing with the battery cables). It seemed like all the other tour guides depended on Freddy to tune-up/fix their trucks.
We are travelling in wet season and had heard there was a chance the weather would be horrible and the salt flats would be flooded. There was also a chance the weather would be beautiful and the salt flats would have just enough water covering them to make for stunningly beautiful reflections and some great photos. We lucked out. The reflections were so perfect it was difficult to tell where the sky stopped and the reflection started… end-of-the-world.
The vast, pure white and flat surface of the salt means you loose perception of depth and can create some pretty cool photos. Freddy clearly had experience lining up these shots and acted as a great photographer.
That night we stayed in a “salt hotel”. The entire hotel was literally made from blocks of salt cut out of the salt flats. The blocks had varying colours which we learned showed the different seasons – the darkest colour indicating the windy season where more sand and dirt is carrying into the salar. The hotel was nice given it was in the middle of nowhere and we got a private room. The floors were covered in loose salt which ensured anything we owned that wasn’t already salty and dusty became so.
Day 2: Altiplano Lagunas and Flamingos
After leaving the vast flatness of the Salar we headed for the volcanic and mountainous high altitude Siloli Desert. The region is dotted with colorful, mineral-rich lagoons which pink flamingos migrate to. From the GPS tracker we carry with us we learned the highest altitude we reached that day was 4940m – almost reaching the 5000m mark. The high altitudes combined with the dry desert air left us feeling dehydrated and a little dizzy at times. To help with the altitude sickness we chewed coca leaves, a local remedy. Surprisingly, we found them to help and our headaches disappeared when the leaves were in our mouths. The taste is very ‘natural’ and a bit bitter. You don’t swallow the leaves, just squash them with your tongue in the side of your mouth.
Laguna Cañapa, a salty lake; Laguna Honda, a shallow body of water rich in minerals; Laguna Chiarkhota, vibrantly green and lastly the shallow Laguna Colorada, where the bright red water is the result of high levels of algae and plankton. The landscape surrounding the lagoons was breathtaking. All of the lagoons are very shallow due to the high elevation, with the deepest one being 1.7m. To add to their beauty, the lagoons are covered in migrating flocks of pink flamingos. The flamingos get their pinkish colour from consuming the red algae near the surface of the lagoons.
Another short stop on our tour was Arbol de Piedra (“tree rock”). In the middle of the desert lay a cluster of rocks carved by the strong winds blowing across the desert.
Day 3: Geysers & the long drive back to Uyuni
We woke up early after a terrible sleep in our cold, cramped beds to watch the sunrise across the geothermal field of the Sol de Mañana (“morning sun”). The landscape is marked by sinkholes of bubbling mud and geysers spewing steam. Compared to other sunrises we had seen, this one was nothing special.
From there, we headed to Aguas Termales de Polques (hot springs). The hot spring -which was naturally hot water piped into a man-made structure – was packed with tourists and we opted not to go in (even though we felt filthy as our last hotel didn’t have a shower). Instead we walked around the area and relaxed until our group was ready to go.
Our last lagoon was Laguna Verde. Unfortunately, the vibrant colour which comes from the high levels of copper in the soil is only visible when the wind is blowing across the lagoon. On the day we visited it was calm winds, although storms were clearly brewing near-by.
After dropping off the other four tourists in our group at the Chilean/Bolivian border shack where they would continue to San Pedro de Atacama we turned around and started our eight hour drive back. We stopped for a few quick breaks at various viewpoints and had a scenic and relatively uneventful drive back to Uyuni.