We were told it would be weird. We were told it was like being on a different planet. Or a movie set. Or a true-life canvas. And it was.
Our three-day tour of Bolivia’s salar de Uyuni brought before us staggeringly beautiful and profoundly remote vistas, geysers, hot springs, and epic desert landscapes. How does an island of pure coral exist at 12,000 feet above sea-level, bedecked with towering cacti, the origins of which date to the last millennium? How does a boulder come to stand on a tiny base and remain upright? What exactly is a train cemetery, anyway?
In search of answers, we set off with our wonderful new friends, David and Beatriz, and our driver, Luis, to discover the mysteries of this other-worldly environment.
For those looking for some specifics or advice about our tour, scroll to the bottom.
So that’s a train cemetery.
Just a few minutes outside Uyuni lie hundreds of abandoned locomotives and train cars rusting away in the desert. It’s like an adult playground with sharp metal edges and no shortage of good ways to contract tetanus.
Before entering the salt flat proper, we visited a tiny village and watched a commercial salt production demonstration. Then Luis took us to the edge of the salar, where piles of salt were gathered for future production. And like you might expect, these little salt mountains tasted… salty.
Then we stopped at the ojos de agua – salt rivers flowing under the ground rose to the surface in bubbling pools.
Our next stop was an old salt hotel, which no longer allows for overnight stays since the human waste produced in years past was polluting the salt flat. But it had a little cafe and a whole host of international flags.
What the salt flat is famous for.
Finally (and this is what we were all eager to see), we ventured out into the expanse to a place where it’s just salt and the horizon for miles and miles and miles.
Like most tourists, we decided to have a little fun with perspective. With Luis’s help, we began honing our technique for making fotos locos.
And here’s what we ended up with.
Island in the Sky
Next, we came upon Isla Incahausi. A major stopping point for nearly all the jeep tours, it was crawling with foreign travelers. Despite that, it was pretty weird and cool to walk over an ancient coral mountain that used to lie at the bottom of the sea. Just to add to the weirdness, it’s now home to 30-foot tall cacti that grow in abundance. The world is a cool place. Go world.
We then had to cover a little bit of ground to get to our hotel on the edge of the salt flat. But we stopped for one more look at this amazing landscape.
So. There’s a “salt hotel.” And we stayed there. Frankly, it was rather novel and odd to be in a building made of salt. The tables, chairs, beds, floors, and decorations: all salt!
Wild desert landscapes and (not so wild) animals.
We spent the second day exploring the desert bordering the salt flat. We saw rolling hills stained by deep earth minerals that appeared to have been painted by a skilled chalk artist, volcanos venting noxious gases, cute but evil-looking viscachas, flighty herds of vicuñas, and a tree-shaped stone, carved by sand and wind and oblivious to gravity and common sense. And there were a few flamingos along the way.
Our second and last hotel was decidedly less novel. It was rather dank and dubious, and the complimentary bottle of wine offered up by most tour companies is probably meant to make you less put off by the grime and lackluster service of the place.
Thank goodness for thermals!
Day three began bright and early at four o’clock in the morning. The stars beamed overhead as we sleepily piled into our jeep. But then, just as the sun was rising, we came upon some geysers we were not expecting to see.
By 8am, we stripped down in the chilly morning air, donned our bathing suits, and relaxed in a hot spring. It was heaven!
After lounging in the spring, it was time to leave our friends, Bea and David, and Bolivia, and cross into Chile. We saw a little bit more desert and a beautiful lagoon or two before we reached the border.
All in all, Bolivia’s salar de Uyuni was one of the highlights of our trip. I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Here’s a short video with some clips, as well as a few photos.
So you want to do a salt flat tour?
Here are my recommendations: If you can afford to, it’s well worth paying a little bit more to limit the number of people in your jeep. We teamed up with David and Bea and decided we were willing to do just that. It ended up costing us about $33 USD extra per person to enjoy this three-day tour in a little bit more comfort and flexibility. Well worth it.
Everyone told me ahead of time that Red Planet is the best tour company and they do seem to be on their game. Book in advance: their jeeps fill up quickly. They are also more expensive than most tour companies. This is because they provide an English-speaking guide with every jeep and have a special agreement with the folks who control the hot springs that allows for exclusive use of an adjacent hostel on the third night, so you can sip your bottle of wine and look up at the stars from the hot spring. This is the only tour company that can do this. Everyone else has to get up early in the morning and go to the spring. This was a clincher for me! But we waited too long and Red Planet was booked out.
If you, too, find that they’re booked solid, fear not! When you arrive at Uyuni, there are oodles of tour agencies vying for your business. Which should you pick? Well, we heard some horror stories about the cheapest of the cheap ones. Drunk drivers, accidents, nasty stuff. Whether the stories are true is difficult to substantiate, but it’s probably worth it to “splurge” on a company that’s been around awhile and offers competitive, if not rock bottom, pricing.
We went with Brisa Tours and were happy with the experience overall. Also check out Oasis Tours, which does a different route than many others.
Our tour ended up costing 979 Bs per person (for four people), plus Adam and I had to pay an extra 50 Bs for the minibus that takes you to Chile from the border.
Oh, yeah. Be sure to take along some extra snacks.
Finally, be patient and flexible. There’s not much out there. The accommodations are very basic. The food is okay but nothing to write home about. Jeeps break down, but there’s always someone coming behind who’ll help you in a pinch. We actually got stuck in some sand, and another jeep stopped to dig us out! It’s all worth it for such an amazing trip. Good luck!