Imagine a place that is so surreal that when you arrive, you feel as if you are in a dreamlike trance. Bolivia’s expansive salt flats, Salar de Uyuni is such a place…
Immersing yourself in this incredibly stunning natural region will leave you feeling insignificant, whilst admiring the staggering beauty that confronts your eyes – you can’t but help to contemplate life.
Getting to the Salar
The easiest way to travel through the Salar (salt flat in Spanish) is from the city of Uyuni or from Tupiza.
You have to remember, there isn’t a road across the Salar, so a 4WD is required. Guides navigate using surrounding mountains as the Salar is near the crest of the Andes.
Crossing the border from Argentina to Bolivia and on to Tupiza, decided to book our tour from Tupiza.
Firstly, there are several pros and cons for you to consider when booking a tour from Tupiza or Uyuni.
- Longer distance to the Salar – tours are typically 3 to 4 days
- Higher prices
- Tours take into account gorgeous lakes, volcano, and surrounds
- Salar is saved until the last day, which is great
- Prices are more competitive as there are more operators
- More options for bespoke tours as the Salar can be reached in only one day
As we did a half-day tour around the Cordillera de Chicas with Tupiza Tours, also booked the 4-day Salar tour with this agency. This tours offers sights such as a Tunupa volcano (5,100 metres), springs, lakes, and pink flamingos.
About Salar de Uyuni
The world’s largest salt flats stretches across 10,582 square kilometres and is 3,656 metres above sea level, with a few metres deep of salt crust covering this area.
The unique flatness was formed through ‘transformations between several prehistoric lakes’.
When covered with a little water, the flatness provides perfect symmetry, which makes it difficult to distinguish the sky from the earth – it feels as if you’re wedged inside a serene painting, whilst moving across the flats.
Delayed by one day due to the company’s inability to source enough petrol for the 4WD, this is not a good start.
Finally, after reassurance that the snow would not affect the tour, the four of us set off with Eduardo (driver/guide) and our cook – neither spoke English.
After a couple of hours of driving whilst ascending through arid but incredible scenery, along one of Bolivia’s highest roads at over 4,700 metres: San Antonio de Lípez, we are advised of another setback.
Worsening weather may see Day 2 cancelled.
No signs of worsening weather just yet…
And then we climb higher and snow starts to set in with the bitter cold – unpredictable at this altitude.
San Antonio de Lípez
A pact with the devil for wealth through the mines was made, which saw inhabitants of San Antonio de Lípez’s not fulfilling their promise.
This caused the death of all the mines’ workers and triggered the town’s abandonment, as remaining locals saw ghosts and strange occurrences. Fact or fiction?
Driving around for the rest of the day and not seeing the promised gorgeous blue and green lakes in the Abaroa Reserve, or the volcano, we divert to a tiny village near San Cristobal.
Here, we meet four travellers from the other Tupiza Tour 4WD. They’re not happy either and want to return to Tupiza.
All eight of us are sharing one room for the night, which funnily enough has eight single beds – just like a youth hostel.
The two chefs get together to cook the tribe a meal of what can only be described as gristly meat and vegetables. Whilst chewy but tasty, we’re told the meat is Llama.
Janet the other tour guide explained that we would try to go south in the morning. If this isn’t possible, we would instead start heading towards the salt hotel and the Salar.
Throughout today, Eduardo’s continual ‘Todos bien?’ (all good?) became quite grating as no, it is not all good.
A new day begins – hopefully some luck today.
San Cristobal de Lipez
Stopping in San Cristobal the windiest place of the Altiplano, we stretch our legs and look around before continuing.
The original San Cristobal is nearly 17 kilometres away.
The town was moved back in 1998 after a mining consortium discovered a silver field under San Cristobal, and 350 inhabitants were also moved after accepting remuneration.
Continuing to drive around aimlessly to small villages today, it feels as if we are just filling up hours.
I’m sure we could have seen these villages on our own and for much cheaper.
We arrive at the Salt hotel mid-afternoon and move into our salt pedestal beds.
This hotel is made from cut salt blocks, including its tables, chairs, walls, and roof. Of course, many travellers instantly feel the urge to lick the walls!
It is only now that we are told about the water covering the salt flats and that we may not be able to cross the flats. Offered a day with additional sights to compensate for not seeing scheduled sights, the offer is soon retracted a few hours later. Instead, we’re advised we are to drive straight to the city of Uyuni tomorrow. Disappointing.
Again, a lack of petrol is the excuse due to the ‘hard driving conditions’, followed by the familiar: todos bien?
More salt to the wounds (no pun intended), we are not taken to the salt causeway to see the sunset. Although 7 other carloads including the other Tupiza Tour car managed, our 4WD doesn’t have enough petrol.
Waking before sunrise and with sleepy eyes, everyone piles into the 4WD once more for the finale.
Driving across the Salar is remarkable and watching the sun rise over the Salar leaves me speechless.
Clicking away instinctively, knowing that this will probably be the last time I ever see this…
Everyone is floored at the staggering and imposing developing vista, which unfolds with every hour.
The past two days are quickly forgotten as we move through another world that is constantly changing, and does not belong to earth.
Reaching Incahuasi Island (also Fish or Cactus island) in the middle of the salt flats and covered with giant cacti, this is the highest point of the Salar at 3,656 metres.
Climbing to Pachamama’s (earth mother) shrine for the 360-degree panoramic views of the Salar, the horizon is infinite.
Incahuasi was used by the Incas as a resting place, whilst crossing the lake with Llamas ladened with goods, heading to Chile and beyond to trade. The border is 150 kilometres away.
Set on the remains of a volcano, Incahuasi proves that this vast area was once a sea full of life, as the island contains remains of seashells and corals, in its basalt and solid rocky formation.
Colchane Salt Mine
Driving the rest of the Salar and on to Uyuni, we stop at the Colchane salt mine for a quick look.
Bolivian men start at 4am to work the salt mine, which ends up as table salt in Brazil – this salt is the best in the world.
Antique train cemetery
The final stop is around 3 kilometres from Uyuni to the intriguing train cemetery.
With the train line’s construction commencing in 1888 and lasting 4 years, the belief that Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system was soon quashed, with indigenous people constantly sabotaging the line. Locals believed the line was intrusive.
Mostly mining companies used the trains until the industry’s collapse in the 1940s, when trains were abandoned, and now a cemetery for tourists.
Salar de Uyuni – should you go?
It’s impossible to get your head around at just how unbelievably magical and dazzling the Salar is…eyes moisten as you gasp at this perplexing phenomena.
The kaleidoscope of dynamic and constantly changing colours during a sunrise, mirrored over the few centimetres of water covering the endless flatness, is ethereal.
This mystical place defies your eyes.
At daybreak, the glaring whiteness bounces and beams around you – wear sunglasses as you can suffer from headaches or worse still, sun blindness.
If you’re in two minds about going, then don’t hesitate any longer – this is one experience you will definitely treasure throughout your life.
Although the terrain and weather will determine what you eventually see on this tour, which can vary at a moment’s notice, overall, this tour could of been handled better.
Promised an English-speaking guide, which didn’t happen, communication was almost non-existent as our Spanish is basic.
The petrol saga was a tad unbelievable, as is the excuse of the terrain for a 4WD.
Tupiza Tours did offer a 50% refund as our tour was cut from 4 to 3 days and we didn’t see all the sights. The company advised that their La Paz office would provide the refund since we are not returning to Tupiza.
The tour is a once in a lifetime experience, which money cannot replace.
Feel the 4-day experience with this short video from Seven Cinematics of an April 2018 tour. The Salar is around 2:16 minutes into the video.
With worse conditions and more snow in July, perhaps April would have been a better month.
Resting in Uyuni long enough to book another bus out, it’s an easy walk around this very dry city.
As a trading post and founded in 1890, not a lot of travellers stop here for any length of time, but mostly as a jump point to book tours for the Salar.
Leaving for Potosí
With heads full of incredible Salar memories and the 4-hour bus booked, it’s time to check out one of the highest cities in the world: Potosí.