The Uyuni Salt Flat Tour: The Surreal South of Bolivia
It was freezing, the days were long, our driver was annoying and the food made me sick. Despite all that, it was one of the highlights of my time in South America, as the breathtaking scenery more than made up for all the hardships. Here’s a quick look at what we saw during the Uyuni salt flat tour, which started in miserable Uyuni and finished in the quaint tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
The train graveyard
A few minutes outside of Uyuni, the train graveyard is pretty much what you expect it to be — a place where dead trains are laid to rest. They don’t rest in peace though; instead tourists climb all over them looking for the perfect photo. There were hundreds of us there as most of the tours depart at the same time. If you have a spare afternoon before or after your tour, visit it on your own and you’ll have it all to yourself.
The Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni)
After a quick stop at a souvenir market, we made our way to the salt flat. This is the largest salt flat in the world — around 10,000 square kilometres of that stuff I usually only see on French fries and fried eggs. It’s often broken up into cracked hexagonal portions, giving it an almost man-made appearance. Taking hilarious forced perspective photos is the “thing to do” on the salt flat, but it’s a lot harder than looks. We never quite got the hang of it; it’s probably best to do some research on how to take photos like this beforehand.
Isla Incahuasi is surrounded by a sea of salt and covered in cacti. It’s a great place to get above Salar de Uyuni and grasp its scale. Make sure you wear shoes when walking on the island though; I was wearing jandals (flip flops) and it was hard going on the rocky terrain.
After a few hours’ drive (on day 2) we reached the first of the many lakes that we would visit over the next 2 days. I saw flamingos in the wild for the first time, which I couldn’t have been more excited about. We watched them from the marshy shore of a charcoal coloured lake while dark clouds threatened to soak us at any moment. It was a lot of fun, but the wind started to pick up and it got really cold, so it was back to the sanctuary of the 4WD. We then stopped at another lake full of even more flamingos, which is also where we ate the meal that I’m pretty sure made me sick.
We passed 3 surreal lakes on the way to the Chilean border. The first, on the second afternoon of the tour, was Laguna Colorada. Words can’t really explain how amazing this red and white lake is, so just look at the photo. The next morning, after a night of snowfall, we visited Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca (these lakes sit side by side, close to the border with Chile). The light covering of snow made for an unforgettable scene – it’s definitely one of the most beautiful areas that I’ve been to.
Geysers, snow and a missed sunrise
We got up really early on the last day in hopes of seeing the sunrise near some geysers. We were running a little late and it was obvious we were going to miss it. I suggested we stop early to see it but the driver insisted on stopping at the geysers, which obviously meant we missed the sunrise. The snowfall the night before had transformed the area into a stark, incredibly cold but unbelievably stunning post apocalyptic world. The geysers were OK but were eclipsed by everything around them. It doesn’t always snow at that time of year (mid October) but I’m glad it did.
Hot springs (or a short walk)
We stopped for breakfast at some hot springs by the edge of a lake. After breakfast we had about an hour to either hop into the crowded hot springs or entertain ourselves. We decided to walk down the road, where we found some peace and quiet amidst the wide open spaces and snow-capped mountains.
The Salvador Dali Desert
The photo I took at the Salvador Dali Desert is one of my all time favourites. I couldn’t really see the supposed colours in the sand, but the makeshift road surrounded by desert and mountains made this place pretty special. After continuing on to Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca (which I skipped ahead to in the colourful lakes section), we headed for the border, where I started to feel really, really sick.
We were the only 2 out of our group of 6 that were continuing to Chile, so after saying our goodbyes we were dumped at the national park office. We waited around for another 4WD to take us to the border. We had already been stamped out of Bolivia in Uyuni, so all we had to do was wait for the bus to take us to San Pedro de Atacama. It was another 2 frustrating hours before we finally left the border area. We waited in the 4WD while my stomach went from bad to worse. I thought I’d contracted some horrible 3rd world disease; I’m still not sure how I survived the wait, or the 1 hour bus ride from the border to San Pedro de Atacama. I can’t blame the tour company for the wait though — the snow had closed the roads for a few hours that morning.
Tips for the 3 day Uyuni Salt Flat tour
We booked with World White Travel because we’d read some half decent reviews online. Half decent is about as good as you can expect on these trips. So many of the companies have had safety issues in the past and customer service and food standards don’t seem to be important. We paid 800 Bolivianos each (around $115 USD); we could have booked one for 600 but we had no idea what those cheaper companies were like. The safety standards were great and the accommodation was as good as could be expected, although our guide could have been a lot better and I definitely would have preferred not to get sick. We had a Spanish speaking guide; you’ll have to pay a lot more for an English speaker, which really isn’t required.
The 3 day Uyuni Salt Flat tour was a great experience; the sheer number of natural wonders we saw more than made up for the crippling sickness and freezing temperatures. I probably wouldn’t do it again (once is enough), but its reputation as one of South America’s premier natural areas is well earned — don’t miss it!
Have you been on a tour like this? What hardships did you face, and was it worth it? Let me know in the comments below!