An Unforgettable Trip to the Salt Flats of Bolivia
Uyuni salt flats is a mystifying place. You must have seen the regular mountains, rivers, glaciers, deserts, but before the Salar de Uyuni, I had never seen salt flats, at least not as gigantic as the one in Uyuni. The Uyuni Salar are the world’s largest salt flat, extending over 9,000 square km.
On top of the vastness, the Salar del Uyuni is special because it is high up near the Andes at a height of 3,600 meters above sea level.
When you stand upright in these bizarre salt flats of Bolivia, you see a salt desert billowing into the infinity and beyond. The copper mountains with the mix of an occasional snowy volcano try their best to fringe the horizon. Walking on the Salar could be the closest we can get to walking on the moon.
But I didn’t know all this until I took a Bolivian Salt Flats Tour from Uyuni towards the end of my South America backpacking trip.
My itinerary for a 3 day Salar de Uyuni tour included visiting a train cemetery, trick photography on the salt, visiting the geothermal geysers, seeing colorful lagoons where flamingos colonize, hopping around boulders, and sleeping in salt hotels amongst other once-in-a-lifetime things.
Come, let us relish the experience.
Our driver-cum-guide Juan was driving a group of six ladies (my Canadian friend, a random Colombian group of four, and I) into the heart of the Bolivias salt flats. On the first day about half an hour into the tour, he brought the jeep to a screeching halt, and I jumped out of the vehicle.
As soon as I stepped out, my reliable Merrell shoes cursed me for I had stuck them into salt already. I was standing over the vast milky Uyuni salt flats that looked like a jigsaw puzzle of polygonal formations created by the crystallization of salt due to water evaporation.
I could hear my shoes scratching against the salt crystals.
Our Uyuni salt flats tour began with a visit to an antique train cemetery. When we walked toward the rusty, but not forgotten, train engines and carriages lying useless in the desert, I understood what Juan meant by a train cemetery.
What’s the deal about these dead trains?
Uyuni, that seems like a soulless sunny town, was once the distribution hub for the minerals (from the nearby Potosi mines) that were carried to Pacific ports. British built the trains in the late 19th century. Contrary to the popular belief that the local Aymara people destroyed the trains as they weren’t happy with the intrusion, the trains stopped in the 1940s because of excessive mining and mineral depletion.
But our guide didn’t tell us all of this even though most of us could understand Spanish perfectly. So practice your Spanish and don’t be shy to ask your guide a few questions on your Bolivia salt flat tour.
Now the most action these dead trains get is that visitors climb on top of them and pose. The cemetery is about 3 km outside Uyuni in Bolivia and is always the first stop on Salar de Uyuni tours.
As Juan drove further North in the Altiplano, we saw the dormant Volcán Tunupa towering over the salt planes.
Aymara legends say that Tunupa was the goddess whose child’s fatherhood ownership was being contested by many gods. When the volcanoes hid her child, Tunupa cried filling the plains with her white tears that created el Salar de Uyuni en Bolivia. No doubt that the traditional name of the salt flats is Salar de Tunupa, and the locals insist that is how it should be called.
Of course, the scientists insist that the entire Uyuni salar area was submerged as it was part of a giant lake about 12,000 years ago. When the lake dried, salt crystalized forming a solid salt crust over the surface(tens of centimeters to a few meters).
The plateau still has some other fresh and saltwater lakes, mostly in the south of the salt flats in the famous Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve near the border of Chile. Those lakes haven’t dried, yet, and make the most picturesque backdrops in salt plains of Bolivia.
But we will come to those minds boggling lakes later.
You can hike to (almost) the top of Tunupa, or just make a round trip from the cave of mummies located at about halfway from the top. There is a village at the foot of the volcano which has a modest salt hotel. (Hiking Tunupa was not part of our itinerary but I have read that you can climb it.)
We were driven to an open stretch of the Salinas de Uyuni ( salt flats of Uyuni) to take trick photographs and then to the west of the Salar to the Isla Inchahuasi, also known as Isla del Pescado or the “Fish Island”.
How do you take trick photographs in salar de Uyuni Bolivia? You can use the vastness of the salar to create illusions.
One subject has to stand close to the camera while the other stand further in the distance and thus you create depth. Your friend standing at the back might look much smaller than you, and if you raise your feet above, it can be shown that you are crushing your friend (you are standing close to the camera).
Illusions of distances can be used to pretend to be killed by an elephant or getting sucked by a wine bottle or hanging by the lace of a giant shoe or being put to boil in a pot by a giant. The guides-cum-drivers-cum-photographers of Uyuni salt flats tours are experts, and they will help you out.
When I went to tour Salar de Uyuni, I wasn’t a photography-girl – neither did I clicked good photographs with my phone nor did I liked getting clicked. So when I visit the salar the next time I will remember these photography tricks myself to create some crazy moments.
Your photography sessions in the salt desert Bolivia would end with a trip to the fish island, that I first thought was a cacti colony for good reasons.
As soon as you get your tired bum out of the jeep, you see giant green cacti raising its heads like angry cobras all over the island. You go up, stroll a bit, and come back. But what is not to be forgotten is the view from the top of the island, that is nothing but the top of an ancient volcano now submerged.
From the summit of Inchahuasi, you can see the endless Uyuni Salar spilled over in the vastness like curdled milk. A long line of 4×4 vehicles would be front lining the island all the time as all the tours go to the island at the same time.
You can’t really fathom the cacti-covered island but the island is just a preparation for the cluelessness you would feel for the next couple of days.
From the fish island, Juan drove us to a basic salt hotel, for our first night’s stay. Unlike regular places where beds are of wood and walls of concrete, this hotel was entirely made out of salt. Talk about using local produce.
If you have taken a three-days (or other multi-day) Bolivia salt flats tour, then you would get large buffet meals with both vegetarian ad non-vegetarian options. You should inform your guide in advance about your dietary choices.
The next morning would begin with driving past quinoa fields, going through absurd rock creations, and finally bringing you to the many brightly colored lagoons (red, white and green) of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, close to the border of Chile.
Juan first stopped at quinoa fields to show us the red, green, yellow, golden corns of quinoa shining bright and alive in the dead desert. From there he careered to get us to rock formations of the Salvador Dalí desert where we excitedly got down from the jeep and forgot about the sun, for a moment.
The most important mission was then to climb the highest boulder, but not panic while coming down. Everyone seemed to be finding her own summit to success while the sun glowered hard.
Then we drove on. But no matter how hard the sun shines, you would take occasional stops to look at the cute llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas grazing in the wonderland. On the way we also saw the shy viscachas, a cute rodent that is native to South America, staring at us from their secret holes in another set of boulders.
We decided to give the animals some privacy and headed to the series of colorful lakes, Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Cañapa being the first two major ones. Both the lakes were captured by the flamingos who migrate to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni every year.
Prepare your nose beforehand for though the lakes might be gorgeous, some of them stink due to the sulfur around the lake. Inspire of the smell, three kinds of flamingos dip their beaks deep in the water and search for food in the lakes incessantly. But we will have an even bigger encounter with flamingos soon.
Your last stop of the day before you head to the guest house would be the park’s major attraction, the Laguna Colorada or Red Lagoon. Pink flamingos have made this lake their home, too.
To my surprise, I came to know that pink flamingos were mostly born gray and white. But now as these flamingos eat the pink algae that grow in the brine, their feathers become pink from the carotene(the red-orange stuff that gives carrots their color) in the algae.
What brine are we talking about? Salt covers a huge pool of liquid brine, saturated solution of sodium chloride, lithium chloride and magnesium chloride in water, underneath its surface. Even though the lithium in the brine is not mined yet, over half of the world’s lithium reserve is contained in the El Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.
The flamingos eat through this brine around the lakes, too. So you might see a line of graceful flamingos busy finding bugs with their beaks through the crystalized salt surface for their bent beaks would get out even the cleverest bug.
The copper-brown Andes in the distance, the red sheet of silk over deep-blue water visible only in small patches, flocks of pink penguins wandering carelessly over the red algae, a white frothy layer of borax floating into the algae and then extending to the blue shore which in turn meets the desert studded with golden tufts of dry desert grass — are we still on earth or some another planet?
Mostly you wouldn’t get time to answer this question for, mind you, you are at a height of 4000 meters, at least, and nausea would overpower all other feelings. What is left of your understanding would swirl away with the tornado of dust created by the jeeps racing ahead of you on the dusty and salty desert roads.
While you click pictures of the gorgeous flamingos, mind your step as though the lake is only about a meter deep, you don’t get to have a warm shower at your hotel for the night.
You would spend your second night close to the laguna Colorado in concrete rooms.
You might snuggle inside or come out to see the star-studded sky. The nights are cold and surreal in Bolivian salt flats. Only one or two shops were open in the village in which we stayed the second night and even they close early. So if you need something, buy right after dinner and then take a stroll to admire the stars.
But you might want to rethink about staying up late as Day three begins at about 5 am. Now you would be taken to the highest point of the tour(4850 meters) to the geothermal field or the hot geysers known as Sol de Mañana.
The early-morning sky was clear, the silence that echoes a couple of hours before dawn couldn’t help with the cold, and the pale moon hung above the copper mountains while we embarked on our journey to the bubbling fumaroles.
Though these geysers weren’t belching smoke as high as the ones I had seen in the Atacama desert in Chile, we were like in a smoke factory.
Step carefully around here for the hot mud pools are boiling hot. You might be lucky to catch a sunrise above the mountains and the geysers but the day we were at the geysers everything was pale.
From the geysers, you would be taken to the hot springs of Laguna Polques (29 degrees). Though the pool is small, the hot water can liberate you from the fatigue you would feel towards the end of your salt flats salt tour.
Even though the odor of sulfur didn’t leave us alone while we soaked in the pool for an hour while looking over the salt plains that sprawled like an endless white sheet at a whopping 4,500 meters height, we felt blessed.
Travel Essentials for your Bolivian Salt Flats Tour
Itinerary for the Salt Flats Tours Uyuni at a glance
Day 1 – Train Cemetery, trick photography and Fish island
Day 2 – Quinoa fields, Salvador Dali desert, and colored lagoons in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa
Day 3 – Geothermal geysers of Sol de Mañana, Laguna Polques, and driving back to Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile
What to remember while going for the Uyuni salt flats tour for a comfortable trip in the uncomfortable landscapes?
- Don’t forget to pack the essential items as listed in the things to bring for the Bolivian salt flats tours below.
- Acclimatize for a few days before you start the Uyuni 3 day tour.
- If you feel a bit dizzy or nauseated or tired, you can chew coca leaves, or drink coca tea. Your guide would be able to provide you coca leaves or you can also buy in Uyuni town.
- If you feel that you have any symptoms of AMS(acute mountain sickness), ask the guide to drive you back to Uyuni immediately.
- Enjoy the drive rather than feeling anxious about how you will survive through the long drives on rough terrain.
What do you need to bring to Salar del Uyuni, Bolivia?
Here is the essential list of items you should bring to the salt flats for a comfortable trip.
- Lifestraw water bottle – Comes with an inbuilt filter, and you can fill it anywhere.
- Good hiking shoes for women and good hiking shoes for men – A must-have in the Salar.
- moisturizing cream
- sun hat
- Yoga pants for women and for men – suitable for the long drive.
- A scarf for women and for men – To save you from those harsh winds
- A pair of warm leggings or thermals for women and for men – At night or early morning, you would need to wear something warm.
- Warm and waterproof gloves.
- Woolen socks for women and for men.
- Warm jackets for men and for women – For the chilly nights
- a shawl if possible
- Swimwear for women and swimwear for men – You need to dip in the hot pool.
- A travel towel
- altitude sickness pills
- Your essential medicines
- toilet paper
- power bank
- A good camera – Nikon D3400 is a very good choice for the price. I use Nikon for all my photography now (the pictures in the article though have been clicked with my phone for I have been using Nikon only for the past nine months. some pictures are stock photos.). This camera comes with two lenses, and the one with the higher resolution if perfect for bird photography if you are interested.
- Memory foam travel pillow for a good sleep while traveling
- Toys you want for photography
- Wine or snacks if you would like to have some in the evening or during the drive
- A little cash
What is the best time to visit Salar de Uyuni?
The rainy season in the salt flats of Uyuni is between January to April. During this season, you will find a sheet of water over the salar making it a perfectly reflective surface, giving the salary the name of the reflective salt flats of Bolivia. A lot of people prefer to visit Salar de Uyuni at this time for reflective photography.
Though the nights are always cold in the salar, the days are relatively warmer in the rainy season. The temperature range from November to January is about 13-21 degrees celsius.
The dry season is from May to October. But the months of June, July, and August are freezing.
So the best time to visit Bolivia salt flats would be the months of March, April, and May. I took my Salar de Uyuni 3 day tour in April. The rain had stopped by then, and the temperature was quite tolerable. You also see more flamingos in the rainy season and even towards the end of it ( I saw tonnes) so keep that in mind.
Where to stay in Uyuni? What would be the accommodation on the Uyuni salt flats tours?
Uyuni is a basic town with basic hotels so find one for yourself on Booking and make peace with it. In the salt flats, your tour company would provide you with accommodation. You would mostly stay in shared accommodation in salt hotels.
Which tour companies to hire for your Bolivia Salt Desert tour?
All the travel companies pitch in and combine the travelers to make the maximum use out of the six-people space in the vehicles. So even if you book with a company, you might go in another company’s car and you wouldn’t even know.
Having said this, I have heard great reviews of Red Planet Expedition who provides guests with accommodation near the thermal pools for the second day.
You can also think about this 3 Days Salt flats tour from Uyuni run by GetYourGuide who will take care of all your arrangements.
What is the price of the Bolivia salt flats tour?
Expect to pay between 800-900 Bolivianos for a three-day tour with an English and Spanish speaking guide. The driver is also the guide and the photographer but please don’t expect a full description of everything you see in perfect English. You also get the entire transportation, accommodation, meals, and water in the price. Make sure to carry some cash with you for you can buy some basic stuff at some of the accommodations.
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