Before we went to Bolivia, we really only knew the the country boasted terrifying roads. But once we made a list of places we absolutely had to see, it was without a doubt that we knew we’d be seeing the stellar salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat (over 10,500 square kilometres in size!) and was certainly the highlight of our time in Bolivia.
As it had been a while since we had much of an adventure, we decided to forego more city stops (sorry Potosi and Sucre) and head straight to Uyuni. We took the worst bus ride we’d had since the terrible buses in Ecuador (and not, thank goodness, to the roads, but to the people we were sitting next to onboard. Didn’t their parents ever teach them to not: constantly kick/hit/manhandle the seats in front of them, stand in the aisle facing other people thereby infringing upon their personal space, or having a ridiculously loud hour-long laugh-filled phone call at 10 PM when people are trying to sleep??!!) that took us overnight from La Paz to Uyuni.
We stepped off the bus bleary-eyed, hungry and ready to get away from humanity, only to be accosted close-range by the dozens of tour operators for their tour to the salt flats. Thank goodness Ewan did his homework and had read about the state of tours in Uyuni (broken down vehicles, drunk drivers, getting stranded…no thanks!). So we opted for breakfast to pass the time before a guidebook recommended operator opened up.
When the office finally opened (only after another operator called the worker…this caused our eyebrows to raise a bit…) we found out that we’d have to wait a day to take the tour we wanted which was three days, two nights and has you finish up in Chile. After some mumbling and undecidedness, we decided to have a day to relax in Uyuni even though there were cheaper tours leaving that day. We felt better with the vouch from Lonely Planet and also that a day of rest would be ideal before we committed to a full on tour.
And just in case you were wondering what there is to do in Uyuni-proper: well, in our opinions, not much. It’s over-priced as far as food goes and the salt flats tour is pretty much the main thing to do. But we were happy to chill out and would recommend some downtime before the multi-day tour if you’re feeling tired. Even though you are essentially driven around to various sights, it is kind of exhausting!
Our three days on the tour were completely packed with stops: cloud puffing volcanoes, tri-coloured flamingo-filled lakes, relaxing hot springs, sulfur-spewing geysers, a cacti-covered island, an eerie train cemetery, and of course, the amazing salt flats themselves.
Starting in Uyuni, we saw the salt flats on the first day. It was surreal. When we see white on the ground we automatically think snow. Here, the hard ground is crusty salt underfoot, deposited from prehistoric lakes. It is incredibly flat and makes for amazing photos, both impressive and goofy. We spent much of our time agape and incessantly snapping photos along with the other tour groups.
The tour then takes you around a couple stops before the driver switches hats and becomes the chef. From the back of the Landcruiser he seemed to whip up an almuerzo for the six of us which impressed us more for the actual feat of preparing food back there than the taste of things (though in retrospect the food was likely prepared in the morning before we left and he just laid it out for us). After lunch we were toured around more of the salt flats and an island covered in giant cacti before finally making it to our accommodation for the night: a salt hotel. Yes. We stayed in a hotel made of salt bricks (with a salty-mortar) that seriously had a loose salty floor. I’ve never stayed in an ice hotel, but I have a feeling that the salt hotel is a lot more prison-like…
On day two it’s a bit of a drive before we hit the first official stop near Volcan Ollague, but one filled with wildlife spottings (emus!). We spied flamingoes left, right and centre at las Lagunas Altiplanicas. We came across a forest of rocks. And we ended at Laguna Colorada that boasts three colours depending on the content of minerals and the effect of the wind. Our day ended at a hostel where our group happily unwinded over wine and cervezas before calling it a night.
The last day started early (in my humble opinion too early since our entire group was ready and waiting for the guide at least a full 15 minutes before he was!) and had us zooming towards the Sol de Manana geyser basin where we saw clouds of sulfur and boiling mud (which we haven’t seen since touring Iceland!). At 4,950 metres above sea-level, this stop was a short one since the sun had barely shown itself and the place was more than cold. Thankfully the next stop was the hot springs where we bared the elements to strip down to our bathers and then warm up in the hot waters. It was divine, even considering the fact that we were there at the same time as all the tours, and the pool in itself isn’t that large. Our last stop of the tour before crossing into Chile was at Laguna Verde that acted as a perfect mirror to Volcan Licancabur.
Was the tour worth doing? Yes it was. Apparently one can try to self-tour Salar de Uyuni, but after seeing the crazy paths and routes we took in our group, I would say it’s best that you go with a tour. The salt flats were a highlight, but we enjoyed all three days of stops and were happy to have an easy way into Chile. It truly was other-worldly (specifically: Mars).
How was our tour operator? Lonely Planet recommends Cordillera Traveller with the caveat that they seem to get fewer complaints than other operators. The tour is pricier than the others, but that gave us a peace of mind and didn’t include an extra charge to take us into Chile.
- our fellow travellers were great and aside from the actual stops, were a highlight of taking this tour. It’s always great making new pals!
- the guide was friendly but spoke no English. Despite his questionable taste in music, we generally didn’t mind him until the last day when we were waiting for him in the cold before the crack of dawn. That plus the fact that we were rushed out of the hot springs just to wait at the Bolivia border for 30+ minutes made us a bit irked.
- the tour says that the only costs not included in their package, aside from bathrooms, snacks or gifts, was the 150 Bolivianos for the Parque Nacional and the 30 Bolivianos for Isla Inkahuasi (the cactus island). Turns out the tour also doesn’t include the ticket cost (only 6 Bolivianos) to enjoy the hot springs or the required 15 Bolivianos at the border crossing.
- speaking of hot springs, if you want to enjoy them, make sure you have a towel. Even though you have to pay to use them there are none available to use/rent.
- the food is included but is not of the same quality as what we experienced on the Inca Trail. We had some pretty tough beef, sad breakfasts and an all-around group tummy-destroyer dinner of spaghetti. I think it is best to keep expectations low and stock up on your own snacks or drinks to drown the food in.
- we read a lot about how cold the tour is, but were assured when we bought the tour that we didn’t need sleeping bags like our guidebook mentioned. It does get chilly. The prison-like salt hotel is cool, and the second night hostel in the 6 bed dorm is also very cold. We didn’t need an extra sleeping bag, but extra layers are best to make sure you are comfortable.
If travelling to other planets is too expensive for you, head to Salar de Uyuni!