A tour of the Salt Flats in Uyuni (Salar de Uyuni) was lingering on my bucket list for years, so part of my motivation for visiting Bolivia was to finally see this unique and beautiful place. And on a three-day tour of the area, I saw so much more than I expected as we crossed into different ecosystems, climates and landscapes. However, I think it was the perspective that this trip gave me that made it so memorable and one of the best tours I’ve ever done. As was the way with most of my South America trip though, not everything went perfectly smoothly on the tour, which kind of made it perfect in the end…especially because I’m still alive.
First off, getting to the town of Uyuni from the capital of La Paz wasn’t the most fun. I had to take an uncomfortable 9-hour night bus, and although we were served food and given blankets, the former was barely eatable and the latter was barely noticeable because it was so cold on the bus that people were actually scraping ice off the windows to see outside.
And once we arrived in Uyuni at 6:30am, I was on my own since the tour company failed to pick me up as was promised. A local woman told me their office was close by, so I thought I’d walk there….just go down that way two streets, turn right, then follow that road, pass the church, then turn right again, aaaand voila. It sounded easy enough at the time, so I walked around the frigid ghost town like a zombie looking for it. I gave up after wandering for about 30 minutes with nothing in sight but a pack of stray dogs and impending frostbite, so I walked back to the bus station to catch a taxi. Sure enough, four blocks away.
However, things looked good as we got going because our guide seemed great and the itinerary was packed. We had two trucks for the 11 of us, plus our guide and two drivers. And thankfully everyone in my group got on well from the start. Nothing worse than getting stuck with a bunch of tools for multiple days when you’re trying to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience.
Initially I patted myself on the back for calling shotgun which didn’t seem to bother my group since I was the only one in our truck that spoke Spanish and could therefore chit-chat with our driver. This bonus was short-lived though when buddy got a serious case of the heavy eyes less than an hour into the tour. Yikes, I thought, but we forged on. Nothing could get our group down.
Our first stop was the train cemetery just outside of Uyuni. Particularly, this train line was used in the early 1900s to serve the flourishing mining industry, but when the industry collapsed in the 1940s the remaining trains were simply abandoned. The site would probably have been pretty creepy if it wasn’t for the throngs of tourists playing on the trains like kids. We, of course, joined in.
Next up we headed into the Salt Flats themselves which you have to experience to fully appreciate the size and scale. My delight was initially tempered by the fact that our driver was now falling asleep outright, so I started talking him to death about everything under the sun to keep him awake. Normally I would have been pretty upset about the situation; however, once we got deep into the desert, I forgot all about it. The place was absolutely incredible.
Formed from prehistoric lakes, this vast area in the southwest corner of Bolivia covers 4000 square meters and has a salt crust that goes a few meters deep. It’s also the world’s largest source of lithium and contains an abundant amount of other minerals that has helped shape the varying landscapes and attracts tourists in droves.
As is common among tours, we had a hilarious photo shoot of sorts where our guide posed us for some creative perspective shots which work well on such a backdrop. These are just some of my faves he took of our group.
Next up we went for a bike ride in the Salt Flats which was exhilarating and definitely made me feel like a kid again. And after a great lunch of llama that surprisingly didn’t make me want to vomit, we visited the little village of Colchani for a tour of how the salt is processed and to see an old hotel, which as you may have guessed, is made entirely of salt.
Afterwards, we went to Cactus Island which is oddly smack dab in the middle of the desert. Said to be one of the first places that the Incas called home when they came to this area, we learned a lot about them and their traditions and walked among 1000-year old cacti and cairns.
At this point our guide had clearly tucked into his big bag of cocoa leaves because he finally seemed awake, which was a good thing since the day was winding down and the sun was setting. As we felt the temperatures drop, our concern shifted towards our accommodations since we knew the lodges were pretty basic and without heat. We soon forgot all about the potential deepfreeze when we stopped to enjoy the stunning sunset, which was a bit surreal and worthy of a thousand postcards. The whole day was actually. And as I lied in bed like a popsicle that night, I recounted the amazing things I saw and felt complete gratitude for being there. Bumps and all.
The second day entailed a lot of driving which unfortunately meant more nodding off by our driver and an even more ridiculous set of questions to keep him awake. I was slowly running out of Spanish and topics though, so I changed tactics and began to ply him with all the sweet snacks I had and even started singing to him with makeshift microphones to get him to laugh and be more alert. Thankfully our group stayed in good spirits about it all. I think we all knew we were stuck with him, so we just made the best of it and focused on the incredible things we were seeing.
We drove through amazing deserts with mountains all around us. We visited a series of lagoons that were peppered with pink flamingos and Chile in the distance. We stopped at the incredible Red Lagoon (Laguna Colordada) which is reddish in colour, caused by pigmentation in the algae and red sediments.
We then visited the Chuguana rock formations and the Arbol de Piedra and had a ton of fun climbing around and reverting back to childhood, yet again. Even me, Miss deathly-afraid-of-heights-and-annoyed-with-anyone-who-isn’t had fun playing on the rocks and didn’t even lose my marbles when some of the young whipper snippers in my group decided to do crazy jumps from one rock to another with their go-pros and gonads front and centre.
That night our accommodations were even less Hilton-esque than the first night but again, bareable. Perhaps it was the great company, surprise bottle of wine from our guide, or communal filth, but the laughs over dinner were endless and made us forget all about the arctic temperatures and a driver who was hell-bent on killing half of us.
On the third day we passed through even more diverse landscapes. We visited both natural and man-made geysers, the Dali desert, and had the chance to swim in hot springs. My favourite place was one of our last stops, the Black Lagoon, which looked a bit like what I envision Mars to resemble – if it had llamas walking around, of course.
All in all, the Salt Flats was one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and definitely a highlight of my South America trip. I met some incredible people, laughed until my sides hurt and played like a child. And as we headed back to Uyuni, I thought a lot about how too few of us genuinely play once we reach adulthood, yet how good it is for the soul and psyche when you do.
So, not frigid temperatures, the world’s worst driver, or eleven strangers detracted from this trip. In fact, it all added to the adventure and pure joy I felt from start to finish.
Incredible nature and beauty and some necessary perspective about what’s important in life – things I hope I never forget.