DISCOVER ANOTHER WORLD IN BOLIVIA’S SALAR DE UYUNI
A diversified Salar de Uyuni tour
It’s no secret that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America but it is also one of the richest… rich in natural treasures.
One of these treasures is the famous Salar de Uyuni. Salar de Uyuni tours are on every traveler’s bucket list when travelling in Bolivia and we also heard a lot of good things about it. Most famous are the funny pictures that are taken in the salt flat where people play with proportions and are suddenly sitting on Coca-Cola tins. Of course we thought that, although the tour takes 2.5 days, the main and best attraction is the salt flat itself. However we were totally wrong! In the end the Salar de Uyuni was impressive but there are so many more amazing natural treasures to discover! You don’t believe me? Then read this post!
Uyuni – a sleepy town
The empty streets of Uyuni
Our trip to another world started with a melancholic place. Uyuni, a town located in the Altiplano, the Andean Plateau, counts roughly 18,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by (a loooot) sand and salt. From Bolivia’s capital La Paz it’s a 12 hours bus ride on paved and unpaved road (bus company Todo Turismo, 250 Bolivianos/US$35 per person).
Before I was already awake because the shaking of the bus woke me up. And then I realized that we were driving on sand! This is not surprising in Bolivia as the whole country (which is three times bigger than Germany) only has 3,000 kilometers of paved road. And suddenly you see that there is nothing else – just a huge wide flat. I asked myself, “Do people really live here?”
Around midday we arrived in sleepy Uyuni. So my question was answered: Yes, people do live here! With our backpacks on our backs we looked for a hostel and checked in at Hotel Palace (140 Bolivianos/US$20 double room with private bathroom).
Then we wanted to see more of the town and went for a walk. What can I say? Uyuni is different! Around midday and in the afternoon you have the feeling that not a single soul lives in this town. The streets were almost empty. Houses are brown and grey and the most colorful place is probably Uyuni’s playground.
Uyuni’s train station
In the main streets monuments of old locomotives remind of old times when the mining industry had its golden period. But then it all collapsed and the trains were left behind. At least Uyuni still has a functioning train station.
Funny creatures in Uyuni’s main street
Even after finding some life in the streets in the late afternoon Uyuni looked like a frustrating place to live. But at the same time we were fascinated by its unique atmosphere.
Let’s start! Packing our 4×4
On the next day we started our tour with Cordillera Traveller. A couple from France, Tomas and Lucile, and Amanda and Diego from Brazil also took part in the tour. Our driver packed our 4×4 and in the spacious and comfortable car we all wanted to start the trip.
The train cemetery – looking back to a golden time
At the train cemetry
As mentioned before trains played a very important role in the history of Uyuni. In the late 19th century minerals were transported from here to the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays you can visit the train cemetery with its wrecked old steam locomotives just 3 kilometers outside of Uyuni. These rusty giants give a little insight into the golden age of this area and it’s a great place for taking pictures.
Salar de Uyuni – the endless salt flat
Golf ball BoB in the endless Salar de Uyuni
Salty, white, endless… these are the three words that describe the largest salt flat on our planet – the Salar de Uyuni. It comprises over 10,000km², is located in an altitude of 3,653 meters and in the center the salt is over 10 meters thick! I think that’s impressive! More than 10,000 years ago the whole area was a huge lake before it dried out.
Economically the Salar de Uyuni still plays an important role in Bolivia. Every year 25,000 tons of salt are removed and brought into the cities. It is also one of the biggest lithium sources (used for batteries) in the world. Today it’s one of Bolivia’s main tourist attractions.
Colchani – table salt from the Salar de Uyuni
Colchani – Salt from the Salar de Uyuni ready to be processed
Colchani is a very tiny, one street town, that doesn’t seem to be more than a tourist trap where you can buy colorful souvenirs. But this village plays an important role for the locals. The few houses are the production place of table salt. After removing the salt from the salt flat and drying it in the sun for a few days, it is further dried in an oven and enriched with iodine. Then the salt is milled and ready is the Salar de Uyuni table salt.
When you walk through the village you will discover piles of salt ready to be processed. Have a closer look at he bricks of the houses. Guess of what material they are made of!
Salt Museum – Do you want some salt with your lunch?
The Salt Museum
After leaving the village of Colchani we arrived at the salt museum and were surrounded by the white mineral. Salt everywhere! Wow! The reflection of the sun is incredibly strong and without sunglasses you can’t see anything. The dryness created a beautiful pattern in the salt that is hard as stone.
Flags from all over the world
The salt museum used to be a hotel which was illegally run in its beginnings. Almost everything there is made of salt… the walls, the tables, chairs…. It was a special surrounding for having our lunch break. And I am sure nobody missed any salt in the food :).
Photo time – Let’s take some memorable pictures!
It’s so inviting to take funny pictures in the endless salt flat and to play with proportions. Suddenly you can sit on a Coca Cola tin or your shoes are much bigger than you. I was so proud because the salt made me so strong that Lars could stand on my two hands. It was tough but I made it :). But my absolute favorite shot is Lars great jump over our 4×4.
Lars jumping over our 4×4
Isla del Pescado – An island with no water around
Giant cactus on Isla del Pescado
Having a shape like a fish from the far distance, Isla del Pescado impresses with its giant cactus. These giants can get an altitude of up to 10 meters! Next to them we looked like little ants. On the island is a path that brings you to the top. From there you have a fantastic view of the many cactus and the huge salt flat.
Salt Hotel – One night in a salt bed
Our salty beds in the salt hotel
Before sunset our 4×4 arrived at our hotel. Of course it was a salt hotel! Everything was salty… walls, tables, chairs, the floor, and even our beds. Before the tour started we read that it’s a very basic accommodation and expected the worst. But the room was nice and the bathrooms were very modern and even equipped with hot showers. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and a glass of wine and had a great sleep in our special beds. We loved to stay there and to taste the salt in the air.
Beautiful colors at sunset
Sand, sand, sand… – and the end of Bolivia
A new day with more natural treasures awaited us. We left the small town where we stayed for the night behind us and in front of us was nothing except sand, stones and volcanoes. Our driver navigated us through a long sand desert where we suddenly spotted a railway track. A railway track? Here? Is this the train to… nowhere??
Little golf ball BoB sits boldly on the rails.
We learned that this track was still used although it looked like remains from the past. Some kilometers further we could find out by ourselves where the trek goes to…. Chile. We didn’t realize that we reached the end of Bolivia. A sandy lonely border crossing somewhere nowhere…
Welcome to planet Mars
We felt like we were on planet Mars
The further our jeep drove, the more we left our planet. I was sure that we had arrived on planet Mars. The sand was red, the rocks took on strange formations and volcanoes dominated the horizon. What a beautiful place!
Pink spots in beautiful lagoons – Hundreds of flamingos
Stunning scenery – Flamingos in front of volcanos
Did you know that flamingos live in high altitudes? To us it was completely new. Three colorful lagoons awaited us: Canapa, Hedionda and Honda. One was more stunning than the other. The flamingos loved them because they are rich in food. The surrounding was so special that we thought we would be part of a National Geographic documentary :).
James flamingo searching for food
Suddenly vicuñas crossed our paths. They belong to the family of the llamas and are very cute and curious.
Two curious vicuñas
A tree as hard as stone – Arbol de Piedra
Arbol de Piedra
During the trip we had seen a lot of different rock formations. One of the most special formations, and therefore also one of the most famous ones, is the Arbol de Piedra – the stone tree. Through aeolian erosion, due to the sandy environment and strong wind, a formation was formed that looks like a tree. It’s 7 meters high and a very popular photo scene.
A natural painting – La Laguna Colorada
The colorful Laguna Colorada
The treasures didn’t want to end. We almost reached the point where we couldn’t handle the incredible beauty around us anymore. We had the feeling that we explored a whole new continent in just one day. But it’s “just” a tiny little part of amazing Bolivia.
The last highlight of this day was the amazing Laguna Colorada – the Red Lagoon. It’s not difficult to find out where it got its name from ;). The lagoons we had seen just a few hours before were already fascinating but this one blew our imaginations. Our first thought was “Who put red paint into the water?” Although it’s not just red! The lagoon is red, black, and white and surrounded by brown sand and a deep blue sky. And then there are these little pink spots again, the flamingos. Especially the contrast between the black ground and the pink of the flamingos is beautiful. You have the feeling that you stand in front of a natural painting. The red color comes from certain alga that lives in the water.
A freezing night in a warm sleeping bag
Our dorm room
The second night we spent in higher altitudes than the night before. The temperatures at night reached 0°C/32°F or less. Our group shared a dorm room with 6 beds. And this was the best that could have happened because it made the room much warmer. We heard that the second night will be very cold and freezing. We expected the worst but in the end we all had a good sleep. I put on leggings, socks, a t-shirt, a jumper and used our summer sleeping bags additionally to the blankets of the hostel and it was perfect.
The earth steams – geysers at sunrise
Lars surrounded by the steam of the geysers
The next day started very early. At 4:30am we had breakfast because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise. Our driver took us to another stunning spot where we would watch the rising sun. It was full of geysers. The whole area was steaming and the air was filled with the smell of sulphur. Mud was boiling and in every hole it was bubbling. The cold air of the morning intensified the steam and the area looked like a mystic place. Wow!
Take a swim in a natural bath tube
A local lady standing next to the hot springs
You want to take a swim? It’s no problem! For a small extra fee you can jump into a pool. The air is cold but in the pool 30°C/86°F warm water awaits you. As we are not the big fans of many people in one pool, we decided to enjoy the surroundings. The whole lake was steaming and it was a beautiful scenery with the birds sitting in the steam. It doesn’t matter what you do, you will like this place.
The colorful end of the trip – a green and white lagoon
The Green Lagoon
After 2.5 days this great tour came to an end and for the last time we got our cameras ready. The Green Lagoon with the picturesque volcano in the background was a gorgeous last treasure. The green color of the water also comes from a certain alga. However it’s poisonous and you won’t see any flamingo swagger through the water. Right next to the Green Lagoon is the White Lagoon that, unfortunately, doesn’t get the deserved attention. After so many incredibly colorful lagoons a white one looks somehow inconspicuous.
Right behind this impressive volcano is the border to Chile. It was time to say goodbye to our great driver and the Brazilians. We all were still “high” from all the impressions and the beauty we had seen and couldn’t believe that it was over.
Our agency and prices
Uyuni highly depends on tourism and you have the feeling that the main streets only consist of travel agencies. Really, it’s full of them. But which agency offers good value for money? As usual we had a look on tripadvisor before and read many reviews. Unfortunately almost all reviews for the Salar de Uyuni are listed together so that it’s hard to find an overview of the reviews of single companies. In the end we had three favorites: 1. Quechua Connections 2. Cordillera Traveller 3. Red Planet Expeditions. All three had very good reviews but didn’t belong to the cheapest agencies. But to be honest in Bolivia we never wanted to go for the cheapest so that these three became our top 3.
When in Uyuni we went to all three offices and asked for prices and the program. The program is always the same! All jeeps go from highlight to highlight. The differences can be found in the included food and accommodation, the language the guide speaks and the prices:
1. Quechua Connections: 950 Bolivianos (US$135) per person
2. Cordillera Traveller 900 Bolivianos (US$127) per person
3. Red Planet Expeditions 1,200 Bolivianos (US$169) per person.
All tour operators DO NOT include the following extra fees: Entrance Isla del Pescado: 30 Bolivianos per person and Entrance Eduardo Avaroa National park: 150 Bolivianos per person. All tour operators DO INCLUDE the transfer to Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama if you don’t want to go back to Uyuni (Bring money! Border crossing fee to Chile is 15 Bolivianos per person).
The reasons why we chose Cordillera Traveller: Red Planet Expeditions were fully booked for the next day and they were more expensive because of the English speaking guide. As this doesn’t matter to us we decided not to go for the most expensive one. The office of Quechua Connection was closed the whole day and we weren’t sure if they would open in the evening. So we decided to be on the safe side and booked with Cordillera Traveller. At 18:30 pm we saw that the Quechua Connection office just opened but then the tour was already booked.
Of course I can’t compare the tours with each other but I recommend Cordillera Traveller! Our whole group was very satisfied with the tour: very good and comfortable 4×4, experienced driver, always good food, good accommodation. Just one thing could have been better: Our driver was also our guide and didn’t talk that much in the beginning so we had to ask for information. But on the second day it was all good. All in all the tour offered everything we wanted and even more.
By the way, the same operators offer tours from Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Cordillera Traveller offers the same tour for US$185 per person. On their website (see link above) they do not communicate the cheaper Bolivian price!
What to bring
What you definitely need for this trip:
- Sunglasses: Without them you are lost in the Salar de Uyuni. The reflections are so strong that you can’t look without sunglasses.
- Sunhat, cap and gloves: During the day it’s warm and the sun is strong so you need a sunhat. As soon as the sun sets it gets very cold and you need a warm cap and gloves.
- Sunscreen: To protect yourself from the strong sun.
- Sleeping bag: When you have a sleeping bag, you should bring one. Especially the second night is very cold. If you don’t have one, bring more clothes for the night or rent a sleeping bag.
- Batteries: You will take hundreds of pictures and the cold weather will empty the batteries much faster. Tip: Put your batteries into your sleeping bag at night so that they stay warm and don’t lose energy. It really helps.
That’s it! The journey to another world is over! Welcome back to reality :).
Do you plan to visit the Salar de Uyuni and have any questions? Just leave a message below and I would be happy to give you some more information.
Take care and safe travels!