Salar de Uyuni

9 Aug

The ‘Salar de Uyuni’ or ‘Salt Flats’ tour is one of the most fabled and talked about experiences on the Gringo Trail and we’d been looking forward to it for as long as we could remember. Whisperings of the blindingly beautiful landscapes we’d see had stirred our imaginations and tales about the remote and sparsely populated areas we’d need to cross, flared our excitement. We were about to encounter the biggest salt flat in the world which blankets 12,000 square kilometres, in addition to coloured lakes, bubbling geysers, snow-covered volcanos, thermal pools, a host of Altiplano animals and anything else that the trip, undertaken in a four-wheel drive, might throw at us.

Due to the isolation and inhospitable terrain, 4WD tours are arranged with a local guide who will hopefully offer some interesting information about the sights, will arrange overnight accommodation in simple lodgings and ensure that you are provided with three good meals a day. It’s possible to arrange these tours from Uyuni or Tupiza in Bolivia or, as we did, from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. You’d think it would be reasonably straight forward to pick a tour company, however, as we learned there are numerous agencies out there all offering the earth but not always delivering and some with less than squeaky clean reputations. The tourist office in San Pedro keeps a stack of books containing traveller reviews of the service they received on the salt flats trips and we were engrossed by some of the more harrowing tales of jeeps breaking down in the middle of nowhere, guides getting so drunk that the passengers had to drive themselves and people being left by the side of the road because the driver had taken a disliking to them. We did have some sympathy with the guides as we know Gringos can be hard work but we were struck by the fact that simply choosing a company could make or break the trip we’d been dreaming about. Of course another factor which weighed heavy on our minds was who else would be on the trip with us. The jeeps hold 6 passengers so we knew that we would potentially be spending the next 3 days with 4 other people and we could only pray we’d end up with a good crowd to have some fun with.


Having chosen a company called ‘Estrella del Sur’ the day before, we were picked up at 8.30am from our lodgings in San Pedro and cleared Chilean immigration in town before heading towards the Bolivian border where our jeep and guide would be waiting for us.


We were instantly relieved to find that our group seemed really nice – a young Swiss couple full of adventurous spirit and an Australian and Korean couple who’d just married in Korea and were indulging in a particularly long South American honeymoon. Everyone in the group seemed to bond over a passion for travel and a wicked sense of humour – we were sure that it would be a trip to remember.


We sped up the sealed road leading towards the high Altiplano mountains and shortly after passing volcano Licancabur we moved off-road on a small track with snow lying all around us. The Bolivian border control stands close to 4,000 metres above sea level and was basically a small hut in the middle of the snowy wilderness.


We pulled on jumpers, coats and hats as we stepped out at this freezing and windy spot. To add to the sense of randomness, a burnt out bus laid behind the border control hut half-submerged in the snow.


We joked that this had been the fate of the last tourists who tried to enter Bolivia without the correct paperwork! We entered the immigration office with a feeling of trepidation picturing the officials to be harsh and tough with us, however we were met with smiles and welcoming salutations and soon we had new stamps in our passports. We were shown to our jeep, which would become our home for the next few days, and introduced to our guide Alejandro, a firm but fair 40 something man who’d been guiding groups around Bolivia for most of his life. His presence in the group instantly commanded our attention and respect as he explained a little about the programme for the next few days and set out tea/coffee and breakfast on a small table next to the jeep.


Everything we owned, apart from a day bag, was loaded onto the roof of the jeep and once we’d eaten enough breakfast, we took up our seats for the day ahead – 2 in the back, 3 in the middle and 1 in the front.


We stopped at a small building and bought our entrance ticket into Edwardo Abaroa National Reserve of Andean Flora. The reserve was created in 1973, covers 714,745 hectares with altitudes between 4,000 and 6,000 metres and protects an amazing variety of flora and fauna.


The first magnificent sight we encountered was Laguna Blanca, so-called because the high amount of minerals which drain into the lake cause it to shimmer bright white.


The lake is 5.6km long and 3.5km wide and because of its high elevation of 4,350 metres the lake has a tendency to freeze over as it had done when we were there. It looked like a giant ice skating rink with sculptured mountains climbing sharply from the water’s edge.


Just a narrow channel of water separates Laguna Blanca from smaller Laguna Verde which is green coloured because of sediments containing copper minerals.


Where Laguna Blanca was very still and calm, the wind whipped up the surface of Laguna Verde causing white tips and a type of salty foam to roll onto shore and collect along the stony beach. Scores of jeeps roared along creating a dust storm in their path – it was strange to see so many jeeps together in one place and it almost felt like we were watching a computer game.


Our guide advised us not to exert ourselves as we’d climbed quickly to a high altitude and he didn’t want any of us to feel ill. We were happy to stand perfectly still on the high point Alejandro had taken us to and admire the incredible landscape before us. Our extremities were starting to go very numb with the cold as we bundled back into the jeep and drove on.


We were still digesting the feast for our eyes delivered by the coloured lake when we entered the Dali Desert. It was only a few hours into this trip but our group were starting to understand the Bolivian formula for naming their geographical features was pretty straight forward.


The area we drove through was extremely barren and stretched out in every direction but every now and again amazing volcanic rock formed surreal sculptures reminiscent of the works by Salvador Dali. Our group got out of the jeep for a couple of photographs and we felt dwarfed against the vast open spaces.


Despite the fact that there were no sealed roads and we were literally driving across rocks and sand, the journey was very comfortable.


We all chatted excitedly to one another as we drove and every few seconds someone pointed out of the window at something new and interesting that had been spotted. We drove a further 40 minutes and arrived at the thermal pool of Polques. The small pool was set amidst stunning scenery – on the edge of a glistening lake, with yellow grass and wildflowers nearby and snowy mountains lining the horizon. Unfortunately, there were also other jeeps at the site so the pool was never destined to be ours alone but to bathe in 40 degree waters surrounded by out of this world scenery wasn’t something we were going to turn down…despite the fact that it felt like minus 5 with the wind chill.


A basic set of changing rooms had been created but the stone walls and tiled floors only served to emphasis how freezing it was. We felt like our Russian comrades who, after too much vodka, decide to throw themselves into water baths cut into the ice but sadly we didn’t have any alcohol! We changed out of our layers of clothes and into our swimwear so quickly that even the slight of hand masters in the magic circle would have been impressed. And then we ran, not particularly gracefully, to the water’s edge, hyper-ventilating with the cold as we went. As we approached the water, those people already up to their necks in hot water smiled at us, relieved that they had already taken the plunge and excited to see our reactions as we went from Arctic-style cold to Amazon-style hot in a matter of seconds. The water was almost too hot but we lowered ourselves in, letting out what in retrospect must have been some very strange noises – ohh, argh, eek! And once we were submerged – just WOW!


The water was intensely hot, so hot that every now and again it was necessary to raise our upper bodies into the chilly air to lower our core temperature. Being in a small body of water with some many people of different nationalities, ages, religious, backgrounds etc. was a strangely unifying act. The hot pool seemed to break down all of our boundaries because at that point in time everyone was simply appreciating being there. Every now and again we’d forget where we were and look around with a new-found appreciation for the incredible landscapes.

We soaked for around 30 minutes and got out, dried off and layered up once more. Rather than feeling cold again we’d found an inner warmth which remained with us all day. Whilst our group had been indulging in the water, our guide had been working hard to prepare our lunch.


He ushered us into a small house and laid out before us an absolute feast. It’s never a given that food on these types of tours will be either tasty or plentiful but we were all very pleasantly surprised as we tucked into sausages, rice, mashed potato, a fresh salad prepared with avocado, tomato and cucumber and ripe bananas for dessert. They say that swimming always makes you hungry…well, that was our excuse for clearing our plates anyway! Over lunch we got to know our group a little better – finding out where people were from, their travel plans and their aspirations for the future. As you get older there aren’t always as many opportunities to get to know new people from completely different backgrounds so we all really enjoyed ourselves.


After lunch we loaded up the jeep once more, rotating our seats so we all appreciated different views, and set off. We drove 30 minutes to our highest point on the trip, ‘Geiser de sol de Manana’, meaning morning sun in Spanish. The geyser field covered 10 squared kilometres and lay at a height between 4,800 and 5,000 metres.

Intense volcanic activity filled this area with steaming sulphuric craters and pools of bubbling mud all around us. Our guide warmed us to tread carefully and lightly as tourists have been burnt in the past with over-zealous exploration. The ground beneath our feet was very crusty and we left foot prints as we walked.

DSC04511     DSC04509

We had to resist the temptation to touch the boiling mud, which would have made a rejuvenating face pack at a luxury spa. The whole place had a very ‘prehistoric – beginning of the world’ feel about it and we felt a renewed respect for the awesome power of nature.

We travelled further into the wilderness with only vicuñas and llamas to keep us company by the roadside. We didn’t see any villages or small settlements in this part of the park but the unfolding landscapes continued to impress us. Our final spectacular sight of the day was ‘Laguna Colorada’ or ‘Coloured Lake’, which was a shallow salt lake and to our astonishment the colour of blood caused by red sediments and pigments of plankton and algae which thrives here.


The lake also contains white borax islands which offered a startling contrast to the reddish waters and rare ‘James Flamingos’, along with other Chilean and Andean breeds, were in abundance in this area. Alejandro dropped us at a high vantage point where we could see the whole of the coloured lake laid out before us and we agreed to meet him in 40 minutes further around the lake shore so we could explore and get closer to the wildlife.


We were impressed with the vibrancy of the flamingos whose sole purpose on the lake seemed to be feeding. They stood tall and still and lowered their beaks into the water to filter out the delicious plankton. Over and over again they dipped into the water and then lifted their heads backwards savouring their rewards.


If we got too close to the flamingos they would edge away from us or on occasion they’d take flight creating graceful silhouettes in the blue sky. Where the water was still and calm we were able to capture perfect flamingo reflections in the lake – the already abundant groups doubled instantly before our eyes. It’s said that up to 50 types of birds can be seen flying at the lake so keen bird watchers will be in heaven.


The llamas by the water’s edge were quite tame and looked very relaxed as we approached for photographs.


Llamas and Alpacas are both native to South America and to the untrained eye it may be difficult to tell them apart.


We once read a humorous article which explained that you simply have to think of the animals as musicians and then it’s easy to tell them apart – Llamas are like Bob Marley with longer, often matted dreadlocks and Alpacas are like a young Michael Jackson with tight curly hair.


We walked around the lake and re-joined the jeep where Alejandro explained that we’d be heading to our accommodation for the evening. Many of the tour groups, including ours, usually spend the night at a very basic guest house with no electricity and no heating close to Laguna Colarada, however, as the weather tends to be extremely cold during the evenings at this high altitude – anything up to minus 20 degrees – our guide took us an hours drive to a small village called Villa Mar which was at a lower elevation and where the night-time temperatures would only drop to around minus 5 degrees.


It transpired that Alejandro was born and raised in Villa Mar so we received a very warm welcome entering the tiny village with waves and shouts of ‘hola!’ When we booked this tour, it was emphasised to us how basic the accommodation would be so we were ready for the worst but we were pleasantly surprised. We all had double or twin rooms, the shared toilet facilities had electric showers and flushing toilets and there was a cosy dining area next to the main house. We sat down for early evening coffee and biscuits followed by a delicious two course meal of vegetable soup and spaghetti bolognaise.


The lady of the house gave us our first taste of traditional Bolivian ladies – or ‘Cholitas’ as they are affectionately known. We all marvelled at the two neat plaits which hung down below her waistline, the colourful layered skirt which hung on her hips and the bowler hat which looked slightly too small for her head which she wore tipped to the side. We all turned in for the night reasonably early at around 10.00pm. Our new night-time ritual of getting dressed before getting into bed was interesting and with our sleeping bag and four thick woollen blankets as our covers we all felt like mummies wrapped up but slept incredibly well.


We rose at 7.30am and indulged in a tasty and filling breakfast of coffee, bread with jam, American style pancakes and fresh fruit. We took 20 minutes to walk through the village before rejoining the jeep and we observed a forgotten way of life with farmers harvesting quinoa by hand and drying it in the sun, children flying kites and old men and women using donkeys to carry heavy supplies back and forth.

We jumped back in the jeep and headed to our first crowd-free destination of the day. The alternative accommodation the previous night meant that we’d be seeing sights today which weren’t on the more traditional and much busier route.


A 40 minute drive brought us to a vast series of rock formations nick-named ‘Little Venice’ by our guide and we spent the best part of an hour admiring the unusual natural sculptures and looking for interesting photographs by climbing on high walls or jumping into holes or archways carved into the rock.

DSC04591     DSC04593

Just when we thought we were alone we saw rabbit-like animals with long thin tails, called Viscachas, bouncing around in the rocks slightly startled to see intruders on their turf. At one point Chris, the Australian guy in the group, went missing for a short-while only to reappear 5 minutes later on a high rock ledge minus his shirt and beating his chest making a Tarzan call.


We all fell about laughing.

We settled back into the jeep and moved onto ‘Laguna Mysterioso’. Our guide seemed full of fun and smiles during the morning and we imagined he had some great childhood memories of hanging out with friends in this area. The jeep squeezed through a maze of high and unusual shaped rocks. Alejandro instinctively knew where to go without the aid of a map and laughed every time one of us gasped thinking the jeep was about to hit a wall or a rock jutting out into our path.


We stopped at the head of a pretty valley and followed Alejandro into the sun. High rock walls glowing reddish-brown either side of the valley sheltered us from the breeze. We couldn’t walk in a straight line as a number of small rivers and pools filled the valley floor.


Some of the shallower pools were frozen solid and made great crunching noises as we stood on them. The boys in the group had great fun trying to break through the ice faster than each other but it only took one look from Alejandro to stop these antics.


We turned a corner and saw Laguna Misterioso which had been completely hidden from view up until this point.


It was a tranquil and picturesque scene – an abundance of bright yellow rushes encircled a deep blue lake and Andean geese and smaller black coots with white bills sailed on the water and built small nests. We all took a quiet moment to contemplate the scene.


Then we climbed a small path to the top of a rocky outcrop and grinned from ear-to-ear with fine views in every direction.


The colours and the scenery were in high-definition and once again our group found it hard to summon the words needed to describe what we were seeing.


The young Swiss guy, whose name was also Daniel, found the most fantastic bath-tub shaped groove in one of the rocks and he lit up a cigarette as he laid back in full relaxation mode.


Only bribery with the promise of a good lunch could drag us away from this special place and the spot chosen was just 20 minutes drive away.


As we ate our lunch we were surrounded by Llamas grazing on yellowish, spongy grass and dipping their toes in a network of cool rivers.

DSC04675     DSC04679

Small caves had been cut into the nearby rock walls which our guide explained were used by shepherds who could stay out here with their Llamas for days or even weeks on end. In the distance we could see the outline of a small track leading up, out of the valley, and over a mountain pass, which was the direction we took after lunch.


The jeep bumped and bounced past several remote villages and over the railway line which connects the Chilean port of Antofogasta with La Paz in Bolivia and where several old carriages lay rusting.


Our destination was the salt hotel where we would spend the night. Alejandro mentioned that the hotel had several double and twin rooms which would be offered on a first come first served basis and after that it would be dorm room accommodation so when we saw in the distance the tiny outline of jeeps followed by a dust storm we urged him to drive faster. As Bolivians are never shy at speeding, Alejandro promptly obliged hitting 80km per hour at one stage and thumping the air when he knew he’d taken the lead securing us the desired rooms!


The salt hotel was like nothing we’d ever seen before and really impressed us. The walls, the floors, the tables, the chairs, the beds, the light fittings – practically everything was made from salt. The old salt hotel, which is now a museum, was built on Salar de Uyuni and came under much criticism because it wasn’t environmentally friendly, pumping much of its waste materials back into the salt flats. However, the new hotel had been built 5 minutes drive from the edge of the Salar and had effective drainage and waste disposal.

DSC04711     DSC04717

The salt inside the building acted like snow and muffled all of the sounds around us and as we walked around we enjoyed the crispy crunching sounds under our feet. There was electricity until 10.00pm so everyone rushed to use the electric showers and to charge up their camera batteries for the last day. Once again we had early evening tea and biscuits followed by dinner. As a special treat Alejandro brought out a bottle of Bolivian red wine to share with our meal and much to our delight it was very palatable. Our group chatted and laughed together all evening. Dan got everyone to play a game he’d devised called ‘guess the cockney rhyming slang’ which had our international friends in stitches trying to guess what ‘apples and pears’ (stairs), ‘plates of meat’ (feet) and ‘you’re brown bread’ (you’re dead) meant. The game was especially hard for those in our group who spoke English as their second language but that made it even funnier trying. We eventually crashed out just before 10.00pm knowing that it would be an early 5.30pm departure from the hotel in order to see the sun rise over the Salar – we were all very excited.


It was pitch black and freezing cold when we left the hotel in the back of the jeep. Many of the other groups were preparing themselves to leave but we were the first to depart. Even thought it was dark we knew that we’d entered a special realm when the jeep’s tyres first hit the salt flat and sped up across its immense open plain. Alejandro kept a steady speed of around 50km per hour and followed existing tyre tracks in the salt. He thrilled us by turning his headlights off completely for around 6-7 seconds which seemed like a very long time hurtling along and not being able to see if you’re about to crash into something. We went to ‘Isla Incahuasi’, a 24.62 hectare rocky outcrop in the middle of the salar, to watch the sunrise, and climbed on foot roughly 30 minutes to the highest point. In the dark we could make out hundreds of giant green cacti – some three or four times the size of us, with bright yellow needles as long as fingers. We wondered if we’d entered a parallel universe. We’d taken our stove, a pot and some water so we made our group tea and coffee as we waited for the sunrise.


As the sun started to appear we got the first sense of how enormous the salt flat was. 12,000 square kilometres of salt spread out in every direction and the shadow of the island we stood on made a gigantic triangle in the salt behind us.


We could see jeeps speeding across the Salar towards the island we stood on for sunrise – they looked like ants from up high.


The island was actually the top of the remains of an ancient volcano which was submerged when this area was part of a giant prehistoric lake some 40,000 years ago and today it has an unusual and coral-like structure which often consists of deposits of fossils and algae. The island rises out of the sea of white and cultivates gigantic cacti – some so thick that you can’t reach your arms around them and some so tall that you can’t touch the top.

DSC04752     DSC04799

Once the sun got higher in the sky, more tourists joined us on the island’s summit to share in the special moment. The sky was filled with layers of pastel colours and we felt the sun’s warmth on our bodies after a particularly cold start. People clambered all over the island capturing weird and wonderful photographs and some people even climbed down to the Salar, leaning down and touching the salt between their fingers.

DSC04740     DSC04753

A friendly and playful young dog had followed us to the viewpoint and became our group mascot as we enjoyed the sunshine. The dog took a particular liking to Marion, the young Swiss girl in our group, who wasn’t very keen on dogs, and he followed her everywhere as if he was winding her up on purpose.


We had breakfast at the base of the island in a sunny spot and then we moved off to the centre of the Salar.


The feeling of driving on top of the salar was surreal – it was almost as if we were floating on the surface of a white ocean. We noticed hundreds of hexaganol-like shapes on the surface of the salar which we all assumed could have only have been created by alien life forms but our guide put us straight explaining that the salt, which is only around 1 metre deep has a layer of water sitting underneath it, and as the heat of the sun hits the salt, the water evaporates and creates these mathematically precise looking shapes on the Salar’s crust. The shadow created beside us on the salt made the jeep and it’s roof top contents look huge and we felt like kings and queens riding on the salar.


After driving for around 20 minutes, Alejandro pulled up in a secluded spot with salt stretching out all around us. We climbed out of the jeep and surveyed the scene around us with huge smiles on our faces. We became very childlike and started jumping around without a care.


We touched the salar curiously and rather than our fingers sliding into deep, smooth salt, we discovered a hard and crusty surface – the type of material that would give you a nasty graze if you were foolhardy enough to attempt a football tackle on it.

On some sections of the horizon we could see islands and distant mountains and due to a trick of the eye it looked like those far away objects were hovering just above the line of the salt. Our driver explained that in this world of salt, perceptions can become completely distorted and, like magic, many things we thought were impossible, can become possible. We knew exactly what Alejandro had in mind as we’d all seen photographs of other tourists exploiting depth perception on the Salar – for example, a tiny toy dinosaur in the foreground of a picture, with a person several metres behind, will reverse the size of the two objects, making it look like an enormous dinosaur was about to eat a Lilliputian sized person.


We knew that we needed to get creative. We tested out the theory by seeing if I could pick up the jeep…and low and behold, there it was in the palm of my hand.


I never realised I was so strong!

After 3 months of travelling together (at that stage) Dan immediately turned violent towards me and decided he wanted to eat me whole.


We all helped each other with the photographs and laughed long and hard when some of the shots took several attempts to get right. Alejandro suggested that we use a trekking boot as a prop and he positioned the whole group just right so it looked like we were all sitting inside the boot having a fabulous time.


Inspired by the photography of the whole group together we started thinking about what else might work and we came up with some words we could spell put with six of us. With some practice and luckily some very flexible people in our group we were able to spell ‘COOL’, ‘SAL’ (Spanish for salt) and our personal favourite ‘HOLA’ (which is of course Spanish for hello).


Our final shots were as we started, jumping for joy on the salt flats. It took around 15 jumps to co-ordinate everyone with some confusion as to whether we should jump on or after the count of three. By the time we were all happy with the shot, we were exhausted from all of the jumping.


We got back into the jeep very pleased with the small streak of creativity we’d managed to find within ourselves.


We stopped briefly at the old salt hotel which has now been turned into a museum and hosts some impressive sculptures made from salt in its hallways.

DSC04907     DSC04903

It’s now illegal to stay at this salt hotel because of the environmental damage it causes to the Salar, however, we saw some unknowing guests in the bedrooms, probably arranged by an unscrupulous tour agent. Outside of the salt hotel, flags from around the world flutter in the breeze and we were pleased to see that everyone in our group was represented.


As we headed towards the edge of the salar we came across piles of salt drying in the sun. It was Sunday so there were only a few die-hard farmers working hard but we could instantly tell that this was a back-breaking job…and all to fill those tiny salt shakers that grace our dining room tables. We said to ourselves that it looked strangely like the smooth expanse of salt had broken out in hives!


After another delicious lunch in a small village on the edge of the Salar, used predominately for processing salt, we made a bee-line for Uyuni – our final destination and sadly the place where our tour would draw to a close. It took roughly 2 hours driving to reach Uyuni which was a wind whipped, Wild West looking town. Before getting dropped off we made one final diversion to look at the train cemetery on the outskirts of Uyuni.


Rusty hulks of British-made steam engines from a bygone era greeted us. The locomotives still carried themselves with a great deal of style and dignity. Some had been decorated with colourful graffiti and hanging from the underside of one carriage was a swing.


We all clambered onto the engines for pictures. We noticed where the coal would have been carried, where the engine would have been stoked and where the pistons would have turned. Some of the trains had been stripped of parts and we imagined locals having carriage seats in their living rooms and thick steel wheels as kitchen tables.


As we climbed out of the jeep in Uyuni for the last time and gathered together our luggage, we all felt rather sad that our extraordinary trip was coming to an end. Embracing each other we knew that our epic adventure would live on in our minds for a very long time. We took some final group photographs with our intrepid leader, Alejandro, to capture the moment and looked forward to the next chance we’d have to get together with our new international friends…


…Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long – as dinner and large beers followed that evening in Uyuni!

One Response to “Salar de Uyuni”


  1. The Simple Life in South America | Purple Wanderlust - August 24, 2013

    […] Salar de Uyuni ( […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: