Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

STOP 34 | Day 107 to 110 |

It was a 24 hour travel day with 4 flights to get to our next stop in Bolivia. Unfortunately the most affordable flights were an overnight flight from Iguazu Falls, Brazil to Santa Cruz, Bolivia via Lima, Peru (approximately 9 hours with a connection). From Santa Cruz, it was a 7 hour layover, before our flight to Uyuni, Bolivia via La Paz, Bolivia (at La Paz it was another long 5 hour layover)! However, after arriving in Santa Cruz, J noticed a direct flight leaving in a few hours to Uyuni. Thankfully we were able to change our flights, cutting out over 12 hours of travel! The plane heading to Uyuni was very small, holding less than 20 passengers. After a quick 1 hour flight we got a taxi from the airport into the town of Uyuni (10 bolivianos/person).

Uyuni is a town set up as the gateway for people looking to visit the Salt Flats. There isn’t much in the town except for restaurants serving mediocre pizza and pasta, stores selling tourist items for the tours (sunglasses, locally made sweaters, snacks) and lots of tour operators. As the town is ~12,000 feet above sea level, we could feel the impact of being in high altitude. Especially after walking up the three flights of stairs to our hotel room, we’d be winded. It was nice to arrive in the town earlier, allowing us time to organize the tour for the next day. We decided to book our tour with Salty Desert Aventours, which although wasn’t the cheapest operator had very good reviews. Few items to note on booking a tour: make sure you go with a reputable company. There are lots of tour operators/people within town offering “good deals” and online you can read about unfortunate horror stories. We also had to pack a small bag for the 3 day, 2 night tour. Bags are often tied on top of the Land Cruiser, but as our car only had 5 people (plus the driver) they conveniently were put in the back seat. Some of the tour operators drop clients off at the Chilean border so room also needs to be saved for those bags.

The next day we, along with 9 other guests and 2 Land Cruisers, headed off to our first stop, the antique train cemetery. These trains were previously used to move minerals to the ports. It is quite the sight seeing these large rusted steam trains lying abandoned. We then stopped in the town of Colchani where we saw the salt making process. This is where approximately 25,000 tones of salt is excavated and processed annually (a small portion of the estimated 10 billion tones of salt in Salar de Uyuni). There are also stalls selling items you may have forgotten, sunglasses to warm clothes. Entering the salt flats, we were amazed at the flat white land that seemed to go on forever and the hexagons that have emerged on the barren land. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at approximately 10,582 square kilometers. The pictures don’t do justice to how unique this place is. We stopped to look at some salt pyramids (the first step to salt production). Surprisingly it was quite wet around the area. During rainy season there is a layer of water which creates an amazing mirror effect on the flat land. For lunch we headed to an old salt hotel where the Dakar salt monument and flags from around world were located. After lunch, which included some llama steaks, we stopped at a local fair. We took in the interesting llama and processional dance with the locals. Our next stop was to take the iconic perspective photos. The tour guide was an expert and quickly directed us for some great group shots. We even made a video (see below). Continuing on we got a panoramic perspective of the salt flats at Incahuasi Island. The island is host to gigantic cacti and coral rock formations. Our last stop of the day was to watch the sunset over the flats. The temperature dropped quite significantly as the sun began to set. Our accommodations that evening was a hostel made of salt, literally! From the tables and chairs to the box spring it was all salt. The hostel was very basic with only two bathroom facilities for the 20+ people staying there! They even charged you to take a shower, albeit it was only 10 bolivianos (~$1USD).

The next morning we headed into the desert. The barren land and sunburnt mountains reminded us of the scenery in parts of Namibia. We stopped for lunch at Laguna Hedionda (translation – stinky lagoon), named after the sulphuric smell that the water emits. However, even with the stench it was very picturesque, with flamingos, llamas and the mountainous backdrop. The lagoons are home to three different species of flamingos: James, Chilean and Andean. After lunch we went to the Siloil desert which is at about 14,900 feet above sea level! We also saw some of the wildlife in this area: vicuna (relative of the llamas), Andean fox and a chinchilla. Once in the Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve we stopped at Stone Tree – a petrified volcanic lava formed by wind and rain erosion. The amazing sights continued as we headed to the Red Lagoon. Even with the shining sun it was extremely windy and cold at the lagoon. The lagoon is named after the reddish waters, which is caused by red sediments and pigmentation of some algae. It is contrasted by white borax islands and home to flamingos. We continued up to ~16,000 feet to the highest point in our travels within the Bolivian desert and then onto to the volcanic area Sol de Mañana – a geothermal field. Although overwhelmed with the sulphur smell, it was impressive seeing the geysers and steam pools with boiling mud. Our packed day with amazing sights continued with a visit to the hot springs after dinner. It is always amazing and peaceful to see the sky lit up with stars, especially after all our years living in New York City. The accommodations that evening were dormitory style with the hot springs serving as your shower (no shower facilities available here). The simplicity and basic set up reminded us of how rural the area was and that we were really in the middle of nowhere.

The next day we went to see the Salvador Dali Desert. The desert is named after the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, whose paintings resemble the landscape. Looking out to the mountains it almost seemed fake. The many shades and colors resembled a painting! We stopped at Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), which due to seismic activity appeared more brownish than green. Heading back towards Uyuni we saw tons of llamas (which are all domesticated), especially near the towns. Late afternoon we arrived back into the town, allowing us time to book our accommodation for the evening and have dinner before catching our flight to La Paz.

This tour was one of our favorite activities in South America. An absolute must for anyone visiting Bolivia or South America for that matter. The diversity in landscape, floral and fauna over the three days left us amazed. Our tour guide was also very informative and we lucked out with a great group!

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