Like many travelers who venture through Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni was an obvious must on my itinerary. Now, since I am the epitome of a last minute (or maybe even never-minute) planner, I naturally decided to wait with booking the tour until getting to Uyuni (this also proved to save me a few hundred bolivianos).
How to get there
Many people travel to Uyuni via San Pedro de Atacama in Chile as they meander their way up to Bolivia. From my experience shopping for prices in San Pedro, I highly recommend doing the tour starting in Uyuni (the Bolivian side) as it is considerably cheaper. Another popular option is to go via Tupiza in the south of Bolivia by bus, take a train from Oruro, or simply fly in from La Paz. I took the night/ evening bus from Potosí. Cheap and convenient!
I got in around midnight from Potosí and took in to Hotel Julia (freezing and overpriced). But my luck just so happened to switch 180 degrees when in the morning I found a cheap breakfast buffet at Breakfast Nonis that actually made my list as the second best meal I’d had in all of Bolivia (you just can’t beat that Namas Té though)! Fresh juice galore! Tip: make sure to come toward closing time, that way it’s easier to bargain the price. All filled up I head to the main street, Avenida Ferroviaria, to shop around for the tour.
Here’s what you need to know when buying your Uyuni tour:
- There are multiple day options with multiple stops (prices vary of course): 3d/2n, 2d/1n and the option of a single day tour. If you’re interested (like me) in seeing the colored lakes and other parts of the desert beyond the salt flats I recommend the overnight trips. The day-tour will simply take you to the salt flats and the cactus island (which just by themselves are incredible). The 2-day option includes other parts of the desert, the colored lakes and flamingo spotting. The 3-day option trumps the others with thermal pools and geysers. I did the 3-day tour which leaves you (if you want to) by the Chilean border. However, had I had the option of re-doing it, I would have chosen the 2-day tour as the geysers and thermal pools only constituted half a day anyway.
- The tours include accommodation and food. If you’re vegetarian or have certain food restrictions just let the agency know ahead of time.
- Tours leave around 11:00 (morning) daily.
- Agencies open around 09:00. As long as you’re there to start shopping around that time you won’t have a problem finding a spot for the same day. Although if you’re in a larger group I would still recommend looking into booking it ahead of time.
- Tours don’t include entrance fees or the bus ticket to Chile. But you can always try to negotiate that.
- Tour agencies use Jeeps that sit a maximum of 6 people. Good to keep in mind if traveling with a bigger group.
- You will have absolutely no signal or reception during the tour. Surprise! You’re in the desert.
Day 1: Cemeterio de los Trenes, Salar de Uyuni, The Flag Spot and Cactus Island
Like I said, I chose the three-day tour that also gave you two nights’ accommodation. We left around 11:00 in the morning. The first stop was the Cemeterio de los Trenes. On the way there, I felt a sudden sting of anxiety as I realized that I had yet to assemble my transformer toy. I wanted to use this in addition to my pet dinosaurs to take some silly pictures in the salt flats. They had all accompanied me from La Paz so naturally I wasn’t giving up on them. Lucky for me, one of the travelers on the tour was a construction engineer so he very happily accepted my desperate plea for help after he saw how much I was struggling with the Age 3+ toy.
The Cemeterio de los Trenes has an eerie atmosphere to it. It feels almost post-apocalyptic. Here, you’re able to climb around, admire and play chauffeur in the rusty train remains as a result of Uyuni’s closed rail-car factory.
I played around with the photographs a bit after the fact to try to enhance the post-apocalyptic feel this site gave me and… voila! This baby came to fruition:
End of the world anxiety aside, the next stop is an artesian market (also known as a tourist trap). All jeeps make a mandatory 30-minute break here to let passengers shop around for the essential socks, hats, magnets and to my horror- dinosaurs (I thought that bringing toy dinosaurs was an original idea…). There is also several salt sculptures and a very small (but free) salt museum. After that we head to a flag spot for lunch. Apart from showcasing more or less all national flags in the world (which you are encouraged to sign. I finally found Sweden- it was blocked by other flags four times its size) this site also holds a landmark for the Dakar Bolivia race. We are all served lunch inside a salt house. One of my travel buddies exclaims at one point:
“This food is pretty bland but I feel weird asking for salt”.
He never did.
After lunch we continue the journey and the drive through the salt flats. This is one of the most epic routes I’ve ever experienced -you forget it’s all salt. Your mind starts to try to make sense the omnipresent whiteness. It’s snow. It’s sand. But no, hold on a second, it’s salt. It’s salt and it’s surreal. It’s everywhere. Anywhere you look, it’s white. Completely white. We stop to take some pictures. Mind you, getting those photos that play with perspective is 1000x much harder than it looks (check out my “Tips” section below for some advice on how to best do it).
Standing in the middle of the salt flats, looking out is very powerful. And hearing the sounds when your hiking boots dig into the salt makes you think it’s snow crust. It’s very special.
Our driver (navigating the desert without a GPS) takes us to a Isla Incahuasi (the Cactus Island- not a direct translation, mind you) next where you’re immersed in … you guessed it! Cacti! The coral-like stone formations and plants on this island sit on what used to be the tip of a volcano that was once submerged in a pre-historic lake.
After running around the island for quite sometime, snapping pictures of the bendy Dr. Suess-like vegetation we head to a spot to watch the sunset. And what a sunset it was! Pink and purple on one side, green and yellow on the other. I was so very close to tears but the cold was creeping up on me and I didn’t want to catch the flu so I just stood there. Mouth open. But wow. That sunset was absolutely stunning. The colors, the textures, the calmness. This was painting number one.
I also tried to get some pictures jumping while the sun was coming down. It didn’t work out too well, instead it looks like I’m up to some silliness:
We end the day at a salt hotel, made of…. again: salt. Dinner was provided as were extra blankets (although I managed to sneak into the vacant room next to mine to snatch extra ones- I ended up sleeping in two sleeping bags and 6 blankets some of which were llama fur). Needless to say, I slept pretty A-OK that night.
Day 2: Laguna Colorada, Desierto de Salvador Dali, Desierto de Siloli, Hedionda and Ramaditas
What I didn’t realize before booking the Salar de Uyuni tour was just how many other types of desert you will see. And how abruptly and dramatically the landscape changes.
The following morning we are woken up to a breakfast of eggs and cereal. We then venture off into the desert making pit stops here and there where we are able to explore, play around the rock formations, go flamingo spotting and try to keep our balance around the strong winds by the Árbol de Piedra.
Alive and kicking, and exhilarated that I didn’t fall over from the winds, I make an attempt to reach Laguna Colorada. This was not easy. The winds were so strong that rocks were flying at me left and right, piercing my legs. I could barely see. BUT I made it there. BUT there was no red lake. The rough winds move the algae that give the lake its red color. The non-redness aside, it was still beautiful.
I was so impressed by the sky this day. You could almost literally trace the celestial brush strokes. A soft white over a strikingly blue color. The Árbol de Piedra below does an excellent job at showing this along withe the rough conditions of the altiplano. This was painting number two.
My absolute favorite part of this day was the Desierto de Salvador Dalí. Apparently the surrealist got a lot of his inspiration from this part of the desert. And you can tell. This was painting number three
We stop at a second salt hostel where we drink whiskey and play some card games before heading to bed around 21:00 ready to get up 04:00 pronto the next day.
Day 3: Geysers and termales
Day three called for a 04:00 (yes, AM) early wake-up call with a side of crepes. Because, you know, Bolivia is world-known for its crepes.
The goal was to get to the geysers in time for the sunrise. And it was cold. I stayed in the car most of the time and had to force myself outside to snap some pictures and videos. After that, we head to some natural thermal pools. However, as we were all still shaking in the car from the misty coldness at the first stop, none of us were too keen on jumping in.
So without further ado, we head to the Bolivia-Chilean border to transfer to the bus that would take those who are interested or had purchased a ticket to San Pedro de Atacama. Sidenote, Bolivian border patrols operate pretty independently which means that some may charge a border fee while crossing while others won’t. This one did. Alas, the transfer is very smooth albeit cold because you’re standing outside in the cold freezing. See my next blog post about my adventures in San Pedro de Atacama!
Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips Tips
Check the weather: It’s cold year-round but during certain months the tours are actually closed as it gets inhumanely cold (from what I heard this is around April). Also, if you (like I did) really really really want to see the colored lakes, make sure to go during days when it’s less windy. I did not and a as a result was unable to see them (the algae that produces the different colors wash away with currents when the wind is too strong).
Bring an extra sleeping bag: It is freezing. The tour will likely provide you with one for a small fee but I highly recommend bringing an extra one as it gets excruciatingly cold out there. Remember, it’s the desert!
Showers cost. Well, not much. But they are 10 Bs to use and only available at the first hostel. I managed to sneak one in without paying though.
Buy any snacks and water before getting to the town of Uyuni: It’s very overpriced (in Bolivia terms… everything’s relative…) and the few shops there don’t offer much.
Don’t spend the night in Uyuni: if possible. Accommodation is overpriced and fully booked a lot of the time.
Bring a point-and-shoot camera: Of course, the SLR/DSLR is a must. But in order to get those playful pictures that mess around with perspective, a point-and-shoot is much easier because:
1. It’s easier to dig into the ground (and level the lens with the ground to get the horizon aligned with your object of focus)
2. It’s less selective focus-wise, i.e. less depth of field which is crucial for these types of shots.
Bring cash. Needless to say there are no ATMs in the desert.
If going to Chile, get your ticket before-hand. It’s cheaper to buy as a combo with the tour packet.
“Cool story, bro. But how much did it cost?”
Breakfast buffet: 25 Bs
Hotel Julia: 100 Bs
Incahuasi entrance fee: 30 Bs
Eduardo Avaroa National Park: 150 Bs
Tour ticket and bus to San Pedro de Atacama: 750 Bs
Bolivia-Chile border fee: 15 Bs
Total: 1,070 Bs