I think by now my love for strange and encapsulating landscapes is pretty clear. I’m all for visiting places where you can go and just stand in awe at what the natural world has to offer. So of course, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see the raw majesty of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats when visiting Bolivia. To be honest, the salt flats were my main reason for the country and were my last big stop before flying out to Europe.
After a long and mostly-sleepless bus ride from La Paz, I arrived in the small and dusty town of Uyuni. Let’s be clear, there is one reason and one reason only that people come to the town of Uyuni: to start their tour of the nearby salt flats. While I had arranged my tour in La Paz, I hadn’t really bothered to learn what the tour would include. I knew I would be visiting Salar de Uyuni – the salt flats – but other than that I was pretty clueless. I had no idea about the range of jaw-dropping landscapes we would visit, the truly special sights we would see, or the breathless heights we would reach.
Our first stop on the tour was at the somewhat eerie Uyuni Train Cemetery just outside of town. This fascinating scrapyard is a monument to the doomed mining industry and the transport network that it supported around the turn of the 20th century. Wandering between the skeletal, rusted trains you start to appreciate the savage impact of the surrounding environment.
We continued on towards Salar de Uyuni, stopping briefly at one point to see salt being farmed at a factory and visit the obligatory souvenir market. After that, it wasn’t too long until we made our way out onto the salt flats, a world of harsh white in front of us. Along the way, we made several stops including at some salt mounds and a lunch break at the Salt Hotel made of salt bricks. It was at the Salt Hotel where we came across the flag garden and the striking salt monument to the recent Dakar race that had passed through the region.
Up until this point, there had always been sight of “land” on the horizon or closer, so we hadn’t felt isolated out on the salt flat. This soon changed, as we ventured out deeper into Salar de Uyuni. While we had been among the pack of 4 wheel drives previously, we all began to spread out, to the point where they and a speck of land were the only thing on our horizon. This meant that it was the perfect time to step out onto the flats again and play around with the region’s main spot – optical illusions. I’ll spare you the endless silly photos and just share the one of me finally diving into a bottle of fine panamanian rum.
So, once we had spent a significant period of time playing about on the flats and nearly tired of taking photos, we moved on again. Our last stop for the day would be Isla Incahuasi, an island in the salt flats made up of petrified coral and covered in cacti. Clambering up the island, it felt bizarre for such a place to exist in such an inhospitable place, but that’s nature for you. Sitting atop the island, looking out over the salt flats was quiet and peaceful, even when surrounded by dozens of other tourists. I particularly liked watching the 4wds driving off one-by-one with fine tracks and a small plume of dust the only sign of their presence.
We started our second day off poorly, with our 4wd getting bogged in the salty mud of the flats not 30 minutes after setting out from our overnight accommodation. What followed was an hour trying to dig and push the car out of the mud, followed by another hour waiting for our driver to run back to the nearest town and get help. Not the best way to start the day.
Eventually pulled free from the mud, we set off speedily to try and regain the time lost. Salt flats soon made way for arid desert as we drove further south and higher into the Bolivian Altiplano. Had I not been well prepared for the altitude from my time already in Peru and Bolivia, this could have been a seriously unpleasant experience. As that wasn’t the case, I happily surveyed the rugged landscape as we drove on, over passes and towards some incredible lagoons. One lagoon, Laguna Capina, was particularly spectacular due to its native flamingo population, which I had never seen in the wild until this point.
While the lagoons were like an oasis in the desert, the great distances between them were covered in nothing but rock. Mostly this meant rocky, dusty landscapes that more resembled Mars than anything earthbound. While much of the terrain was unremarkable, there was one exception in the Arbol de Piedra, the Stone Tree. Here is a wonderfully odd rock formation roughly in the shape of a – you guessed it – tree.
Pressing on in an attempt to not reach our overnight stop too late, we continued on towards the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. Our last stop for the day was the especially vibrant Laguna Colorada, with it’s blood red hue. The lagoon’s powerful colour is due to algae in the water and particularly pops against mineral sediment and it’s native flamingos. It was a pretty special spot to finish the day off.
Before sunrise on our last day, we set out from our freezing accommodation towards the Sol de Mañana Geyser. The geyser would be the highest point of the tour at 5000m above sea level. We arrived at the site, just as the sun began to peek out from the horizon. Walking around the bubbling mud pools and rising steam as the sun rose, was certainly an atmospheric experience.
Our next port of call was just inside the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, the Hot Springs of Polques. These hot springs are on the edge of one of the reserve’s lagoons and tourists can hop in the thermal waters if they are willing to brave the brisk cold air. Having been in hot springs before and not feeling particularly brave, I and many others sat out.
We would continue on into the rocky and mountainous desert towards the Chilean border for quite some time. Along the way, we came across a particularly curious and tame Andean Fox who approached our vehicle, presumingly looking for food. Great photo op, if I do say so myself.
Just shy of the border we stopped at Laguna Verde, which unlike the other coloured lagoons was quite subdued in colour. After a quick stop for photos, we proceeded to the border with Chile, where most of the group were leaving in order to continue on to Chile and San Pedro de Atacama. The closest I’ve gotten yet to Chile, but I hope to change that the next time I visit South America.
With a much emptier vehicle, we turned away from the border for the long drive back to Uyuni. We seldom stopped as we retraced our tracks for quite some time, before taking the direct route back to our finishing point. One of our few stops on the road to Uyuni, was the Valley of the Rocks, home to intriguing rock formations in an otherwise ordinary valley.
Sadly, after a few more stops we were back in the town of Uyuni and the tour was at an end. I hope this has given you some insight into all the different sights and landscapes on offer in this corner of Bolivia, and hope that it may inspire you to visit Salar de Uyuni one day. It’s definitely a sight like no other!
For more information on Salar de Uyuni, you can visit the following:
Have you had the chance to visit Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni? How was your experience? Please share in the comments.