Savannah Grace

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

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From La Rioja we took an overnight bus to Jujuy, then jumped on another bus directly to the border, 5 hours away. Along the way we picked up a few other travelers including Andrea, a solo Swiss traveler who we decided to pair up with to cross the border and head further into Bolivia. Bolivia immediately reminded us of, well, Bolivia. I liked it the first time and was happy to be back. It might be the poorest country in South America (Venezuela being a special case at the moment) but it has character and authenticity and the chaos and local costumes were somehow refreshing.

Our goal was to reach Tupiza, a small, dusty town with a bit of a wild west feel to it. The drive there was ruggedly beautiful, with views full of cacti and red rock mountains. We arrived in the afternoon, easily finding a place to stay as it is the “off season” in the area. At 2850m (9300ft) we were a little higher than we wanted to be to start adjusting to the altitude. The new plan was to relax for a couple of days before doing anything but with Andrea in the picture we were persuaded to think about a salt flats tour a little sooner than we’d anticipated and in the end decided to spend two nights in Tupiza before continuing on with Andrea. I liked Tupiza and found it mostly relaxing except for the fact that it was the end of Carnival (it happens in a lot more places than just Rio) and lots of places celebrate local festivals around the same time. There were marching bands, firecrackers and water fights going on up and down the streets. Water guns and balloons are all well and good when it is hot out but we were at high altitude with chilly evenings and if you weren’t careful some local kid (or mischievous lady) would get you from behind. We tried not to spend too much time playing the unarmed target.
Most people think that tours of the Uyuni Salt Flats are just about the salt flats but this is very far from the truth. People that do the one day tours just to see the salt flats are missing out on some of the best Bolivia has to offer. The whole area of south western Bolivia is a high-altitude plateau full of beautiful mountain scenery, lagoons, geysers, ruins and wildlife. Tours into the region traditionally leave from the town of Uyuni but there are alternate tours to the area from Tupiza and even San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Tours are in 4WDs as it is a very remote area with only dirt roads (if any) and only the occasional small village. At times it reminded me of Mongolia or Tibet in its remoteness, though not in scenery. Tupiza seems to be the least busy starting point of the three and for this reason I’d prioritized a start from there. The standard route is 4 days/3 nights and ends in Uyuni.
Our tour mates were Andrea and Niels a young Belgian guy riding in the same 4WD with our married couple guides Panchito (driver) and Filomena (cook). We later learned that there was another group in a vehicle on the same route that would be sharing our cook but we rarely saw them other than in the evenings when we stopped for the night. On day 1 we counted a total of 7 vehicles on our route and we usually felt like the only ones. It was a long day of driving (~350 kms on dirt road) but the scenery more than made up for it. I didn’t realize llamas came in so many colour combos.

Leaving Tupiza
Llama herd
Wild Vicunas
Ruins of a Spanish mining village
Empty roads
4855m above sea level

On day 2 we hit the main tourist circuit through the area hitting the more famous sites of the region. Every stop thereafter had at least 30 vehicles and in all honesty, the whole area started to feel crowded. It was still stunningly beautiful. The coloured lagoons were impressive, especially the red Laguna Colorada with its thousands of flamingos. The geysers were less exciting than I expected and were mostly just little bubbling mud pools but still interesting in that they are at such a high altitude.

Lost the vegetation on day 2
Licancabur volcano and Laguna Verde
Laguna Blanca at the Chile/Bolivia border
Little geysers at 4900m
Laguna Colorada
Our favourite lagoon
Still a remote area

Day 3 was more about rock formations and even climbing up some of them. At this point I’d started to feel a bit better and lose most of my altitude headache. We’d been between 4000 and 5000m since leaving Tupiza and it was taking its toll on all of us. In the late afternoon we started to reach civilization again in the form of slightly larger villages and better graded dirt roads. We passed through Uyuni and stayed that night in a salt hotel built right on the edge of the flats. The salt hotel was as it sounds, everything made of salt, the walls, base of the beds, tables and chairs. Even the floor was crushed salt.

A camel?
Climbing around in Italia Perdida
Unlike the others, this is a fresh water lagoon
More canyon views
Waiting for lunch
Train cemetary outside Uyuni
Salt hotel

We’d made it in time to check in and then head out to the edge of the salt flats to watch the sunset. March is the end of the rainy season in the area so sections of the salt flats are flooded and less accessible. The water was anywhere from a cm to half a meter deep. Maybe that is why we were all clustered together for sunset, but our guide told us that it was always this busy at least. We stopped counting vehicles at 100 and estimated it at about 200. And this is the low season…  Needless to say, sunset wasn’t as amazing as the sunrise we had the next morning as there were fewer vehicles more spread out. As the sun rose, reflecting the light over the water we got our first good look at the this little section of the largest salt flat in the world. This might be the best time of year to go as we had the opportunity to take the classic water reflection photos and then after breakfast head out to a drier patch to play with the forced perspective shots more commonly seen. It was a lot of fun and with more time, props and imagination we could have come up with a lot more fun stuff to do.

Waiting for sunset
Walking on water or clouds?
Time to goof around!
Sasha’s new love….

With the morning salt flats fun finished our tour was basically over, with just enough time left for lunch before dropping us off in Uyuni. We said goodbye to our tour mates and by the next morning everyone was scattered all over Bolivia with us free to continue on our own again.


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