An Adventure in Bolivia's Salt and Sand Deserts

Rachel Ricks UyuniRachel Ricks travels to south-west Bolivia to take in Salar de Uyuni – at 4,086 sq mi, the world’s largest salt flat.

I strode out into the abyss of white. The ground was snow white as far as the eye could see in every direction. Silhouettes of mountains hovered in the far horizons, but otherwise nothing interrupted the white. I kept walking until the last voice of a tourist had faded out. I sat down on the ground and stared out across the salt flats of Uyuni. Then the silence hit my ears so hard they began to ring. I picked up a pinch of salt and let it crumble through my fingers. I could hear every grain hit the ground.

This surreal and stunning experience was just the beginning of a three-day tour I took in a 4×4 jeep from Uyuni in south-west Bolivia through to the border of Chile.

We’d booked the tour in La Paz after asking round several different agencies to get an idea of the price and what sort of service to expect. We also chose to fly from La Paz to Uyuni after hearing nightmare tales of the overnight bus journey. The flight with TAM (the Bolivian air force which operates commercial flights) was reasonably cheap, pleasant and efficient, and had the added bonus of offering spectacular views over the salt flats from the air.

Our flight arrived in Uyuni at 8:30 in the morning, so we were able to book onto a tour that started that day – most set off at around 10:30-11am.

Uyuni train cemeteryWe joined the jeep with our companions for the next couple of days – a German father and daughter, two Israeli girls and Luis, our driver/guide/chef. First stop was the ‘train cemetery’ just outside of town, where engines that once ran through to Chile have been left to rust after the days of silver and mineral mining in the region ended. Now a bizarre tourist attraction-cum-playground for local kids, I wasn’t quite sure what the appeal was.

After that, the tour began in earnest – until we pulled up 10 minutes later at a row of souvenir and ‘handicraft’ shops where we were given more time than any site we visited on the whole trip. I didn’t even get out of the car to look at the same alpaca jumpers and flappy hats I’d seen for the past three months in Peru.

Luckily it wasn’t far from here until we hit the salt flats. Luis stopped for two photo opportunities before roaring us onwards to the Isla Incahuasi – literally an island of rocks and cactuses in the middle of the salt flats. Here, we along with 20 or so other jeep tours parked up for lunch.

Isla IncahuasiLuis brought us plates of llama meat, rice and salad. Afterwards, we clambered along a signposted path over the rocks to the summit of the island where everyone gathered to take photos. Carlos and I veered off from the masses and the signposted path, instead descending a much more exciting-looking side of the island to the salty ‘beach’, where we were at last alone and took our photographs.

Luis was waiting impatiently for us by the car when we returned, and this was how it continued for the next two days – we didn’t realise until afterwards that the drivers have a system of leaving in order so they constantly have two other cars in their sight. You wouldn’t want to be stuck alone out here considering the distance we travelled from civilisation, and there is certainly no chance of phone reception.

We drove for a good couple of hours over the salt flats until Luis told us to say adios to the salar, and suddenly we were driving along a desert road instead to shortly pull up to our hostel for the night – built entirely of salt. The walls were constructed of salt bricks, the beds, tables and chairs were all made of large blocks of salt, the floor was granules of salt, and even the lights were decorated with salt chandeliers. I found it interesting that there was no salt on the table for dinner.

Salt HotelBefore dinner was served, I went for a stroll along the sandy road. I turned a bend round a mountain and saw it had hand-painted signposts pointing out a trail up its rocky side, so I followed it up and discovered a petrified sea of corals and large cactuses. I stopped on the rocks to watch a beautiful glowing sunset over the never-ending desert landscape.

The next day Luis got us up at the crack of dawn to set off on a long morning of driving through vast deserts with volcanoes looming in the distance. By lunchtime we reached the first of several flamingo-filled lakes of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Nature Reserve. As we drove off, a herd of vicuñas ran in front of the car and down to the lakeshore, making yet another impossibly stunning picture.

I was left astounded by this otherworldly scenery with these ethereal lagoons thousands of feet above sea level and miles from anywhere, with the only signs of life being the graceful vicuñas and the pink flamingos. I thought I’d seen all the different landscapes our planet has to offer, but here I kept being surprised. Luis rounded this long day off with a stop by the immense Red Lake – so called as unique micro-organisms that thrive here rise up towards the sunlight during the day, turning the water crimson.

VicunasThat night we stayed in a basic hostel in the middle of nowhere again, to rise even earlier the next morning in the freezing cold to go and see some steaming geysers at their best. Seeing these jets of steam in front of the rising sun was indeed worth getting up in the dark with teeth chattering.

Luis rewarded us with a stop at thermal baths, formed by the side of the volcanic Lake Challviri, where we gladly wallowed in the warmth for a while.

Carlos and I were to be dropped off at the border to cross into Chile, so there was a quick stop at a green lake this time before we drove on. The border post is just a simple house in the middle of the desert where the tour jeeps drop off or pick up travellers exchanging with Chilean mini-buses. As we drove off down the road into Chile, I turned round for a last glimpse of Bolivia and spotted an ancient burnt-out bus abandoned in the desert. As beautiful as it had all been, somehow I couldn’t wait to get to Chile.

How to do it

Shop around tour agencies in La Paz, Tupiza or Uyuni for prices and get a feel of what they’re offering. As far as we could see, all follow the same route, stay in the same types of accommodation and serve the same meals (we were always joined by at least six other groups), so don’t be so sure that paying more means you get more. The drivers are mostly freelance and simply booked up by agencies as the tourists come.

I paid Bs.720 for my tour with El Desierto, booked through El Solario Travel Agency in La Paz. I could complain about certain aspects of the tour, but I won’t bother because it was all pretty good for the price and for Bolivia.

The basics you should expect for 700-800 bolivianos (Bs.):

A driver/guide/chef who most likely will be Spanish-speaking only; a 4×4 jeep in decent working order, normally accommodating six tourists – your backpacks can be taken on the roof if you’re going on to Chile. Extra costs to expect include entrance to the island on the salt lake (Bs.35) and the nature reserve (Bs.150, although this was being reassessed at the time of my visit). You should be advised on these by your tour agency.

Day one

  • Tour starts at 10:30/11am.
  • Visit train cemetery. 
  • Drive across Salar de Uyuni, taking in old Salt Hotel, now museum, and the island for a walk. 
  • Lunch (cold meat, rice or pasta and salad, fruit, cold drinks). 
  • Tea and biscuits. 
  • Dinner (soup, meat and rice, fruit, water). 
  • Night’s accommodation in dormitory in salt-built hostel (expect solar or generator-powered electricity and to pay extra for a hot shower).

Day two

  • An early rise for breakfast (cereal, yoghurt, tea/coffee, bread).
  • Driving all day with stops at various scenic points including Ollague Volcano, rock formations in the desert and flamingo lakes and the Red Lake in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Nature Reserve (expect to pay as extra the park’s entrance fee). 
  • Lunch (similar as before). 
  • Dinner (similar as before). 
  • Night’s accommodation in dormitory in basic hostel (again expect solar power and to pay extra for a hot shower).

Day three

  • Breakfast (as before).
  • Early rise to visit geysers. 
  • Green Lake. 
  • Thermal baths.
  • Drive back to Uyuni, or if transferring to Chile you will be dropped off at the border and shown your connection with a mini-bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. 

NB – If taking the latter option, you will pay when you book the tour an additional Bs.50 for the transfer. You get your stamp for Bolivia here, while the Chilean immigration office is some 40 minutes’ drive away on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama. Try and ensure your driver gets you to the Bolivian border post early to be prudent; there have also been reports of Bolivian border staff charging unknowing tourists unsolicited fees.

All details and prices I provide here were correct at the time of my visit in late November 2012.

You can read more about Rachel’s travels on her blog.

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All photos © Rachel Ricks 2012

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