Salt flats

Salar de Uyuni Travel Blog

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Getting prepared to leave from Uyuni
Our big trip in Bolivia was to visit the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in the south. We decided to do a three day tour starting at the town of Uyuni and going across the salt flats and further south to the Chilean border where we would go into Chile to San Pedro de Atacama.

There are two main ways to get from La Paz to Uyuni - by bus or by train. We originally wanted to go by train but the schedules didn't match with what we needed so we got the overnight bus instead. At the bus station before we left we met a Swiss couple who we got along with and we agreed we would try to find a tour together at Uyuni.
The train cemetery outside of Uyuni


The bus ride was the worst I have had in my life. The bus was fairly uncomfortable as it was, but really it was all about the road. For hours on end in the middle of the night we drove over this horrible rocky surface that made the bus vibrate quite joltingly. Thankfully still I did manage to sleep a short amount of time.

We got to Uyuni at about 6 in the morning and decided to first get some breakfast before finding a tour company. As is typical for tourism-focused towns there were a lot of tour operators at the bus stop hawking their offerings. One guy kept following us around but he seemed pretty genuine so we said we would check out his tour after breakfast. We had a quick meal and then had a look at the tour, which seemed pretty good for what we were after, and the Swiss couple decided to join us too.
I am quite certain that trains have steering wheels


The tours across the Bolivian salt flats are done in Toyota Landcruiser 4WDs where you just drive around the open flats and deserts to each point of interest. By the late morning we were off in our 4WD with the guide/driver, the cook, Ryan, Liz, the Swiss couple, and myself.

The first place we went to was the train cemetary just out of Uyuni. Basically it is just as the name describes - a place where a bunch of old stream trains were long ago abandoned. At first it sounds a bit boring, but they have become huge rusted shells that you can climb all over and take some quite unique photos. We had a great time jumping all over them, and I can imagine I could have spent all day there if I was still a kid.

After about a half hour at the train cemetary we drove off much further to the start of Salar de Uyuni where the salt ground begins.
Liz demonstrating how passengers were positioned in the days of steam trains
It is a very cool sight to come into with the glistening white ground nearly as far as you can see. We were there when everything was dry, but at other times when it has recently rained you can supposedly get a reflection off the ground that I expect would be very impressive.

We stopped off at a point where there are a lot of salt mounds up to a metre high that are stacked up to help with drying them off so the salt can be collected for use. One of the first things you notice as you get out of the 4WD is how damn solid the salt is. I think because my usual mental image of salt is the fine grains you use with food that I assumed it would be similar on the ground, but it certainly is not. The salt here was a bit dirty so we were just took some cool action shots of us jumping off the salt mounds and then went on our way.
Ryan being a real larrikin! But seriously, stay in school


We came to a hotel way out in the salt flats that was made primarily from... salt. This was our first chance to take some decent perspective photos as it was clean white ground as far as you could see. A popular thing to do at Salar de Uyuni is to take photos where you take advantage of the vast white ground to distort the size of objects relative to each other. A typical example is to have someone holding someone else on the palm of their hand. We took a bunch of what we could come up and then had lunch outside the hotel on furniture made entirely of salt.

The main destination of the day was next - Incahausi Island. This is an oasis way out in the middle of nowhere (a common location for places on this tour) which looks like a huge island on the salt flats.
I lifted this over my head only moments later
It raises up to a decent height and is covered in impressively sized cactii. There is a cheap entrance fee to climb up to the top so we got our ticket and headed up. The walk took about 20 minutes and got us to the summit of the island. It was a really fantastic view from the top, you could see way out into the distance and vast scapes of salt in every direction. Down below you could see groups of people on the salt plains taking photos, and also 4WDs driving in and out along the dark marked roads left by the vehicles continuously driving across.

After being up there for a bit we were the only ones left up there, which was pretty cool. We came down after a while and took a bunch more perspective photos on the salt. We were one of the last groups to leave for the day when we took off for our hotel.
Ryan TRAINING his favourite moves heh


On the drive back we went through this section where the salt was forced up about 10cm where the cracks in the salt used to be. I forget the reason for it. It was a striking look and also a lot of fun to kick at the jagged salt protrusions and watch them crumble. This was the last point of the tour where we would be on the salt flats as the rest were other sights in the desert to the south.

We got to the hotel on the edge of a very basic town. Our rooms were quite incredible - the walls were made of salt, the floors were made of gravelled salt, and the bed frames were made of salt. You may notice I am attempting to break the world record for a blog entry most mentioning the word 'salt'.

Before dinner we drove off a short way to a hill where we could watch the sunset.
Salt flats? More like salt not-flats!
We we were early enough that we could first check out a tiny museum on the way that is in a cave that an ancient culture would once bring dead bodies, intending to send their souls to the underworld. After that we walked up the hill and saw the sun go down with the stunning view of the desert scape far around. On the way down we went to a cave in the hill side that has some very unique and fragile formations coming from the roof. We returned to the hotel and had a group dinner, and not long after went to bed.

I slept well in my salt enclosure and early in the morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel before heading out. The day's travels began as we drove through an amazing landscape of heavily eroded rocks perched on the ground. I am struggling to describe them properly so photos of this are a must to appreciate it.
Gravity was the victor
We took some funny photos and videos of us standing on top of them and making various animal noises, slightly to the bewilderment of the Swiss couple.

We drove further on and came to a big lake that was home to a huge number of flamingos. Some of them were quite close to the water edge so we could take some great photographs of them with their heads in the water filtering it for food. Occasionally one would fly around but they typically stuck to their spots of choice. After walking around the lake edge for a while we came to a hotel/restaurant where we had lunch.

Now well fed we drove off further to some enormous rock formations that have seemingly being eroded by wind over a long period of time. One stunning rock was quite big at the top but very narrow at the bottom and made a great photo backdrop.
I liked the part where he jumped
It was all very other-worldly.

Probably the most surreal place we went to - which is saying a lot as the whole tour was surreal - was next at Laguna Colorada. This lake has a population of micro organisms that leave the lake a striking dull red colour. About as weird is that was a massive deposit of calcium carbonate, ie. chalk, on part of the shore of the lake. We got dropped off at the chalk deposit and basically ran up to it and climbed up it. The ground was really soft and light and crumbly, but deep enough that it wouldn't break under our feet. The wind was incredibly strong so kicking at the ground would spray it up and blow it far away. The strong white colour could easily have been mistakened for snow so we took a couple of photos of us from angles that made it look like that.
This is the best perspective photo I took on my camera. I call it "Rem holding Liz"
We got up to the lake edge where the wind was getting really intense. The view was where it was most surreal - standing on a huge natural deposit of chalk while looking over a red lake in the desert with gale force winds nearly blowing us over. We were all pretty stoked with the experience.

From there we drove to the hotel for the night. This hotel is one that nearly all the salt flat tour groups go to, so it is a huge place full of dormitory rooms. The place was very basic and the beds were almost hilariously hard. We went for a bit of a walk but it was getting very cold so we came back quickly. The dinner was the same for each group so I figure they cook it all there in huge batches.

The next day was immediately off to a big start as it was my 27th birthday! We left the hotel at something like 5:30am and our first stop were some natural geysers.
I didn't even want to until I saw the sign...
Actually the very first was an artificial geyser where they use a pipe to vent a lot of gases from the ground into a huge jet, but since it is half-man-made it wasn't that great. We stayed there for a couple of minutes before going to the real geysers just nearby.

The geysers were a real stand out of the tour. It was an area of about 50m square with bubbling mud pools and small vents out of the ground and a strong stench of sulfur. We could walk around openly between the pools and with the thick white smoke from them along with the barely risen sun it had a fantastically eerie atmosphere to the place. It was a lot of fun and we were wandering around so long that the guide was honking at us to go.

We drove over to a nearby hot springs with a building for breakfast.
MOAR SALT
I didn't go in the hot springs so we just had pancakes for breakfast inside and kept going.

The last stop of the tour was Laguna Verde right near the border to Chile. The lake is a great sight from up above where we were dropped off, with a huge mountain in the background. We walked down to the lake edge where the edge is loosely defined. Instead of just going from land to water there is a progression where the rock gets looser and looser before just becoming mud and then water. I decided to test how far I could get and soon got into a loose spot and totally covered my hiking boots and the bottom of my trousers in sulfurous mud. A bit along the lake edge there was some puddles that had formed ice sheets on top overnight, so I did the mature thing and picked a big one up and kicked it into the wind.
Incahausi Island


We were now done with our epic tour across the strange southern Bolivian landscape so we drove to the Chilean border where a small bus was waiting to take people to San Pedro de Atacama. We said our goodbyes to the driver and cook and went through the motions to get over the border. It all took a while but eventually we were off into Chile. Soon we got to a beautiful paved road that was a treat compared to the state of the roads in Bolivia. The road took us all the way down the big drop in altitude to San Pedro de Atacama.
aswold says:
Yes, very well written. I am planning on going within the next year. thanks for sharing!
Posted on: Jun 21, 2011
Stigen says:
Well written blog , and really cool pictures ! I" ll be going here.
Posted on: Oct 01, 2010
oluskydiver says:
which tour company did you choose?
Posted on: Jan 13, 2010
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Getting prepared to leave from Uyu…
Getting prepared to leave from Uy…
The train cemetery outside of Uyuni
The train cemetery outside of Uyuni
I am quite certain that trains hav…
I am quite certain that trains ha…
Liz demonstrating how passengers w…
Liz demonstrating how passengers …
Ryan being a real larrikin! But se…
Ryan being a real larrikin! But s…
I lifted this over my head only mo…
I lifted this over my head only m…
Ryan TRAINING his favourite moves
…
Ryan TRAINING his favourite moves…
Salt flats? More like salt not-fla…
Salt flats? More like salt not-fl…
Gravity was the victor
Gravity was the victor
I liked the part where he jumped
I liked the part where he jumped
This is the best perspective photo…
This is the best perspective phot…
I didnt even want to until I saw …
I didn't even want to until I saw…
MOAR SALT
MOAR SALT
Incahausi Island
Incahausi Island
There were lots of people there, b…
There were lots of people there, …
The view from the top of Incahausi…
The view from the top of Incahaus…
RT 4 LD
RT 4 LD
The thirst for blood... salty, sal…
The thirst for blood... salty, sa…
O hai
O hai
Asleep after a big day on the ol …
Asleep after a big day on the ol'…
Ryan stunned at the prospect of th…
Ryan stunned at the prospect of t…
My bedroom on the first night. I w…
My bedroom on the first night. I …
The odd rocks at the start of the …
The odd rocks at the start of the…
I took my rightful throne and clai…
I took my rightful throne and cla…
I WIN
I WIN
Our first proper flamingo sighting…
Our first proper flamingo sightin…
There were lots and lots of flamin…
There were lots and lots of flami…
This just looked particularly good…
This just looked particularly goo…
Ryan didnt eat all of his lunch s…
Ryan didn't eat all of his lunch …
Kind of freaking epic. Look at it!
Kind of freaking epic. Look at it!
Yeah thats right
Yeah that's right
Laguna Colorada. Red water on the …
Laguna Colorada. Red water on the…
Ryan in the snow!! (actually chalk)
Ryan in the snow!! (actually chalk)
Liz: WTF the water is red!
Liz: "WTF the water is red!"
By taking a photo of myself I crea…
By taking a photo of myself I cre…
Ryan actually rolled up a $US20 bi…
Ryan actually rolled up a $US20 b…
It didnt even really feel like we…
It didn't even really feel like w…
Hot geyser action
Hot geyser action
The stench of sulfur was strong in…
The stench of sulfur was strong i…
Birthday geysers, or something
Birthday geysers, or something
Double, double toil and trouble; f…
Double, double toil and trouble; …
Liz walked ominously through the v…
Liz walked ominously through the …
Steam coming out of the water near…
Steam coming out of the water nea…
I answered the great philosophical…
I answered the great philosophica…
Laguna Verde... ahh the serenity
Laguna Verde... ahh the serenity
The mountains on the other side we…
The mountains on the other side w…
At the Chilean border. Note the st…
At the Chilean border. Note the s…
Salar de Uyuni
photo by: Morle