We left Sucre, first with a taxi to Potosi (where the mines are) and then with a connecting bus to the world famous town of Uyuni. La Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flats at over 4,000 square kilometres and is often top of many backpackers’ list of things to do in South America.
The most common excursion is a 3 day tour from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, or vice versa. However, as we had already visited San Pedro earlier in the year, and we wanted to head north to La Paz after, we decided a one day tour would be sufficient for us.
We had heard of numerous safety issues about the drivers, so resorted to trusty tripadvisor and ended up booking with Salty Desert tours, one of the top ranked agencies. The one day tour cost us B$250 bolivianos (£27) per person, plus an additional $30 bolivianos entrance into one of the attractions. All the tours use 4×4’s, with a maximum of 6 people although luckily our group was only 5.
The tour started at 10:30am, with the first stop following shortly after. The Train Cemetery, on the deserted outskirts of Uyuni, is nowadays essentially a playground full of tourists clambering over the rusted remains. Almost all of the tour companies visit at exactly the same time which spoils it a bit. The train line was originally constructed by the British to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports. However, after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940’s, the trains were left to rot.
We then continued onwards to Colchani, a small town next to the Salar de Uyuni selling local crafts such as alpaca jumpers, various salt souvenirs and also offering a last chance for people to stock up on the essentials before embarking on their respective tours. Dave bought a Steve Irwin style sun hat… From there, we headed towards the former Salt Hotel for lunch, stopping briefly at Los ojos de Uyuni (Eyes of the Salar). At first we thought the bubbling water was a natural hot spring, however the water was ice cold. They are essentially outlets, or waterholes, from the subterranean rivers flowing under the Uyuni Salt Flat.
The Salt Hotel (as the name suggests, it’s interiors are full of salt-made items), no longer actually operates as a hotel. Our guide said there were too many incidents of tourists ruining the salt flats after drinking late at night although our online research suggests it was due to a lack of waste disposal. Instead, it is where all the tour groups stop for a packed lunch. Outside the hotel are two of the iconic landmarks of the salt flats; a 20 foot salt statue saying ‘Bolivia’ and also a display of world flags. The England flag was tiny and well hidden but the dominant flag of the whole structure is actually the Swiss flag, which partially fitted for me!
The afternoon began with a stop in the middle of nowhere allowing us our first proper photo opportunities. One of the most iconic things about the salt flats is the perspective photos you can take. Thankfully, our driver was extremely well versed in tourist-trap-photography and helped us take loads of photos together with our group (see below!). I think this was when we really got to appreciate the ludicrous vastness of the salt flats, it was just white salt hexagons like an intricate beehive, as far as the eye could see.
The main attraction in the afternoon was Incahause island. In the middle of the white salt flats, there is an island of fossilized coral covered in thousands of cacti which offers panoramic views across the Salar. The cacti can grow at 1cm every year and some were absolute giants, standing at over 13 metres tall!
The last stop of the day was on the edge of the Salar for a beautiful sunset. We stopped next to some man made salt piles; the salt is dug into piles weighing a ton each and left to dry in the sun before been transported to a refinery. As soon as the light starts to fade, you see all the 4×4’s rushing to get back to Uyuni and we were back in the town by 7pm allowing us plenty of time to grab dinner before our 9pm night bus journey onwards to La Paz.
Thanks for reading and join us next time!
Sophie & Dave