The Uyuni Salt Flats and Other Amazing South-Western Bolivian Scenery

Unlike the journey to Potosi, travelling to Uyuni was a straightforward bus ride. Uyuni the town is a dusty place with little to note except for one thing – it is a major starting point for tours to the giant Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). Salar de Uyuni and other landscapes in Bolivia’s south west are must-sees on the South American tourist trail.

I wanted to take the same Red Planet 3 day tour as Aubrey (and her friend Jenn), one of several friends I met at the wonderful Beehive Hostel in Sucre. I arrived to Uyuni on the evening of the 1st of April and, after checking in to my accommodation, looked for a restaurant. At a chicken restaurant, upon asking for a menu, I was told in Spanish, we have fried chicken. Obviously no menu was needed. Every local in the restaurant (all other patrons were locals) ate their chicken, chips and fried plantain with knives and forks – no finger-licking-good here.

The next morning I visited the immigration office to receive my post-dated Bolivian exit stamp, saving the need to queue at the border. Checking in at Red Planet’s office, I was delighted to be placed in the same vehicle as Jenn and Aubrey, along with a British couple. We travelled together in convoys of two Landcruisers. The five of us along with six women in the other car made for a great tour group.

The first tour stop was the Uyuni train cemetery, where trains built in the late 19th century lay abandoned.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Posing on one of the old locomotives at Uyuni’s train cemetery

30 minutes drive further we came to Salar de Uyuni and toured a salt factory. The Salar de Uyuni salt flats cover greater than 10,000 square kilometres and contain an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt. Less than 25,000 tonnes are harvested annually and only for Bolivian domestic purposes. As Salar de Uyuni far from the sea and Bolivia has no coastline I expect exporting salt would be uneconomic. The brine below the salt flats contains a large amount of the world’s lithium although I’m unsure if it’s mined.

Since 2009 South America has hosted the Dakar Rally with Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina all holding stages. Bolivians seem especially proud of this and throughout the country there are Dakar Rally signs and stickers on cars and buildings. In theory, Salar de Uyuni would be a great rally stage location. However, the time the region did host a stage, the salt flats were wet from a rare rainfall, with the salt water damaging many rally vehicles.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

A giant Dakar Bolivia statue constructed out of salt

The Uyuni Salt Flats’ enormous size and lack of visual variation make for a wonderful trick photography location. Shooting small objects close with people further away creates optical illusions.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Wrestling the tail of, cowering from and being unfazed by a tiny toy posing as a giant dinosaur

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

The guide (in red) and several tour group members setting up and posing for trick photos on Salar de Uyuni

Incahuasi Island lies in the centre of the salt flats. The isolated island contains fossilised coral and plant and animal life including cacti, birds, lizards and the rabbit-like viscacha. With the harsh sun, piercing salt reflection, desert dryness and freezing nights, it’s amazing anything grows here. With Incahuasi’s isolation and harsh surrounds I expect unique species to evolve here.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Cacti on the rocky Incahuasi Island with two vehicles dwarfed by the salt flats in the background

The harsh sun and reflective salt is a danger to humans too. To protect myself I wore long clothing, sunglasses, a broad hat and placed sunscreen on exposed parts of my body. This included parts not usually exposed to sun damage such as the base of my nostrils. One of the Brits on tour was not so careful and ended up suffering sunstroke.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

A silhouette of me warming my hands on the setting Uyuni sun

The first night we ate dinner and stayed overnight in a hostel made of salt with several other Red Planet tour groups. The outspokenness of another tour group member made me appreciate what a great group I was travelling with.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

The salt hostel room I shared with a US American from Seattle

Day two of the tour involved a long drive across the salt flats and past other amazing landscapes, including sheer cliffs and volcanoes. Animals seen included llamas, vicunas their wild relatives and, later in the day, flamingos. At around 4,000 metres high, the main crop grown was quinoa.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

A llama decorated with pink walking on the moist valley floor

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Flamingos and their reflections on a shallow lake

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

A Landcruiser vehicle in front of a colourful mountain

In the afternoon we stopped at Arbol de Piedra to see interesting rocks, including one shaped like a tree.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Erosion has shaped this rock into a tree-like shape

At Laguna Colorada we paid our Andina Eduardo Avaroa National Fauna Reserve fees and witnessed the stunning site of hundreds of flamingos feeding in the lake. To cope with the freezing nights, down to minus 15, the flamingos huddle together overnight.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Hundreds of flamingos on Laguna Colorada

The epic day was yet to end for we still had the highest point of the tour to visit: the 4,850 metre high Sol de Manana sulphur springs.

Video footage showing Salar de Uyuni’s vastness and the bubbling sulphur springs and steam of the Sol de Manana geothermal field

Following the sulphur springs we drove to a hostel. Day two finally ended with a soak in hot springs adjoining a nearby lake under the clear night sky.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

Vicunas grazing on the lake edge near the second night’s accommodation

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

A closer photograph of a vicuna next to the lake

On the third and final morning we drove the relatively short distance to the isolated Chilean border and said goodbye to the fantastic tour friends and drivers/guide. In the border vicinity I asked for the toilet and was suggested to choose anywhere in a very large area. Myself and the British couple farewelled Bolivia, crossed into Chile and caught a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. Aubrey, Jenn and the others ventured back to Uyuni town or other parts of Bolivia.

Uyuni Salt Flats Tour, Bolivia

The isolated Bolivia-Chile border post

Thank you to my tour friends along with the Red Planet drivers (one who doubled as guide) and Bolivia’s stunning scenery for an amazing trip.

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