The most popular tourist attraction in Bolivia is undoubtedly a visit to Salar de Uyuni. The first time I heard about this salt flat was a few years ago. I remember being blown away by the image results when I Google-searched “Bolivia Salt Flat.” It was nature’s most-stunning mirror – a dreamlike landscape of fluffy white clouds against boundless blue skies.
The pictures reminded me of that scene in Forest Gump when Forest reminisces about his long-lasting run to Jenny:
“It was so clear, Jenny, it looked like there were two skies one on top of the other. And then in the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began. It’s so beautiful.”
A short film by Enrique Pancheco entitled Reflections of Uyuni can be found on his website under this link here. Check it out. It’s pretty freaking magical.
My Visit to Salar de Uyuni
Most backpackers opt for the 3 or 4 day 4WD jeep tour to experience Salar de Uyuni and traverse between Chile and Bolivia. I did the 3-day departing from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. A few travelers told me this is the better route because the salt flat visit takes place on the third day, leaving the best for last. Those who had started the tour in Uyuni, Bolivia said that after the big highlight on the first day, the rest of the tour was increasingly anticlimactic.
After an hour, we arrived at the border. I was the only US Citizen in our group so I was the one person who had to pay $135 for a Bolivian visa.
After getting our passports stamped, we began our journey through the high plateau and stopped at handful of lakes, a geyser and a hot spring.
First stop was White Lagoon. That’s Licancabur Volcano in the background.
Then we visited Green Lagoon. By the way, I am not making these names up to be cheeky. The first lake is called “Laguna Blanca” and the second “Laguna Verde” literally translating to White Lagoon and Green Lagoon. Very straightforward names.
We continued driving through Salvador Dali Desert, named for it’s surrealist Dali-like landscapes.
We saw many desert animals along the way like this little fox…
And Bolivian chincillas called “viscachas.” They’re so cute – like a hybrid between a fox and a bunny!
We relaxed at the hot Springs in Polques. It was so nice to take a dip in hot water because the first couple of days were quite cold.
The second to last stop for the day was a visit to some desert geysers.
The last stop of the day was Laguna Colorada. There are hundreds of flamingos here. Our tour guide told us there were three different kinds of flamingo species in the Altiplano: the Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo and the James’s flamingo. I have no idea which is which. He mentioned one species having a black bum, another species having a more vibrant pink coloring….I’m really not sure. Laguna Colorada is 4500 meters (nearly 15,000 feet) about sea level. I had bummed a handful of altitude sickness prevention pills off of one of the Aussie boys before the jeep tour so I surprisingly had zero issues acclimating. A few of the guys in the jeep were feeling pretty breathless and tired at this point though.
The second day was pretty similar to the first day in terms of activities and views. We drove for a good amount of time, visited an area with rock formations and stopped at a bunch of flamingo-filled lagoons.
“Arbol de Piedra” or “The Stone Tree” in the Siloli Desert.
Our driver made a stop on the train tracks because he thought we may want to take a picture. So we did. Me and the 5 Aussie boys.
That evening, we stayed at a hotel made out of salt which sounds really cool in concept, but wasn’t really cool in practice. The walls and ceilings were made out of compacted salt and the ground was a thick layer of loose salt. All of our bags were sitting in salt. There was no point in wearing sneakers unless you wanted them to be filled with salt so everyone was either barefoot or in flip flops. You could tell if someone had just showered because their feet would be coated with salt. And the salt didn’t look that clean either. It was kind of staying in a gigantic litter box.
It was an experience, nonetheless. We cracked a few jokes over dinner about “passing the salt” and taking tequila shots with lime and a lick of salt from the floor or walls. They were pretty bad, extremely cheesy jokes.
The Morton Salt girl popped into my mind during this trip. I couldn’t help but to think how much she would love a visit to Bolivia’s salt flats.
Dear Morton Salt Marketing Team,
If you need to launch a new branding campaign, I got you covered. Enclosed is a pro-bono mock up I made just for you.
But seriously, this would make such a cute Salar de Uyuni post card or decal on a t-shirt or tote?!
The third and final day was Salar de Uyuni day!
In order to make it to the salt flats in time for the sunrise, we had to leave at 4am. Naturally, everyone was fired up for the big morning.
We made it in time! Our first glimpse of the salt flats was just as the sun was rising.
The panorama was beautiful, but the weather wasn’t ideal. We were all really hoping for rain on the final day so we could witness the beautiful mirror effect we had all seen in so many photos on the internet. Unfortunately, it was dry and cloudy for the majority of our time on the flats. It had also been pretty windy two or three days prior and all the dirt and dust from the mountains blew and had settled on the salt, making it look off-white rather than crystalline-white.
Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed. It was still an awesome landscape, but I had been expecting unreal mirror-like vistas like the ones I had seen online.
We hopped back in the jeep and headed to an island in the middle of flats called Incahuasi for breakfast. The weather started clearing up a bit!
Then, we headed to a secluded spot to take some playful pictures. I quickly learned how hard it is to perfect perspective shots and trick photography. It felt like an impossible task to focus both subjects in the foreground and background, especially with an iPhone.
Here are some of our attempts…
It started to get cloudy again. This shot of Robbie and Sam was probably the best in terms of visual trickery.
We made a few more stops before the conclusion of our tour. We stopped at a rather boring museum/hotel and a little village called Colchani for some local souvenir shopping. I didn’t purchase anything, but spotted a couple of comical signs.
We finished our tour at Uyuni’s “Train Cemetery.” The small town of Uyuni had been a transportation hub for pushing minerals through South America from the late 1800’s until the mining industry collapse in the 1940’s.
Although this attraction is definitely a liability and likely a haven for tetanus, we had a great time climbing and playing on the abandoned train carts.
We even pretended we were a band and posed for our mock album cover…
And fin! That was the end of our 3 day/2 night jeep tour to Salar de Uyuni.
Getting There and Which Tour Company? | There are a bunch of tour companies that leave from both Uyuni, Bolivia and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I was recommended White World Travel by fellow travelers and had a positive experience. They have offices in Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama and offer both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking guides, but the Spanish guides are cheaper. The price on their website lists $185 USD per person but by choosing the Spanish tour and haggling a bit, I was able to drive down the cost to $140 USD for each of us. The food is not good, not terrible. A few people who went with other tour companies told me they really hated their overnight accommodations. White World Travel is a newer company so they seem to be a safe and trusting company in order to establish themselves in the market.
Bolivian Visa for US Citizens | US Citizens need to bring:
- $135 USD in cash (required), a yellow fever vaccination – required. I got mine in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires for free – gotta love public health care in Argentina
- A couple of passport-sized photos – not necessary. I didn’t have these and still got in.
- Proof of stable finances in the form of a bank statement with your balance – not necessary. I just showed them my credit cards
- Proof of accommodation in Bolivia – not necessary. I didn’t have any past the Salar de Uyuni tour and they didn’t even ask.