Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world and sits at an altitude of 3656m. Where there used to be lakes and volcanoes, now lies miles of crusted salt and hot springs. It’s an essential part of any visit to Bolivia.
“You must go to the salt flats!” said the email from a traveller friend when announcing that Bolivia was going to be part of my round the world adventure. I didn’t know what she meant but I dutifully put it on my list, wondering what could really be so exciting about salt. Bolivia seemed a long way away at that point and I couldn’t really think past the rabies jabs I was having to accommodate my plans to be a ‘monkey mother’ at a Bolivian animal rescue.
When I finally found myself there, I still wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t getting on with my latest travel buddy (it happens sometime), had a slight case of traveller fatigue and was feeling impatient with the idea of having to negotiate with Bolivian travel agents. I was unexcited about what lay ahead at that point… but little did I know my tired mind was about to be blown.
If you’re trying to decide whether to include Salar de Uyuni on your itinerary, here’s a taster of what to expect…*
*Warning: If you’re literally just about to embark on a 3-day trip, this post does contain a few spoilers… so although I want you to read it, maybe it’s best to read something else for now, like this post on cycling Bolivia’s death road perhaps… Part of the joy of a trip to the Salar de Uyuni is it’s surprises. However, if you’re just planning an itinerary or doing some general wanderlusting today – read on! I hope you enjoy!
Arriving at Uyuni often happens through sleepy eyes, just after sunrise on a bus from La Paz. After a long stretch of empty land, you pull up suddenly on a dusty road on the outskirts of town. But it’s a small place and easy to walk around from here to find a hostel.
You can hop straight in a jeep from the bus if you prefer to start the 3-day trip straight away – but this would give you less time to be sure you’re taking the ‘best’ tour.
This is a tourist town. There’s not a huge amount to do except shop at travel agencies and eat… so that’s what I did.
Getting a good tour is hard to do…
Perhaps I was a savvy traveller, or lucky in my choice, but my 3 days in a jeep exploring Salar de Uyuni were some of the most memorable of my life. I will share my tips of getting a good tour soon, but it wasn’t nearly as tricky as the guidebooks and online chat made me think it would be…
It all begins at 7am on a clear day in Bolivia…
Cemeterio de trenes
After packing up the jeep we drive a short distance to the first stop: a wasteland area. My lack of preparation coupled with my imperfect Spanish means I have some awareness of the basics of what I’m going to be doing over the next 3 days, but I’m not expecting trains… regardless, like every good tour-goer, I dutifully leap out of the jeep and run around trying to see as much as I can.
These are antiques from the late 19th Century, when mining companies were busy trying to transport their goods. The tracks were built by British engineers and the remains are considered museum-worthy for one day in the future… for now it’s an intriguing, slightly mad selfie/ instagram rush.
Salt Glorious Salt…
Forget ice sculptures – salt sculptures are far more likely to last! The salt from the Salar de Uyuni is not just for eating… it’s also for carving. A salt museum and shops are the next stop on the tour, where I was tempted by many a handmade craft.
Getting things into perspective
By this point on the tour, I’m still questioning what this is all about. Dead trains, touts trying to sell me dice made of salt, and carved llamas. But after this initial tourist madness, I reach a point on the journey that literally makes me take a breath and I realise why this place is unmissable. The salt flats of Uyuni.
An optical illusion
It’s good to come prepared for taking your versions of the well-known perspective photos as you don’t have a lot of time! Again, I am not prepared. The flat, unbroken landscape creates an optical illusion in our mind because it’s so vast. The brain doesn’t have a point of reference to put into perspective. It’s this lack of perspective that makes things look either really big, or really small in the pictures.
While it’s going through South America, the Dakar rally passes by Salar de Uyuni. A tribute has been left for fans… made of salt of course!
In the middle of what used to be a lake, there is an island of cacti. Some of the plants here are over 100 years old.
Accommodation in Salar de Uyuni
Where you sleep will vary depending on your tour, but one thing is guaranteed and that is that at least some of it will be built with salt! The salt hotel may not be well-insulated, but it’s fun and outside the stars are vivid in the sky. My only question is: what happens when it rains?
In part 2 of the Salar de Uyuni journey, life begins to feel like I’ve walked into a painting and I get a wildlife spotting fix.
Have you been to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia? Share your experiences in the comments below.
This post is part of the Wanderful Wednesday blog hop!