After Patagonia, I headed north by boat and plane to the Atacama Desert and onto Salta. I’d write up both journeys and cities in retrospective posts, but in summary, the final resting place was a small town called Tupiza, in the South of Bolivia near to the Argentinian border. Tupiza is the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were eventually caught and provided the perfect rest before embarking on a 4 day trip around the Salt Flats area.
The Salt Flats tour involves jumping in the back of a 4×4 and driving around the area on dirt roads and offroad taking in the scenery during the day, staying in refuges by evening and finishing up in Uyuni for onward travel. As far as scenery goes, it is truly unbelievable. The region is high altitude (3500-4800m) hills and plains packed full of minerals. So we’re talking deserts, mountains, lagoons and salt fields all close together. Of course, the most sought after attraction is the Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats in the cover photo) which is planned on most tours for sunrise and the early morning of the final day.
Having the luxury of travelling from Salta to Tupiza with four other backpackers, we were able to book ourselves in on our own private car. Five friends, a driver and a translator made for an awesome 4 day trip.
What are the Salt Flats?
Salar de Uyuni comprises over 10,000 sq km in the Potosi region. About 40,000 years ago, this arid area used to be part of a lake that covered a large swath of the Andes. Nowadays it is The World’s Biggest Salt Desert. Salt pans occur in areas which would otherwise be lakes or ponds if the climate did not evaporate the water quicker than the rate of rainfall. The result if the liquid can’t drain is massive deposits of minerals which collect from the runoff from the surrounding mountains. It’s said that the salt flats contain more than half of the world’s supply of lithium, which is the mineral used in batteries, electric cars and computers.
In the dry season, the salt planes are a completely flat expanse of dry salt, but in the wet season, it is covered with a thin sheet of water that is still drivable.
What are the different tours you can do?
When the Salt Flat tours first started, Tupiza was the original start point and Uyuni (the closest town the to Salt Flats) the original ending point. Tupiza Tours was the first company to run a tour and led the way for many years as the best company to do the tour with. Since then, more tour companies have caught on, giving three different start points. Tupiza, Uyuni and even from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile). Each tour company will have slight variations on the scenery that they will take you through, but ultimately, everyone sees most of the same (and definitely the Salar de Uyuni Salt Lake).
Your main choice when it comes to visiting the Salt Flats, is whether to visit during the wet season (to get the effect of reflection) or during the dry season (to be able to walk on the dry salt). Rainy season is November to March and dry season is outside of that (April to October). If the water layer is thin, then its good for photography and no problem getting around. However, if it gets too deep, the surface could morph into an impassable quagmire.
Talk me through the tour…
Day 1: Tupiza to Quenta Chico
The first day started with an 08:30 departure from the Hotel Mitru where we were staying the night before. Having Tupiza Tours office in its foyer made it easy for waiting around for the last scraps of wifi before heading off. Sleeping bags (which were hired) and our main backpacks were strapped to the top of the Toyota Land Cruisers. We were one of 4 cars from the tour company. The idea was to drive as an independent car, but meet up for lunch and dinners. That’s because the cook was in another car and another with fewer people carried the extra fuel (there aren’t any fuel pumps throughout the 4 day trip) until you get to Uyuni. Eduardo (our driver), Nancy (our English speaking guide) and us five backpackers drove off into The Wild West country.
After you get out of Tupiza, you first views are of the canyons, eroded rocks and winding roads.
We got our first view of the many Llamas we’d see on the trip with a brief stop at a Llama farm. They tend to be shy so it took some convincing that the Llama wool sweaters and hats we were wearing did not mean we were Llama hunters.
Our path took us past Puebla Fantasma, a ruined town in the backdrop of a huge mountain, left in a time warp. It’s a little eerie, with bones left scattered around. It’s not clear for the reason for the bones or why it was left deserted. By this point, you’re 4690m high, so if you’re not already acclimatised to the altitude, you would probably be feeling it by now. It’s no wonder it’s recommended to stay overnight in Tupiza at least.
The day ended watching the sunset behind the snowcapped mountain by Quenta Chico.
Day 2 Quenta Chico to Laguna Colorada
Having had a long first day, the second was overall much more chilled. It started with a visit to a Llama farm. This time, the Llamas were in a huge penn and were much tamer. The coloured tags are used by the farmers to identify the Llamas, especially the lead ones (which they attach a bell, to which all the other Llamas follow unquestionably).
The second day was spent driving through Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (National Park). It’s 150bs, that’s not included in the tour price, but it was all flagged upfront in the costs. Even though the skies were clear driving into the park, the high altitude meant driving through icey paths. No sweat for a 4×4 of course.
Laguna Hedionda was our first chance to see flamingos, albeit from far away on this occasion. The area is home to three species of flamingo with the copious amounts of lakes rich in brine shrimp.
It’s amazing how diverse the landscape is in the area. Not long after leaving the lake, we were amongst desert roads and mountains again.
The second lake to be visited on this day was Laguna Verde in the backdrop of the Licancabur Volcano. The lake is coloured green by arsenic, lead, copper and other heavy metals from the nearby mountains.
The highlight of the day, however, was the thermal pool just before lunch. The water was perfect temperature and lounging around in the pool before lunch with the mountain views was so relaxing.
After lunch, we headed to Sol de MaÃ±ana – a collection of bubbling sulfur pools and a geyser. With the red ground, craters and steam rising from the ground, it wasn’t too far from what you’d imagine it to be like on Mars.
The final stop for the day was at Laguna Colorado – my favourite lake. You’ll see from the photos that the colour of the lake is bright red. The reason is due to the algae that live in it.
Sitting on the grass, staring at the vividness of colours in my view, there was definitely a moment shared beside that lake.
Day 3 Laguna Colorado to San Juan
The third day started with a vista to some sand formations, namely Arbol de Piedra (a stone tree that has been carved out of the howling, sandy winds). Some of the rocks are easy to climb, others a a good challenge for an able climber.
The roads afterwards became great dirt tracks, with each 4×4 choosing its own path.
From here, you get to visit 5 lakes – Ramaditas, Honda, Charcota, Hedionda and Canapa.
Laguna Hedionda is the most beautiful of the five, with the most flamingos feeding at arms reach. With the snow capped mountains in the background and reflections in the water, it made for some jaw dropping shots.
After the lakes, our 4×4 pulled up to a view of Volcano Ollague – a semi active volcano. It’s predicted to erupt at some point in the next 20 years.
Close to the Salt Hotel, we crossed over the famous train tracks that lead to Calama (Chile) called Train Tracks Over Salar de Chiguana. These tracks used to be an important link between Uyuni and Calama hauling minerals. Now, with tensions high, it’s no longer used.
Arriving at the Salt Hotel, you’re met with a building built using salt from the area. Bricks for the walls, chairs, tables and even the beds.
From the hotel, walking across some disused quinoa crops, you can see the famous Salt Flats, ready for the sunrise the following morning. For now, you’re given a lovely sunset.
Day 4 San Juan to Uyuni
An early start to the day, to beat the sun rise and an hour drive brings you to the epic finale. The 4×4 drivers use the mountain in the distance to keep their bearings.
With the altitude, the morning is very very cold, so expect the heat to be whipped away from your feet if you’re not wearing enough pairs of socks or thin shoes.
As the sun rose, it really was a golden 5 minutes.
The lighting is so soft, everything becomes a perfect picture.
Shadows become enormously long…
After sun rise, we got back in the 4×4 and headed to Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) for breakfast. This strange island is home to giant and age old cacti and gives you a 360 degree panoramic of the Salt Flats. Some of the views look like beaches should exist in the place of the salt.
Leaving the island, it was time for the usual Salt Flats photo shoot. Playing with the cameras, any toys in our possession and a bit of imagination made our hour on the flats fly by.
Here’s just a couple of the shotsâ€¦.
Leaving the Salt Flats, you drive close to some excavation work. Bolivians are allowed to mine the salt on the edge of the flats and they are only allowed to do it by hand. This gives rise to an array of salt mountains among the shallow water.
The final stop is at a strange Train Cemetery in Uyuni. Lots of old German trains have been dumped, some sprinkled with graffiti and others adapted into playground equipment.
The Train Cemetery was the final stop before being dropped off in Uyuni. Make no mistake, with Uyuni being the dumping ground for the whole of Bolivia (one big rubbish tip), it’s the kind of town you don’t really want to stick around in. Buses leave for Sucre (via Potoisi) at around 15:00 and take around 7-8 hours.
Tips for others doing the tour?
- Give a day or two before starting the tour in Tupiza or Uyuni to acclimatise to the altitude and buy a bag of coca leaves. If you’re not used to the altitude, you may have problems through the tour. Drink plenty of water throughout the trip.
- Bring small change and toilet paper – toilets on the way (1 or 2bs only take small change)
- Sleeping bag wasn’t essential – although I hired a sleeping bag for the journey, if you sleep in thermals, you should be ok. That’s because all the beds have decent blankets already.
- Bring a spare charged camera battery – only in some accommodation do you get an hour or so of electricity for recharging. Considering everyone is wanting to recharge cameras and phones, it can get a little competitive. Even better, if you can pack a car cigarette charger (USB), you can charge everything during the many hours you spend in the car.
- Buy some wet wipes – with only the final salt hotel having a shower, wet wipes are your hygienic best friend.
- Buy/bring a few small toys – if you’re coming from Tupiza, there’s a market with plenty of stalls selling second-hand toys that make great props for photos.