The Salt Flats / Salar de Uyuni

By John H

The Salt Flats of Bolivia (or  Salar de Uyuni as the locals call it) is a natural salt desert in the south west of Bolivia and was definitely a highlight of the region. It was formed by a prehistoric lake that went dry and extends from the middle of Bolivia to the the Chilean boarder. There is the option of a 1, 3 or 5 day trip of the flats but after 4 days camping during the Inca trek we were sick of tents so decided to just get the highlights and go for the for the 1 day trip.

We got the bus to Uyuni without prearranging the tour, our hostel or our bus out of the town to the next stop of Argentina. This would have been unheard of when we started in Colombia where we had everything pre-planned but we have definitely mellowed and don’t worry as much if things don’t work out at this stage of the trip. The way I look at it, we will always get a bed somewhere for the night and if it’s a dump, it’s ok because is only for one night and we can always get somewhere nice the next night! So we have definitely grown as people haha!

So we arrived in Uyuni after a relaxing New Year in Sucre and they couldn’t have been more different. Sucre was very wealthy with ‘old money’ made from all the silver mines in the area. Uyuni is a dusty crossroads with half built buildings and unpaved roads. When we got off the bus we walked toward the centre of town and saw a few hostels but The Sweden Hostel caught our eye. We were thinking ‘yeah Sweden is European and has high standards, this must be good’! I really don’t know why the hostel was called Sweden because the owner was Bolivian and it had nothing Scandinavian about it but we managed to bargain him down to 190 Bolovianos (about €25) for a double with private bathroom so we were happy with that. Unfortunately there was a power cut across the whole town so there was no wifi or light for the first few hours of our stay (dusty crossroads!?!).

Our first task done, we needed to find a tour and a bus out of town for the next day. The Salt Flats are the only reason to go to Uyuni so there are lots of tour operators looking for your business and we got a day trip organised for the next day handily enough.

We arrived at the tour office at 10am the next morning and got chatting to some of the other backpackers going on the trip. These occasions are always good for getting tips from people who’ve been to places we were going and visa versa. There were a few tours going at the same time and we were put in a 4×4 with 5 others from Uruguay who spoke some English. We talked about Uruguay being a small county like Ireland, their football accomplishments and their star player Luis Suarez!

Unfortunately our driver/guide didn’t speak much English. We got the jist of most of what he was saying but it was a day with a lot of pointing and smiling!

We eventually set off at 11am and drove for 15 minutes to our first stop, the Train Cemetery. The sky was amazing, so blue and cloudless and the land was so featureless that the horizon disappeared. The sun was straight overhead and it’s very easy to burn.

Uyuni was an important place for mineral mining and exporting but when an industry crash happened in the 1940’s, locomotives and carriages were just left and have been rusted by the salt winds.

We pulled up in the jeep as did lots of other jeeps with tourists and spent a half hour climbing all over the trains and taking silly photos.

Our next stop was off-road at a salt extraction pit. It’s meant to be really hard to navigate on the flats because there are no landmarks but somehow our driver managed!

We saw how the salt is taken from the ground and processed. The salt is collected from pools of brine and stacked in piles to dry.

After this, we went straight towards the horizon to a hotel built from salt blocks. We missed the Dakar Rally which was passing through a few days later but there was loads of activity and preparations taking place.

After lunch we sped onto the next destination, Isle Incahuasi, one of only a few hills on the flats. There were some tracks made from other jeeps but most of the landscape was unspoilt wilderness of hexagonal shaped salt deposits. It’s so flat and desolate, like what I imagine the moon to be like (maybe we’ll get there on the next trip!)

The views from the top of the hill were great but it was bit of a tourist shakedown with a extra admission charge to essentially a cactus park in the desert.

Our last stop of the day was the best. We stopped far away from all other cars and people and the props came out. The driver got on the ground, took the cameras and made us pose in stupid positions – jumping in sequence, with dinosaur toys and with our hands out. Perspective is all messed up because there are no discernible landmarks, it makes for some amazing photos.

I’ve been told the longer trips visit a pink flamingo pond and multicoloured mountains so I’d say that would be worth it but the 1 day trip definitely gave us a taste of this amazing natural landscape.

After arriving back in Uyuni we had a quick bite to eat and got the night bus south to our next destination Argentina…

This entry was posted in South America

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