High on Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni: The World’s Largest Salt Flat

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The impressive mirror effect at Salar de Uyuni—C.Helbig

“One, two, three… jump,” yells Elvis our guide. Easier said than done at 3656 m (11,995 ft) but I muster the energy for the requisite crazy photos on the world’s largest salt flat. We are on a 4-day Salar de Uyuni tour, traveling from Tupiza, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile with La Torre Tours.  Our off-road journey takes us across the giant salt flat and through volcano-studded landscapes dotted with outrageous rock formations, flamingo-filled lakes and steaming geothermal fields.

We know right away we have scored a great crew with Elvis our English-speaking guide, Leo our driver, and Agustina our cook—definitely an over-the-top indulgence having three staff for the two of us. Our Land Rover is loaded with food, fuel, supplies and  oxygen. The latter alleviates a bit of our angst about the almost 5000 m (16,404 ft) elevations we will be reaching.

Day 1: Stunning landscapes, salt flat sunset and a salt hotel

From Tupiza, La Torre’s headquarters, we drive steadily uphill into the Bolivian Altiplano (high plain). Enrique Iglesias croons through the SUV’s speakers. Why does everything sound so sexy in Spanish? It’s an elixir for my nerves on the curvy gravel path with its precipitous drops.

Our excitement about seeing the salt flat is high, but there are many impressive sights enroute. My favourite is Ciudad del Encanto, with scenery right out of a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon.

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Tupiza, Bolivia: where our adventure begins

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Amazing landscape around Sillar, not far from our start in Tupiza

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Ciudad del Encanto

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Ciudad del Encanto

We arrive at the Salar de Uyuni in time for sunset. A thin layer of water covers the salt. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a frozen lake that’s just beginning to thaw. “It’s thick,” Elvis assures me, “several meters in places.” The salt crust extends as far as the eye can see. It covers a pool of brine that acts as a levelling agent and gives the Salar its extraordinary flatness.

Our April timing is perfect for the coveted mirror effect when portions of the salt flat become a shimmering reflection of the sky. The water reaches just to the top of my soles and I cavort on the shiny surface like a kid in a puddle.

By the end of day one, we are feeling the altitude. Mike has a splitting headache and mine is simmering. It’s time for coca leaf tea (a traditional remedy for altitude sickness) and a comfortable bed at the Palacio de Sal, a stunning hotel built almost entirely from salt. We are overwhelmed by the luxury of our room.

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The Salar de Uyuni at sunset

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A thin layer of water covers the salt crust

 

Day 2: Fotos locos, Isla Incahuasi and a wet drive

It was a rough night for Mike, but his headache is gone the next morning. I can tell he’s on the mend by the way he enthusiastically poses for Elvis who takes fotos locos (crazy photos) of us. The trick photography that shrinks people to miniature and grows toy dinosaurs into ferocious giants is enabled by the Salar’s epic whiteness and endless horizon.

As Leo skillfully navigates the 4X4 across the salt flat we get a sense of the size and exquisite barrenness of the place. The Salar de Uyuni measures 10,582 sq km (4086 sq miles). There are distractions here and there: salt harvesting operations where workers shovel piles of salt into huge trucks; a salt monument dedicated to the Dakar Rally that has rumbled across the Salar the last two years. Hidden underneath the salt crust we learn about the massive deposits of lithium, reportedly the largest reserve in the world.

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Our favourite of the bunch…thanks Elvis!

 

 

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Salt harvesting in the Salar de Uyuni

Was the sun playing tricks on me…an “island” surrounded by a sea of white? As we get closer, we see that the rocky outcropping of land is covered in towering cacti. Isla Incahuasi (Inca House Island) is not really an island, it just looks like one. We climb to the top of the hill along a path of fossilized coral. “It’s the the remains of an ancient volcano that was submerged when the area was covered by a prehistoric salt lake,” Elvis tells us. “The Incas used this landmass as a refuge on their journeys’ across the salt flat.”

While we were exploring, Agustina has exchanged her traditional Bolivian garb for a starched chef’s uniform, her jet-black braids extending from underneath her toque. We are treated to a tasty tailgate lunch at Incahuasi—a current day pit stop for Salar de Uyuni tours.

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Looking down on the Salar (check out the tiny jeep in the whiteness)

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Incredible cacti grow on Isla Incahausi

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A wonderful meal with a lovely crew (on salt table and benches)

We experience some off road excitement (and stress for Leo and Elvis) as the water covering the salt flat gets continually deeper. We can see where we’re headed, the elevated track in the distance, and hold our breaths that we don’t get stuck in the salty slush. It is just one of several occasions that affirms our decision to use a skilled and respected company like La Torre.

Day two ends at the far western edge of the salt flat, at Hotel de Piedra— a rustic but comfortable place built of rock, salt blocks and cactus wood. The thin air and a hearty local dinner of quinoa soup and chicken stew knock us out. We are asleep by nine.

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We’ve just come out of our wet drive (you can see the tire marks)

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Leo gives the thumbs up that we’ve made it to dry land

Day 3: Rocky fun, lots of llamas and their sexy cousins

Cool rock formations beckon me to climb on day three of the tour. Mike is happy staying below taking photos. Some spots, like Italia Perdita and Anaconda remind us of the geology of the US Southwest. Others, around Valle de las Rocas and Laguna Negra are pure Seussian fun, sculpted into fantasy creatures by nature’s forces.

“That’s it, reach your foot down just a little more,” Elvis says calmly as he senses my anxiety. We’re at the top of a marvellous rock structure at Italia Perdida (Lost Italy), and like a cat, I’m afraid to go down. I’d read that the name comes from an Italian traveler who disappeared there, but Elvis presents a more tourist-friendly version explaining that the lava rock formations are reminiscent of the lost city of Pompeii. It’s something to ponder as I gingerly make my way down.

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I really don’t want to climb down from my rocky perch at Italia Perdita

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Erosion has created interesting formations near Laguna Negra

 

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A rocky playground of eroded creatures like El Condor

Seeing large herds of llamas is still a novelty for us and I’m sure our crew was chuckling as we snapped hundreds of photos. But vicuñas, wild cousins to domesticated llamas, seem to impress even Elvis. “I call them sexy llamas,” he says. It’s a good nickname for these graceful creatures.

A small change in itinerary has us sleeping at Villa Mar (3900 m/12,795 ft) on our final night. The original plan had been to stay at 4300 m (14,107 ft), at a nicer hotel. But after Mike’s miserable first night we decide to play it safe— feeling OK at a basic hostel is better than an excruciating headache (and maybe worse) at a fancier hotel.

That evening, Elvis cracks open a bottle of Bolivian red wine. It’s a lovely gesture but we’re both leery about drinking and only take tentative sips. We’re getting old and cautious…perhaps a good thing.

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One of many llamas at our day three lunch stop

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Vicuñas on the high plateau

Day 4: Flamingos, bubbling caldrons, hot springs, volcanoes…

It was indeed a good decision to stay at lower altitude and go easy on the wine. We feel rested and ready to tackle the high altitude attractions of day four. One of our favourite moments of the tour is at Laguna Colorado. The lake has a striking red hue from an algae that is much loved by hundreds of flamingos. The colours, the birds, the volcanoes in the background—it’s a very special place.

I wonder when the uphill drive will finally end. We are heading to Sol de Mañana, a geothermal field at 4950 m (16,240 ft). The thin air and sulphur smell create a hostile environment but the otherworldly allure of bubbling mud cauldrons and steaming vents is extraordinary.

Back down a few hundred meters, we soak in hot springs overlooking a ring of Andean volcanoes. “Time to go” Elvis motions. It’s like dragging a bunch of little kids out of pool. Our Salar de Uyuni trip is coming to end and we are loath to leave.

Luckily, there is no anticlimax as sometimes happens at the end of a marvellous journey. Nature’s drama continues to unfold as we travel toward the Bolivia-Chile border, through the surreal Desierto de Dali, and past freakishly green Laguna Verde with perfectly formed Volcan Licancabur looming above it.

Now, months after our trip, we’re still feeling the high of the remarkable Salar de Uyuni.

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Flamingo-filled Laguna Colorado

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Sol de Mañana geothermal field

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A wonderful soak in the hot springs

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Amazing Desierto de Dali

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Laguna Verde

IF YOU GO

Many tour agencies offer Salar de Uyuni tours starting from Uyuni and Tupiza in Bolivia, and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. La Torre Tours , who get my highest recommendation, offer a variety of group and private trips of varying length and comfort levels (budgets).

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Categories: Bolivia, Places | Tags: , , , , , , | 34 Comments

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34 thoughts on “High on Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni: The World’s Largest Salt Flat

  1. Your photos are amazing! I’m planning a trip to the salt flats and I am definitely going to check out the tour company you used – it looks like you had an amazing trip! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t get over how incredible this place is! Every single photo has me in awe! Also, I love the goofy perspective ones 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay Caroline, I am stumped by each of your posts about your latest travels. Has it at all been without drama?! This one leaves me speechless by the sheer impact of the desolation of the salt flats upon the senses. The rock formations, the reflection of mountains in the water, the llamas (I would have adopted one if they would have me)…not to mention how lovely your photos are. You did a marvellous job of jumping hey 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ya, I’m shocked too at how smoothly everything went in South America—no airport aggravations, no getting lost, no fights with hubby, not even a bad bottle of wine along the way. Aren’t those young llamas sweet! I could just picture one chewing grass in our yard. Thanks Dippy!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a fun, gorgeous post Caroline. Those “fotos locos” brought a big grin to my face – I’m not usually one to get pictures taken when I travel but I absolutely have to make an exception at Salar de Uyuni! And there are so many jaw-dropping scenes, from the sheer blue sky towards the end of the journey (I can imagine just how clean and pure the air must be), to the surreal, otherworldly landscapes and the Palacio de Sal. The altitude sickness seems almost a small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure like this. Also, how did Augustina prepare such an elaborate meal in the middle of nowhere?

    I also chuckled at the line “Why does everything sound so sexy in Spanish?” It really does feel that way and English sometimes comes across as being so prosaic by comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks James! It would definitely be hard to resist a fotos locos session at the Salar de Uyuni! Altitude sickness is a weird thing and you can’t predict who will be hit (age, fitness level…don’t make a difference). Acclimatization appears to be the key. But you’re right—a small price to pay. Our tour organizer had meals (and everything) down to a fine science. Meal supplies are lugged in big coolers. At the Palacio de Sal and Hotel de Piedra, breakfast and dinner were included. Augustina made all our lunches as well as breakfast/dinner at our final hostel. The cooks on these tours have an arrangement with hostels to use their cooking facilities. She also did some of the lunch prep there. The meals were always tasty and well balanced. What impressed me most was the care Augustina took in presentation. Veggies were cut into pretty shapes, everything was beautifully arranged on platters and she always rolled out a nice tablecloth. No small feat in the middle of nowhere! I love attention to detail!
      I’m a sucker for the beautiful Spanish language!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. OMG so love your images. Lots of oohs and ahhs here aboard Amandla today. The landscapes are magnificent and the trick photos quite clever – especially the first with you on the toe of Mike’s boot. Bolivia is on the list but it will be a few years before I can make my way there. Lexie Klein pointed me toward your blog and I am so glad she did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice to “meet you” Lisa! Thanks to Lexi for directing you here. I really enjoy her blog and she’s given me lots of inspiration/ideas for travel and hiking destinations. We were so impressed with travel in Bolivia and Argentina. Glad you enjoyed the photos. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I’d go there just to take those crazy photos! And the reflections of the sky are stunning. This trip of yours just keeps on giving!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I gotta admit, those crazy photos were so much fun. It’s such a joy to have unexpected laughs and feel a little like a kid. Our SA trip has definitely given me a lot of blogging mileage, though starting to come to an end. I may take a break and write about some shorter trips closer to home. What a nice dilemma!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It all looks so unreal – like familiar elements but otherworldly at the same time. I can’t think how else to describe your photos! We’re those cactus in the middle of the salt plain then at 5,000m? I didn’t think cactus could grow at such elevation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a really good way to describe it! The giant cacti on Isla Incahuasi, in the middle of the salt flat, are at an elevation of a little over 3655m. I may have misled you, the higher elevations that we visited, closer to 5000m, are adjacent to the actual salt flat. I read that the upper growing limits for cacti in the Andes is about 4500m….incredible!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Monika

    Caroline – once again thank you for sharing your amazing travels. Absolutely stunning scenery, great information; what an adventure!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Mike Hohmann

    Looks like a great trip, and in good style with the vehicle and crew to help assure a good time. You did hit some good elevations, and it doesn’t surprise me that headaches were troublesome. Did you try the oxygen, and how did it work for you? I’m assuming someone tried it if you had it along. Beautiful places you visited on this trip overall, Caroline,

    ps We’ve been getting waft’s of smoke from CA and BC all the way to MN… a terrible season for fires. Speaking of smoke, did you get to Glacier yet?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The elevations were tough on our sea level bodies. Mike did try a round of oxygen on the first evening. Since he also popped Diamox medication and had the coca leaf tea, I’m not sure which one or combination did the trick. I stuck to the tea and managed to come through with just the occasional mild headache.
      It has been super smokey here. Such a shame that these wildfires are becoming an annual occurrence. Yes, we did make it to Glacier and luckily just before things got bad. We had an amazing time. The hiking was awesome and I will eventually get to writing about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fabulous post Caroline, and stunning photos. It brought back so many memories and of course we have some very similar photos. Our overland trip in Bolivia remains one of the highlights of all our travels. It sounds as if it’s the same for you. What an amazing place!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you again Alison for giving me the nudge to add the Salar de Uyuni to our itinerary. For us too, this place is a big highlight in all our travels. I’d love to see more of Bolivia. I just went back to look at your overland adventure posts. Your photos are incredible. I urge readers to check out Alison’s post https://alisonanddon.com/2014/01/20/unboliviable-the-high-desert-and-altiplano-of-bolivia/. Your flamingo photos are marvellous. I got a chuckle from your custom and immigration office photo. We exited Bolivia there and had a moment of panic when officials told us we didn’t have an entry document/stamp in our passport. I guess the officers at our entry from Argentina failed to do this?! Anyway, after much back and forth with our guide they let us go. I’m thinking had we been on our own we probably would’ve needed to fork over some cash.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What an incredible place. I went there in 2005 and still regard it as the most incredible landscape I’ve seen. It was a little rougher back then – the best accomodation in Uyuni that I could find cost $2.50 and had two bathrooms for three floors of people. It was rough!

    Great photos of the landscapes!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Salar de Uyuni is going to be a tough one to top for incredible landscapes. Did you blog about it? I’m sure your photos are amazing. Haha, your Uyuni accommodations sound charming. It’s still a rough looking town. Tupiza is much nicer and you can stay in a decent place with private bath for $25. The Palacio de Sal at the edge of the flats was by far the nicest place we stayed…a real treat. The rest were very modest but totally fine. Good to hear from you Jeff! I’ve missed your entertaining posts and beautiful photography. Hope you are well.

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  12. Amazing adventure. Definitely sounds like you had a good crew and love all the photos – especially the kicking one! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could go on at length about our wonderful crew. The three of them are such nice people and the whole operation is very professional. They made the incredible adventure even more special for us. Taking the silly photos was super fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Such a wonderful post, Caroline! We are on lovely Curonian Spit in Lithuania. Worried about BC!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Shannon! I am happy and surprised to hear from you. It has been alarmingly smokey here and I’m feeling it in my chest. I hope it’s better for the boys on Vancouver Island. I have not heard from them, but I think they are out of cell range. Enjoy your trip! Don’t worry! I look forward to hearing all about it.

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  14. Ron Ipson

    Hi Caroline

    Back in Campbell River and I went snorkeling with the salmon today- great fun! Thanks so much for the suggestion. Loved it.

    Ron

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  15. The photos are absolutely stunning 🙂 looks like you had the best time

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Another post masterpiece… It seems to be a beautiful yet a far away world…

    Liked by 1 person

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