We arrived in Salar de Uyuni Bolivia after an overnight bus trip from La Paz. Directed by Google maps we dragged our suitcases over the uneven streets and through a biting frigid wind to our hostel.
Uyuni is a run-down desolate town stuck in the desert in the southwest corner of Bolivia a far cry from its glory mining days many years ago.
We'd planned to stay overnight here before setting out the next day with Perla da Bolivia on our much-anticipated tour.
The Salar de Uyuni adventure had been recommended to us by a Brazilian doctor we met in Vietnam on our excursion on Halong Bay Vietnam. We had never heard of it, but he was adamant that it was a "must do" trip in South America.
Our 3 Day and 2 Night Salar de Uyuni Bolivia Tour
We were not disappointed, as this turned out to be one of the highlights of 9 months travelling around the world. An unforgettable experience. Remembered by the awesome natural beauty with the dramatic variations in the landscapes, the ruggedness, and the freezing temperatures.
In summary, the first night’s accommodation was in a hotel made from salt. The second night, in an six-bed dormitory with the only toilet and basin outside, was more basic than I remembered from boarding school!
The food was good considering the conditions and resources available. Victor, our guide, was excellent. A native of the region he’s passionate and knowledgeable and added to the appreciation of the, at times, slow and rough trip.
The only real negative … the toilets at the National Park are a disgrace! With a BOB150 (USD 21.79) per person entrance fee a little more could be expected!
In many Central and South American towns and cities having a “bano” (toilet) becomes a business opportunity. At most bus terminals and stops and odd remote locations there will be one, attended by someone to pay. The facilities vary. Sometimes they may hand you a few sheets of toilet paper. The prices, facilities and cleanliness vary a lot. With prices usually increasing the further they are from a town!
We had decided on Perla da Bolivia as it’s a local business and had exceptionally good reviews. A growing number of travel companies have become corporatised mega businesses and I'd rather support small local businesses. Run by locals, they have an affinity for the land and the culture. Operated hands on by a business owner with a passion for building their business.
Day 1: Uyuni - Colchani - Incahuasi Island - Pia Pia Island - Ajencha
The tour began at 10:30 am … as do all other Salar de Uyuni Bolivia tours … the convoy blasts out of town!
Our first stop was the 'train graveyard', one of many similar graveyards scattered around Bolivia. The sad legacy of failed systems, wars, and depleted resources.
Apart from being a site for some pictures and selfies it’s hardly worth the time.
From there we moved on, still accompanied by the unwelcome Salar de Uyuni tour convoy, to the small settlement of Colchani. A community of salt miners’ workshops next to the salt flats. Here there are many stalls with handicrafts made of salt, and textile products manufactured from llama and alpaca fiber.
De Uyuni Salt Flats
The tour continues into the magnificent Bolivia salt flats. Situated at an altitude of 3 650 metres (11 800 feet), the vast white expanse of salt as far as the eye can see in every direction
We stopped at Los Ojos de Agua (‘salt water eyes’) Salada, the abandoned hotel made of salt! The hotel closed when all commercial developments were disallowed in the flats. It currently serves as a museum and place to have groups to have lunch. There are also some salt monuments to the Dakar Rally 2014.
After lunch our group was entertained by making fun perspective- and proportion-distorted photos and videos, taken against the backdrop of the striking white surface of the salt flats.
Isla Incahuasi or Fish Island
From here we traveled to “Isla Incahuasi” (Fish Island). With another meeting of the convoy!! After paying the BOB 30 (USD 4.50) entrance fee we joined the line of people hiking to the top of the stark island. Passing incongruous looking giant cacti. In these harsh conditions they grow at one centimeter a year and as some were over ten meters high must have been growing here for over a thousand years. The island also features some fascinating rock formations of petrified coral.
We then moved on to watch the sun set over the salt flats to an area near Pia Pia island. There was hardly any water for reflection photos and the cloud formation didn’t add to the sunset.
The day finished at the village of Ajencha. Here we enjoyed the unique experience of spending the night in "Santiago Jukil", a hotel made almost entirely of salt. It's new and amazingly comfortable with electricity and hot water and private bathrooms.
In the rainy season (from January to April): the hotel is closed as there is no access during these months.
Day 2: Chiguana Desert - Caves - Lagoons - Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve - Red Lagoon - Sol de Mañana Geyser
After breakfast, the journey started into the Chiguana Desert, located on the south side of the Uyuni salt flats. The area is surrounded by volcanoes. The still active Ollague Volcano which at 5 840 metres can easily be seen from the lookout.
The next stop was the Cueva del Diablo (Devil's Cave). The Cueva Galaxia (Galaxy Cave), where you could see mummies, stalagmites and stalactites was closed as the last custodian of the area had recently died!
After the caves, the trip continued slowly along a rocky road - Pasito Tuntun - to the beautiful Andean lagoons inhabited by three species of Andean flamingos. The lagoons are different: at ‘Cañapa’ where we spotted the first pink flamingos, ‘Hedionda’ (Stinky Lagoon) where we saw more flamingos and had lunch, and ‘Chiarcota’ where we saw a variety of birds and altiplanic fauna.
From the lagoons we headed up to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, and visited the Desert of Siloli, at 4 550m (the highest and driest desert in the world).
The next short stop was the 'Rock tree', a unique lava rock formation. As the “convoy” had arrived I had to wait for about 15 minutes to get this photograph without any people!
On to the viewpoint at the Red Lagoon where the colours of the water are unbelievable with bands of white and maroon across the surface. Here we saw more pink flamingos in their natural harsh habitat.
Sol de Mañana Geyser
Our final stop for the day was to visit the Sol de Mañana Geyser. Where at an altitude of 5,000 metres you expect snow not boiling mud! The weather was fearsome – as we climbed out of the car the doors were ripped from our hands, strong freezing winds knifed through the layers of clothing.
In an instant your hands were frozen while all around you the earth boiled - fumaroles, with steaming craters filled with boiling pots of mud at 150-200 Cº.
Accommodation on the second night is at "Los Polques". Described as a "basic lodge", it has five dormitory rooms each with six beds. With one shared bathroom outside the front door. No electricity after 9:30 pm, no hot water and no shower certainly redefined "basic". The only hot water available is at the hot spring (agua calientes).
For all the attraction of hot water we gave them a miss. To get there you must navigate a few hundred metres - in the freezing cold - in the dark - first to pay and then to the pools.
For all their beauty and attraction, a calling bed was the winner!
Day 3: Dali Desert - Green Lagoon - San Pedro de Atacama
We set off the next day and stopped at the Dali Desert. The place is named after Salvador Dali who found inspiration from the scattered boulders in the middle of the desert.
The final stop is a few kilometres from the Bolivia-Chile border. Lying at the foot of the 6 000 metre Licancabur volcano is the Green Lagoon (Laguna Verde) – the green colour coming from the toxic copper coloured water.
However, it is only green on windy days and as we arrived before the wind it was just a deserted lagoon!
Border Crossing to Chile
Instead of going back to Uyuni we crossed the border to go to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Our guide assisted us with the Bolivian border crossing. We joined a line to pay our exit fee and then transferred to a shuttle bus for the forty-five minutes, nearly two thousand metre descent into San Pedro de Atacama.
The rest of the group headed back to Uyuni, passing by the Valley of the Rocks, the Alota settlement, and the San Cristobal Village before arriving back at Uyuni in the early evening.
The end of an awesome, really awesome, and unforgettable few days.
This is a trip I would definitely not miss if I were visiting this area of South America.