We’ve been to La Paz for almost a week when it was time for our salt flats adventure in Uyuni. The “Salar de Uyuni” is one of the most famous natural attractions worldwide so we couldn’t wait to finally get there. Taking some goofy perspective shots was not our main objective to go there. We were mostly thrilled about the vastness, the size and the unfamiliarity of the landscape.
In the beginning, we had some organizational problems that almost made us change our minds about going. Most people seem to do a three-day tour in the salt flats – we wanted to stay only for two days. Our problem was that we couldn’t find 2-day tours hosted by companies that didn’t have terrible reviews on TripAdvisor. The stories went from drunk driver to car breakdowns in the middle of the desert and we really didn’t feel like getting in trouble in the middle of nowhere.
Lukas wanted to give up already but I really wanted to go – who knows when we’ll come back to Bolivia? So I made it my mission to find us a reliable company. I went through whole conversations on TripAdvisor – and directly contacted companies that were mentioned in comments by people that had made good experiences. This way we ended up with Esmeralda tours. The website sucks and has almost no information on it. But we decided to go with it and trusted that the lady would actually show up at the bus stop as she promised.
Getting To Uyuni
Our hostel in La Paz is right next to the Bus Terminal so we just went there in time to catch the night bus to Uyuni. It left at around 9 pm – one hour late – and was quite ok. The seats were declining pretty far and there were some blankets against the cold. The ride was shaky and we didn’t sleep but it was still better than sitting up for 8 hours.
We arrived in Uyuni way earlier than expected – at 5 am to be exact. A couple of “tourist-fishermen” were positioned at the bus stop to get the sleepy tourists and lead them towards a few open coffee places. In those, you could get some plain breakfast and crash with your face on the plastic table for a while. I was exhausted and constantly thinking “I’m too old for this shit”. To support my theory Lukas was psyched and energetic and trying to get me to cheer up like a little puppy 😀 Definitely too old for this shit 😀
Day One In The Salt Flats
Anyways, our tour was supposed to start at 10 am, so we “only” had 5 hours to kill. We waited in the terrible cafe until 8 and sat in the sun for a while. Then we moved to sit in front of the tour companies’ office – we still hadn’t seen the lady we had written with. But our trust was rewarded, she showed up and it was not a scam. She did, however, ask us, if we didn’t want to do a different tour with more ‘lagunas’ involved. It was 100 Bolivianos per person more but it sounded amazing, so we went for it. Soon after we met our fellow travelers: Nicky & Christoph from Germany (classic) and Lucy from Brasil. Our driver Alfio showed up at around 10:30 but we were in good company so we didn’t mind waiting.
First Stop: Train Cemetery
The first stop on the trip was the train cemetery. We had done our research and had read that this is actually a very boring first stop. It was supposedly a couple of trains and two craploads of tourists. The tourist part was true but it was actually really cool. There are a lot of old trains and some with cool graffiti on it. You can climb on anything – there is no safety regulations or other European nonsense of that sort. I couldn’t stop thinking how dangerous all of this is and how it would be NEVER allowed in Germany :D. Different countries different customs.
Our friend Leliah (picture) was on another tour and it was the first of several times we met her 😀 It turned out quickly that all the cars are going to the same stops on the first day. Sometimes it was actually more interesting to take pictures of the tourists than of the Salt Flats. We climbed around on the trains, took some funny pictures and were already exhausted because of the heat. We had expected to be cold non-stop: but Uyuni surprised us with awesome weather.
It is kind of amazing how much an area gets shaped around tourism. The whole town of Uyuni is oriented at tourism. But the small village at the entrance to the salt flats was even worse. It only consisted of one small dirt road that is plastered with souvenir stalls. You can buy some expensive beer, go to the toilet for 3 Bolivianos and see the same touristy items you can find everywhere in Bolivia.
Ojos Del Sal & Salt Hotel
Next on the plan was the first stop where you could actually see the salt flats. The drive there was amazing: on the horizon, we could see mountains but they appeared to float a bit over the earth. Very magical. The Ojos del Sal is an area close to Uyuni where some holes in the salt show the water that is actually under the salt. From the short stop, we headed to the only hotel made from salt that is located on the salt flats. It is a museum now and apart from having a toilet, it was not very interesting. We had our first meal – prepared for us by Alfio’s wife. It was super nice and even for us vegetarians, there were great options.
An Island In The Desert: Incahuasi
A nice interruption of the flats was the small island of Incahuasi. This is a small hill made from coral rock. It is a proof that the area was submerged thousands of years ago. On the island giant cactuses are growing that get a couple of meters tall. We hiked up the rocks to get a good overview over the salt flats. The entry is 30 Bolivianos and it is normally not included in the price of the tours.
You probably know the salt flats mostly for the goofy perspective pictures that can be taken there. This is because there is no real sense of depth in the endlessly seeming white salt flats. Even if we wouldn’t have been interested in taking those it was not really an option. Our driver brought us to a spot and told us this stop is for perspective images 😀 Nicky and Christoph came prepared with a little dinosaur toy – apparently THE thing to use for the perfect perspective shot. Alfio was a pro in taking them – he knew exactly what to do and how we had to position ourselves. The salt felt funny, hard but also soft. Walking on it was strange. The sun was burning down without compassion for our European skin and we all got slightly burned. It is a desert after all…
To make sure your salt flat pictures will look perfect you should check out this guide: “How To Totally Nail Your Photos On The Salt Flats” 🙂
Stunning Sunset In The Salt Flats
The highlight of the first day was – as you might’ve guessed – not the perspective pictures. That was more like a burden that HAS to be done 😀 The most beautiful part was the sunset. Alfio drove us to a spot (were also everyone else went of course) where the salt is covered by water. It is only 1 or 2 centimeters but it makes all the difference. The water makes for perfect reflections and this in combination with a beautiful sunset was absolutely stunning. I could almost not enjoy it because I was furiously hitting the shutter, afraid I would miss out on a stunning second of sunset. Because of the crowdedness of the stops the whole experience felt a bit weird. It was nothing exclusive for us and thousands of people see this every week. But if something is beautiful in this world people are drawn to it, naturally.
Night In A Salt Hostel
The tour lady had told us that the accommodation for the night would be very basic. She also told us that we should take sleeping bags. Judging from stories of other people, we assumed we would sleep in some shack with no comfort whatsoever. It was already dark when we reached the accommodation. To our surprise, it was a family house in a small settlement, just outside of the flats. There were three other groups already in the dining room, waiting for their dinner. Alfio showed us to our rooms and again to our surprise we all had private rooms with a comfortable double bed.
The whole house was made out of salt, which was the coolest part. I had a cold and the breathing in the salty air was like a retreat to the ocean. Dinner was great again, this time made by the owners of the house. We even had the possibility to take a hot shower which most of us happily accepted. Lukas and I slept like babies. The night before we hadn’t slept because of the bus ride and the bed was great. I think it was literally the best nights sleep I got since we left Europe!
Day Two: National Park
We got up at 6:30 and waited for breakfast at our table. The breakfast was very basic but we were happy anyway. Everything felt kind of funny and we were all excited rather than sleepy. Without further ado, we started with day two.
It is just the end of a long railroad that leads through the whole Salar – from Uyuni all the way to Chile. It is still in use to transport minerals but not a lot of trains are still going. This makes for a perfect photo op to start the day with. We had to stand in line to get a shot without anyone dancing on the tracks behind us but eventually managed 😉
We knew already that the second day would be mostly used to check out pretty lakes in the national park. This was definitely nice and they were mostly very beautiful. But after a while, it got a bit dull because the day was structured like this: 1-hour drive, 1 laguna stop to take pictures. Repeat. But in a couple of the still lakes flamingos lived. This was just random enough to make them interesting again.
Hands down, the landscape in the Salar de Uyuni national park is gorgeous. We were especially happy when the flat areas stopped and we drove amongst giant mountains on both sides. We went to a place that was intended as a volcano viewpoint. But after we had seen the volcano in the distance we started climbing around the rocks which were more entertaining. The rock formations in the national park were great for bouldering, maybe we’ll come back one day for extensive exploring.
Time for lunchie-lunch. On the second day, we stopped at the biggest flamingo laguna – three different kinds of flamingos live here. We couldn’t tell them apart but the area was beautiful. Reflections on the lake and salty areas. Lunch was awesome, Alfio set it up while we went to the bathrooms and took pictures. This time, he finally sat down with us and ate with us. The other times he had been eating with the drivers which gave the situation an awkward feeling of different classes. The conversation was funny but light because communication was a bit difficult.
Black Laguna (or just Laguna 3 – it wasn’t black at all)
This Laguna, called Laguna Negra was the most boring one so far. It was a darkly colored waterhole with nothing interesting about it. Alfio told us there is another black laguna and they are both magical. Once a man disappeared in the one laguna and re-appeared in the other one. Something smells fishy 😀 Again we were more occupied with climbing around the cool rock formations. After a while we discovered something that made the stop worth it after all: some weird animals were living in the rocks! They looked a lot like rabbits but had a long and curled tail. And they were jumping around from rock to rock. It was crazy to watch them, they were really quick and shy.
Tourist Village No. 2: San Cristobal
After one more stop with a bunch of rocks, we headed to the last stop of the adventure: another tourist village that only serves to sell snacks and souvenirs to the visitors. I’m not blaming them for this, it makes sense to milk the “wealthy” foreigners as much as possible. We suspected that the stops were picked in a way that we never had to sit in the car for longer than one hour. This had to produce a couple of less interesting stops because some of them were a bit fabricated.
We had a great time in the Salar de Uyuni and the national park. On the second day, it got a bit dull but it was still an amazing experience. After we arrived back in Uyuni we met Alfio’s adorable little daughter and said our goodbyes. Since we had heard so many negative accounts from the salt flats we can really highly recommend to go with Esmeralda tours – and maybe even request Alfio as a driver. He was reliable, took care of us and checked on the car on every stop while we were playing in the desert. Afterward, we were talking with the other guys on our tour and we resumed that a two-day trip was definitely plenty.
Leliah, who we met again in La Paz after her 3-day trip confirmed this. They went to some geysers on the third day but she said that it was a bit much after a while. They were sitting in the car much longer than us because a lot of places were harder to reach. Our experience was amazing and short-lived. None of us regretted that we didn’t stay in the salt flats for three days (or even longer.)
We totally recommend you to go to the Salar de Uyuni – for as long as you see fit. And we wish you to have a great time like we had – it’s also a lot about the people you go with 🙂
Also published on Medium.