The Salar de Uyuni tour is easily the most popular tourist destination in Bolivia, and it’s easy to see why. The salt flats themselves are breathtaking, and the three-day tour from Uyuni takes in a ton of incredible sights around that part of the country.
Being so popular, though, can mean that you find yourself following the exact same route as all the other tours, fighting crowds of tourists for a view of each sight.
Alternative Salar de Uyuni Tour: the 4-Day Tour from Tupiza
If you’re looking to escape the crowds, and do something a little different, why not take the four-day tour from Tupiza to Uyuni, instead.
Not only do you get an entire extra day of sightseeing, taking you past things the Uyuni tours don’t get to see, but also doing the route in reverse means that you rarely bump into any other groups, instead you get each spot to yourself and your photos of the landscapes will be unspoilt by crowds.
We went with Valle Hermosa Tours in Tupiza, simply because after getting a few quotes from various companies they seemed like the most organised and experienced, but they weren’t without flaws. I’d say you should get quotes from all the companies in Tupiza, and just see which one feels best to you.
Although the cost of 1295 Bs (about £120) each is pretty high for a backpacker’s budget, this covered food, transport, accommodation and a guide, so it’s a pretty good bargain. The other perk of paying the slightly higher cost is that Valle Hermosa – like most tours in Tupiza – only take groups of four at a time, so there aren’t five or six people squeezed uncomfortably into a jeep.
Salar de Uyuni Tour: Day One
We set off pretty early at 8:30am, bundled up against the icy morning in two jumpers each, hats and gloves. The first stop was at a mirador above Tupiza which overlooked the strange, red rock formations surrounding the city. The hill we were on was yellow brown, dusted with grey-green scrub grass, but according to our driver the whole landscape is completely green and lush during summer (British winter time) and right now the hill is “muy triste”, very sad.
Back in our jeep, we wound along mountain roads, through a stunning landscape that seemed to change more rapidly then I could write it down. Dramatic red rock valleys gave way to sloping brown mountains, distant green hills became pale grey plains, the clear blue sky turned cold and white. We passed twinkling rivers laced with ice, running water gurgling through the frozen sheets or smashed crystal shards. The landscape was enormous, and mostly uninhabited; with only one other jeep (a second Valle Hermosa group) in sight, it really felt like we were penetrating a huge wilderness.
There was a brief stop on a long, deserted stretch of straight road cutting through the Awana Pampa plain, where llamas plucked despondently at rare tufts of grass, their thick fur buffeting in the sharp winds which bit at us through our winter clothes. It was the first time Sam and I had felt really cold since leaving the UK, so the icy winds were a bit of a shock – and things didn’t improve as we pressed on, heading higher into the mountains. At the next stop, the Pasa del Diablo, we climbed the hill beside the road for a view across the valley – almost blocked out by grey, dust-filled winds – and found ourselves running back to the jeep after just a few seconds, unable to open our eyes – let alone remove the lens-caps from our cameras – because of the dust in the painfully cold air.
From sunny plains of dry yellow grass, the world became deep red earth dashed with yellow, flame-shaped bushes, then gave way again to purple earth, cracked-glass frozen rivers that crunched under the jeep’s wheels, tufts of snow caught on wiry bushes. The trip was a constant journey, brief stops in between a kaleidoscope-changing landscape passing by the window, an endless forward motion. It was the perfect kind of travel. We stopped for lunch in Pueblo San Pablo de Lipez, a miserable patch of tiny grey houses, home to just 112 families, where the ceaseless, ferocious wind flicked endless waves of stinging grit and sand into our faces. We could do nothing but huddle inside the small room where we were eating, and listen to it howl outside, warming up with hot lentil stew and rice.
Climbing ever higher, through swirling clouds of dust as thick as fog, sometimes blocking out the road in front of us, we passed banks of snow clinging to the rust brown rocks of the mountains. At the next stop, none of us could even leave the jeep, peering instead at San Antonio de Lipez through the windows: another tiny, squat, empty town of grey houses and wind.
Surrounded by swirling snow, somewhere high in white-capped mountains that vanished into a thick, blanketing sky, we stood on a mirador above the Pueblo Fantasmo (ghost town) and watched the jeeps drive away down the curling road, praying that they’d stop again at the bottom to pick us up from the town below. Machu Picchu in minature, an abandoned town of stone houses, all roofless, shivered at the foot of a dark, brooding hill under a heavy coat of snow. Underfoot, the white ground was crisp and untouched, and we approached as though we were the first visitors to the town since it’s inhabitants left. In the town, a bizarre place of warring families and something like 17 different churches, we stomped our feet into the deliciously crunching snow, bouncing on the spot to fight the shocking cold of the air.
By the last stop, the whole world had vanished into white and grey. Somewhere in the distance, the faint blue sheet of Lagona Morejon disappeared behind the dust filled wind and icy grey sky, almost completely invisible and obstinately hiding from our cameras. We shrugged it off, disappointed, and headed to another small, grey town lost in bitter wind to find our hostel for the night.
The accomodation was basic, but it was clean, the food was good, and inside my sleeping bag under six blankets, in a hat, gloves and two jumpers, I was warm enough to get a good night’s sleep. We drifted off to the sound of the wind shrieking outside the window, rattling loose doors and windows, and all of us prayed for clear skies the next day.
Salar de Uyuni Day Two: Lakes and Mountains
The four day trip from Tupiza to Salar de Uyuni was a constant journey. Most of everyday was spent in the jeep, with our guide Andres and awesome cook Dolores, watching the landscape slowly change outside the window, sliding from one scene from the next like a picture book, changing dramatically as we moved forwards.
Our second day of the tour was, unfortunately, full of problems. First there were mixed reports of the weather, with some people saying the roads in Parque Eduardo Alvaroa were impassible, so that our drivers initially refused to take us there. When the weather improved in the morning, they said we could enter the park, but might not be able to see everything – although fortunately the only thing we couldn’t see in the end was the green lake.
After we’d decided to try the national park, it turned out that one of the cars wasn’t working. The drivers set to work on an engine part with some super glue, and we set off almost three hours behind schedule, around 10am. We didn’t mind too much about the delay, until we found out that the driver of the second car had neglected to get up in the night and switch the car on – which they’re supposed to do twice, to stop the engine freezing over – so the delay was his fault, and not an unavoidable accident.
He admitted his mistake and apologised, though, and with the fantastic weather and dazzling scenery we soon got over the delay. We stopped just outside of town to view the Volcan de Uturuncu, a big purple cone in the distance, then stopped again a short distance after as the jeep got stuck crossing a huge, frozen river of ice. Both drivers had to dig the car out while we crossed on foot, snapping the ice with satisfying crackles, and cheering when the jeep finally made it across.
The first proper stop was the Hedionda Lagoon, a frozen, brownish lake of sulphur. Everyone marched out onto the ice to skid around and take photos, but the day’s disasters of course weren’t done, and Sam (it had to be Sam) fell through the ice. It was less falling, more sinking – suddenly, the ice wasn’t under his feet anymore, and he was knee deep in a thick, orange sludge which sucked him back in each time he tried to pull himself out onto the slippery, wet ice sheet. Once out, his jeans, thermals, boxers, socks and boots were all coated in orange sulphur and all completely stank. It’s a horrible, rotten eggs and body odour smell, and it escaped even the two plastic bags we wrapped all his stuff in, stinking out the jeep. Poor Sam had to strip off in the snow behind the jeep, and change into spare clothes and trainers, but luckily no real damage was done beyond some smelly jeans.
From stinky sulphur, we moved to clean, white soap. The Laguna Kollpa is filled with a natural detergent used by locals as shampoo and soap, and exported to Chile to make cleaning products. The whole lake was white and icy, surrounded by snow, and so bright that it stung my eyes. The white scum floating on top, like frozen foam, felt and smelt just like soap or washing powder, and it was so bizarre to see that naturally floating on a lake between mountains and snow.
We headed next to the hot springs, and just in time: Sam’s dirty clothes were starting to stink out the entire jeep. The pool is a small, shallow pond of super hot water next to a steaming, thermal lake between towering mountains, and was completely surrounded by snow and ice everywhere the hot water wasn’t touching. It was so cold, that the taps in the bathrooms had thick icicles dangling from them, and we were shivering in our swimwear as we hurried into the pool, but the water was dizzylingly hot. The bizarre contrast of bathlike water surrounded by snow made the experience all the more special, and it was easily the best hot spring we’ve been to on this trip.
In the pool, we washed Sam’s clothes and shoes out and hung them on a washing line to dry while we bathed. By the time we had completely relaxed, gotten dressed again, and eaten lunch, we went out to find that all his clothes had frozen solid – the jeans were like a 2D plastic cut-out, and would have snapped if we bent them. Although annoying, it was such a funny sight to see frozen clothes that we couldn’t help laughing!
By the time we reached the next stop, it wasn’t just Sam’s clothes that had frozen. My hair, wet from the hot spring, had frozen into tiny icicles at the ends! Although sunny, it was still freezing cold, and everytime we left the warm jeep we had to bundle up in two jumpers, hats and gloves. We layered up and got out to view one of the most spectacular sights of the day: a huge number of geysers spouting thick clouds of white, smelly smoke into the crisp blue sky. The air gurgled and hissed with the sound of boiling, pressurised water, and the largest geysers, belching out an enormous jet of steam, roared with a sound like an aeroplane engine.
From the geysers, we began to descend. The landscape out the window went from red-brown earth laced with banks of blinding white snow in lines and distant hills dappled dark green and brown between tufts of snow like freckles, to warm, sunny plains of yellow and pale brown grass. We reached the Lagona Colorada, one of the highlights of the park, a lake tinted pale red by minerals, set in a landscape of creamy desert and brown mountains. The lake itself, glimmering in front of a pointed hill and frozen in patches, was a perfect mirror, presenting a crystal clear image of the hills and rocks in reverse, making the most beautiful photos. There was an enormous flock of peachy pink flamingoes, perched on their spindly legs out in the lake, eyeing us suspiciously from a safe distance. At the edge, on a long bank of straw used as a nest, we saw evidence of last night’s ferocious snow storm; hundreds of huge, white eggs, all abandoned and void of life, some cracked and spilling a deep orange gunk onto the white sand. There were also frozen bodies of babies and mother flamingoes that had stayed to protect the eggs. It was a really sad, haunting sight that stayed with me as we drove away.
We stopped soon after in a small town where the hostel was just as basic as the night before, but still clean and pleasant. With no wind and a clear night, we were able to go outside – only briefly, since it was still freezing – to look at the stars: a stunning sweep of billions of twinkling lights, the arm of the Milky Way clearly visible, it was a gorgeous sight to round of a day of dramatic beauty.
Salar de Uyuni Tour, Day Three – Rocks and Bones
After the fiasco with Sam falling through the ice the day before, we woke up on the third morning of our Salar de Uyuni trip to find his wet hiking boots frozen solid and stained white from the minerals in the hot springs we’d washed them in. As if icicle boots weren’t enough, as we set off into the weak morning sunshine, our jeep got stuck in a frozen river and had to be dug out by the other driver. It looked set to be another day of disasters, but luckily, after the initial ice-related problems, things started to go smoothly.
We rolled and bounced over a dusty dirt road cutting through a sandy plain dotted with thick yellow-green shrubs. The sun on our right was still rising, lukewarm and pale gold, over the plain, backlighting the swirling dust clouds sent up by our jeeps, catching on the blueish mist still settled in the long shadows of distant hills, and wrapping the silent, grazing llamas in furry halos of light. I thought we’d left the ‘Wild West’ behind in Tupiza, but with the red rocks lining the sandy valley and the stubby cacti dotted across the landscape, we found ourselves right back there. As the jeep lurched through the rocks and the rising sun, I was staggered at how much a landscape could change in just three days; from a hot, rocky valley, to snowy mountains and frozen lakes, to sunshine and grassy plains.
We toured the Valle de las Rocas, stopping at rock formations which have been named after things they supposedly resemble. First up was the Copa del Mundo. Strikingly orange against the now bright blue sky, this lumpy rock shape maybe slightly looked like a world cup – or more precisely, a badly made and slightly wonky cup – but it was huge and the scenery around it, with the blue and yellow smoky plain behind us, was stunning.
The second formation looked a lot more like it was supposed to. Although at first glance I saw a teapot, once we’d parked up at the right angle El Camel really did look like a camel! Hump-backed, with a spout-like appendage jutting out the front like a camel’s neck and head, it stood next to other, perfectly ordinary rocks, as though it had been carved into shape. The boys all immediately climbed up onto its back for photos, but with the first proper foothold way above my head I couldn’t join in.
We also stopped in the Ciudad Italia Perdida, the lost Italian city, where none of us could help climbing up the various formations and cliffs, exploring the intricate, rocky valley. According to our driver, the area is so named because it resembles the winding streets of an Italian town, but I’ve also heard a story that it’s named after an Italian tourist who was left behind there by a tour company once. Who knows?
Laguna Pinta, a beautiful, flat lake with frosted edges and perfect reflections, was full of flamingoes, much closer than they’d been at Laguna Colorada the day before. We were able to get near enough for some great shots, ignoring the tourist from another group who called us ‘amateurs’ for frightening off what was probably the 100th llama she had photographed in Bolivia.
One of the best stops of the day was the Canyon del condor. We approached along a narrow road between high rock walls, where we spotted huge, chinchilla-like viscachas twitching their drooping whiskers, and parked next to a grassy valley swamped by shallow, frozen rivers, a lacy pattern of green-white-blue. It was sunny and hot, and as we walked through the valley, cracking ice sheets and hopping over gurgling streams, we finally pulled off the layers we’d been wearing for the past two days. We walked to the Laguna Negra, a dark grey lake frozen completely solid between pale orange rock walls. A flock of ducks sat puzzled on the icy surface, and the picturesque setting was easily one of the best we’d seen.
We stopped for lunch – a picnic of potato cakes, tuna, rice, and salad served from the back of the jeep – in a sunny, green valley filled with grazing llamas, then pressed on, driving through the small town of San Augustin. On the outskirts were ladies carrying huge bundles of quinoa on their backs, wiry red sticks which are a coloured variety of the usual, wheat coloured quinoa stalks.
From green valleys and gentle hills, we found ourselves crossing the white desert of Salar de Chiguana, a smaller salt flat not far from Salar de Uyuni. Cutting the ghostly pale landscape in two was the railway track heading for Chile with exported salt and minerals from Parque Eduardo Alvaroa; a beautiful, weirdly empty spot with purple volcanoes in the distance and almost nothing in between.
The last stop was at the cemetery in San Juan, an 800 year old burial site where we wandered into the deserted, unguarded space without needing to pay the entry fee, because the ticketman was out to lunch. It’s hard to imagine a site like this left completely unguarded and unfenced in any other part of the world, but these bones and relics have been left untouched for centuries, so Bolivians seem to trust in this continuing. Peeping into the squat, rocky mounds built into the earth as tombs, we came face to face with complete, largely undamaged skeletons, still sitting in the foetal or resting positions they’d been buried in. With almost no information in sight, and the museum closed along with the ticket office (meaning we missed the mummy), we left a little bemused by the cemetery; who was this tribe, and why were their skeletons still sitting patiently in their tombs, grinning up at curious tourists through holes in the dried earth? It was a pretty strange experience, but a very cool way to end the tour.
We spent the last night in the best accommodation of the trip; a hotel build almost entirely from salt. The exposed, white-brick walls were salt (I tasted to check!), the tables and chairs were salt, even our bed (not the mattress) was made from salt. The floor was a crunchy carpet of gravel-like salt chips. Only the bathroom, where I had my first hot shower in days, wasn’t salty! When we spilled a little hot coffee on one of the chairs, the salt actually started to melt and crumbled away. Surrounded by salt, we had definitely arrived at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni Tour, Day Four – Sunrise and Salt Flats
It was five in the morning and we were racing through empty darkness, cutting across a blank desert of unlit white, the headlamps of our jeep flitting on tyre tracks in the dust which were the only road we had to follow. Overhead was a bowl of stars, still dazzling even as the sky just above the horizon grew lighter: sharp, electric blue edging against the blackness.
The final day of our Salar de Uyuni tour was the highlight, the crowning glory of four days of touring stunning natural locations across south Bolivia. And it started with a serious bang – a hauntingly beautiful sunrise over the other-worldly landscape of the salt flats. As we sped towards Isla Inca Wari – a dark lump scarring the blank landscape with cacti silhouetted against the brightening blue sky – we saw the moon on our right hanging low above the horizon. Huge and round, it glowed flat and grey behind a thin lace of cloud, with it’s bottom lit into a firey, glowing Cheshire cat grin by the reflection of the approaching sunrise.
We climbed the rocky path to the top of Inca Wasi in darkness, past towering cacti sometimes twice my height. It was freezing cold, and each pant drew in gulps of icy air that hurt my chest and throat. We reached the top to find ouselves facing an enormous, empty sky that was glowing bright orangey-yellow and getting lighter all the time. The scene was like a film set, surreal, a huge sheet of light behind an empty desert landscape. We watched the sun rise between the huge cacti, silhouettes fuzzy with a haze of spines, but it was more a slow brightening of the sky than a sunrise, the sun itself took a long time to appear. Finally it burst over the horizon behind small, jagged hills in silhouette, illuminating the flat, white, salt desert surrounding us in pink and colouring the far mountains pale lilac.
With the sun up, the world seemed real again; the cacti were solid, coloured objects, the path underfoot was no longer a shadowy trail of hidden rocks, the desert was an expanse of white instead of blank darkness. We headed back down the hill to ordinary jeeps parked on gritty white salt that crunched like snow underfoot, and ate breakfast in the icy air with hot coffee and cake to warm us.
Driving through the salt flats was a bizarre experience, with nothing but flat, white, crusty earth in all directions. All the bad weather recently had blown in dust and earth, coating one side of each salt polygon so that looking in one direction we saw a desert of brown, while the other way it was bright white, creating a pretty weird effect. In the rainy season, the salt flats are smooth and wet and perfectly reflect the sky, but in winter when Bolivia is pretty dry, the salt flats dry up and instead the ground is a pattern of cracked white polygons, slotted together like crazy paving.
We stopped out in the middle of all this white nothingness for an hour or so, to take the “fotos locos” which play with the lack of perspective on the salt flats. This is much harder than it looks: lying on the ground holding the camera at precisely the right angle, with one figure minuscule in the distance, getting the focus right so that both the foreground and the background seem to be one plain… it’s very tricky! By now, the sun was fully up and the sky was bright blue, with the white of the earth dazzling our eyes.
Somewhere out in the centre of all that white and blue, we pulled up at a former salt hotel which is now supposedly a museum, although it looked a little more like a building site. The exposed salt bricks, missing walls and the sounds of repair work going on inside made it seem very much a work in progress. Apparently, the hotel used to be on the edge of the flats, but the salt grows every year and now the hotel is lost in the middle. You can only enter the museum if you buy something in the shop, but as we all paid 5Bs to use the bathroom we were allowed in anyway. The ‘museum’ turned out to be one very small room housing about six sculptures carved from salt. More picturesque were the world flags collected outside the hotel; strikingly colourful against the blank landscape and brilliant blue sky, they made for some really good, classic photos of the Salar.
Last stop before lunch was to view to small mounds of salt ready for exportation; conical white mounds clustered together on the flats to dry out. Most of the salt harvested at Uyuni is used internally, but some is exported to Chile by train. Nearby is a small town on the salt flat, home to a tourist market and houses for the salt workers, where we stopped for lunch. Our wonderful chef, Dolores – who travelled in the jeep with us and spent the entire four days dozing in the front seat – played a pretty big joke on us when she had us all convinced that we were eating flamingo, but fortunately the tasty wings turned out to be from decidedly not-endangered chickens.
After lunch, we headed out of the salt flats and into Uyuni, where the tour finished outside the bus station. Instead of taking us to the Train Cemetery, the drivers just left us with our bags and gave us directions to the last stop of the tour, which was a disappointing end to an experience which had been, on the whole, good. But, we headed to the Train Cemetery alone (pictures in the next post), and the four day tour from Tupiza to Salar de Uyuni was a truly fantastic trip.
Have you been to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia? Scroll down to leave a comment with your experiences!