Salar de Uyuni


Visiting the SaltFlats, Uyuni, Bolivia

What it is: a 6 hour tour through the salt flats includes lunch
Cost: $65 plus $5 to enter the national park

To get to Uyuni I took a 12 hour overnight bus ride from La Paz. The ride cost about $16. It was in a fairly nice coach bus with reclining seats so it wasn’t too bad of a ride. I was seated next to a rather large Bolivian man who took up a quarter of my seat. I didn’t mind though because due to his size he radiated a lot if heat my way which meant my corner of the bus was a little warmer. By the time we arrived the windows of the bus were totally iced over so I was very grateful for my portly companion.

When I arrived in Uyuni I was relieved to find a quiet, small town, much cleaner than La Paz. I checked into a nice looking hostel but forgot to ask if they had heating. This area may be warm during the day but the nights are freezing. Unfortunately it wasn’t until after I checked in that I realized they didn’t. There was also no hot water. I decided not to shower then and there. It was just too cold. I met up with my tour group and saw on their listings that I could have saved about $14 if I had booked the tour once I arrived. Oh well, it was turning out to be a day of lessons learned.

Note: bring warm clothes, the cold nights here are no joke.

I went to the tour office. When I asked what group I would be with the operator said, “the tall guys with the funny hats.” Tall means very little in Bolivia, no pun intended. I, myself, often feel like Gumbi here because so many of the men only reach my shoulder. I met up with three very nice guys, all originally from the UK who would be taking the tour with me. They were a fun group and made the day more interesting and really, their hats weren’t that funny.

The tour started with us watching the raw salt being transformed to table salt. It was heated in a stone oven by burning something that looked like sagebrush. This removed dirt, water and other impurities. It was then ground and iodized and placed in plastic bags that a man was sealing with a warm iron on a propane cylinder. After that they went to sale on the Bolivian market.

We then drove out to the salt flats. The bizarre landscape of white salt sparkled and reflected the sun so much that sunglasses were absolutely necessary. It broke off in hexagonal plates, creating odd patterns across the miles of salt. It mirrored the mountains in the distance as well, creating odd illusions on the horizon as though the mountains were floating. The flats were an ocean at one time and during the shifting of the tectonic plates the ocean drained, leaving behind 12,000 square kilometers of flat, desolate, glittering salt. Near the end of the day we drove to what was at one time an island in the salt. It was covered in cactus. You could see for miles and every object on the salt flats was doubly visible against the stark, white background. As we climbed around the island we saw remnants of what was once coral clinging to the rocks.

The photography part of the tour shouldn’t really be downplayed because it was a lot of fun.  Really, it was just a bunch of random groups out on the plains playing around with our camera phones and toys we brought from the tour agency.  Everyone who travels through Bolivia has their Salar pictures.  It actually gets fairly competitive to see who can get the best ones.

It was a fun, relaxing day of bizarre landscapes. At times, it looks more like something out of a futuristic movie than planet Earth as I knew it.