Salar de Uyuni, in the Andes of southwest Bolivia, is the world’s largest salt flat. The vast, haunting plain was once a prehistoric lake that dried up to leave almost 11 km2 of salt.
It is common for tourists to visit the ethereal expanse as part of a three day tour that takes them through surreal deserts, to fairytale lagoons, and up to dizzying altitudes. Many travellers book their tour from San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, either returning to Chile afterwards or continuing into Bolivia.
Booking your tour
There are so many companies to chose from, all offering very similar itineraries but varying in price. Having read horror stories about drunk drivers and negative experiences, I was anxious to pick carefully.
Operators that have built up a positive reputation or been recommended in a guide book charge between CL$90,000-140,000 whereas smaller or newer companies can charge as little as CL$80,000. Booking in person is cheaper than online.
I ended up reserving with a smaller, lesser-known company called Senda Mistica, which is partnered with the Bolivian company Uturunku Travel.
There were few online reviews to go by, but I grilled the travel agent about the safety of the drivers and the details of the tour. Satisfied with his answers, I paid CL$80,000, getting a small discount for booking in a group of four.
The tour itself – day one
I was collected from my hostel at 7.30 am and driven by minibus to the freezing cold Bolivian border. After an outdoors breakfast I met the guide, Saul, and switched to a jeep. My group consisted of six people.
That morning we visited a white lagoon, covered in ice, followed by green and blue lagoons. We stopped at some hot springs and took a dip surrounded by incredible scenery.
After passing the surreal ‘Dali Desert’ we walked around some steaming, bubbling geysers. We had a late lunch and then finished off the day with a visit to the spectacular Colorado Lagoon. The water was red and white, bordered with fiery yellow shrubs and inhabited by thousands of flamingos.
In the evening we were treated to tea with crackers and a three course meal – the food was already surpassing my expectations. That night, at an altitude of 4200m, I was breathless and cold.
After a breakfast of lukewarm pancakes, we drove to the ‘stone tree’ – a rock eroded into an unusual shape. We then visited a stunning lagoon where we could get up close to the flamingos.
We stopped for lunch at another lagoon, and while we ate a little Andean fox scurried back and forth hoping for scraps. Driving around, we had also seen plenty of wild vicuñas and domesticated llamas.
In the afternoon we drove over the Chiguana salt flats before reaching our accommodation for the evening – a salt hostel. The inside walls, floor, seats and tables were made from salt. We were given dinner with a bottle of wine, before an early bedtime in preparation for a 4 am start.
We set off in the dark on a long drive, and got out the jeep just as the first wisps of sunlight kissed the sky. I climbed a hill of giant cacti; a solitary, surreal island in the middle of the salt flats.
From there I watched a slow sunrise, with panoramic views of the white expanse. There were barely any other tourists as most groups arrived later than us.
After descending the hill for a chocolately breakfast, we drove for about an hour into the middle of the salt plains.
When we stopped, we ran into the distance, trying to comprehend the vastness of this mysterious formation, and we marvelled at the strange pattern of cracks across the ground. We also had far too much fun taking silly photographs, playing with perspective.
Our tour finished with lunch and a visit to the train cemetery. My three day Salar de Uyuni experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. The adventure of driving across the desert, the spectacular landscapes along the way, and, of course, the eerie salt flats themselves, made this trip a highlight of my time in South America.
Tips on how to make the most of your salt flats experience
1. Choose your tour company carefully
Ask questions about driver safety, the vehicle you will be travelling in, your itinerary, and what the price includes. Check for reviews online – few reviews is not necessarily a bad sign, but avoid companies with multiple negative comments.
2. Pack well
Take warm clothes, a torch, and a sleeping bag with a liner. Mornings and nights are freezing, and electricity in the overnight accommodation is scarce.
3. Bring extra snacks
Chocolate, biscuits, and cereal bars – when you need an energy boost between meals these will come in handy.
4. Be prepared for the worst
Accommodation is basic, the food is variable, and the conditions are harsh so breakdowns may happen. If you have low expectations and are ready for a challenge then you will be pleasantly surprised.
5. Adapt to the altitude before your tour
Do not set off on your tour the day after you arrive in San Pedro, give yourself a few days to adjust.
6. Bring enough bolivianos to tip your guide
If you feel your guide has done a good job, you may want to tip him/her at the end. Make sure you have enough cash with you to do so.