If you have the money and the time on your South America tour, don’t miss Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. You can take the tour directly from Uyuni, Bolivia or enter from San Pedro de Atacama. For Americans you must pay for a visa to enter Bolivia for $160 US, but I promise you it is worth it. Tours from San Pedro range from $100-$200. The more money you pay the better the food and accommodations on the tour. We went for a mid-range trip and were very happy with our choice.
The van picks you up at 7:30-8am and takes you for breakfast at a local hostel. Then you start the climb to the Bolivian border at over 15,000 feet of elevation in the Andes mountains.
For Americans, the process at the border is more complicated. You must provide $160 in perfect US bills. If any of your bills are damaged they won’t take them. So have backup Bolivianos. You will need copies of your passport, copies of your trip voucher for the tour, two passport photos, proof of your yellow fever shot, a customs form and sometimes proof of accommodation in Bolivia after the trip and proof of plane or bus ticket leaving Bolivia. Once you meet the requirements, you are given a 10 year visa.
From here you are told that the first day is the longest and you will gain a lot of elevation. You also need to adjust to the all-terrain roads in the 4×4 vehicle that rattle those who get carsickness like me. The first day is rough! You must adjust to a very dry climate of dust-filled lungs, burning sinuses, headaches, possible dizziness due to the elevation gain and a very demanding schedule of popping on and off the Jeep every 15 minutes.
The day consists of visiting the Mars like landscape of the desert with red and white mountains, colorful lakes, geysers, and rock formations. The first stops before lunch include Laguna Blanco, Laguna Verde, Desierto de Dali, and the Polques thermal baths. The surreal snow-white Laguna Blanco is given its color from natural forming borax in the water and looks like someone spilled milk across the surface of the water. Borax is used for laundry detergent and is natural forming in the lake. Pink and white flamingos wade in the white water. Flamingos are naturally white and gain their pink color from minerals and algae they consume in the waters.
The Laguna Verde is a vibrant teal green like my outfit of the day. It’s color is caused by the wind stirring up minerals from the natural spring. All of the lakes in the desert emerge from springs in the ground. There are no flamingos on this lake, but it’s vibrant green makes you feel like something toxic is brewing beneath.
The next stop, Desierto de Dali, is named for its resemblance to the famous surrealist paintings by Salvador Dali. The landscape consists of golden dunes covered in wavy black rock formations reminiscent of Dali’s melting objects in his paintings. We only stopped here for a quick photo shoot and to be beat in the face by dust.
The last stop before lunch is the Polques Thermal Baths that sit at 4,500 meters above sea level. You can feel the elevation as you attempt to quickly change into your bathing suit and find yourself very winded and dizzy. They only give you 30 minutes to pay, use the rustic toilets, change, dip in the waters, and change back into your clothes before lunch. Some didn’t find it worth the hassle, but once you sink into the 107 degree thermal pools away from the harsh cold winds, it feels worth it. The scenery before you is also quite breathtaking. You stare out at a pastel painting of bright gold, milky white, shrubs of green, and mountains of crimson red. You get sensory overload and then before it can fully sink in you must quickly re-enter the cold and head to lunch. This left me feeling ready to collapse and barely able to climb the path to the building for lunch.
At the advice of a Chilean girl on the trip, I wadded up some coca leaves and stuck them in my cheek. The taste was bitter and earthy like green tea and mate mixed together. I didn’t mind it so much after it starting helping me feel better.
After a heavy lunch, you visit three more places. The first stop is the Geysers Sol de Mañana. This is the highest elevation of the day at 4,800 meters. The air reeks of the rotten eggs of sulfur fuming from the ground. A sizzling, whistling pot of smoke seeps from the earth. Craters in the earth reveal vibrant bubbling pools of white, yellow, red, and black. I didn’t last long in this place before retiring to the Jeep to rest, due to the fumes of sulfur and the elevation.
On our way out of the geysers we saw shards of ice sticking up in a maze on the hill like someone played a game of lawn darts with icicles in the sand. We, of course, stopped for a photo shoot. The next stop took us to a rock playground in the desert, where large rock formations sat on the desert floor and made for fun climbing for adults. The main attraction here was the Árbol de Piedra, a rock resembling a tree in full bloom. We all scaled the rocks for amazing views and group pictures.
The last stop for the day was probably our favorite- the last Laguna of the day-Laguna Colorada at 4,270 meters. This particular lake looked like a murder scene from Psycho. The water carried a deep maroon red color due to live algae floating on its surface. The lake is actually clear below the algae. Mixed with the red is the white borax waters making a swirl of red, white, and pink at the feet of the red and white painted mountains.
I chose to climb down the cliff to see the red and pink flamingos doing tree pose in the water. I forgot how hard the climb back up would be. It was worth the struggle though. We all raved about the red waters on the two hour drive to our hotel.
The sun burnt the tops of the mountains behind us on its descent leaving them a crispy blood orange. Our basic accommodations in a shared room at the home of an indigenous family in the village of Villa Mar provided insight into local living. Unfortunately, the cold stale air and high elevation made it difficult to sleep even after a long day.
We woke up at 7:30, ate fluffy pancakes made by our hosts, and hit the road again. At this point our group of 13 travelers from all over the world were bonded like a family. The day was far more lax than the first day and gave us an opportunity to be leisurely at each stop and enjoy each other’s company.
The second day consists of many rock formations like Copa del Mundo (wine glass of the world), Camel Rock, and the Camp of the Lost Italians. All of the names described the look of the rocks according to the natives. The last rock formations were a spot that a group of Italians got lost and had to camp for 30 days. There was a large rock there of a broken heart.
After the rocks, we visited Laguna Negra, a black lake hidden in the valley between golden rocks. The landscape we traversed to reach the lake was puffy with mounds of moss and populated by hungry llamas of all colors. They munched on the moss and pooped- a very simple life. We climbed the colorful lichen covered rocks that looked tie dyed with red, yellow, green, and white. At the end of the path we found the view of Laguna Negra and enjoyed relaxing on the rocks for a while.
From there they made a quick stop at a pock marked canyon with a sheer drop down to a black coiled river given the name Anaconda River. We all walked out onto a ledge and as the wind picked up, we laid on the ground to not be blown into the canyon. The river was dry as the season heated up. We only spent 10 minutes here before our driver, Ivan, took us to a small town to try some local Bolivian beers at a little shop.
The flavors of the beer were unique. They had beer de coca, cactus, honey, and quinoa. They were all very carbonated and had interesting flavors. We had to chug them quickly before our last stop. We visited Julaca, a town of 90 people, that’s main attraction was a rusted old train and abandoned train station. One of the sets of tracks is still functioning for daily trains. We climbed on the rusted train cars and practiced our modeling skills.
Finally, we made our way to the Salt Hotel for our second night’s accommodations. On the way we drove next to the salt flat and fields of quinoa, Bolivia’s main export. The hotel looked like a rundown roadside motel from the outside leaving us confused after all the reviews that it’s luxurious for Bolivian standards. Once inside, we realized its unique charm. The floors were covered in rocks of salt and the walls were made of salt bricks and mortar. The tables and chairs in the dining area were also made of salt and so were our beds.
We all enjoyed a timed 5-minute hot shower for $1.50, then sipped tea and coffee while watching the sunset over the mountains and salt flat. The sky took on a lavender hue and the almost full moon shown bright through the clouds. The mountains glowed bright yellow and orange as the sun slipped down their backs. We had a lovely final dinner together, listening to music, sharing a local dish of fries, sausage, steak and veggies, and four bottles of local red wine.
Our alarms chimed at 4am, waking us from our drunken stupor. Time to watch the sunrise! Ivan packed the car and drove us out onto the salt flat. In every direction all you could see was white.
We stood on the salt, shivering in anticipation of the sunrise. The salt formed in octagonal shapes like a beehive due to how water pooled on the flats during the wet season. The sun took its time to ascend, creeping up slowly like a hungover college student from his bed after a long night. The moon, on the other hand, slid quickly out of view ready to get off of the night shift. Eventually the sun made its grand entrance and lit up the sky in bright blue and hot pink. The white salt flat sparkled and glistened in the new day’s sun.
We then visited Isla de Incahuasi, a desert island in the middle of the salt flat. The whole thing felt bizarre that there would be an island of tall cactus out here made of rock and coral. The history of the area reveals it was all under water two million years ago, which makes sense then that there is coral on a desert island. We climbed up to the top of the island to look out across the miles of white surrounded by mountains.
We descended to find a salt table with a very sugary breakfast prepared of strawberry yogurt, pound cake, chocolate cereal flakes, and chocolate covered saltines. What a way to start the morning. Sugar is typical for breakfast in South America though.
We spent the afternoon playing with perspective on the salt flat. We took creative photos of each other posing with props. We could do this for hours. Then we visited an old Salt Hotel turned museum and a large salt statue dedicated to the Dakur races.
In the heat of the day we visited a local marketplace to purchase bright colored fabrics, alpaca wool clothing and little nick nacks. Ethan and I went a little crazy buying wares since the prices were so reasonable compared to Argentina and Chile.
The last stop of the day was a train cemetery in Uyuni similar to the one in Julaca, but with two long trains. They were all rusted out and missing parts. We climbed all over the tetanus-ridden cars and posed for our final group photos.
Then we had our last meal at the local tour agency of quinoa soup and salty llama meat. I was skeptical of the llama meat, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. We all sadly said our farewells to this new family we’d formed over three days.
Despite the hardships of high elevation, altitude sickness, lack of sleep, and overall exhaustion, this tour was well worth every penny. The Salar de Uyuni and the entire national park surrounding it are some of the most spectacular landscape in the world. It will simply blow you away!