Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni comprises over 10,000km² in the Potosi region. The salt is over 10 meters thick in the centre. In the dry season, the salt plains are a completely flat expanse of dry salt, but in the wet season, it is covered with a thin sheet of water that is still drivable.
The standard tour heads south toward the southwest corner of Bolivia, by many fluorescent-coloured lakes that are created from a collection of different minerals from runoff from the surrounding mountains.
This article outlines the “standard” tour. The tour is conducted in 4x4 vehicles (usually Toyota Landcruisers) with 6 or 7 people, with the driver often times cooking. Most 3- and 4- day tours have the same itinerary for the first 2 1/2 days, a day on the salt plains, then heading south to the southwest corner of Bolivia, and then splitting off from there. The specific sites that are seen can be dependent on the tour, but group input can define which sites are visited and how much time will be spent at each.
Accommodation is usually provided in basic refuges and the weather can be very cold, but it is well worth it for the amazing scenery.
What to bring
- Flashlight (torch) — the lights go out when the generator runs dry.
- Coins and small bills — The bathrooms aren’t free.
- Sunglasses — The salt flats are blinding.
- Camera, extra battery and loads of memory cards — There are no better pictures than here. If doing the 3 day tour you will usually be able to recharge batteries on the first evening (24h electricity) and a bit on the second evening (2h electricity with a generator).
- Extra water — Very important!! The tour usually provides an inadequate supply. An extra 2L bottle per day.
- Sunblock and hat — At 3.5km above sea level there is significantly less atmosphere to absorb the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
- Sleeping bag — You can rent one with the tour. Down is best, and check to see that the zipper works. This is mainly needed in the winter time. Outside of winter this was not needed.
- Warm clothes — Layered is best.
- Flip-flops — The restroom facilities are shared.
- Towel — None are available during the tour.
- Extra snacks, especially fruit and protein — The food is adequate in quantity but tends to be heavy on starches.
- Lip Balm — Sun, wind and dry air will crack them up.
- Satellite phones and oxygen tanks are extremely important for emergencies.
First Day — The World’s Largest Salt Flat
On the first day you will visit the salt flats. In the dry season this will be a hallucinogenic white landscape. In the rain it is mostly submerged and will show a perfect reflection of the sky.
Uyuni Plaza Arce (3669m, 20.463 S, 66.823 W) — Most trips start here next to the train station at 10:30am, although hotel pickup is usually available.
Train Graveyard (3669m, 20.479 S, 66.834 W) — Usually the first thing of the tour, but some operators prefer to finish the tour with it. A place with a lot of wrecked old steam locomotives.
Colchani, Bloques de Sal (3653m, 20.301 S, 66.938 W) — a village 7 kilometers north of Uyuni that survives off of the processing of salt. Salt souvenirs are available, a salt museum that has carvings of animals created with salt (they make you pay the fee upon exit), some examples of furniture and home-building techniques using salt. Bathrooms available for 1B.
Salt-Mining Area (3653m, 20.321 S, 66.994 W) — an area where salt is dug from the plane into piles weighing a ton each, and left to dry in the sun before transport to a refinery then to your table.
Salt Hotels (3653m, 20.331 S, 67.047 W)- Several hotels made completely out of salt. It is necessary to purchase a candy-bar to go inside.
Isla de los Pescados, or Isla Incahuasi (3653m, 20.243 S, 67.625 W) — The name originates from the fish-like appearance of the island’s reflection in the wet season. There is a fee of BOB30 to visit this island of fossilized coral covered in 1000-year-old cacti in the middle of the Uyuni Salar. These cacti (the highest of them being 9–10 m) grow at a rate of 1cm per year, so you can easily calculate their age. You may see a Viscacha or two here, also. Most tour groups eat lunch on the western “shore” of this island. Bathrooms available for BOB1.
Accommodation can be found at San Juan (3660m, 20.983 S, 67.767 W), though for a real treat try to get the agency to use to accommodation closer to the Salar: you will then be able to get up before dawn and reach the flats by 4x4 to see the most spectacular sunrise of your life. The more basic “salt hotels” may have showers for 10B. and a camera recharge station.
Second Day — heading south past colourful lakes to Laguna Colorada
Laguna Hedionda (4186m, 21.568 S, 68.05 W) — a lagoon full of flamingos and a popular spot for lunch. Bathrooms available for BOB1. Often you will have lunch at the outdoor picnic shelters here.
Viscacha Area — A short stop at a rocky outcropping reveals a colony of Viscachas. The tour guides feed them carrots to train them to come out for food.
Arbol de Piedra (4412m) — a stone tree that has been carved out of the howling, sandy winds.
Laguna Colorada (4278m, 22.2 S, 67.8 W) — a lake coloured red by the algae that live in it. Also you will see lots of flamingos. A 30Bs (Bolivian citizen) or 150Bs (foreigner) fee to enter the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is required to go any further.
Accommodation — Laguna Colorada area has many basic accommodations in adobe shacks without heating. Beds and blankets are provided. There is electricity for a few hours, but usually no station to recharge batteries. Outside Temperature can be below -20°C at night in July. You may be able to talk the host into firing up the heater for hot water (15B pp) but the showers are located outside the lodge and require stalking through the icy night.
Third Morning — Geysers and Hot Springs down to Laguna Verde and Back
It will begin at an ungodly hour (5am) to visit some of the following:
Solar de Manaña geyser basin (4850m) — a collection of bubbling sulfur pools and a geyser, normally visited just as the sun is rising. There are no railings here, the ground can be slippery and cave in, and that water looks hot.
Termas de Polques hot springs (4400m, 22.536 S, 67.649 W) — adjacent to Salar de Chalviri — bring something to swim in if you want to enjoy the hot springs. A popular spot for Breakfast. Primitive bathrooms available for 6B.
Laguna Verde (4400m, 22.795 S, 67.84 W) — (coloured green by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and other heavy metals) with a perfect reflection of Vulcán Lincacabur (5960m). Note that very often you won’t actually see the green of this laguna… The green color only appears when it’s windy, which is often not the vase in the early morning when tours visit the laguna.
Next will be a long drive backto Uyuni, or you can also branch off here to San Pedro de Atacama. If going to San Pedro the bus usually leaves around 9.30am. Bolivian immigration office available at the border, charging Bs15 for the service (March 2016).
Third Afternoon — Eastward toward Tupiza
If you opt for the four day tour to Tupiza, then you will go off the beaten track, and visit some small communities. You will see the previous and some of the following:
- Laguna Celeste — A clear-blue lake coloured by magnesium and manganese.
- Laguna Amarilla — A yellow sulphur lake, some old cave paintings nearby.
- Ruinas de San Antonio — an abandoned 16th century mining town where prospectors used slave labour. Depending on who you talk to the town was abandoned because either, there was a slave rebellion or, men started to go blind / missing. Regardless an attempt in the 70s to repopulate the town failed and people now live in a town of the same name that is close by but not overlooked by the ominous Volcano Uturuncu (6020m).
Third Afternoon — Northward Toward Uyuni
The road back to Uyuni is very bumpy. It usually takes 7h from the Laguna Verde. You will stop in various small communities on the way.
Valles de Rocas — many strange valleys of rocks popping up out of the altiplano. The guide will point out patterns in the rocks that resemble familiar objects.
Accommodation — Tours stay at various small towns en route to their final destination. Heating and showers are dependent upon where the driver decides to stop. The small town of Alota is relatively popular with tours.
Fourth Day — ending in Tupiza
tour will be a long ride through beautiful landscape. The last attraction before arriving in Tupiza is:
Sillar (21.44 S, 65.8 W) — which are giant columns of clay formed by erosion.
Fourth Day — ending in Uyuni
San Cristobal (21.095 S, 67.21 W) — a town with a 350-year-old church containing a silver altar.
Train Graveyard (20.479 S, 66.834 W) — a collection of many old trains 3km southwest of Uyuni.