If I strain my eyes I can see a mass of white at the horizon. We pass a rustic settlement, Colchani, and inch closer to Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt desert in the world. Soon enough I’m surrounded by miles upon miles of white nothingness. I pick up a grain of salt and examine it. I walk on the salt flat with trepidation – every single footstep echoes in the vast nothingness that surrounds me, a stark reminder of the pin-drop silence here.
I remember walking into the Bolivian town of Uyuni, the gateway to Salar de Uyuni, and feeling distinctly underwhelmed. Truth be told, Uyuni is the saddest little town. It is probably my least favourite part of our two months in South America. The mining town is a giant tourist trap, swarming with travel agents and tour agencies peddling the exact same trip – a tour to the world’s largest salt desert Salar de Uyuni. We ask around a lot and choose a safe mid-range tour (more details and costs below). But I continue to be sceptical. I’m not one for all-inclusive tours and those are the only way of seeing the deserts of Southern Bolivia. It is impossible to head off in the desert wilderness all alone, with a rental car. There are no roads, shops, or people.
We set off early one morning in a 4X4, stocked with water, food, snacks, gasoline, and oxygen tanks should we need them. We pass a decrepit train cemetery with a few tourists mucking about and we drive past a few small settlements and mining villages. I continue to be wary of the experience. That is, till we pull into Salar de Uyuni, our first proper stop for the trip.
Within our first few minutes at Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni I find myself stumbling for words. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I’m not sure I’ll ever see anything like it ever again. We’re just getting accustomed to the surreal landscape when our 4X4 comes to a sudden halt – the driver informs us we’ve reached his favourite spot for lunch. Here, deep inside Salar de Uyuni, dozens of miles away from the nearest town, the salt is pristine. The natural hexagonal formations glisten under the desert sun, calling out to us. I walk on the salt flat with trepidation – every single footstep echoes in the vast nothingness that surrounds me, a stark reminder of the pin-drop silence here. Finally we settle down for a simple lunch – sandwiches, salad, and chilled cola. I can feel our excitement levels rise as we sip on the cola and contemplate our surroundings.
The surreal landscape of South-west Bolivia continues to draw us in as we sit munching on sandwiches in the middle of the largest salt desert in the world. If this lunch is anything to go by, the next few days are going to be a lot of fun.
In the past decade we’ve drooled over a fair few perspective shots of crazies at Salar de Uyuni. Now is the time to attempt some ourselves. As you probably know, Vid takes photography challenges seriously. So we spend hours playing with perspective at the Salt Flats – sitting on oranges, trampling each other, driving shoes (yep! that happened), jumping out of bags 🙂
For the next 3 days we drive on barren land, pebbles and rocks. There are no gas stations, shops, or roads here. Infrastructure is non-existent and the sights surreal. We start at 12000 ft above sea level and continue to go higher. We stop at Incahuasi (literally the house of the Incas), an island full of giant cactii, that was used as a shelter, a refuge from the desert sun, by the Incas. A short hike later, we reach the top of the island. A dramatic 360 degree view of the salt flats puts things in perspective. This is wilderness as we’ve never seen it before – rugged, handsome, and overwhelming. It’s places like this that make you realise, the Earth has music for those who listen.
We spot a fair few day trippers at Incahuasi but they begin to disappear as we press deeper into the wilderness. The air thins as we work our way to a height of 15000 ft and we pant as we hike a short distance to an ancient cave full of mummies. Here we see mummies dating back to 2500 BC. These mummies have been reduced to skeletons, which are extremely well preserved due to the lack of moisture in the salt flats. I can imagine this being gold for palaeontologists anywhere in the world but Bolivian villagers consider these caves sacred and refuse to let researchers touch the skeletons of their ancestors. It being Bolivia, our guide is given the keys to open to the cave 😉
A long and bumpy drive later, we pull into our hotel for the night – Tayka Hotel de Sal, a hotel made entirely of salt. The hotel is nestled in the shadow of a colourful volcano. My clothes, shoes, and face are covered with dust and salt at the end of a long day in the desert and I can’t wait to scurry into our room and run a hot shower. As the layers of desert sand melt away from my body, it strikes me yet again – I’m in the middle of The Altiplano, Bolivia’s sky-high plain, one of the most remote corners of the world.
I unwind in the heated room, getting my act together as I sip on a cup of coffee. Once I’m thoroughly warm, I put on a couple of layers of thermals and gather the courage to step out. It’s -20°C degrees outside but the night sky is laden with thousands of stars and the elusive Milky Way – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Local legend in Bolivia states that you can reach out and touch the stars when you’re in the desert – tonight we see this unfold in front of our eyes. Every few minutes, I control the impulse to reach out and pluck a few stars from the twinkling sky 🙂
We’re up bright and early the next day, excited about our second day in The Altiplano. We see the landscape change dramatically as we go deeper into the deserts. The white surface of Salar de Uyuni gives way to the traditional ochres of the desert, hissing volcanoes, bubbling lava, and untouched glaciers. We are so far from civilisation, pollution, and people. We haven’t seen a road or shop in days, but never felt better. We can’t help feeling that this adventure is pure, unadulterated perfection!!
We stop to explore hidden lava caves where melted lava has formed intricate patterns that resemble a galaxy; Laguna Canapa, a salt lake with dozens of wild flamingoes; Laguna Hedionda, the stinky lagoon at 13000 feet; and Laguna Honeq, surrounded by picture-postcard panoramas. This is one of the remotest and least populated areas on Earth. There are no traffic signals here but every once in a while you have to halt the car to let the cutest llamas and alpacas cross the road. I keep feeling the two of us have walked into a National Geographic documentary.
After almost 12 hours on the road, we pull up into Tayka Hotel del Desierto. At 14,850 feet (4523 metres), it is one of the highest hotels in the world. There is nothing or no one around for miles and weekly grocery rations arrive from Uyuni, hundreds of kilometres away. A hot meal, hot shower, and change of clothes later, I find myself back to staring at the sparkling night sky. The glittering stars make me feel like my dad, who I miss terribly every single day, is watching over us, egging us onto new adventures. We have an early morning ahead but I spend the entire night outside, in the freezing cold wilderness of Bolivia.
It’s our last day in the deserts of Bolivia and I’m curious about what lies ahead. There is precious little information about this part of the world online and travel agents don’t do a great job of selling the place to curious tourists either. So I have no idea what awaits us! We start the morning at some geysers in the vicinity. At 16,150 feet (4920 metres), these are some of the highest and most impressive geysers in the world. The hissing steam puts up quite a show for the few tourists that make it here each year. Yet, there’s hardly anything about them online.
We drive onto The Siloli Desert, the highest desert in the world. It’s home to the famous Árbol de Piedra (Stone Tree). The rock formations and lunar landscapes here make me feel like I’ve either walked into a Dali painting or I’m tripping on hallucinogens. But the truth is, I’ve just stumbled on a region forgotten by tourism.
The best is reserved for the last. Our last stop is not far from the Chilean Border. Laguna Colorada (The Coloured Lagoon), at 14000 feet, is probably the most incredible thing we’ve seen in a while. The water of this lagoon is a bright shade of red. It’s red because it houses algae that contain carotene, which photosynthesizes with the sun to lend the lagoon a red colour. The sunnier it is, the redder it gets. But that’s not all. The lagoon is populated with thousands of bright-pink flamingoes. I wasn’t warned about this – the sight of thousands of flamingoes, taking flight together left me truly dumbstruck.
As we settle into our 4×4 for the long drive back to Uyuni, visions from the past 3 days flash past me – we’d just explored the highest desert in the world, the highest capital in the world, the largest salt flats in the world, and one of the remotest regions on Earth. But it’s not the superlatives that count for I’m going to remember the little things – playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni, the night sky in the Bolivian wilderness, the joy of seeing flamingoes in the wild for the first time, and the wonder in Vid’s eyes when we first walked into a hidden lava cave. There is truly no accounting for how such simple joys can completely shake you 🙂
Getting to Uyuni for the salt desert
You could take a flight to Uyuni airport or take a bus from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. The flighg timings can be a bit tricky, so we opted to take the overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni. We booked our return bus tickets at the last minute (day before our travel) using Tickets Bolivia (one of the booking websites in Bolivia that consolidates all bus operators and trains) on a “semi-cama” (semi-sleeper) bus operated by Trans Omar. The journey was comfortable for the first few hours but the latter half of the journey featured bumpy (understatement!!!) roads, broken bus windows (we were shifted into a rickety bus mid-way), and slightly uncomfortable seats. But we did make it to Uyuni in one piece!! ;-). The bus ride on the way back was much better and we were also able to get some much needed sleep.
We’d recommend booking a full-sleeper service on other bus operators listed on the Tickets Bolivia website . Or you could just book at the bus station. A one-way ticket can cost you anywhere between 20 USD to 33 USD per person depending on the bus service.
Packing for the deserts of Boliva
The weather in the deserts of Bolivia is extremely unpredictable- days are very hot and sunny and nights are freezing cold. The temperature can dip to -40 °C at night, so pack well. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Warm sweater
- Heavy Jacket
- Woollen gloves
- Woollen socks
- Warm hat
- Cap to cover your face during sunny days
- Comfortable shoes, preferably hiking boots
- Sunscreen and lip balm (SPF 30 or greater)
Accommodation and Costs
It is possible to get a 3 day tour of the salf flats of Bolivia for as less as 600 bolivianos (£60). You can purchase tour once you get to Uyuni. However do beware – the accommodation is absolutely basic and a few travellers we met complained of being packed like sardines in the 4X4 for days on end. If you do choose this backpacking option, make sure you request the travel agency to show you photos of the dorm and the toilets. Also confirm whether sleeping bags are included in the cost – air-conditioning is non-existent in such accommodation and you will definitely need sleeping bags.
This is the option we chose! There are a number of hotels in the deserts of Bolvia. We chose a 2N/3D tour called Ruta Tayka, which included overnight stays at Tayka Hotels, with El Mundo Verde Travel & Creative Tours. As you read above, we were sceptical at first but the entire tour was safe and super comfortable. Both hotels we stayed in were located in the middle of nowhere and boasted of hot showers, heated rooms, and hot meals. A couple of things to keep in mind – there is no wifi in this neck of the woods (even if the hotels claim otherwise) and most meals cater to non-vegetarians (hot stew and some form of meat with bread and potatoes), so it’s worth specifying dietary requirements in advance. The entire trip cost us approx. $400/person (£250/person) including all snacks and refreshments, all meals, transport, driver, and accommodation (private rooms with private bathrooms).
If you want to make this trip to Bolivia super special and indulge yourself, you could rent an Air Stream campervan to explore Salar de Uyuni. This option includes a private chef, gourmet meals, and candle-lit dinners. Besides who can argue with being the only human being(s) in one of the most remote corners of the world. This is next level glamping and the price reflects that!
Irrespective of the option you choose, this trip in Bolivia is an adventurous one. But it is completely safe. You will be out in the sun for long periods of time and rides can get bumpy because there are no roads and infrastructure is non-existent. But, as the photos will tell you, it’s all worth it. You’ll see sights you’ve only dreamed of seeing and panoramas straight out of your wildest fantasies. The landscape is wondrous, choc-a-bloc with surreal manifestations of nature. All of us are guilty of using the phrase adventure of a lifetime loosely – a trip through Salar De Uyuni and the deserts of Southern Bolivia truly is that!! You won’t forget it for a long long time. If you need more convincing to pack your bags and head to Bolivia, have a look at our vlog from Salar De Uyuni:
Planning a trip to South America? Read all our articles on South America here
Do you seek once-in-a-lifetime experiences while travelling? Read our Top 10 Travel Experiences here