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:
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61 thoughts on “Salar de Uyuni & The Deserts Of Bolivia – An unforgettable three day adventure”
How conveniently you guys prompt to trod the paths less travelled!!!! This reads so amazing that I can imagine how surreal it would have been in real. I have been to Kutchh in Gujarat and it was marvellous too! Very well written and quite tempting.
Vid, the pictures are superb, especially the perspective ones! 🙂
Thanks so much 🙂 It was a pleasure to photograph Bolivia – loved the surreal landscapes. We’ll definitely try and visit Kutchh in 2016 🙂
This is in our wish list since a very long time. We live in UK and how did the flight costed you & duration of journey and travel time. We have 6yr old kid, so we may wait for couple of more years before we go.
Bolivia is definitely worth a visit. It’ll be better to combine it with either Peru or Argentina. Flights to La Paz from London are quite expensive but are reasonable to Peru (around £600 return if booked in advance). From Peru, you can make your way to Bolivia by bus 🙂
So many incredible photos here. I’ve always wanted to visit Bolivia. Amazing.
Thank you so much Andrea! You must go 🙂
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs.
When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” (Ansel Adams)
Your words and photograghts…stunning.
Thanks – that’s beautiful 🙂
Wow! That looks like the experience of a lifetime 🙂 Simply stunning photographs. The place looks surreal, the kind you get to see only on National Geo. The red lagoon looks out of the world. I’ve never seen that anywhere! Bolivia generally means only salt flats and I’m so glad you showed us the less trodden places too. It looks like a gruelling trip! Are you guys planning to share any videos of the salt flats too? *being greedy here* 😉
It did end up being a pretty tiring trip but it was TOTALLY worth it. We have never seen natural beauty as this before. We have put up a video on youtube. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pdg53qmqWn8
Hope you enjoy it!
Loved it loved it! 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— I would have most loved these aspects too… and wow, the view of the Milky Way! Can’t wait to start traveling again 🙂
It was a beautiful feeling. Hope you get to this part of the world soon 🙂
Amazing! Was waiting for this blog post!!! Someday someday someday… ❤
You should definitely plan a trip to Bolivia – you won’t regret it 🙂
A-MA-ZING! I’m so jealous you got to see that many stars! I was there about 2.5 years ago, and the only thing from this post I didn’t get to see was that many stars. I think it was my eyesight – the skies were definitely clear, but I just couldn’t make out the Milky Way like your photos show. Anyway, the Salar de Uyuni and surrounding area is such an amazing landscape – I felt like I was on another planet!
You’re so right – one gets the feeling of being on another planet. Truly amazing corner of the world this 🙂
You never fail to amaze us with your crazy photography skills. A friend of mine went there last year and I’ve been hooked ever since. Now I just need to get myself to the other side of the world. 😉
You won’t be disappointed. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the world that we have been to.
I am from Brazill and I am yet to travel more extensivelly in South America, After this post Bolivia is top of the list. I loved your photos and your beautiful writting, thank you for sharing your travels and I hope you will make it to Brazil.
You’re so close to Bolivia, you should definitely visit asap 🙂 We’re excited at the prospect of visiting Brazil sometime in 2016.
Aah gorgeous pics. The Bolivia salt flats are so high up my wish list! Would love to try and make it there next year hopefully.
You’ll definitely have the time of your life. The places, food, and people – all are amazing in that part of the world 🙂
Photos were great, the perspective shots look like a lot of fun. Video was crisp and clear (glad you mused a stabilizer for the GoPro) and really gave a feel for the region.
Being a keen photographer myself, I would like to know what gear Vid takes with him and what was the exposure for that great shot of the Milky Way.
Glad to know you enjoyed the post and video – thanks 🙂
I have a Nikon D610, 18-35mm, 288-300mm, and a 50mm f1.8. In addition to that I also carry a GoPro, Gimbal, and iPhone 6S. That shot of the milky way was 20 seconds at ISO 3200
Loved the pictures…..especially the idea for the props and very well executed! You video was fantastic too, I was compltely mesmerised. Looking forward to your next post!
I am more of a New England person with a few travels to my kitty. Would love to share some of my travel stories
Bipolar weather…ha ha ha…that’s funny!
But accurate when you’re actually there I’m sure.
Yes, that’s the best way to describe it 😉 LOL!
A Big Thumbs Up!! This is simply breathtaking.
Thanks Vatsal 🙂
I have some friends that have come here and since I heard of the salar de Uyuni, I always wanted to come too, their pictures were great and yours even more amazing!! xxx
Awww thank you so much 🙂 This part of the world is so stunning that you’ll have a great time soaking it all in and taking pictures!
hey – did you take a private tour or a shared group tour? Any advantages of one over the other?
Hey Rita – we took a group tour but opted for a small group (4 people) as opposed to a large group. You can pace the tour and enjoy the sights more as part of a smaller group!
Bipolar? Not something I expected from you guys! My sister is bipolar and it’s a terrible illness that has pained us a lot. You might as well call the weather gay.
Hey Kaitlin – we were just resorting to common parlance and did not mean to be dismissive or derisive in any way, shape, or form. Took your critique on board and just changed the wording 😀
Do you have a tour guide? Who takes the pictures when you guys are together?
Most of the times we take our pictures using a tripod. Sometimes we have friends or guides around us who take our pictures 🙂 In Salar de Uyuni, our guide helped us in taking those goofy perspective shots!
Hello, great pictures! When did you go? I’m planning to go in October, but i guess this is the dry season and there is no reflection. Thanks
Hey Marta – we went in the month of August and didn’t get any reflection perse, but had a gorgeous time anyway 🙂
Hey..we are planning a trip to Bolivia, Peru and some parts of Patagonia in December 2016. Was just curious that how come you guys didn’t do Patagonia as a part of your amazing south American odyssey. Really missing out on your tips there. thanks 🙂
We thought we’d leave it for our next trip to South America 🙂 We don’t like rushing through places, especially those as beautiful as Patagonia. The plan is to combine Patagonia with Chile in 2017!
Have a great trip 😀
Lovely pictures, you guys inspire me to travel.which month did you visit bolivia? what is the best time to visit bolivia? and did you guys have to get a visa
Hey Jackie we visited Bolivia in July and yes, we did need a visa. Hope you make it there super soon 🙂
Hi Savi and Vid,
Thanks for such an informative blog! We are going to Uyuni on 19th December 2016. We have booked a 3D/2N tour. However unfortunately, I fell down from stairs and hurt my back a few days ago. I read in your blog that the trip is really bumpy. We would be doing the Uyuni to LaPaz leg by flight and I have heard that’s the bumpiest stretch of all. However, just wanted to check with you how bad is the scene in the 3D/2N tour of salt flats. Is it totally unadvisable for someone with a bad back.
Happy to hear you’re headed to Uyuni – it’s one of our favourite experiences ever. If you’re flying from La Paz to Uyuni, most of your bumpy drive is taken care of. However, there are some stretches in the 3d/2n tour where it can get bumpy – just let your driver know and he’ll make sure it’s as comfortable for you as possible.
Hope you feel better soon – we’re sure that the surreal beauty of this tour will make you feel better. Who did you book this tour with?
Hi!!!! How was the altitude for you guys?
We didn’t face any issues. WE took normal precautions like not eating heavy meals, having lots of fluids, and not partaking in strenuous activities 😀
How was the Visa Process ? A friend of mine had quite a horrid expereince and missed her connecting flight to La Paz
Hey we got visas in advance so it was seamless for us 🙂
Did you guys get vusa on arrival?
Hey Adithya – nope, we got visas in advance 🙂
hi savvi vid
if one has to choose between bolivia and ecuador…… what should one choose….
We’d say Bolivia ☺️
I am from Mumbai, India
I was hoping if you guys can help me plan a trip to bolivia in Jan or Feb.
We are a couple and we have 8-12 days to spare.
I am interested in visiting to bolivia and any other nearby destination.
My main problem is flight from mumbai (not able to find one to bolivia)
Main attractions and Mid Range Hotels ?
Please reply to this post as my plan depends on you.
Hey Krunal – that’s true. We’d suggest combining it with a trip to Peru or Brazil to make it worthwhile 🙂
Which tour companies would you recommend for a reliable n safe 3D/2N trip from uyuni to Atacama? Which one did you use n how was the experience ?
The one we used for our 2N/3D trip in the salt flats of Uyuni is mentioned in our article and it was reliable 🙂
Great post! Really informative for travelers who like houseboat tours! I love the accompnying pics, they really compliment your writing.
Thank you Perry 🙂
Hi Guys! Loved your post. Loved the place. Didn’t know about it before but got to know about it from a whatsapp message. Then I searched about it and got your blog to read. Loved the way you gave every clear information about the place, the pictures showing the real beauty as if one is visiting the real place. I don’t know if I would ever be able to visit it but would wish to do so!!
Keep giving information like this for people like me who like to read about new places. Thankyou & God bless!!