Updated: Feb 26, 2020
Salar de Uyuni was most definitely the highlight of my trip in Bolivia. We travelled in the opposite direction to most, starting in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and making our way across the border into the Altiplano of Bolivia and ending in Uyuni. However, the trip was not all awesome scenery and amazing views. There were plenty of challenges and it's not an easy trip to make, but still totally worth it.
So here goes; the highs and the lows of travelling to Salar de Uyuni.
1. The salt flats are a photographers dream, especially if you visit during the wet season when the rain water on top of the salt creates the infamous mirror effect (as shown here). However, this is not usually possible from May to October. Also you have to get up super early to capture the sunrise on this part of the salt flat on the final day, we left our hotel at 3am! We were extremely lucky as we visited 8-10 May and just caught the reflections on the edge of the salt flats, another week and our guide said all the water would be gone. The salt flats themselves are astonishing in their vastness & beauty, measuring more than 10 000 square kilometers, they are the world's largest salt flats. The geology and climatology are also natural wonders. For example, the salt flats contain 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves and are used for satellite calibration.
2. If travelling from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, you will travel for 2 days through the Altiplano before you reach the salt flats but it's also possible to go in the opposite direction. The scenery and views are awesome with active volcanoes, lagoons, geysers, hot springs & desert landscapes. However you will be at altitudes ranging from 3500 to almost 5,000m. Some suffered severely with altitude sickness or car sickness and if you get the the third row seat, there is little leg room or vision. I even had severe heat stroke from being in the sun all day through the car window with no ventilation (the windows were always closed to keep out the dust!).
3. You will be stunned to see many species of flamingos, culpeo (fox), vizcacha (rabbit) & vicuna (deer) on your travels. But make sure you pack plenty of layers as the days start out freezing cold (-10 C) and gradually warm up to a more manageable temperature (+10 C). Even though the sun is always shining, due to the altitude and wind factor it is still very cold. Bring plenty of layers & a neck gaiter. You will also need to bring sunscreen and a hat for the last day on the salt flats where the sun is so intense you will get burnt. Bring an intensive moisturising cream as the air in the environment is so dry & hypoxic your skin will resemble that of a reptile without it.
4. Accommodation is very basic and you will not get a shower on the first day. There's no heating, wifi, electricity or anywhere to stock up on forgotten items. So make sure you're prepared with plenty of warm clothes, toiletries, toilet paper, head torch, medications and snacks for the long drive. The food is basic but very good and you'll be fed 3 times/day. The rest is up to you. Advise your guide of any dietary requirements. I was pleasantly surprised how well I was catered for with my dairy free diet which I was extremely grateful for. You need to bring enough water for the entire 3 days. We were only allowed to take 6 litres between 2 which was only just enough as you drink more when at altitude (hence the heat stroke). Make sure your tour company provides you with sleeping bags as the nights are always below freezing. There will be a mad dash for the charging stations each night when the power is turned on briefly during dinner time. So put your phone on airplane mode and turn off the wifi to conserve power. Finally, be prepared to get dirty as the environment is very dusty and you will take plenty of the desert sands with you.
5. Remember your driver is just that, a driver and a cook, not a guide. Most don't speak any or only limited English so don't expect to be given loads of facts and information about the places you're visiting. Read up before or after your visit and simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Their job is to get you from A to B safely and ensure you're fed and watered, that's it. Try to learn some basic Spanish before you go in case no-one in the group speaks Spanish, you need to understand some basic directions like time to wake and be ready each morning. If you're lucky (like us) your driver will be a pretty good photographer and creative director too!
6. Make sure to take a really good camera and any props you need for your photos. Think about what you want to do with the group before you get out there so you can make the most of your time and get plenty of great shots, memories & friendships that will last a lifetime. Be sure to visit the train cemetery in Uyuni as well. Finally, do your research about your tour company before you go. You can easily book a tour when you arrive in Bolivia with one of the many tour operators available, but not all companies are created equal when it comes to driver experience, vehicle safety and quality of food available over the three days. Choosing a company with an office in both Uyuni and San Pedro is crucial. We went with World White Travel and highly recommend them. Alternatively use local tour companies like Find Local Trips. The tour was exactly as advertised, the driver was extremely experienced (+16 years) and looked after everyone really well, he even took us to some hidden spots off the usual route. We were able to store our luggage with the agency in Uyuni for the day and they arranged a taxi to the airport for us which just made life so much easier.
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GnTonefortheroad Travel Tips:
1. Don't lose the stamped customs slip given to you when you enter the country as you will need it again at the border when you cross from Chile into Bolivia.
2. Tip your driver as they work so hard. Our driver was working 12 hour days and doing 2 tours a week with only one day off. He works so hard his kids call him uncle.