Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Salar de Uyuni: Three day tour on the world's largest salt flat

Coming into Uyuni there isn't much going on, the outskirts of it look run down and there isn’t much to see in this dust bowl of a town in the south of Bolivia until you approach the town centre, which is constantly alive with the constant flow of traffic heading out to the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the world and this area’s biggest attraction.

Finding a tour is easy, there are so many tour operators so to pick the best one, as mentioned before, just go with your gut or take the advice of other fellow travellers, the chances are you’ll meet loads of people going the other way who have already done it.

Tours can range from 1 to 3 days but by and large most people stick to the classic three day/ two night tour. This includes driver (unlikely to speak English but loves to be called Macho Man, real name Franz), food and water (but I recommend bringing some of your own water as it’s easy to get dehydrated) and accommodation. Alcohol is not included but can be bought along the way for a cheeky mark up; my advice, bring some with you. It will keep you warm in the cold nights and make you very popular with your peers. 

Day one starts off at around 10:30am where you meet the rest of your group and your driver. After looking the Land Cruiser up and down and giving it your seal of approval (everyone is a car expert in these situations of course), you set off to the train cemetery on the outskirts of town. There is actually a functioning railway in Uyuni but this section has long been disused and for the past fifty years the trains and carriages here have slowly been rusting away to become part of the landscape.

After jumping off trains and posing on the old carriages you are then whisked away to a local market in Colchani where you have the option of buying yet more alpaca products if you haven’t already bought loads. There is a salt museum where you can see how the salt in the area is refined but this is pretty much a stop to try and get some more tourist money into the local economy.

Once on the road again, you drive out onto the Salar de Uyuni itself, here the landscape changes completely as you leave the dry, sandy roads behind and head out across the salt flats with nothing but blue skies merging into white salt on the horizon. Upon arriving at the salar hostel some thirty minute drive into the flats, lunch is served and you can get started on those all important poses with props. It’s remarkable just how many photos you can take in such a short time.

After this, the tour leads onto Incahuasi island: this is basically a hilly outcrop in the middle of the salar with cacti growing all over it. Amazing that it is just there in the middle of nowhere but I wouldn’t say it was all important to pay the 30 Boliviano fee to walk around it, although this does include toilet privileges which are always important on jeep tours of this nature. This is also another great spot for photos and larking about in the salt. After here it is an hour or so drive across the flats to San Juan to get ready for the night at the hostel and get to know the other people in your tour group over dinner and wine. 

Depending on the tour, you could get up early on day two and see the sunrise on the flats, unfortunately this wasn’t included in our itinerary even though we were told we could do it. When booking these tours you have to take the rough with the smooth, it wasn’t the end of the world though as one of the drivers of another tour was hammered by 8am, so some of the people on that tour had to drive for a bit. These Bolivians like a cheeky tipple when behind the wheel now and again I'm afraid.

The day starts off driving through the much smaller salt flat, Salar de Chiguna which hugs the Chilean border. The railway into Chile actually passes through this salt flat and you have to cross over here to then head south, passing the active volcano Ollague as you go.

During the course of the next couple hours, there are several lagoons on the way where flocks of flamingos gather and strut around. All the lagoons are different colours due to the minerals and are always changing shade depending on the sun, over the course of the next two days you come across five: Canapa (blue), Hedionda (red), Charcota (green), Honda (brown) and Ramaditas (grey).

The next stop is Arbre de Pierre, this is basically a rock that looks like a tree surrounded by other interestingly shaped rocks which have no business been in the middle of this harsh, sandy environment. After yet another photo shoot it is on to the hostel for the night which is located by Laguna Colorada, here a park entrance fee is of 150 Bolivianos is required which is pretty steep but once you walk to the viewpoint of the lagoon it's totally worth it as the view is astounding. 

There's an early start on day three, up at 5am (give or take an hour depending on how much your driver had to drink the previous night) and on to the geysers nearby. There's a small one you can pose by and jump through and then some hundred metres away there are a few more, but these are substantially bigger. Getting close isn't a good idea. Following here you receive breakfast and head into the thermal spa outside the breakfast hut. It's pretty small but after a couple days of not showering, the warm, soothing water feels amazing.

At this stage you are pretty much at the borders of Chile and Argentina so from here it is a long old slog back the way you came to Uyuni through the desert until you come across the main road to get back to town. Having seen most of the sights the previous two days this day is more for getting back more than anything else apart from the odd lagoon which you didn't see before.

All in all I had a cracking time. I made some great new friends, had a solid driver who spoke no English beyond 'very good' and 'Macho Man', the food was good, plenty of wine to be found and some spectacular scenery which constantly changed along the way. I wasn't originally going to do this trip but I'm a changed man and would recommend it to anyone. A real must for any visitor to South America, let alone Bolivia.


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