Pitch black, middle of nowhere, 6000 metres above sea level, no shops or villages for miles, below freezing temperatures… Floating under the brightest blanket of stars with a glass of red wine in a natural hot spring.
Does it matter which tour company you choice for the salt flats tour? I say yes. We chose to go with Red Planet after reading a bunch of great reviews, they are almost twice the price but the guides and drivers made this tour one of the standout highlights of our trip so far.
Day 1: We meet at 10.30am, pack the 4x4s and at 11am we head to our 1st stop, the Train Graveyard. Our driver Soual seems like a really good dude, after introducing himself and learning our names he plugs our tunes into the car’s sound system and we hit the road with Blur Song 2 blasting. We pull up to a vast desert full of a rusty mish mash of train carcasses along with around 20 other 4x4s, then join the masses taking photos of the wreckages. Our guide explains to us that this is the symbol of the area, it is significant because the trains represent a time when Bolivia still held the coast. A time when tin and silver were still being mined in abundance and transported to the coast via rail. Before trains, this was the resting place for Llama caravans. Now it is a place tourists come to take photos so it has a new significance, representing the new age of prosperity and industry. You would think, with so much money being poured into the tours they could stagger the visits by 20 minutes!
Back in the 4×4 by 12pm, the road is long and straight disappearing into mirage in the distance, with a white salty abyss coming into view out the left hand side.
Colchani is the next stop, a small village where the villagers have forged their livelihoods from the salt. The indigenous people who settled here are the Uros people. The same resourceful and creative people who settled near Lake Titicaca and made islands from the reeds are the same who settled here and used their creativity to build houses from blocks of salt.
We visit a small family run salt production factory which is nothing more than a shed with a pile of salt and a couple of old dudes bagging it up by hand. The salt is piled outside for several weeks to kill the organisms then taken inside the shed where iodine is added, then it is bagged and sealed by a single flame.
Next we take lunch in Colchani inside a building made of salt bricks, and boy it’s a good lunch of BBQ chicken and salads with apple pie for desert!
After lunch we have the opportunity to visit the local artisan markets and buy any last minute props we may need for our hilarious salt flat perspective images.
As we enter the national park we stop at a fairly unremarkable salt hotel. It’s built from the salt bricks and was in commercial use up until around 2004 when the salt started to disappear around the hotel and the government realised the environment needed more protection. So now it is purely a stop on the tour. There is also a large monument to Dakar which has been held in Bolivia for the last couple of years. It doesn’t actually cone through the salt flat though, because at that time of year the rains cause the flat plain to open at the seams allowing the salty lake underneath to spring forth, making it much too treacherous for the bikes.
When people think of the salt flats in Uyuni the 1st thing that comes to mind is these silly pictures, but the reality is so much more spectacular. As we drove onto the salar, perspective really did start to fall away. The clean white salt spans thousands of kms and is interrupted only by distant mountain ranges and Volcanoes. We stopped in the salt for around an hour to take “funny pictures” which is a lot harder than it looks! Especially if your camera likes to blur the background.
Around 4pm we headed into the middle of the salinera to the Inca Huasi Island. This is an amazing coral island which hasn’t served its original purpose since thousands of years ago when the salt flats were actually a big salty lake until one of the nearby volcanoes erupted and caused it to dry out above ground.
The island has spiritual significance to the Incan people who hold an important ritual here each spring (August 1st) to offer pacha mamá food and gifts, like a sacrificial llama heart or two. We learnt more about this at the small museum before heading up to the top of the island for a 360 degree view over the white abyss.
The cacti that grow on this isolated coral oasis are spectacular! The bigger ones are between 800 and 1800 years old and only grow 1-2 cms per year.
We took an hour exploring the island and piled back in for sunset. Braving the bitter winter winds we took photos and enjoyed the stunning pastel colours for as long as we could bear it. The benefits of paying extra to go with Red Planet were becoming more and more obvious. Our English speaking guides were really knowledgeable and happy. The drivers all really positive and professional. And even though we had 11 people to one guide our entire group only added up to 16 so between the total we had 3 drivers and 2 guides.
Our accommodation that night was basic but really nice in a new salt hotel and dinner was filling. We also got hot drinks and biscuits as soon as we got in to warm up.
Day 2: The next day we woke up at 6am refreshed, in spite of temperatures dropping well below zero we had lots of blankets and extra sleeping bags so were toasty and warm. After a plentiful continental style breakfast with scrambled eggs we packed up and moved out headed for the volcanic region. Our 1st stop was a small village store to collect supplies, water, snacks and booze for the pool party that night. It would also be the last toilet for the day.
After we were fully stocked we headed off to the Llama Canyon, here the Llama are actually called Incita and are apparently quite different. They live in much harsher conditions as the stream running through the canyon is salt water and the “Island Grass” is very short and tough. We’d hit a very wintery day so the water was mostly frozen and my inner destructive child had endless fun shattering the icy puddles.
Heading further into the volcanic range the rocks appeared stranger and more martian-like. We stop to check out a big crazy looking one with a green moss growing on it. Our guide explains this little guy only grows half a cm each year and its gum is used by the locals to help sooth aches and pains after a hard day at the altiplano gym (the Quinoa fields). The local camilids also use the moss as a source of food, licking its gum and sipping the water stored inside.
Not too much further along we stop for a delicious picnic lunch in a nice place a little more sheltered from the wind. Chicken schnitzel and Quinoa beautifully prepared. Although this spot is sheltered the wind is relentless today so I had to keep my guard up to protect my lunch from the dust!
The 4wd takes us through dusty plateaus surrounded by beautiful coloured mountains and volcanoes. We stop at the salinera which is where the flamingos usually hang out because the water is rich with micro-organisms… Unfortunately it’s too windy for even those hardy little fellas. Our guides take us to another lake in hope of spotting them in their back-up spot, but even here we only see 3 and the wind is so icy and cutting that we didn’t hang about very long.
The landscape here is so bizarre, striking and ever changing, making the time spent in the car watching the world go by a really enjoyable experience. The warm car makes it even harder to jump out at the next spot, the cold really is something else. The wind is so strong and feels like it’s carrying icicles. Its consistency up here has helped to form the crazy looking rocks we’d pulled over for.
From here we head to the official entrance of the national park which is where we will visit the lake of 7 colours and eventually stay the night. To be honest at this stage I would’ve been happy to sleep in the car if it meant I didn’t have to go out in the wind again but I don’t think that was an option. The lake of 7 colours gets its name from the algae blooms that inhabit its waters and cast fabulous colours in the sunlight. However we didn’t get to see that as the sun was nowhere to be seen. On a positive note, we finally saw a few flamingos. The flamingos like to hang out here even in the cold as there is a natural hot spring that keeps their feet warm.
Our last stop before the nights accomodation and our pool party would be the Geiser Sol de Mañana. Most tours bring you here at sparrows fart on the 3rd day before the hot pools. But our tour was the only group who would spend the night at the thermal pools so we stopped in late afternoon. Ever wanted to visit another planet? This place may tickle your fancy. The geiser itself was pretty neat, although not the biggest we’ve seen. The surrounding terrain was outstanding, pastel pink, pock marked with bubbling grey mud bursting out in between. This being Bolivia there are no paths or barriers so you can wander through the thick steam and have your own Stars in Their Eyes moment “Tonight Michael, I’m going to be….”
Finally, back to the cabins for hot chocolate and biscuits! Sitting there, defrosting my hands on my cuppa, I wasn’t convinced I was going to get my kit off for a dip in the thermal pool that night.
After dinner and a couple of glasses of vino I found myself putting my togs on. Boy I’m glad I did. Going naked would not have been appropriate! But seriously, the next few hours floating around under the stars chatting about Incan history with our amazing guide and watching meteors crash into the earths atmosphere.
Day 3: The next day was mainly about getting to the Chilean border, and for the other half of our crew it was driving 7 hours back to Uyuni. Our last little stop was to admire the landscape referred to as the “Salvador Dali Desert” and upon arrival it’s obvious why. I wonder if he’d have come here what he would’ve said.
And for the final stop we piled out near the acidic “Green Lake” to have a photo with the amazing drivers then the group split, with those of us who were heading to Chile in one car and the others turned around to head back to Uyuni. When we arrived at the Bolivian side of the border our guide waited to make sure we all got out of the country OK, put us on our bus and bid us farewell. It had been an epic few days and I honestly couldn’t fault Red Planet as a company.
Cost for 3 day tour 1,250 bolivianos ($232 aud) includes all meals, transport, accomodation, snacks and extra sleeping bag.
Extra 200 bolivianos each for park entries ($40 aud)