There are some trips that are epic and you remember with a huge smile. Going from Uyuni in Bolivia until the Chile border was a trip I will keep in my best memories. If you have time and at least 4 days to get lost in this land, make sure you book this adventure.
Even if you are not a fan of tours, it is no other way you can do this, but believe me, it doesn’t feel like a regular tour, more like a historic journey. Also, be ready to be alone and isolated for most of the time.
It is a lot of different tours you can book when doing the Uyuni Salar, you can even go from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile up to Uyuni, or the other way around, spend 2, 3 or 4 days, or visit other spots that I’m not mentioning in this post. Make sure the trip fits with your plan, for example, my trip was heading down to Chile so it was the perfect opportunity to stay at the border and not come back to Uyuni.
What to expect – Before to go tips
Uyuni town: Uyuni is an ugly and tiny city, with the only purpose of hosting tour companies. Be ready to fight with them about the price, the tour and other travelers that want the same deal, I know I said you will feel isolated on this trip, but that’s later, Uyuni is full of tourist.
Transportation: The tours are usually made on an old jeep (4×4) that can fit around 5 or 6 people, the driver will be also your guide, cook, psychologist… basically, you’re only chance to finish the journey. They are not professionals and don’t act like one, but they are nice and friendly. Everything you need for the rest of your 4 days will be pack on that jeep, including you and your luggage, if you don’t mind a bit of rough travel then these tours are well worth it.
Driving time: You will spend a lot of time on the jeep driving, the landscape is amazing most of the time but think about some games to do with your travel mates, if you are lucky your jeep can have a USB port for music too.
Food: I don’t remember being hungry during the trip, bring some extra food like nuts, bars or fruit, but I felt the food that our driver carry was enough for us. Three full meals plus a lot of snacks, they even manage to make it vegetarian and healthy. Maybe that was good luck, I heard people complaining about the food, first don’t be super picky, second ask about it when you are booking the tour.
Altitude: Bolivia, an in specific this trip, is made in a lot of altitudes. Crossing from 3,000 even from 5,000 meters above the sea. Make sure you are already acclimatized, the journey is made in an isolated area and finding hospitals will be hard. If you already know that you suffer from altitude make sure you pack some altitude pills just in case, you can buy them in almost any pharmacy on the cities.
Day 1: The Uyuni Salar
The first thing we visited was the train graveyard in Uyuni, a cemetery for rusted trains that it is huge. Apparently, in the early 19th, big plans were made to build a bigger network of trains out of Uyuni, but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighboring countries. The trains and other equipment were left to rust and fade out of memory, most of them imported from Britain. Because of the salty wind coming from the salt flat, the trains are corroded and deteriorate to the bones.
Uyuni salt flat:
Before arriving at the Uyuni Salar you will stop in Colchani town, a place made for the tourist. It is the gift shop from the Salar; if you want to purchase salt, a salt figurine or a Bolivian tourist souvenir this is your place, besides that you can move forward and go to one of the highlights of the trip.
The world’s largest salt flat of 10,582 square kilometers, prepare your camera because I bet you saw thousands of pictures of this place, but you cannot resist you take another thousand more. The salt flat is huge, there are several spots where all the tours stop like the salt hostel, but if your driver is good, you will also stop in the middle of the salt with no one around.
I went in March, during the rainy season, when a thin sheet of water covers the flats and creates the mirror effect with the sky, so it is impossible to tell where the sky ends and the land begins.
Alota: After leaving the salt flat and drove through dessert, we arrive at a small town called Alota with a population of a little bit more than 500. We stayed in a family house for the night. When the sun begins to set at this altitude, things get very cold very fast. Extra thick socks, a scarf and a good sleeping bag are a must if you are planning one of the multi-day tours.
Day 2: Deserts and lagoons
After waking up early, our journey continued on the jeep until our first stop of the day, a huge rock formation in the middle of the desert. In this spot, our car had some issues and we needed to stop longer than we thought.
You can say that this is also part of the trip, you drive through hard environments for vehicles and occasional issues can happen, this to a certain extent is unavoidable. The drivers are used to breakdowns and are pretty skilled at fixing their jeeps. Fortunately, we didn’t stick for long – so a bit of patience is often all you need.
That morning after we fix our jeep problem, we drove to the Hedionda Lake (4.532 meters), a saline lake notable for various migratory species of pink and white flamingos. This is a place to enjoy the magnificent colors of nature and witness how the lake works as a perfect mirror.
Before finishing our day we crossed the Siloli desert, stopping at the Árbol de Piedra, a 5 meters high volcanic rock shape as a tree; everywhere I go people love to find shapes on rocks and sell it as an attraction. The visit is cool as you are in a desert with an elevation around 4,000 m. This tree is probably one of the most photograph stones of Bolivia!
We finished day 2 in the Laguna Colorada, close to the Chile border, still inside the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve). Due to the algae inside the salt water of the lagoon, the water projects an intense red color. The lagoon is also the home of more than 30.000 flamingos, which come to eat the rich plankton.
Don’t get confused by the white islands that float on the lagoon, they aren’t made by ice as I thought for a good hour, they are massive borax deposits. An important compound consisting of soft colorless crystals that dissolve easily in water, the Red lagoon is one of the most important areas of the world for the creation of borax. Go ahead and walk around the lagoon, enjoy the surroundings, the fauna and the million impossible colors that live together here.
Day 3: Geysers and hot-springs
Our journey was almost finishing, that last morning we started at 5 am destination to the volcanic area Sol de la Mañana (Morning Sun) to see the geysers. This desert area, located almost 5000 meters above the sea, has a lot of volcanic activity. The ground is soft and hot, you can even see boiling mud at some points, be careful where you step and be ready for the huge geysers coming out.
We needed to keep going to the hot springs named Termas de Polques. Take a bath on the 29.4°C water with a view of the mountains, the minerals on the waters are thought to relieve the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. This is a touristic place, you will be sharing the pool with more people, but the landscape is still stunning.
Our last stop was the Laguna Verde at the foot of the volcano Licancabur, the perfect last memory of this journey. Another amazing landscape that seems to belong to a fantasy world, the green color comes from the magnesium and other minerals in the water.
From here we drove to the Chilean border, just a few kilometers away, and the only thing splitting the countries was a small house where your passport should be stamped. The jeep came back to Uyuni, but our journey was continuing to the Atacama Desert in Chile.