The best jeep tour across Bolivia to the Salt Flats, Salar de Uyuni
Day 1: In from Atacama
Today was the day, we began our 3 day jeep tour starting in Atacama and ending in one of the Seven Natural Wonders: The Uyuni salt flats (Salar de Uyuni) – the largest salt flats in the world!
We woke up at a casual 8am waiting for the minibus to pick us up, it turned up 15 minutes late and we met Jenny, Jess, Lilly, Issac and Lauren onboard who would become our friends over the next few days.
We arrived at the Chile exit border and crossed with ease, a fair while down the road we then stopped for breakfast at the Bolivian border, after a while we were split into groups of 6 to board our proper jeeps. Alis and I were in a group with 2 other Swiss girls, and 2 German girls. I hadn’t prepared myself for the climate changes; Atacama went from freezing cold to a complete sweat box aboard the jeep that had no climate control. Our first stop was to the white lagoon, although to me it looked very blue! We stopped for a while and built our first rock pile/formation – an inca tradition they used to mark out paths, now just done by tourists as a novelty for luck. Our tour continued, bouncing, jittering and sliding across sand, rocks and nothingness. The jeep was a Toyota Land Cruiser, and although I’ve been in many 4×4’s and big vehicles before I have to say this one was tuned perfectly, it glided over huge rocks and gravel paths that at first sight made me wince as we approached at 60+mph. If you’ve seen the Bolivian special of Top Gear you may remember them bouncing across dessert paths, rocks and stones on their unsuitable cars, it was basically that terrain!
We arrived at a beautiful shimmering green lagoon, aptly named the Laguna Verde, again stopping to admire the beautiful views before once again getting in the sweat box of a jeep and continuing the adventure.
The next stop was to the hot pools, we got changed in the very questionable changing rooms with very see through net curtains and climbed in the pool. It was quite an odd experience, we were sweating before getting in the pool, taking our first few steps in, it was the same heat as a nice hot bath but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was very refreshing and the natural salt content made for a relaxing float, although the high mineral content led to some very algae covered sides of the rock formation! Upon stepping out you were hit by the now seemingly refreshingly chilled dessert air, although only 5 minutes after changing it once again felt positively warm.
We proceeded through more lagoons, seeing thousands of flamingos and also stopped at an active geyser field that stunk of sulphur and bubbled out continuous streams of steam, like a lit firework waiting to shoot into the air.
Arriving at our first hostel of the trip in the middle of no where we dumped our bags in the shared room with the other 4 girls from our jeep and headed straight to the lunch that had been prepared, it was fairly tasty considering the remoteness of the location – plenty of salads, veg and accompaniments.
After lunch we were once again in the jeep, this time going to the Laguna Rojo — the red lagoon, it truly was very red, just imagine Heinz tomato soup with flamingos in it and you’re not far off. It was vast with thousands of pink flamingos blending subtly into the deep red hues of the expansive lagoon. We walked for over an hour around the lagoon admiring the lambas grazing on the contrastingly green grass and the flamingos that on take off looked like they shouldn’t be able to fly before gracefully folding their legs back and gliding though the air effortlessly. Well and truly worn out we headed back for dinner, spaghetti bolognese was a welcome warm meal as we began to feel the temperature dip drastically after the sun had gone down. We retired to our dorm for the evening but not before I quickly stepped out to admire the jet black sky with twinkling blankets of shimmering white stars. The German and Swiss girls made me tell made up stories for some reason which Alis enjoyed, I think the altitude made my brain more imaginative as the stories I created sounded like old folk tales.
The night was stone cold in the sandy windswept dessert, not even the 5 llama blankets or extra jumpers took the chill off initially, however after several hours there was finally enough trapped heat under the blankets to sleep.
Day 2: Crossing the bumpy Bolivian terrain
For our 2nd day on the jeep tour we began after an hours bumpy ride at the rock tree, an ancient rock that vaguely resembles the shape of a tree, it was here I found huge outcasts of rocks that I just had to climb – much to the dismay of Alis. The view from the top was outstanding, and it was here I got a slight addiction to the adrenaline of climbing and little did I know I would do plenty more throughout the next few days. We snaked our way through more lagoons, rock formations and beautiful sceneries.
Stopping briefly in one area named for its resemblance to the Salvador Dali paintings. Further stops were mostly for “el bano”(toilet breaks), as we were told at the beginning of the trip, there were no official toilets, the dessert is just one massive natural one, if you can find a suitable private rock to go behind that is. Lunch was had by the laguna negra (black lagoon), each driver seemed to have slightly different personalities, ours opted to blast out vast array of music he seemingly had collected from other tourists, it ranged from rap music to German dance tunes and everything in between. Maybe I’m biased but our diver seemed one of the nicer out of the 4, he took us right down the lagoons edge behind and below a rock so we could have some shade and relaxation for our lunch that he had prepared; rice, avocado salad and fruit.
More rock formations across our journey were stopped at, that I just had to climb, finding crevices to dig my dry hands into I climbed up, always checking down to see Alis’ concerned face with a slight edge of annoyance combined with a glint of a smile. Our last main stop for the day was to a large clearing of grass where there were hundreds of alpacas.
Alis and I tried to get as close as possible but usually only managed a metre or two. Our journey continued for the day, although knowing we were near the end of the day each small broken down village we drove through became increasingly worrisome as we wondered if that’s where we’d be spending the night. In one such village we stopped at a small shop that sold a few beers, one of which was made from coca leaves and the other from quinoa seeds, as a jeep we decided to buy one of each as a taster, the coca one tasted similar to a light lager, where as the quinoa was similar to an IPA, interesting, but I won’t be giving them another go. We finally arrived at the hotel Sal, a hotel completely made of salt, without exaggeration, the walls, chairs and tables, even the beds luckily though topped with a real mattress. Yes, we even tasted the walls to check it was salt, it was!
Dinner here was chicken and chips, very tasty, accompanied with 2 bottles of wine. We had the option from our driver of waking up at 3am to see the sunrise over the salt flats or at 7am for a normal day, of course we opted for the 3am wake up! Considering our choice the night was not an early one, we stayed up until around 11:30pm drinking and chatting with the others in the group.
Day 3: Early Sunrise wake up and salt flats
Before we knew it the chimes from my phone alarm were sharply bouncing around our salt clad room at 4am, in a dazed state we managed to get ourselves together and outside within 20 minutes. The view of the stars as we stepped outside of the salt hotel was worth it alone – it was the first time we’ve ever seen the milky way with our own eyes. A stone black sky was speckled with a thick dusting of stars contrasted by big twinkling stars that gave the sky a magical feel. We headed towards the salt flats, the journey was around 2 hours and as we drove we watched the pitch black sky turn progressively bluer as the sun gave its light from beneath the horizon. It was like a milky coloured silk blanket being pulled up from the horizon over the blackness of space, erasing the white speckles of stars as it rose.
Finally we reached the salt flats and the true scale of them was truly indescribable, it’s sort of hard to describe nothingness. In front, left, right and behind there is nothing to be seen, just the white salt in front of you that abruptly cascades off and gradients into the creamy horizon. Our drive across the salt flats was a further 40 minutes, our driver actually fell asleep once or twice whilst driving, arguably we should have been worried, but it was just driving on a cloud of nothingness without a thing in sight to crash into.
Finally we reached a point near the Incahuasi Island where we got out to admire the vast golden orb slowly rise above the horizon, casting long eerie shadows across the vast flatness. We sat and admired whilst also taking the typical sunrise jump photos.
After fully absorbing the beauty of the sunrise casting its light – fully giving clarity to the true extent of what we were standing on, we proceeded to the Incahuasi Island where we climbed to the top, through forests of cactus’ and once again admired the final stages of the sunrise and the nothingness around us from a higher vantage point. From here we could see the slight curvature in the earth.
At the bottom of the island again we sat and had breakfast that the driver had prepared; cereals, breads, jams and juices.
A further 30 minute drive into a further secluded part of the flats ensued and it was here we stopped to take the classic salt flat photos, taking advantage of the lack of anything in the horizon that gives aid to the playful perspective photos.
We continued our jeep journey through small markets, stopping to browse and relax with the lack of sleep and extremities of heat catching up on us.
Our final notable stop of the jeep tour was to the train graveyard of Uyuni, abandoned trains and accompanying parts all left to rust, now serving as a touristic climbing frame and photo point.
After having our fix of rusty train climbing we all drove a penultimate journey to the designated restaurant to have our final lunch together. The food was a lovely buffet affair, plenty of salads, vegetables and meats. However the building was hotter than a greenhouse, we were all throughly sweating, tired and dusty from the 3am wake up.
Our driver dropped us all outside of the Cordillera travel office, we did some passport formalities in the office and said our final goodbyes to the friends we had made on the tour. Our hostel was named “Liliana”, luckily only a 2 minute walk from the office. Having checked in, unpacked and slept for a few hours we headed to a secret pizza joint that’s inside and at the back of a hotel, you have to ring the bell to enter and there’s not really any signs, the pizza was brilliant, but too big so we had doggy bags! We only had one night in Uyuni, the next morning we had our flight to La Paz. The flight was smooth and trouble free, apart from the adjustment to altitude in the highest city on Earth.