Itinerary for the Uyuni Salt Flats
The Uyuni Salt Flats
This is an itinerary for the Uyuni Salt Flats, for a 4 day trip. Sitting at an altitude of 11,995 feet or 3,656 metres, the Uyuni Salt Flats are the largest in the world. There are 10 billion tons of salt contained here, as well as the largest lithium deposit in the world. 3,000 year old mummies, hair, skin, nails clothes all well preserved by the dry, cold conditions were discovered in a cave in the area.
The Uyuni salt flats are certainly an incredible sight, seemed like there was nothing on the horizon or we were driving into infinity. Beautiful hexagonal patterns adorn the surface and in the rare occasions when it rains, small pools of water perfectly refect anything on the surface, multiplying the number of stars and confusing which way is up.
How to get there
Coming from Chile
This is the route I took to reach the Uyuni Salt Flats. I flew from Santiago to Calama, minibuses meet the flights to take passengers on the one and a half hour journey to Atacama de Chile. This is the gateway to the Atacama desert and the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia.
There are many tour operators in town, I went with the one which was recommended by the owner of my guesthouse. It turned out to be an excellent choice.
There were only 5 of us in the 4 wheel drive, so more space. I saw people squashed in to vehicles and multiple vehicle and large group tours. Also we always arrived everywhere first, so got to experience the beauty before the crowds arrived, especially helpful with the wildlife encounters.
It is possible to a 4 day tour as I did starting in San Pedro de Atacama or a shorter tour remaining in Bolivia and ending in Uyuni.
Coming from Bolivia
The starting point is the town of Uyuni. To get here there are direct flights from La Paz and also overnight buses with a journey time of 10 hours.
There are tours of 3 days which end either in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile or back in Uyuni, Bolivia.
I had a wonderful 4 days on my Uyuni Salt Flats tour. What an incredible trip. It is so lovely when a place you have wanted to visit for so long completely exceeds your expectations. I saw nature at its best and fitted so much into each day. Here’s the day to day report.
It is an early and cold start, so wrap up warmly. It is a short drive to the border crossing. If there are many groups it can be a bit of a wait in the cold and high altitude. Breakfast is at the border. For the Bolivian side you will need to have downloaded and completed a customs declaration, which you will need to show.
After crossing the border we entered the National Park. The whole area was affected by volcanic activity. There are many lovely lagoons coloured by the many mineral deposits. First was the wonderful white lagoon, this was where I saw my first flamingoess.
A short distance from this was the gorgeous green lagoon, a little deceptive as this lagoon contains arsenic and is actually toxic.
En route to the next stop we saw some of the native wildlife. The vicuna is actually the smallest member of the camel family. The Incas highly prized its wool and it still sells at high prices. The Vicuna here in the National park are wild.
The foxes here are also very friendly.
After a short stop to see the Salvador Dali mountains
it was time for a soak in a natural hot spring.
A very scenic setting with a beautiful vista and just what my weary traveller’s body needed.
It was also a lovely lunch setting.
The volcanic activity also creates natural geysers. Their power is also harnessed to create energy. Mud pools also bubble away amidst a palette of colorful rocks.
It was then on to the red lagoon, a favourite habitat of the local flamingoes and from where they get their color.
There are 6 species of flamingo in the world and 3 are found in Bolivia, including 2 of the most threatened species.
Baby chicks are born grey or white and their color changes due to their diet of algae, crustaceans and carotene (which makes carrots orange).
The collective name for a group of flamingoes is a flamboyance. They lifespan is between 40-60 years, although 1 flamingo was recorded as reaching the age of 83.
They often stand on one leg to relieve muscle fatigue. They flip their heads upside down to eat and filter out the extra water.
Flamingoes have 19 bones in their necks, compare this with giraffes which have 7, the same as a human. Flamingo tongue was a delicacy in ancient Rome, I’m glad that tradition died out.
There was time for one more photo stop of the beautiful landscape before we left the national park behind.
We then headed for our small hostal (guesthouse) for the evening which was situated in an indigenous village. On these tours you have the option, if you are on a budget to have shared accommodation. Or you can pay a little extra and have private facilities.
We passed more vicuna and llamas along the way. What a fun packed 1st day.
The volcanic activity and erosion have carved out some huge canyons and creative rock formations. Today we visited some of these. It should be pretty easy to spot the camel and with imagination quite a few other things.
There was also time for more wildlife. Off to another lagoon where so many llamas fed on the grass and drank from the water. Unlike the vicuna we saw, these llamas are owned, you can see some of the adornments. They are left to roam and feed in the wide, open spaces.
The llama is the national animal of Bolivia. They are a very important part of life here, providing wool, leather, meat, tallow and their dried dung is used for fuel. Since Inca times they have been used as pack animals. In Quechua culture a llama fetus is buried under the cornerstone of a new house. They believe that by giving the fetus to Pachamama (mother earth) she will in return give them health, wealth and happiness and provide safety in their new home.
On the lake were more beautiful flamingoes.
There was also a short hike to a lovely lake.
After a lovely lunch there were more gorges and a drive past traditional villages.
As well as livestock, most important product in this area is quinoa, it is grown everywhere, it has been since Inca times. We have had it as an accompaniment to food, quinoa soup and today I had it in another form – quinoa beer, much better than putting it in a salad.
Our last shop was in a small village with a craft beer shop. I also tried coca beer. Chewing coca leaves is a ritual in Bolivia, Akulliku is the traditional way of chewing coca leaves, keeping a ball mixed with saliva in the pouch of your cheek. It has been done like this for thousands of years.
It is used to help with altitude sickness, fatigue and many other illnesses. It is also made into tea. As it is a stimulant, the natural version was also used in the early coca cola recipe. The only problem is that from it derives cocaine and Western drug habits affect ancient cultures. Coca leaves are still legal here and the beer was good. Where I am staying in Chile the hostals and guesthouse leave a bowl of coca leaves for travelers to help with altitude sickness and other ailments.
Tonight we stayed at a salt hotel. I’ve stayed at some wonderful places during my travels. This was one of the most unique.
The entire hotel is built from salt, the posts and bathroom are made from coral. Such a beautiful room! Even my bed was made of salt, fortunately not the mattress and pillows too. Wonderful!
Our small group of 5 consisted of: an Italian couple, lovely guys from Brazil and Uruguay and of course me. We got on so well and had a lot of fun. There were many other tour groups but as you have seen from all the photos we managed to get everywhere first and have each experience just for us, it made a big difference.
So today we got to visit the largest salt flats in the world. They stretch for 12,000 square kms and it looks more like snow than salt. It is also 120 meters deep. It is an incredible, impressive sight. All of this was once a sea. Now dormant volcanoes rise out of the salt and incongruously an island full of giant cactus and bird life.
To make the hotels blocks can be cut out, nothing else is needed. The locals here make mounds of salt, dry it out in the sun and make it into table salt which they sell locally and also export.
It was an early start today, we left at 4.30am to watch the sun rise over the salt flats. A chilly start but it soon warmed up and I was soon in my shorts amongst the salt.
We had lots of fun taking funny photos. We then climbed up to the to of the island, passing the gigantic cactus in a variety of shapes, such a contrast against the white vastness.
Breakfast was at the bottom of the island on salt tables and benches also made of salt.
There was also time to take more photos,
our driver providing the dinosaur and me providing my own prop with a Uyeni beer bottle.
There was a visit the salt monument and original salt hotel before we had to say a sad goodbye to the Uyeni salt flats, what an excellent experience.
There was a stop off at the train graveyard, very atmospheric. The trains were built in England, some still had coal in their engines.
There were also some interesting sculptures.
Then we began the long, dusty drive back to our accommodation.
Time to head back to Chile. There have been some long dusty drives. Also some very early starts, yesterday we left at 4.30am and today was 4.20am. My lips are full of blisters with the sun and its reflection on the salt. It was all worth it, for the most magical, incredible trip.
San Pedro de Atacama
A lovely little town, an oasis in the middle of the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. It only receives 1mm of rain a year. There are lots of lovely bars and restaurants and handicrafts.
Things to do
The Valley of the Moon
One of the most popular day trips from San Pedro de Atacama. The colours and textures give it an other wordly appearance.It was here that NASA practiced for their mission to Mars.
It is an excellent place to watch the sun set over the desert with a picnic and a glass of Chilean wine.
To book a sunset trip to the Valley of the Moon:
The Atacama desert is also renowned for being one of the best places in the world for stargazing. One of my favourite trips.
The huge telescope allowed me to have a wonderful close up of the moon but also to see Jupiter and some of its moons, as well as the rings of Saturn.
To book a stargazing tour:
Where to Stay
I stayed at 2 different places before and after my trip both so hospitable, both included breakfast.
The first was:
Family run. I was given a free Sim card and as the pick up was before breakfast hours, the owner made me a pack up breakfast.
The second was:
Hostal Campo Base
Again lovely owner, great hospitality. It had better rooms and facilities but was a little more expensive. There are also hammocks and outdoor seating. A good place to meet other travellers.
I would recommend them both. Book in advance as accommodation gets booked up very quickly. I ended up wasting time wandering around d trying to find somewhere to stay. Some places are very overpriced.
Where to stay Uyuni
This is not the most attractive town and I heard of a couple of bad experiences with accommodation. It is though possible to stay at a wonderful salt hotel which was highly recommended.
Casa Del Sal