Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt pan on earth – is a dry lake that left behind a vast landscape of snow-white salt, rock formations and cactus-covered islands. This special highlight of Bolivia should not be missed on a South America tour! Our blogger Manuela takes you on her journey.
Our adventure journey to the Salar de Uyuni began with the night bus from La Paz. We had already selected our tour provider in advance and so we were welcomed directly at the bus parking lot in the small, dusty little town of Uyuni.
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To the Foreign Office
Jeep tour of the largest salt pan on earth
Gradually, all tour participants trundled in and we were assigned to our drivers. After all the bags were stowed in the jeeps, we went straight to the first known spot of the tour. Just a few kilometers outside of Uyuni, the Cementerio de los Trenes awaits the daily crowds of tourists. The locomotives and railway carriages have been standing on the edge of the salt lake for a good 70 years and you can see it by looking at them.
This was followed by a stop in Colchani. The small town lives mainly from salt production and in one of the backyards we got a brief insight into how the salt is mined with the simplest of means. If you want, you can buy souvenirs here – of course also with salty content.
We got back into the jeeps and continued bumping across the Altiplano plateau . Finally we reached the 10,000 square kilometer salt desert. My visit fell in July and the ground was completely dry. If you are traveling in the rainy season from January to March, you may experience the salt desert as a salt lake, which certainly has its charm.
But now we had the opportunity to use the endless expanse for ourselves and tried some funny photo motifs. The Salar de Uyuni is known for the optical illusions caused by the distances – but photographing it accordingly was not that easy.
Still, just trying it was a lot of fun. When else do you ride an alpaca, run from dinosaurs, or hop out of Pringles cans?
An island on the salt
The jeep drove over the dry ground for what felt like an eternity, but in the distance we could slowly make out our next destination. And one of the few islands in the lake: Isla Incahuasi, which means something like “House of the Chief”. What is special about the rocky elevation are the many cacti that have been growing there for hundreds of years. After paying a small fee, you can explore the island on a path and the light gets really nice just at sunset.
We spent the night in a small hotel on the edge of the desert in Mañica. We all disappeared under the two or three blankets relatively quickly after dinner. The radiant heater provided at least a little warmth on this icy night.
If you want, you can also spend a night in a salt hotel just a few kilometers from Uyuni. The entire building and a large part of the interior are made of blocks of salt. And you are also right in the salt pan itself, so a grandiose starry sky is guaranteed. Definitely a unique experience. The prices are around €100 per night in a double room. It is best to speak to your tour provider about this possibility. Immediately afterwards you can start the rest of the tour.
The two most famous hotels in the region are the Hotel de Sal Luna Salada and the Hotel de Sal Cristal Samaña .
On the trail of the lagoon route
Early the next morning we were all sitting in the jeep ready to leave, after all the first part of the lagoon route was waiting for us. However, a good 100 kilometers separated us from the Laguna Cañapa and we were able to relax.
With refreshing temperatures that just stayed in the single digits, we explored the surrounding area and especially the wildlife around the lagoon. There were some flamingos in the lake just waiting to be photographed by us. The vicunas didn’t dare get so close to the action, but a bit away from the hustle and bustle you could also admire this subspecies of camel.
The next lagoon awaited us not far away. During our visit, there were so many flamingos in the Laguna Hedionda that it would have been impossible to count them. And again and again the unbelievable scenery of the Altiplano in the background. The tour operators also know about this special place and so we got a little refreshment here.
The ritual of driving, getting out, being amazed and taking photos was repeated several times that day. On the further way was the Laguna Honda and the now well-known rock formation Treestone. But also a walk through the other rocks, in the middle of nowhere, had its charm.
Through the Eduardo Avaroa National Park
Arrived at the spectacular pink-red colored Laguna Colorada, we also entered one of the most popular national parks in Bolivia at the same time. The Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa has around 60,000 visitors a year, and the trend is rising! No wonder, because in the border area with Chile there are countless hot springs, geysers, lagoons and active volcanoes.
The huge ‘red lagoon’ fascinated us a little longer, if you like you could also descend to the shore. Algae and minerals are responsible for the striking color of the water, which is only about 1 meter deep. So it’s no wonder that the flamingos appeared even more pink here than elsewhere. Unfortunately, other wild animals such as pumas or Andean foxes are rarely seen in the national park.
The day was slowly coming to an end, but a short stop at the El Tatio geyser field was still possible. The plumes of steam from the geysers assume a more horizontal direction in the wind. Our group was alone on site and I enjoyed this great natural phenomenon.
In Polques we spent the last night of this tour. I can only advise you to wear as much as possible because it was probably the coldest night I have ever experienced. But before that we spent the evening under a gigantic starry sky including many shooting stars in the hot springs in town – maybe I should have just never left the warm water?
Over the last lagoons to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile
On the last day of our tour, the two lagoons Verde and Blanca, which lie at the foot of the Licancabur volcano, were still on the program. However, the colors were not as intense as usual this morning.
We had to say goodbye to our guide and driver at the small border post, because the Bolivian providers are not allowed to drive to Chile. Everything was organized for the onward journey to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and after another 45 minutes’ drive we reached the oasis village in the Atacama desert. The goal and end of our lagoon tour.
Tips for the salt flats
- How to get from La Paz to Uyuni by bus or plane?
We chose to take the night bus from La Paz. In about 9 hours, one of the many comfortable buses will take you directly to the center of Uyuni. You can get the ride from €20 upwards. You can book these online or directly at the De Buses Lapaz terminal . Then I would rather organize the ticket 1-2 days in advance.
The main route of the planes is Uyuni – La Paz and back. 3-4 flights a day are the norm. For a flight from La Paz to Uyuni you have to calculate about 100€. You can be there in less than an hour.
- When is the best time to travel to the Bolivian Salt Flats?
In theory, the Salar de Uyuni is a year-round destination. Due to the heavy rainfall at times and the resulting impassable roads, I would avoid the months of January and February.
In the months of June to August, temperatures fall below 0 degrees. However, I was also traveling in July and only found it uncomfortable at night. Radiant heaters and hot-water bottles that can be rented in the accommodation provide a remedy.
- What does the town of Uyuni have to offer?
The small town of Uyuni doesn’t have much to offer that’s exciting. There are many accommodation options, but hardly any tourist stays more than one night. Around the Plaza Arce you will find many restaurants and cafés, most of which also provide you with free WiFi. So you can bridge the time until the start of the tour with some surfing and breakfast.
- Excursion to the Salt Flats also in the dry season?
If you have a knowledgeable and motivated driver, even in the dry season (May-October) there is sometimes the opportunity to discover lower-lying and therefore still water-covered salt flats. Just ask, a small tip certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
Important facts about the “Salar de Uyuni” tour
- You can start the Lagoon Route and Salar de Uyuni tours in many places, for example in Uyuni, San Pedro de Atacama and Tupiza.
- A special experience is certainly to drive the route on your own. A suitable vehicle and the appropriate experience are essential for this. You can also find the GPS data for the various highlights online .
- There are a number of tour operators, including some black sheep. Be sure to check the ratings on the popular portals before booking. I was traveling with Quechua Connection and felt that I was in good hands.
- During the tour you are almost constantly at over 4,000 meters – so remember to drink a lot and ideally you are already air-conditioned before the tour.
- Depending on the season, it gets really cold in the region and the temperatures often fall into double-digit minus ranges (June-August). So don’t forget to pack the appropriate clothing and, if necessary, take your camera batteries and mobile phone with you under the blanket.
- For the funny photos in the Salar de Uyuni you should buy a few props in advance and familiarize yourself with the camera settings. Unfortunately, time is limited on site.
- Even if the landscapes sometimes seem very dry and appear more like the surface of the moon, with a bit of luck you will meet one or the other animal on the way. Among other things, there are vicuñas, puna flamingos, Andean foxes and the rare capybaras in the region.
- For almost all tours, activities and meals are included in the tour price. Nevertheless, you should carry some cash with you. For the cactus island Incahuasi, the Eduardo Abaroa National Park and the hot springs in Polques you have to expect extra entrance fees and should be prepared accordingly.
Additional tips from the editor:
- On most tours you don’t need to worry about food on the tour: the drivers bring their lunch and you can have a picnic on the way. Breakfast and dinner are at the hotel.
- Internet and good reception are rare – so don’t rely on them and be prepared for internet-free time.
- Since you will be in the car for a long time, it is advisable to have music with you; how about a Spotify road trip playlist?
- If you do not book privately, depending on the booking situation, there are a maximum of six in the jeep plus the driver.