A three-day tour of the Bolivian salt flats was what I was looking forward to the most in South America. Many people are familiar with those cheesy perspective photos all backpackers are guilty of… think of the Instagram opportunities! I could. not. wait.(image)
I admit I didn’t pay too much attention to what the rest of the tour involved, and didn’t even realise that the visit to Salar de Uyuni would account for just one afternoon of the three days. The salt flats were great, and loads of fun… but compared to the simply jaw-dropping landscapes we encountered over the next two days, they were soon overshadowed. Sorry salty.
We steadily climbed to 5,000 metres above sea level over the three days, visiting abandoned rail lines, bubbling volcanic craters, Andean lagoons crowded with flamingoes, hidden green valleys, spectacular lakes and deserts.
The scenery transformed entirely every few hours, becoming more and more otherworldly – at some points it was not recognisable to me as anything I’d encountered before on earth, while elsewhere it felt like walking into a surreal painting.
We stayed in a salt hotel the first night, and a family-run hostel the second. Both accommodations were very basic – but the owners warm and welcoming, and the food simply but tasty.
One thing to brace yourself for in remote Bolivia is the sanitary situation. The toilets are not ideal, and seemed to get worse with every stop. There were incidents where I tied my jacket over my face in an attempt to block the smell, and almost always left retching. Some public rest stops have attendants charging for toilet paper, but its always a good idea to bring plenty of your own, plus a lot of hand sanitiser.
Good to know: What to bring on a salt flats tour…
Layers – at the high altitude, there are hot days and very cold nights. Keep lots of layers in your day bag to add and remove clothing as needed throughout the day
Snacks – There are a number of opportunities to purchase snacks, but it’s primarily junk food, and after three days I was craving something a bit more nutritious. Muesli, bananas, rice crackers, and nuts are good to bring along with the usual chips and chocolate
Water – Bring a lot of water – for drinking, brushing teeth and washing hands
Toiletries – hand sanitizer, toilet paper and baby wipes are essential. The rest stops, as mentioned above, are not the best, and the showers weren’t working at both the hostels when we visited. Baby wipes will be your best friend
Altitude sickness preventative measures – I’ll go into more detail on this subject in an upcoming post. You never know how it will hit you, so it’s best to be prepared
There are plenty of tour operators operating out of Uyuni, and if you wait to book your tour there, instead of ahead of time, you can get a good deal. But I would highly recommend going with a reputable company.
We chose Red Planet Expeditions, and were very happy that we did. Bumping into plenty of other groups along the way, we always seemed to have the nicest and least-crowded vehicles. Some operators don’t put safety first above profit, and the food and accommodation can be dire.^Helping out a stranded group we passed by on the salt flats (I assisted by documenting the moment)
Small things made the difference. Our itinerary was arranged so we would stay at the hostel with hot springs overnight, so we were able to enjoy the hot springs under the (shooting) stars at our leisure, while other groups had to rise at 4am to get to swim in the hot springs for an hour while we had breakfast and headed on our way. Our tour guide was fantastic, our driver hilarious, with an excellent playlist. I highly recommend booking with Red Planet.
I’d love to return to do another tour in the wet season (February – March), when the expanse of salt flats are covered in water and spectacularly reflect the sky.
This is definitely one for your bucket list.