Thursday, October 24, 2013

Touring the Salar de Uyuni & National Reserve in Southern Bolivia

My visit to the Salar de Uyuni and surrounding areas remains one of the most incredible experiences I've been fortunate enough to have in the first month of this year-long adventure… and it wasn't even something I had in mind to visit when I first planned my trip.  Fortunately, I met a number of people along the way who encouraged me to visit Bolivia, especially the salt flats, and after just a bit of research and looking through some friends' photos, I was convinced.  I met my friend Stephanie on a bus to Copacabana, and after traveling around Bolivia for a week together, we decided to make our way towards the salt flats and book a tour together.  We arrived in Uyuni midday on the 14th, having left ourselves plenty of time to find a room for the night and visit plenty of tour operators to compare and select one for the following day.  As it turned out, finding a place to sleep took longer than finding our tour operator!  We settled on Hotel Avenida (double room without bathroom, without heat, without wifi - finding a place with wifi requires a significant increase to your budget in Uyuni - for 35 Bolivianos each (~$5)… not bad considering a hostel down the street wanted 60 for a dorm room without heat, bathroom, or wifi).  

As for finding a tour, we walked straight into the Cordillera Traveller office (which was one of three recommended by our guide books, and was also recommended by friends), were explained in a very straightforward manner the exact path of the trip, what we would see, where we would stay, what was and was not included, and were quoted a price right in line with our expectations.  And when we asked if they would throw in a free sleeping bag rental for each of us, they were happy to.  We probably would have left to compare other operators, but at that moment, a group arrived from the end of their trip, beaming and going on about how wonderful it was, how great the company was, and how we should definitely go with them.  That sealed the deal for us, and we went ahead and confirmed our trip, leaving the rest of the afternoon free to relax and get ready for the next day.

Day 1

Our first day of the tour began by piling into our respective 4x4s and meeting our fellow passengers.  We had six passengers and a driver in each of two cars on our tour.  In mine?  Myself, and five French people (Stephanie, and two couples).  Which was really the only downside of the entire trip… I was in a car that spoke French 90% of the time.  And sadly, I don't speak French.  

Our first stop was the Train Graveyard outside Uyuni, a series of rusted old locomotives that we could climb over and through, that provided great texture for photographs.  Next, we headed over to the real focus of day 1:  the salt flats.  We started in an area where there were giant piles of salt had been created, then moved onto the endless flats.  Stephanie and I took our time posing for goofy photos utilizing the depth of the flats, while all of our fellow passengers looked at us like we were crazy.  Until we showed them the photos, and they were dying to do the same!  

We stayed for about half an hour taking in the unique landscape (white below and blue above, as far as the eye can see) before piling back into the 4x4s to drive to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of volcanic rock in the middle of the salt desert, filled with giant cacti.  We had a full hour to explore, and we quickly scrambled to the top of the volcanic rock, overlooking the almost endless sea of salt below, with occasional 4x4s zipping by, small as ants from our perch.  The view was breathtaking…  

We had plenty of time after our visit to the island to make it to the hotel by dark, so we found another great spot on the flats where the hexagonal shapes created in the ground by the salt were clearly visible, and went about playing (now everyone was in on the goofy photo set ups, so we were getting more creative) for the next hour or so, until the wind became too strong and we were chilled through, with ruddy windblown faces, and enormous grins like schoolkids on a snow day.  Our first hotel was in a spot called San Juan, and the hotel was made almost entirely of salt.  Salt brick walls, salt block tables and chairs, and crushed salt on the floors.  We sat down to a snack of hot drinks and crackers just as the sun was setting, and we wondered where our second carload of passengers were… The question was answered almost two hours later when they stumbled in - their car had actually tipped over (slowly, thankfully, as they had been slowly navigating around a pothole or pile of sand), and our driver had to go and rescue them and their belongings, get them checked out at a doctor (thankfully everyone was fine), and bring them to the hotel.  Yikes!  

Day 2

Day two of our tour began with a long drive through the desert towards Ollagüe Volcano, passing a set of train tracks, and stopping to watch a freight train zip by.  Past the volcano, we stopped in an area with hills of volcanic rock, allowing us the perfect viewpoint of the volcano, where we actually saw some smoke slowly streaming upwards.  Next we made stops at a series of lagoons, water the color of the Caribbean, crystal teal blue, with white areas that we were told were calcium deposits.  Most importantly, these lagoons contained… wild flamingos!!  We were so enthralled watching them, at each and every stop, seeing the various shades of pink, catching a few in flight, exposing their black tipped wings as they soared from one end of the lagoon to the other.  We stayed for a long while, despite heavy, cold wind, at the first lagoon, absolutely enthralled with the flamingos and the wild vicuña - a protected member of the llama / alpaca family that resembled a cross between a deer and a llama.  We sat down for lunch at the third and least populated of these lagoons, eating away as a very persistent seagull sat nearby, stuck to a single spot, staring at us for the entire meal.  He didn't know what to do with himself when we finally started tossing him leftovers!  

We continued our drive through deserts of red sand with tufts of yellow grasses, passing enormous mountain rises on either side in amazing arrays of color - reds and oranges with accents or purple or yellow and green.  We stopped briefly in an incredibly windy area to take in the 360 degree view of the mountains and the deserts, then continued on to a massive volcanic rock boulder field that featured the Árbol de Piedra, or "stone tree", a tornado-shaped, tree-like structure of rock with a slim base expanding out to a triangular funnel shape on top.  We took photos of the stone tree and explored the boulder field - what I wouldn't have given for a pair of climbing shoes and a crash pad!!  One of the other guys in our car was also a climber, so we wandered around trying out the beginnings of some boulder problems, pointing out the fantastic lines and flakes that made up the boulders.  

After tearing ourselves away from the volcanic boulders, our car continued on to the official entrance of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve).  After paying our entrance fee, we drove to another massive lagoon - the Laguna Colorada, which looked absolutely out of this world… The water is mostly rust-colored (not unlike tomato soup), banked by tufts of yellow grass, with a volcano looming in the background, and flamingos dotting the entire expanse of the lagoon.  We stayed there for a long while, taking in the breathtaking landscape.  It was one of those moments where I truly appreciated the choice I had made to pursue this lifestyle, taking this chance to journey around the world.  I had quite a few of those moments of appreciation and awe during this short trip!!

We finished off our second day at a nearby hotel where we enjoyed laughs, stories, and brain teasers with our companion carload (who all arrived safe and sound, thankfully), before turning in to our rooms - each carload shared a single room (six twin beds in each), and the night was absolutely frigid.  I was so thankful for that rented sleeping bag - I slept inside my silk sleeping bag liner, inside the rented bag (which was fleece-lined), in the bed under a pile of wool blankets, dressed in leggings, wool socks, and a merino wool long sleeved shirt, and I was still a bit chilled.

Day 3

We awoke on day three before the sun, and as we got off to a bit of a late start, the sun was just peeking over the horizon as we left, bathing the sky and the surrounding mountains in soft glows of pink and purple and orange.  We continued up to our highest altitude point in the trip - 5000 m (16,404 ft) - to view a set of geysers.  Steam poured from the geysers in the freezing morning air, looking beautiful and eerie in the early morning light, stinking of sulfur.  We didn't stay long due to the cold, but made one more brief stop to photograph some ice fields we kept passing at the altitude.  They were large, thin planes of ice, arranged in rows like gravestones of white and blue.  They were both bizarre and fascinatingly beautiful.

After a quick descent, we rearranged our itinerary a bit (our driver was truly wonderful at arranging our schedule to ensure we had plenty of time at all the best stops while avoiding the other cars and crowds as much as possible, as well as pulling over whenever we begged to take a quick photo of a block of ice, or a llama, or anything else we spotted along the way), and headed straight to Laguna Verde.  This lagoon was a much deeper, more striking shade of dark teal than any of the lagoons we had seen the day before, and the Licancabur volcano was a presence behind it.  

We didn't stay long due to the bitterly cold, high winds, and headed next to the Salvador Dali Desert, so named because of the bizarrely shaped boulders randomly dotting the far end of the red powdery desert, resembling a Dali painting.  By contrast, there was absolutely no wind here (the desert was surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides - some snow-capped, others softly streaked with oranges, reds, and violet), resulting in a pleasantly calm, peaceful spot.  We each wandered off in separate directions, enjoying the quiet as we made our way across the red sand, resembling moon dust with volcanic pebbles along the surface.  

After the Dali Desert, we had a full luxurious hour to enjoy the hot springs, soaking in the hot, refreshing water as we took in the surrounding mountains and lagoons, all to ourselves.  And it was so nice to have been there after all those cold, windy stops earlier!  

We enjoyed a quick lunch back at our hotel after the hot springs, leaving the national park from there to head back towards Uyuni.  Thankfully we still had some gorgeous scenery and fun stops along the way to break up the long drive.  As we left the park, the scenery slowly changed to green, as we wound our way down between two mountains, along a stream flanked by grass and coated with green moss and algae, we spotted dozens of llamas grazing along the roadside.  Eventually we made our way to another large outcrop of volcanic rock, and we happily hopped out of the car to play on the boulders.  A few of these were even small enough to create routes where we could top out!  Though it was a bit challenging to climb boulder problems in trail shoes, we still had a blast finding and working on the small problems.  Aside from quickly pulling over to take a photo of a "llama crossing" sign, we had one last stop before our arrival in Uyuni to wander through the town of San Cristobal for a few minutes.

We made it back to Uyuni safely around 5:30 that evening, said our thank yous and goodbyes, and were able to spend a few hours packing up, grabbing one last dinner with an Australian couple from the other car, picking up postcards and checking emails, before we were off to our next city, Tupiza, where we promised ourselves we would rest and relax.  Though the last few days had been an absolute whirlwind, they were beyond incredible.  I'm certain this little tour will be one of the brightest spots of my time in South America - it's hard to imagine topping some of the things I saw during those three days for some time.  Though who knows, I'm still yet to see Easter Island or Patagonia :)  We'll see!


  1. Uyuni must be such a cool experience. Your photos look like so much fun :) I hope I will be soon able to visit it too ;)

  2. Ahhhh, I'm crazy jealous! That looks so cool

  3. Absolutely breathtaking!!!!!!!! Thank you for sharing!