Salar de Uyuni – Discover the beauty of the Bolivian desert

What expects you on a tour to Salar de Uyuni

On my journey through South America I met several backpackers that visited the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. According to them one of the best experiences on their travels. And as word of mouth is always the best indicator for great travel experiences I decided I had to visit Bolivia and especially the vast salt desert of Salar de Uyuni. Looking back this decision was for sure a great one as Salar de Uyuni awaited me with some of the most incredible nature impressions I had in my life. And surprised me with sceneries I certainly did not expect from a tour in the desert.

So, as a short teaser what awaits you? A surreal train graveyard taking you to the last century, crystalline salt flats for miles and miles, an “island” in the center of the desert and breath-taking sunsets. Furthermore, beautiful lagoons in colors you for sure have not seen in any stretch of water before, huge colonies of pink flamingos, trees of rock, an incredible number of stars in the night and volcanic activities in the morning.

Sounds good to you? Then let’s go on a tour to Salar de Uyuni together!

1. The train cemetery - let the trip begin

The first highlight that waits for you on a Salar de Uyuni salt flat tour is the Train Cemetery close to the city of Uyuni. Here, dozens of early 20th century trains and wagons rot in the sun and create a surreal atmosphere. The trains are the remainders of a failed train project. The Bolivian highlands are rich of minerals and raw materials. Uyuni served as central hub towards the Pacific shore. Due to a crisis in mining business and political tensions with the neighbor countries the trains were abandoned. Over the years the salty wind of the Uyuni desert shaped the trains into iron skeletons. 

The old train wrecks are every photographer’s dream. Where else would you find motives like that? So, make sure you have your camera charged.

In the morning hours the area can be quite busy because most salt flat tours start at the same time and have the train cemetery as their first stop. If you want to catch a quieter moment just take a cab and get there early in the morning or around sunset.

2. Entering Salar de Uyuni

I traveled the Salar de Uyuni in the dry season and did experience vast fields of white salt. With entering the salt flats the endlessness feels amazing.  On a height of 3.600 meters above the sea level Salar de Uyuni spreads over an area of more than 10.000 square kilometers. The biggest salt flat in the world was created by the disappearance of prehistoric lakes. In addition to salt the white layer is the biggest known source of lithium in the world. For some years companies are exploiting this material economically in the Southern part of the salt desert. 

The surface of the salt flat is naturally shaped in quite regular polygons. In the flats miles and miles of salt and a clear sky await you. I wondered how the drivers are navigating as there are barely visible landmarks. Our driver Raymundo told me it requires quite some experience to find the right way without the use of modern technology as GPS.

Salar de Uyuni is THE spot to take wonderful pictures. Take your time to take photos and videos as the flat area of the salt desert gives you new opportunities to play with your camera. Be creative and play with the perspectives! With sunset the area transforms into a mystical place. You probably never had a shadow as big as in the Bolivian highlands. Just put on your sunglasses and enjoy the wonderful light show.

Biggest salt flat or biggest mirror in the world? - You decide!

Most time of the year the salt flats are giant plain salt fields with a crystalline structure. This changes in the rain period from December to March. There you can be lucky to observe a special natural highlight. Although there is only an average of 10 days of rain in a year this bit of rain totally shapes the appearance of the salt flats. The flat areas are covered with a small layer of water and change into the biggest mirror in the world. That provides great opportunities for photos. Just keep in mind that in rain season not all tour highlights are accessible due to the flooded plains.

So it is on you to choose – salt flat or giant mirror. Or just visit the Salar de Uyuni twice to get the full experience.

My tipp: Get souvenirs in Bolivia!

Although I am not a big fan of souvenir shopping I would recommend having a look at the local products as the prices in Bolivia are remarkably cheaper than in other South American countries. Most of the tours make a stop in the small village of Colchani, which is located directly next to the salt flats. Here locals sell souvenirs, local products and of course salt of the Salar de Uyuni.

Blog recommended

How to take the best photos in Salar de Uyuni?

For tips and tricks how to get the best pictures in the salt flats I recommend the blog post of my friend Ilona on her blog

3. Isla Incahuasi – a holy “island” in the desert

Isla Incahuasi is located in the center of the salt flats. Although it is of course not a real island you quickly find out why the locals call this area an island. With the big rock formation full of cacti and the flat surroundings it feels like looking on a big and quiet lake. Many of the cacti reach a hight of up to 10 meters. The material is quite stable and on the buildings of Isla Incahuasi you can see that this material can be used for furniture and construction. From the top of the hill you have a beautiful view over the vast salt flats,the surrounding mountains and the Tunupa Volcano located north of Salar de Uyuni.

Incahuasi consists of two Quechua words Inca and huasi. Huasi stands for house, so Incahuasi represents House of the Incas. If you witness the special atmosphere of the rock with the cacti or in the small cave in the center of the hill you know why this is a special place.

For most tours the entrance fee for Isla Incahuasi, which is 30 Bolivianos is not included in the tour price. You are charged while entering the path leading to the top of the rock formation. The walk takes approximately 30 minutes and is nice after a long day in the car.

4. Colorful lagoons and colonies of flamingos

On the second day you will leave Salar de Uyuni towards the South. The highlight of this area are beautiful lagoons. Laguna Honda, Laguna Hedionda and especially the wonderful red Laguna Coloarada await you with large groups of flamingos. When you arrive at the right time of the day you will see why some of the lagoons get colorful names. A high concentration of minerals leads to an intense color you probably have not seen before. The lagoons change their color during the day. The red or green colors are only visible in a certain time slot of the day. Your guide will make sure that you visit the lagoon at the right time of the day.

The salty lagoons cover a huge area but are very shallow. The deepest spot of Laguna Colorada is only 80 centimeters deep. In addition to the different colors of the lakes and the breathtaking surrounding of the Andean mountains you will have the possibility to see different species of flamingos. Our guide Raymundo told us that three different types of flamigos are living in the area – the Chilean, the Andean and the James flamingo. They differ in size and color, but for me it was quite difficult to keep them apart.

The lagoons are part of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. For entering the park visitors have to pay an entrance fee of 100 Bolivianos. The tour providers normally make clear that this entrance fee has to be paid directly to the park administration and is normally not included in the tour price.

5. Rock trees and surreal landscapes

On the way towards the Chilean border you will see the landscape change towards a mountain area shaped by erosion and the strong desert wind. This area is known as Siloli desert. Here you find amazing rock formations with almost surreal structures. The most fascinating is the “Arbol de Piedra” or “Stone Tree”, a rock formation shaped like a tree. Climbing on top of some of the rocks is a great adventure and you will have a wonderful view.

In the rocky areas you might also see some of the cute Viscachas. Those animals with their long ears look similar to rabbits. In fact those two species are not related, the Viscachas have a much closer relationship with Chinchillas. It is amazing how Viscachas survive in the harsh rock surroundings that do not provide lots of food.

6. Volcanic activities in the morning sun

Volcanic activities waited for us early in the morning of the third day. Our guide started the car and brought us to an area of geysirs and volcanic mudholes. When you are there you have the impression the ground is boiling. The geysirs throw water high into the air. Everything is covered with an intense smog with an intense smell of sulfur. 

On the third day a long drive back to Uyuni starts. The good thing about it is that the landscape is diverse and you will see many wild vicunas and domesticated llamas. And you will have a lot of time to think about the wonderful experiences you just made… the salt flat, the island in the center of Salar de Uyuni, the colorful lagoons and huge colonies of flamingos and so much more!

So, get on the road and discover the beauty of the Bolivian desert!

What to bring to make your stay pleasent?

There are some things you should bring with you to make your stay in Salar de Uyuni pleasent. I recommend to bring the following items with you:

  • Bring sunscreen and sunglasses – The desert sun shines strong at an altitude of more than 4000 meters
  • I highly recommend to bring warm clothes, as during the night the temperatures can drop down to -10 degrees Celcius, the temperature changes in the Bolivian desert are incredible
  • Have your electric devices charged, especially your camera or smartphone, I promise you will need them and there are not many possibilities to recharge them – bringing along a power bank might be a good idea
  • Bring some snacks and water, you will get good food at the normal lunch hours but the time in the car can be long

How to get there?

Salar de Uyuni got your heart and you want to go there? Check out the possibilities how to get to Uyuni.

By bus

Coming from LA Paz Uyuni can be reached by night bus. Most of the bus rides start in the evening around 7 or 8 p.m. in the La Paz bus terminal. The ride takes around 10 hours. So you will arrive early in the morning in the center of Uyuni. There are different bus companies going to Uyuni, for example Todo Turismo, Trans Omar of Cruz del Norte. I would not recommend to book online as most online platforms will charge you tourist prices. Instead, better book the bus tickets directly in the La Paz bus terminal. Just look out for boxes with “Uyuni” written on it. Don’t forget, you are in Latin America and most prices are negotiable. So don’t take the first price or you will pay significantly more than the local person sitting next to you.

I recommend to take a bus that offers “Cama” seats in which you can sleep comfortable. Buses with “Cama” seats are a bit more expensive but with that you will arrive relaxed in the morning. Just q quick warning: The roads towards Uyuni are not the best. So expect a bouncy ride. Also the stops on the way for toilet and some food are not the nicest.

Of course also other from other places you can reach Uyuni by bus, e.g. coming from Potosi or Tupiza.

By airplane

Uyuni can also be reached by plane. Two airlines fly towards Uyuni. Amaszonas and Boliviana de Aviacion. Flights are possible from La Paz and Santa Cruz de la Sierra and take around 1 hour. Here I would recommend to book online.

By train

Uyuni is connected to the Bolivian railway system and can be reached by train coming from Oruro. Depending on the day you can take the trains “Expreso del Sur” or “Wara Wara del Sur”.

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