Despite the guidebooks uniformity listing Salar de Uyuni as a top highlight of South America, I was initially planning on skipping it. That would have been a big mistake. But after the Jungle trip, three more days in a car sounded miserable. To top it off, the interwebs is awash with stories of drunk drivers, sub-standard accommodations, and warnings to bring your own provisions. Hmm, this didn’t sound so fun.
Had our travels played out as planned, and we done three days instead of five in the jungle, I probably would have been in Spanish classes instead. When the boys decided to descend from the altitude and head to Brazil, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the route south through Chile. So I decided to hit the gringo route south through the Salar. I cheated and took a flight to Sucre (1 hour flight, 12 hour bus), spent a few days in this pretty colonial town, and then took public transit (shared taxi to Potosi, bus to Uyuni) to find a tour in Uyuni. I’ll cover Sure, La Paz, and Quito in a future post.
Booking a Salar Tour:
I picked the wrong time to get to Uyuni, the frontier outpost where Salar tours leave from. The bus dropped me off at noon, right as everyone was closing for siesta. So I decided to find a hostel instead. After finding only top bunks available at the only recommended hostel I could find, I decided to go nearby to a budget hotel with private rooms noted in the guidebook for its hot showers and in room heaters. Temperatures were freezing at night, and the heat came in handy.
A quick summary of the town – there is absolutely no reason to stay overnight in Uyuni, if you can take the overnight bus from La Paz, and make the 10:30 am Salar departures, do not come early.
I headed out at 3 p.m. trying to find three tour offices. You have to remember that in South America, there are no websites for most these places, and no signs displaying any kind of hours. Also, Google Maps often has the address, but places the dot at the wrong place on the map. So there ends up being a lot of walking in circles.
The first place I stopped only did private tours, which may have been good with 6 people, but for one, was too expensive and would have been boring. It did stay at lux lodges with Internet and power. If you are going, may be worth arranging a tour if there is a large group. More information here.
The second place wasn’t open, and didn’t apparently end up opening until around 7 p.m. when they returned an email and said to come by (by then too late). The third was just right. Red Planet tours was noted online for being a bit more comfortable, with safe drivers. I ran into a US-based Brazilian woman who had just gotten off the tour and she raved so I signed up. The total price, including Chilean transfer was $190 USD for the three days. This is apparently on the higher end, but definitely worth it for the upgraded accommodations and good guides.
We had a great three days. The group consisted of four vehicles, most with five or six people and a guide or driver. We had five and a driver, so it was relatively comfortable and no one had to have a middle seat. All the tours use old Land Cruisers. The groups divided for meals and guides into two car groups. We had a great group of 20 and 30 somethings from around the world, including Switzerland, Austria, the US, the U.K., and Australia.
So what is the Salar? It is the world largest salt flat, a remnant of an ancient lake. It is extremely flat and beautiful. Apparently it also has half the worlds lithium, which they are in the process of finding a way to abstract. It is also a photographer’s wonderland, and I wished we had more time to get the perfect shot. The reflective photos are taken in the rainy season, so we were unable to get shots like those you see in this Wikipedia site.
The first day visited three main sights, the train graveyard, the Salar itself, and an island. Each was interesting, and worthwhile, it was really the highlight of the three day trip.
The Train Graveyard:
The Salar and Island:
The first night accommodations were really cool. A hostel made almost entirely of salt. We had dinner and everyone turned in early given the 6 a.m. wake up the next day.
Day two was the driving day, we were on the road from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. making stops along the way. This day was very very cold. I made great use of the alpaca leg warmers, hat and gloves. Did I mention we were at 4’000-5’000 meters! This was outside the Salar and in the Antiplano. We were able to see animal life, including flamingos and llamas.
Some of the stops were a bit boring and repetitive, but overall the landscape was beautiful. We saw impressively colored lagoons and active volcanos.
The second night was much more basic accommodations. The rooms were hostel style (four to a room), and there was only one quasi functioning bathroom for 20+ of us. We only had electricity for a few hours. The lone saving point was that there was a natural hot springs 200m from the hotel and we had it for the night, a key benefit of Red Planet. After dinner we spent a few hours enjoying the best stargazing from the hot springs. We say other groups passing through at 6 a.m., and were very happy with our time slot.
That night was bitter cold. My hair froze on the walk back. It was still wet and cold in the morning. However the sleeping bags provided by Red Planet did the trick. Food was a bit lack luster, but we knew we were almost out of Bolivia and Chilean food awaited us the next day.
If you are going to Chile, Day 3 is awesome. You essentially are a few hours from the border, so rather than a seven hour drive back through the same scenery, but noon you are in San Pedro de Atacama – an amazing vacation town in northern Chile. We were all thrilled with our choice as we crossed the border and got out of the Land Cruisers.
Know if you go:
Both Red Planet lodges serve beer and wine. The first even had Huari (the better local beer). Bring some snacks, but you don’t need much, you will be well provided for, you can ignore the internet prep guides. Do bring a roll of toilet paper, flashlight/headlamp, two liter of water, and a bottle of wine or your drink of choice if you are particular. Most importantly, bring warm clothes and a good camera! Hiking boots are not needed, tennis shoes with warm socks were fine. Research Salar photos before you go, for example, there are some cool things you can do with Pringles cans (do a Google image search).
There was plenty of electricity at each lodge for one plug each. The second night only had a few hours of electricity. Bring a power brick for your phone if you want to take pictures or video. In general, bring a power brick. Outlets are few and far between down here in hostels, and it is great to be able to charge a phone in your bed even if no outlet nearby.
Make sure not to do round trip Uyuni. The easiest route is Uyuni to San Pedro, but you can go the other way if you are working your way north.