Salar de Uyuni: 10,000 Kilometers of Salt

When will I remember that time in nature heals all?

My posts lately have reflected my frustration, exhaustion, and general malaise. I won't pretend that April has been easy. I truly love Bolivia, but it isn't easy to live here and I've felt the strain.

Nothing has changed about the things I've found difficult. The internet is still slow, the polluted air still burns my nose and gives me a constant headache, the workspace is still loud, I still have to be ultra careful about what I eat because food poisoning happens on the regular, everything in my apartment is still cold and slightly damp, and I have yet to find a place with heat (I'm wearing a puffy coat and scarf indoors - brrrr).

But my resilience is back. Those "developing world" problems started to get to me after a few months in South America, but they don't bother me at the moment. Only because I got out of the city and spent time in nature. It's crucial. I've got to remember that, every time I'm struggling. 

This particular nature adventure took me and 20 friends to the Salar de Uyuni - 10,582 square kilometers of salt flats in Southwest Bolivia.

 

It looks like snow. It sounds like ice under your feet. But it isn't - it's salt. Miles and miles of salt. Walk 50 paces from your friends, and it feels like you're the only person in the universe. The scale of this place is mindblowing. It's 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and a little smaller than the state of Connecticut. 

 

A little background

The Salar de Uyuni was once underwater, part of a prehistoric saltwater lake. Most of the rocks in the area are layers of coral, which is a fascinating remnant of the Andes' geological history.

Uyuni is part of the Altiplano, the high plains, situated on top of a massive plateau in the Andes. The elevation here is approximately 12,000 feet. That's really high.

 

My favorites of what we Did

The salt flats are cool, but there's only so much time you can spend frolicking on a massive expanse of salt. Our tour was two days. Trust me - you don't want to spend two days looking at salt and nothing else. After a while, you crave a little variety. 

The train cemetery

You read that right. There's a graveyard of trains next to the salt flats. Most of these trains are from the 19th century, were once steam powered, and come from all over the world. It's a veritable playground - nothing is roped off, and visitors are encouraged to climb inside (and on top of) the relics. 

Which, of course, we did.

When I travel, I'm continually amazed by the lack of barriers and ropes that would certainly exist in the United States. A train graveyard in America would likely involve a very dignified walk through the trains with a tour guide, but no touching and definitely no climbing, you ANIMAL!

Not in South America. Down here, you're free to play amongst the history. 

 

Isla Incahuasi

This "island" in the middle of the salt flats was a true highlight for me. It's covered in giant cacti, some of which are thousands of years old. I found it surreal to stand next to a cactus that towered above me and recognize that it's several times the age of the United States. 

These cacti grow approximately one centimeter per year. Jeff is 2 meters tall, for scale. Imagine how old this cactus must be.

Isla Incahuasi exists as its own ecosystem. The flora are, of course, ancient - but the fauna are trapped. Nothing can cross the expanse of salt to get in or out. The species are limited, but they certainly exist.

Giant cacti at Isla Incahuasi, with the Salar de Uyuni in the background

Giant cacti at Isla Incahuasi, with the Salar de Uyuni in the background

At the base of the island, we got to hug a llama. I love these goofy creatures so much. I felt like all of my dreams were coming true as I hugged his neck and snuggled his little face. 

I want one. Or three.

 

Tunupa Volcano

My first volcano! Don't worry mom, it's a very dormant volcano and hasn't erupted in 1.5 million years. But I would have climbed it regardless.

On the Salar de Uyuni with Tunupa in the background. Note the geometric shapes in the salt.

On the Salar de Uyuni with Tunupa in the background. Note the geometric shapes in the salt.

Tunupa is more than just a pretty mountain. There's a tiny village at the base, complete with a museum of artifacts like pottery and arrowheads and a graveyard with two mummies.

Yes. Mummies. I saw two mummies.

The museum has a collection of pots, which were once used to store said mummies. It's a tiny bit creepy and really fascinating.

Tunupa & the mummy pots

Tunupa & the mummy pots

We also saw a few plots of quinoa plants - which are gorgeous and look nothing like I'd imagine. If you look closely in the above picture, you can see a red spot on the left side of the hill, just below the volcano. That's quinoa.

Quinoa up close.

Quinoa up close.

 

Getting There

You have two options from La Paz: an overnight bus ($85 USD round trip) or a flight ($80-120 per leg). The bus takes at least 10 hours and traverses mostly unpaved roads. The flight takes 45 minutes and they give you a peach juice box.

I felt a bit silly, booking a 10-hour bus ride two days after a 27-hour travel day from Montreal. And it was silly. If you go to Salar de Uyuni from La Paz and aren't on a strict budget - FLY. Don't take the 10-hour night bus. Spend $100 more and take the 45-minute flight.

I flew on the way home (BoA airlines) and it allowed me to end the adventure on a happy note, not a frustrating one. I also got to see the salt flats from above.

Seriously, fly if you can afford it.

NOTE: make sure to bring your passport and the green slip you get when you enter Bolivia (with your entry stamp). You'll need both to check into your flight - even though it's domestic.

 

Where to stay

Book a tour that includes a stay at the Palacio del Sal - the world's first hotel made entirely out of salt. The walls, the couches, the bed frames, the ceilings - all salt. It's seriously cool and very comfortable (hot showers - like actual hot water, not lukewarm!! and heated beds!). The Palacio del Sal was a decidedly luxe refresher after a long day of adventure.

And the food at the Palacio del Sal? On point. I'm still thinking about that tiramisu. 

 

What to Pack

The essentials:

  • Sunglasses. This really isn't optional because the sun's reflection on the expanse of white is intense. It legitimately hurts to be outside without sunglasses at the Salar.
  • Sunscreen. Reapply every hour. See above.
  • Layers. It's a desert: warm during the day and very cold at night. I recommend technical clothing (I wore running clothes and wool socks). I got sweaty during the day, but the temperature drops quickly and quick-dry fabrics become necessary. 
  • Water. We packed approximately a liter per day per person and that was just about right.
  • A camera (or camera phone).
  • A rain jacket. The weather changes on the dime. I love my Marmot Precip - it has armpit zippers (necessary) and packs into a pocket.
  • Comfortable shoes that can get dirty. I wore my Mizuno running shoes all weekend, and they were perfect. You don't need hiking boots.
  • Cash. I used approximately 150 Bolivianos for breakfast, airport tax, a tip for the tour driver, bathroom tolls (yes really), and a salt crystal souvenir from the market. Bring more if your tour doesn't cover tolls and entrance fees.

Other things:

  • A swimsuit, if your tour includes the hot springs (ours didn't).
  • Props for perspective-bending pictures, like llama figurines, plastic dinosaurs, gummy bears, and Pringles cans.
  • Snacks. Pringles and Oreos were our go-tos. Don't judge, it's "vacation."
  • Hand sanitizer, for when you snuggle a llama and have lunch immediately afterward.
  • Sleep stuff like a travel pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs if you take the bus. It's a rough trip. Don't make it worse on yourself.

 

Can you do it on your own?

I'm usually a fan of skipping the tour company and doing something on my own. Don't do that at the salt flats. The flats are massive and you have no landmarks, save for the distant mountains and the sky. If you try to drive over them without a local, you will almost certainly get lost and maybe die. Just book a tour.

We used a company called Turibus and HIGHLY recommend it. The tour guide spoke perfect English, the pace was exactly right, the activities were varied, the drivers were really nice, the food was amazing (some of the best food I've eaten on the continent), and we had an amazing time. 

Our two-day tour cost $230 per person and included everything except transport to Uyuni.

 

Final Verdict

I originally decided to bite the bullet and take this trip for two reasons:

  1. I've never seen anything like this place
  2. I doubt I'll return to Bolivia in order to visit the Salar - so it felt like now or never.

Worth it, if you're planning a trip to Bolivia? Definitely. 

I'll leave you with two new favorite pictures of my and my guy. Warning: swoonyness ahead.


 

Taylor Coil is traveling the world with Remote Year, living in 12 countries in 12 months, while working as a marketing manager. Follow along to read more philosophies on work, stories from the road, and general (mis)adventures. Sign up for the weekly email or read more from the blog.