One of the ultimate experiences in South America is a tour of the salt flats in Bolivia, called Salar de Uyuni. Typically you spend three days driving through the salar, starting in either Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama. We started on the Chile side, in San Pedro de Atacama.
The pain of booking a salt flats tour
It is incredibly tricky when it comes to booking a tour of the salt flats. The guide book recommended one company that was the most expensive, which doesn’t give you much choice. Almost every one of the tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama offers a tour of the salt flats, and whilst the itinerary rarely changes the prices and quality certain do.
We decided to book in-person at San Pedro rather than online, because there was more choice and we wanted to get a feel for the companies by visiting them. We must have talked to about seven different tour operators and I walked away feeling very overwhelmed with all the information.
In the end, we booked with a company that we wandered into purely on a gut instinct Jonny had. I’m not sure what made him want to check out White World Travel (we hadn’t come across them in our hours of online research), but they seemed the most professional and were the only company to guarantee an English-speaking guide – if we paid extra, of course. We debated this for a while, as paying extra for an English-speaking guide increased the cost substantially, but in the end we went for it. I though it would increase the odds of having other English-speakers in the car, which would be more fun as we wouldn’t spend the three days divided by different languages. I was also anxious about encountering problems, as there are a few horror stories online, and wanted to be able to understand what was happening if anything went wrong. It turned out to be a great decision.
The wonder of the Salar de Uyuni tour
We were picked up early and squeezed into a van with other excited tourists. We were taken to a border office just outside San Pedro, where they stamped us out of the country, and we started our comically slow drive up the mountains to the border. When we eventually arrived, we were given breakfast and then met our driver Oscar, and the three Irish guys who would be sharing our car. With two men over six foot tall, it was a squeeze to fit the five of us in the Jeep and I was very grateful we didn’t have to cramp a sixth person in – some reviews I read said there have even been seven passengers crammed into the cars!
Considering the start of the morning took a good few hours to get going, I was very surprised at how fast the tour kicked off. In no time we had come across the first stop, which was the green lake (so coloured because it has traces of copper that has oxidised in the water, apparently) and in that first day we saw geysers, more coloured lakes and hung out in a thermal pool. My favourite was the red lake which was home to a staggering number of flamingoes and llamas, but I’ll let the pictures show how awesome it was:
When you book the tour, everyone is keen to make you aware of how you spend the first night. They describe the accommodation as a refuge – possibly because its worse than the worst hostels we’ve stayed in. The first day is at altitude, so its really cold, and the refuge has no running hot water so you can’t get warm. Thanks to the charm of our Irish friends, we managed to get a cup of tea after supper to warm up a little, and people on other tours were pretty envoious. It’s the small touches like this that highlight the difference between tours. Sure, we did pay a fair bit more than some other tours, but the little extra bits of luxury meant a lot on that cold night. The most significant differentiator that night was the sleeping bags – we aren’t carrying one with us because we don’t really need one, and we were told a sleeping bag was included in the price but we would need our guide to get them for us. Oscar went to fetch our sleeping bags after dinner, which was a wonderful surprise because I expected that part of the deal to go wrong. I felt bad for the other tourists who were promised sleeping bags but they never materialised.
One of the most incredible things about being at altitude is that the sky and stars seem so close. I went and stood outside for as long as I could stand, which was only a couple of minutes, and stared at the sky. It was absolutely stunning, I have never seen stars so big and bright and I hope the memory of the night sky never leaves me.
But the rest of the night was unbearable. You share a room with the people in your car, which means the room is literally a concrete box with five beds in it. Jonny and I shared a single bed because it was so cold that we needed to all four blankets to get warm. After such a long day we were exhausted, but of course no one slept much that night.
More of the same on day two
I really struggled on the second day. The lack of sleep and the altitude had me groggy and miserable. It was a day of exploring the Salar further; my favourite part was the drive because Oscar could weave his car wherever he liked and it felt like we had total freedom. There was always a car relatively close, so I felt safe, but often we had stretches of total isolation and you could be forgiven for thinking you were alone in the salt flat. We saw a stone shaped like a tree (I still don’t understand the appeal) and saw more lakes, more llamas and flamingos, and got our first taste of the salt flats.
The second evening felt like we were staying in a five star hotel after the refuge experience! We stayed in a salt hotel, where the tables and beds etc are made of salt. We had a warm shower and a steak dinner and a bottle of red wine and felt very civilised.
Oscar gave us a decision to make as a group: would we wake up at 5am for sunrise or wake at 6:30 and get a late start? Jonny and I wanted to see the sunrise, since it was the only time we would ever get the chance to watch the sun rise over the salt flats and we could sleep in the car later if we were tired. Unfortunately the lads outnumbered us and voted for a later start, but I wasn’t too upset when I woke up feeling much better after a proper sleep at lower altitude.
Playing on the salt flats
The final day was my favourite. I loved the cactus island, which is literally an island covered in cacti, and we spent about two hours on the salt flats playing with our cameras an posing for photos. There were so many failed attempts, the outtake photos are hilarious!
As we made our way to Uyuni, the final stop was a train cemetery full of rusting and broken trains. It was a weird but cool place to explore and a fun place to take photos as it was such an unusual sight.
When we arrived in Uyuni we got a bus immediately out of there, as its a pretty empty and dusty town, and headed for Potosi. The highest city in the world would be our next stop for a day and a half, but we ended up leaving early ….