The visit of the salt desert of Uyuni upsets our whole ranking of the “best experiences of our world tour”. From now on, the Salar de Uyuni is in 1st place, in front of the Perito Moreno glacier (Argentina) and swimming with sharks in Moorea. Moreover, we visit it at the best time of the year, when the flooded salt desert turns into a giant mirror (mid-January)
Part 1: Travel Diaries
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diaries
Following my problems of mountain sickness, we decide to do only the one day tour to visit the salt desert, instead of taking the 3 day tour which also includes the visit of the lagoons and the South Lipez
What a good decision! I’ll explain why later
We always knew that we had to come here in mid-January, when the salar is flooded but the rain is only temporary. Because visiting the salar when it rains is surely not a pleasant experience, when we know that the favorite game of tourists to the salar is to take pictures by playing with the perspectives. There are contradictory returns as for the visit of the salar between December (where it isn’t sure that there is rain) and February (where it is likely to rain too much), therefore to be quiet, we cut the pear in two and let’s mark in our agenda, as soon as the itinerary of the world tour is established, that we will visit the salar in mid-January. The chance makes that we will visit it exactly on January 15, 2017!
Salty Desert is one of the best agencies in Uyuni (according to TripAdvisor reviews). With our two seats reserved the day before, we go there at 10am to discover an impeccable and surprisingly comfortable jeep, taken care of by Herman, our driver for the day. Herman doesn’t speak English, but his Spanish is understandable enough that we don’t need a translation
As we only travel for one day, there will be no cooking, which frees an extra place for tourists (7 places in total) hence the unbeatable price (160$B – 20€/person), an interesting saving vs. the 3-day tour (500$B)
The agency has already warned us that we wouldn’t go to Incahuasi Island because of the floods, but that we will be taken where there is water to take beautiful pictures. Vamos vamos! It is 10:15 am, we leave 15mn earlier than the other agencies to be the first to arrive in a cemetery of the trains..
…A super cool place where old steam trains are stored. JB has always dreamed of riding one of these machines like in the westerns. His dream came true!
15 minutes later, the place is already invaded by a hundred tourists (just look at the number of jeeps. One jeep = 8 people)
Even if the driver only gives us 20 minutes to visit this place, the 3 Chileans who travel with us have a hard time understanding what 20 minutes means. So we have to wait for them for 35 minutes. Our stressed Parisian side of life takes over, we are more impatient / angry / dissatisfied / worried than the driver. As soon as the Chileans show up, I take charge of yelling at them (in Spanish to make sure they understand), after which they will be on time for the rest of the day
We make a second stop in Colchani where the objective is to sell us souvenirs. However, we will discover houses made of mud and salt bricks. The 50 families who live there earn their living from the exploitation of salt, quinoa and llama breeding (and incidentally from the sale of souvenirs to tourists)
We drive another 25km before reaching the salt desert. The excitement is at its peak. We only see a few poor patches of water here and there shared by 3 jeeps. The mirror effect isn’t there! Hyper disappointed, we wonder if we were not mistaken in the period. Herman asks us if we want to take the pictures right away or it is better to go to lunch at the salt hotel. Everybody agrees to eat first and to take photos elsewhere because the landscapes are a little disappointing for us. Another very good choice on our part (for once we like the Chileans because they have the same objective as us: to see the mirror effect. We did not ask too much for the opinion of the two Chinese travelling with us because they do not understand the question)
We first go to the mini-geysers (rather water springs – cold), created by the evaporation of water to take some pictures
And we arrive at the (old) salt hotel which serves as the HQ for all the jeeps that come here for lunch. As its name indicates, everything is made of salt (table, chair), except the ceiling which is made of salt. As we are one of the first to arrive, we are entitled to a quiet place. While waiting for the driver to prepare lunch, we take pictures
… the salt statue of the Dakar that passed here just a few days ago
… of the old salt hotel and a lot of flags in front of it
Jeeps with a lot of luggage on the roof are the ones that leave for 3-4 days. Those without luggage are those, like us, spending only one day in the salt desert. We are in the minority
Lunch is simple but consistent enough to face this tiring day. Note the super salt chairs and the small soft cushions
After lunch, we discover with horror about fifty jeeps parked in front of the salt hotel. Let’s run away! The driver asks us where we want to go: where there is water or no water at all? The answer is unanimous: agua ! We drive a good small moment before finding a big plate of water. There is absolutely nobody around, we are alone in the world! A few km from there, it rains, and we are super happy because it means that we will have maybe even more water in a few hours
From the first contact with water, those who wear shoes quickly understand that they cannot walk in them. By taking off their shoes and socks, they also realize that it is impossible to walk barefoot. Crystallized salt hurts the feet. Most of our neighbors therefore wear socks. We are already in sandals and flip-flops (because the agency warned us beforehand) so there are no worries to report
Everybody is busy taking more or less artistic pictures, but we are a bit limited by the width of the water plate. The salt isn’t dry enough to make perspective photos
It doesn’t matter, we’re in “test & learn” mode, waiting to go to another more flooded place. Herman takes things in hand and suggests some poses. The best pictures taken in this corner are the following
We then move on to a partially flooded area. It’s better already! There are a lot of clouds but the pictures look good. The view is incredible, we spend a lot of time looking at the landscape, on the left, on the right, on the left, on the right… it’s too beautiful, we don’t get tired of it! (click on the pictures of this article to zoom in)
It’s time to move to a drier place to take pictures by playing with perspective. Herman is equipped with a mat and lies down on the floor to take us some great photos and videos. My iPhone can’t focus in landscape mode, so the photos are a bit blurry. But we have fun like children, that’s the main thing! The Chileans will spend the whole time here to take pictures, while JB plays soccer with Herman
Uyuni’s salar is like that most of the time. It’s very nice, with a cracked surface. When there is sun, it’s all white and it dazzles. However, it doesn’t have the charm of a flooded salar at all. Frankly, I would have been a little disappointed if I came at a time when I could only be shown a totally dry salar (I’m jaded but in reality, we’ve seen so many wonderful things that we are very demanding now)
To wait for the sunset, we end up in a completely flooded area, the water is up to the ankle which discourages our two Chinese tourists who prefer to stay in the car. We have water at 360 degrees and thanks to the flatness of the salt desert, the sky and the mountains reflect perfectly well on the surface of the water, creating an incredible landscape where we can no longer distinguish the horizon. Even though we are digging into our memories, we have never seen such an extraordinary sight. We don’t stop doing “ohhh” “woooow”. The photos don’t do justice (even if they are already very beautiful). How can I explain that? it’s like being in heaven, or in the sky flying, we’re in the clouds, we’re somewhere… but not on earth, do you see what I mean , huh, huh?
Practical exercise: where is the horizon on this picture?
By dint of jumping and walking in hyper salty water, our pants get a little wet and the wet parts become rough as cardboard. Our hands, as soon as they touch too much water, become dry and unpleasant. We also hurt ourselves by pressing our hands on the salt (for the photos). I don’t know how people who go around for 3 days know that they don’t have a shower on the first day
Herman explains that the 3-day tour doesn’t stop here, it’s much too flooded and not great for the jeep. The jeeps that leave for 3 days stop rather at the water patches that we saw at the beginning of the day. So, we are very happy to have chosen the 1 day tour instead because the mirror effect here has NOTHING to do with the one we see on the water plates
The water is motionless, you can no longer see the horizon, the mountains seem to float on the water… it is a timeless, unusual spectacle. Even Herman takes out his phone for the first time of the day to take some pictures, even though he comes here every day. The word “lindo” comes out of his mouth every minute. Lindo in Spanish means “pretty”
JB’s phone bugs completely, the panoramic mode doesn’t manage to find landmarks with a landscape like this. Luckily, my iPhone is still usable in panoramic mode but it doesn’t handle light very well and intensifies the contrast whereas in real life, the landscape before us is much more harmonious
The threatening clouds hide the sun and we leave at 7pm for Uyuni without having a real sunset. Only then the other tourists tell the driver that they have a bus at 8:30 p.m. to La Paz. Hello! If we wanted to wait for the sunset at 7:30 pm, you would have missed your bus!
Night falls very quickly and so does the rain. On the way back, we see no less than 30 thunders striking the salt desert. As there is no construction in the surroundings, it looks like lightning strikes right next to us, which is a little worrying (even if scientifically, there is very little risk because the tires of the car aren’t conductive). We are about twenty jeeps to go back to Uyuni, most of them without putting the lights on (?!! uh, why ?? por qué?)..
We arrive at the agency at 8pm and Herman offers to drop off the Chileans directly at the bus terminal. JB and I give him a small tip to thank him so much he has been so patient and attentive to our needs all day long. We say goodbye to everyone before returning to our hotel, hungry and very tired but with a smile up to our ears
Part 2: Practical Tips
How to come to Uyuni?
- If you are already in Bolivia, it’s very simple, there are plenty of buses (and even trains) serving Uyuni for cheap.
- If you come from Chile (San Pedro de Atacama), I wrote a complete article here
- If you are coming from Argentina, cross the border at La Quiaca and go to Tupiza. Either you start your tour from Tupiza and finish in Uyuni, or you take a bus to Uyuni and do a one day (or 3 day) tour.
About the 1 day tour :
- Departure between 10h15 and 10h30 – Return at 20h (or earlier depending on sunset time)
- it is better to book the day before. 2 people who show up at the agency the same day were turned away.
- Cost: between 160$B and 200$B. 7 people per jeep + driver
- The driver can help take pictures
- Lunch + drinks included
- If access to the Isla Incahuasi is planned, allow about 160$B/person for the entrance
- We highly recommend the Salty Desert agency and especially our driver Herman
- We recommend you to spend a night in Uyuni after the tour because it’s too tiring to take a bus directly to another city, and you will want to take a good shower!
One day or 3 day tour?
Attention, this is only my opinion, I didn’t do the 3 days one but I have enough information to give you my opinion
- Both tours (1 day or 3 days) only spend one day at the Salar de Uyuni, but the 3-day tour allows to go further in the salar.
- The one day tour can take you to more flooded areas (you can’t even imagine the state of the car when 7 people with their feet covered with salt water get into the car), which isn’t possible with the 3 day tour
- Ask about the possibility of taking a shower on the 1st day if you leave for 3 days. It seems to me that this isn’t possible. If you don’t have the possibility to take a shower or to change your clothes the same day, avoid jumping everywhere especially when the salar is flooded.
- Obviously, if you come in June for example, the employee will not be flooded at all, so the two arguments above do not hold anymore
- If you take the one day tour : No risk of mountain sickness, the salar is at the same altitude as Uyuni. If you take the 3 days tour, be careful of mountain sickness (crossing passes at more than 4500m). No jeep seen at the salar is equipped with oxygen tanks
To take with you:
- If the salar is flooded: sandals or flip-flops
- A sweater because it’s cold in the evening
- Lots of sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses
- Lots of battery for the phone/camera
- At least 1L of water/person. Water is only served by the agency at lunch time so please bring water to hydrate yourself (and wash your hands full of salt if necessary).
- Something to snack on
- From the PQ
- Antibacterial gel
Some explanations a little more scientific on the why and how of the creation of the Uyuni salar, its reserves of lithium etc.. : http://nature-extreme.psyblogs.net/2012/04/le-plus-grand-desert-de-sel-le-salar-de.html