Visit alien landscapes on earth? Ticked!
Know what spine chilling cold literally means? Ticked!
That in a nutshell was our tour of Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats of Uyuni, the biggest salt flats on earth. The reason most travelers venture to Bolivia – the tiny country, smack in the middle of the South american continent. It is not an easy country to get to (or travel through!). But oh-so-worth-it!
First things first. It is important to understand that –
The Uyuni salt flats tour is actually a tour through Southwest Bolivia
Also synonymous to “drive through nowhere”. Particularly, if you start your tour from Tupiza and travel northward to the Uyuni salt flats. It is a four day, three night tour if you start from Tupiza. You visit the Uyuni salt flats only on the fourth day. A fitting grand finale!
Uyuni salt flats tour day 1: Rugged mountain terrain, lamas and villages of a few houses
Before we knew, we were out of Tupiza and into the mountains. Not mountain roads. Right from the start, we realised that in the next four days, we would be seeing few roads.
When we asked Filipe where they got their supplies from, he said they had to drive to Tupiza. And water? We never found the answer to that.
By evening, we reached a village called Pueblo Fantasmo, ghost town. We had gained over a kilometer in elevation, and everyone was starting to feel its effect. We were all asking each other, “Are you feeling giddy?”. A fitting question to ask in a ghost town!
After Pueblo Fantasmo, the elevation gain continued. Our car also had its first river crossing. At a lake called Laguna Morejon a board confirmed we were at 4855 meters above sea level!
Here, we had our first major encounter with the fierce winds. Our thick trousers were fluttering like flags.
Uturuncu, the only active volcano in Bolivia now kept us company. The golden light on its snow capped peaks (the highest in Bolivia, at 6000 meters) gave way to pitch darkness.
Uyuni salt flats tour day 2: Colourful lakes and alien landscapes
The second day of our Salar de Uyuni tour began with a walk over some high altitude ice.
Green lake, with cobalt and arsenic traces. Around noon, when the sun is overhead and there is enough wind (which there certainly was!), the minerals get agitated enough to reflect and green colour! This is the famous Laguna Verde of the tour of the salt flats of Uyuni.
And then we saw these high altitude sulphuric geysers. Yellow and black boiling mud in rocky pits. Vapour and even geysers spurting out from some. The smell of rotten eggs, reminiscent of sulphuric acid experiments in the Chemistry labs of schools wafted through that thin air. As if all of this wasn’t alien enough, in the far background, over the horizon, there were snow mountains!
Uyuni salt flats tour day 3: Rock formations and flamingos
More wind, more high altitude all terrain travel. The regime to step out of our vehicle had now been set. Wear gloves and caps. Zip up all the jackets. Put your hands in the pockets. Expose as little as possible to the elements. Only then, step out and brave the wind.
The landscape and the wind were playing a game of one-upmanship. Who proves more powerful? Does the wind force us to stay inside? Or the landscape compels us to step out?
Uyuni salt flats tour day 4: Salar de Uyuni
Early morning start at 4 AM (Filipe’s words: “I will be leaving with or without you!”) ensured us enough time to get in position for the sunrise. Paying the fees at the entrance of Incahuasi, the only inhabited island of the Salar de Uyuni and climbing up to the top takes some time. The short climb also made us warm and charged up.
over an “island” on the Salar de Uyuni, with nothing around but salt flats! There was something captivating about those whites and blues.
The end of our tour was something of an anticlimax. Uyuni was a dusty little town. We had the last lunch of our tour here.
Our Salar de Uyuni tour family
We had spent just four days together. Our paths might or might never cross again. But we had shared the most incredible days of our lives with them.
The Salar de Uyuni tour had definitely been the highlight of our travel lives so far. And our companions, Pedro, Daletta and Joe will forever be a part of it!
We were filled with gratitude towards Filipe for making it all possible. It was tough for us to convey of our emotions without speaking any Spanish. But some things are beyond words and Felipe probably got that.
Throughout the four day tour of the Uyuni salt flats, we hadn’t seen a single direction sign or landmark. Yet, driving through the desert, with only the mountains and lakes for help, Filipe hadn’t taken one wrong turn. We could only attribute this to him being an exceptional driver.
For sure, when we had asked what his favourite part of the Salar de Uyuni tour was, he had instantly replied, “the drive”!
To drive along the tour of the Uyuni salt flats, we realised the drivers needed not just good driving skills, but also strong endurance. At the end of the day, when we would be resting, all the drivers would be preparing the car for the next day. Unload everyone’s bags and the kitchen stuff. Then refill the fuel tanks with spare fuel that everyone carries. Check the tires and the engine. Do whatever minor repairs need to be done. All this after having driven through back breaking terrain for the entire day. We had a new found respect for Filipe and all his counterparts.
Food and stay during the Uyuni salt flats tour
- The tour company organises the food and stay during the Salar de Uyuni tour. We had no complaints about the food we were given during the tour.
- When you book the tour, you are asked about your preferences, so the tour company can organise accordingly. All the ingredients were carried from Tupiza during our tour. So it is important for the organisers to know your specific requirements beforehand.
- Breakfast is basic – bread, butter, jam/marmalade, tea and coffee. Evening snacks of tea, coffee and biscuits are provided everyday.
- Lunch halts are taken along the way. Except for the third day, we had our lunches in sheltered structures. Basic (really basic!) toilet facilities are available at these lunch halts.
- The food we had during the tour of the Uyuni salt flats is some of the best food we had in Bolivia. Meat, chicken, eggs, milanesa, noodles, rice. Soup, salad and fruits are part of every meal. Once there was even a dessert. And a feast on the last day – lasagna and Bolivian wine! Some snacks to munch along the way are provided. We were all carrying some tit bits as well.
- The most important part here is water. Staying hydrated is the best thing you can do for yourself during the Uyuni salt flats tour. The tour company provides drinking water. As well as hot water once you are back for the day. We would drink almost obnoxious amounts of hot water, with the flavoured tea sachets that Filipe would provide.
- To coca or not?Some of our companions did buy a packet of coca leaves. We were also given coca tea sachets. It will only help having the coca tea.
- Stay arrangements are good. Considering they are “in a land far far away”, the stay arrangements are excellent. Good beds, lots of warm blankets and covers. You can hire sleeping bags from the tour company if you aren’t carrying any. Again, tell them about it before you leave. We didn’t use sleeping bags, but did use our fleece inlays.
- The toilets are clean and there is running water. You might need to carry your own toilet paper. Electricity is available for a few hours, enough to charge the devices.
- Internal heating is absent in Bolivia. The air at the places you stay during the tour of the Uyuni salt flats is as clean as it gets. There is no pollution to increase the temperatures. Yes, it gets cold. Very very cold. Sometimes, the people at the “hostels” will light up a fire. But it will be cold. There will be devilish winds. You will breathe hard. Sleep will not be easy to come!
So, a tour is a must?
- Unless you are highly brave and courageous, the answer is yes! (We did meet a couple of cyclists asking for directions in the four days.)
- The tours from Uyuni are shorter (3 days, 2 nights). Obviously they are cheaper than the ones from Tupiza. If you start from Uyuni, you obviously visit the Salar de Uyuni on the first day. If you are traveling from the north to south, the tour from Uyuni makes more sense.
- From Tupiza, it’s a 4 days, 3 nights tour. The costs are around 50%-100% more than the tours from Uyuni. If you are traveling from the south to the north, starting the tour from Tupiza makes more sense.
- Uyuni or Tupiza? The town of Uyuni is infested with tour companies. We heard numbers from 80 to 200! Tupiza has (and the number is rapidly increasing!) 10-12 tour companies. Choosing from a dozen companies, we felt was better than choosing from tens of companies.
- The stories on the internet about the “drunk drivers of Uyuni” did scare us. But, to be honest, we didn’t meet or hear any any real life instance during our tour of the Uyuni salt flats.
- Enquire the minute details about the tour before you decide. The exact vehicle you will travel in, the driver (whether he speaks your language), your fellow companions (if they speak your language). The amount of drinking water that will be carried. Oxygen cylinders, in case of an emergency.Speak to a person who is answerable at the tour company you choose.
The Salar de Uyuni tour had fulfilled all our wanderlust yearnings
Before the start of the tour, we had imagined the Salar tour to be a relaxing experience. Everything was going to be taken care of, we didn’t have to worry about a thing. Sit in our 4WDs and be driven around. How hard could that be?
How naive we were! The tour of Salar de Uyuni gave us a good lesson, that in front of harsh natural conditions, man made comforts mean nothing. Just the severe cold and the high altitude had tired us out!
When wanderlust strikes, you yearn for drives through endless nothingness. For places that seem too good to be true. Your yearn for the mountains, the rivers, the desert. Our tour to the Uyuni salt flats had given us it all!