There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.
We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.
The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.
After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.
Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.
Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.
The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.
The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.
All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.
Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!
See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.