Authored by Anna and Anthony of Green Mochila
Uyuni, the land of wonders, is almost at hand’s reach. We’ve heard so much about it, at every table of every hostel throughout South America.
We’re ecstatic, exhilarated and exquisitely excited. But we’ve also thought long and hard about which tour we should take. Should we stick to the salt flats, or indulge in the 3-day excursion?
Honestly, if we had known about the myriad stunning landscapes we would go through on the 3-day Uyuni tour, it would have saved a lot of time and effort. The South of Bolivia has so much more to it than the salt flats.
Truth is, what you’re about to read is exactly the kind of post we would have needed.
The Otherworldly Landscapes of Uyuni
A Few Things Before We Go
The Uyuni salt flats tour must with no hesitation be inscribed on your Bolivia itinerary. But three things must be said before we head off:
Most tours take the same route. So what we describe in this post is probably true whatever the company you book with. Some companies offer the same itinerary in a reverse loop, if that floats your boat.
The various landscapes of Uyuni can change drastically according to the time of year you visit. The salt flats themselves change from a wide expanse of white in the dry season (June-September) to a gigantic mirror when a thin layer of rain deposits in the wet season (June-March).
We’re describing the landscapes seen on the 3-day loop tour from Uyuni to Uyuni. On a 3 or 4-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), the landscapes are the same, in reverse order. The route taken on a 4-day tour from Tupiza is different, and offers therefore a slightly different scenery.
We have a lot more tips to help you plan the perfect Uyuni tour!
Day 1: Train Cemetery & Salt Flats
The 1st landscape we visit on the tour isn’t the wildest but definitely has a peculiar charm to it.
In a way, it’s really cool that there’s some kind of crescendo in the ooh’s and aah’s triggered by the scenery. The most unique landscapes, as is often the case, are the most remote; those you see only on the final day.
So here we are, at the infamous train cemetery near Uyuni. Those large metal skeletons rusting away under the Bolivian sun were affected to the mines when the mines were in use.
When they closed down, the authorities abandoned the trains to the desert, which in itself is quite a horrendous thing to do. But then they turned them into a tourist attraction – clever choice!
It’s really fun to walk around all the trains, climb inside, play hide and seek and take thousands of photos of those rusty dinosaurs seemingly lost in the vastness of the desert.
The tour moves on to what everybody is here for: the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats on the surface of the planet. It spreads on 10,582 km² (4,086 square miles), which is more than 4 times the size of Luxembourg.
Depending on the season you’re visiting, it feels like walking either on a sea of white or on a giant mirror. This time, we get the mirror.
Either way, there’s a feeling of immensity that is dizzying and would be even overwhelming if it wasn’t for the herd of visitors all around us. But we can step away, lose our mind to the horizon and take many funny perspective pictures.
Don’t forget to bring some props, as we did, thinking we were too cool for that!
We finish the day in another part of the salar to watch the sunset. It’s a moment of real magic – certainly a bit chilly at that high altitude – when the sun embraces the salt flats. It makes us wonder if we ever watched the sun set before.
Day 2: Lakes, Flamingos & Rocks Valley
The first stop on the 2nd day of the tour is at a cosy little lake in the middle of nowhere. A large majority of travellers only take the 1-day tour, so by now, most of the crowds have given up.
We are left with only 2 cars and a dozen of us gawking around. It’s pretty cold in this remote place on top of the high Andean Altiplano, so make sure you pack appropriately warm clothing.
This weather makes it all the more bizarre to observe flamingos dipping their beaks in the shallow waters of the lake. The wind makes us shiver, even through our alpaca jumpers, but we are mesmerised by this otherworldly landscape, on the backdrop of Volcan Charaguay.
The next stop on the tour is a valley of strange rock formations aptly named Valle de Rocas. It goes as far as the eye can see on both sides of the road, and the game is to make out animals out of the shapes.
The more sacred, the better: so if you find an eagle, a puma and a snake in a row, you win.
I really like climbing those low rocks and hopping from one to the other. I’m happy we have enough time to walk away on our own and leave the group behind for a bit.
This might not be the most stunning landscape on the tour, but it’s probably one of the most captivating.
In the evening, we reach the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Nature Reserve; this is where we’ll spend the night and part of the next day.
We are welcomed by the surprising colour of the Laguna Colorada, a lake of red waters of peaceful and inspiring beauty.
Day 3: Geysers, Hot pools & More Crazy rocks
We’re off to an early start on the morning after and we’re very excited: we’re going to the geysers! I’ve always been intrigued by geysers and had never had the chance to see one until this backpacking trip through South America.
The first ones I saw were in the Atacama desert in Chile, but these ones feel different. We’re just a handful of people here, and it feels more “Bolivian” in a way; meaning there’s absolutely no fence or anything to protect you from falling into that burbling pool of boiling sulphur.
That’s one of the things to know before backpacking in Bolivia.
There’s really something magical about that fuming landscape in the chiaroscuro light of the early morning. Something that no photo can really fully express.
We then move on to a relaxing bath in the natural hot pools of Termas de Polques. After that, the rest of the day just whizzes by. Tired after the freezing night and the early start, we just hop from one stop to the other on the long car drive that brings us back to the town of Uyuni.
On our way, we stop at another valley of fantastic rocks, taller than the ones from the previous day. The star here is a lonely rock called Arbol de Piedra because it vaguely looks like a tree.
These formations are not as fun as those from the previous day, but they’re somewhat more imposing. Thinking how the wind and the rain had to work to create those carvings, we feel small in the grand scheme of Nature.
Lakes with Mountains
The 4×4 traces its path through the monotonous desert. Every time we think we’ve seen it all comes up a new otherworldly sight.
We are brought to a series of lakes, each one prettier and more remote than the next. The flamingos don’t mind us, probably less amazed than we are at this surreal landscape.
Volcano Ollagüe greets us, along with, during most of the day, the majestic silhouette of the Andes mountains in the distance. It’s good we’re almost back to the real life waiting for us in town – I’m running out of superlatives!
There’s really no reason to skip Uyuni during a visit to Bolivia. We hope this introduction to the various landscapes of Uyuni has convinced you!