Traveling the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia is, at times, a bruising, spartan experience; but the 3-4 day jeep tour (which has become Bolivia’s number 1 tourist attraction) also exposes you to breathtaking sights, as natural wonder after natural wonder drifts past the window of your dusty, uncomfortable jeep. This pleasure-pain combination would be an odd dichotomy, were it not a perfect reflection of Bolivia itself.
I’ve spent a month travelling through Bolivia, journeying from the shimmering heights of Lake Titicaca and cosmopolitan La Paz to the steamy Amazonian depths of jungle suburbs Rurrenabaque and Reyes. I’ve jetted over the Cordilleras to bustling Cochabamba, and seen both halves of the colonial legacy, walking the pristine streets of Sucre before visiting the silver mining town of Potosi, where thousands lost their lives to bankroll the Spanish empire (and hundreds more still work in disgusting conditions today). Finally I arrived in the South West of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and Sundance eventually holed out. Here, among the cacti and copper-coloured earth, I toured the incredible desert-meets-glacier landscapes, on horseback and jeep, before seeing the sun rise over the other-worldly salt flats of Uyuni. It was a month of extremes: the most basic hospitality, biggest markets, highest altitudes, lowest sleeping temperatures, most starch on-a-plate, worst roads and most contrasting panoramas that I had ever seen, felt and experienced.
So it came as no surprise to me, then, that tourists wanting to see the Salar de Uyuni salt flats have to be prepared to rough it a bit, because in Bolivia, any smooth comes with an almighty helping of rough…
Tupiza trumps Uyuni
Firstly, we decided not to start from the entirely unremarkable town of Uyuni. This is the most popular (and cheapest) starting point for the ‘South West Circuit’, but all the competition doesn’t seem to be good news for visitors. Standards are slack, vehicles shoddily maintained and allegedly jeep drivers are often not in a fit state to take the wheel. Added to that, many tours leave at the same time, trucking out of Uyuni in a great caravan before visiting all of the same sights together. Generally, in Uyuni, a hegemony of ‘get it done as cheap as possible, whatever the risks’ seems to have blossomed, and we didn’t fancy buying into that.
So we headed on south to begin our tour from the less popular (and far prettier) town of Tupiza. Here there are fewer tour companies and more keenly-protected reputations, and although the tour is a day longer and cost us 1300 BOB each (compared to around 800 BOB from Uyuni), the scenery is stunning, other tour groups less frequently-encountered, and you get to see the Salar at sunrise, which is pretty incredible. I’m also convinced that, thanks to the increased cost and distance, Tupiza also attracts a more intrepid class of traveller, and we certainly found that to be true when we were paired in our jeep with a lovely and hilarious French couple.
Despite paying a premium to head out with one of the best tour providers, we still stayed in the most basic accommodation of our entire trip, sharing a tiny and cramped dormitory with our new French friends on 2 nights, and scoring a double room in a salt hotel on the final night entirely by accident (we arrived before any other party and so had the pick of the accommodation and rooms). Toilets were positively medieval, showers cold and none of the rooms had heating, in fact it was so cold on one night that we awoke the next morning to frost on the inside of our tiny windows.
The jeep, too, is pretty basic. Most tour companies favour a basic Toyota Land Cruiser, which adequately houses driver and cook in the front, 2 guests in relative comfort behind, and then 2 more unfortunate guests in the back of the jeep, sitting above the wheel arch with very little leg room and constant danger of serious head bangs every time you traverse a bump on the route, of which there were many!
Salt isn’t the only seasoning
So why would anyone endure 3-and-a-half days of bumpy tracks, freezing beds, uncomfortable altitude and unremarkable food? Because, as you journey towards the salt flats, a conveyor belt of panoramic delights starts to appear before your eyes.
Rising between the mind-numbing desert and azure blue skies are weirdly-eroded stone structures, fields of tightly-clustered volcanic rock fall, shimmering orange flamingo-filled lakes, spiky glaciers, enough volcanoes to sate the most ardent volcano fans, mineral deposits lying in wait of miners and geizers belching hot mud and sulphurous smoke. We clamber out of the vehicle, dazed by the hours of jeep time, observing and photographing each sight in an increasingly delirious state, barely believing our eyes as our route takes us deeper into Bolivian desert, away from roads, away from civilisation, away from anything resembling ‘normal’ countryside.
Sunrise on the surface of the moon
3 days of driving and otherworldly sights finally brought us to the star attraction, the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Arriving in the late afternoon on the edge of the Salar, we checked into a cute adobe-structured salt hotel and watched the sun set over the incredible array of mountains and volcanos which had been our constant companion over the last few days. As the moon rose and a galaxy of stars emerged, we turned in for an early night on our salt bed.
The following morning, my 33rd birthday as it happened, we left before dawn and, in near pitch black, headed away from the lumpy shapes of mountains and trees, away from anything living, and onto the salt flats. As the light began to come, we started to see where we were: on the surface of the moon.
We stopped driving just as the eastern horizon began to shimmer and stepped out onto the salt. All around us, for gazilions of miles, lay the same honeycomb patchwork quilt of bright white, broken only by an occasional island. I sank to my haunches, barely able to take in the ridiculous majesty of it all, before taking a cross-legged position on the salt, closing my eyes and breathing the moment in. As the warm glow of sunlight opened my eyes again moments later, I knew I’d realised another highlight of my journey, another unforgettable chapter of My Year In Flux, and a pretty memorable birthday to boot.
Salar photo fun: changing perspectives
The rest of the morning was spent frolicking on the salt, taking advantage of the perspective fun you can have when your horizon is identical and never-ending no matter at what height, distance or angle you place the camera. With no points of reference against which to judge how close or far objects are from the lens, the possibilities are endless and, I have to say, rather fun. So not only did I feel like I was walking on the moon, I even have photos of me jumping as high as I could on the moon too!
I’m a cynical traveler, and have been right from the start of this trip, and I’d seen dozens of photos of people making these stupid photos on the salt flats, but as soon as we got here ourselves, I fell for it just like everyone else, as you can see…
Salar de Uyuni salt flats: the bottom line? Believe the hype, stomach the hardships.
Bolivia isn’t for everyone. It’s a poor country with low tourism standards which is looked down upon by it’s neighbours, pillaged by its upper classes and seemingly always in some kind of political flux. But we found the people friendly and the landscapes stunning. If you want to take a look back in time at home the rest of Latin America was before developments of recent years, and you’re willing to endure the (relatively small) hardships, it’s definitely a must-see. Oh, and you get to walk on the moon, too. Not a bad little bonus.
I toured the Salar de Uyuni salt flats as part of my program of Weekly Challenges. Each week, for an entire year, I’m trying something completely new. That’s 52 new skills and experiences in 12 months. To find out what I’m up to this week, or to see previous Weekly Challenges including Speed Reading, Turtle Conservation and Coin Magic, have a look here.