Bolivia’s most famous attraction – Salar de Uyuni – the largest Salt Flat in the World! Formed as a result of drying pre-historic lake, it is a vast expanse of salt, as far as the eye can see! Spread over 10,000 sq. kms, this area is so flat that Satellites in orbit use it to calibrate altitude when over this place!
The Salt Flats begin on the outskirts of the small town of Uyuni in Bolivia. The major highlights can be covered in a one day tour. But there are combo packages which take you deeper and higher into the Altiplano region. We opted for the 3 Day/2 Night Tour and went ahead with Red Planet Expedition – one of the most highly recommended tour operators. In this post I’ll try to share the first day’s experience – which is more about exploring the Salt Flats.
Getting to Uyuni
To explore the Salt Flats, first you have to reach Uyuni. To get there, you need to either take a morning flight from La Paz or an overnight bus. We took the bus (Todo Turismo). Either way, you reach the town in the morning, just in time to freshen up and start the tour on the same day – around 10.30am. The town is very small, but has establishment that cater to basic needs – Supermarket, Restaurants, Hostels, Money Exchange etc. We arrived at 7am, took a cab for few Bolivars to the office of our Tour Operator – Red Planet Expedition. We freshened up, made the payment for the tour, had breakfast and bought essential supplies from the town (Like Drinking Water, Snacks etc). By that time, the 4×4 was prepped and ready to go!
First stop – Train Cemetery
This region is very rich in minerals and is an important source of revenue for Bolivia. Railway lines were laid in the past to transport these minerals across the border to Chile to ship it out. Train Locomotives were brought from Britain. But the routes didn’t operate long and were abandoned eventually. All the locomotives were dumped in what is now popularly termed as Train Cemetery or Graveyard. This is the starting point for all Salt Flat tours.
Onwards to the Salt Factory
Last stop before venturing out into the Salt flats was a local market for lunch, refreshments and some souvenir shopping. Here they showed us how Salt is mined locally- yes, for consumption – in small scale. Salt is made into bricks in the field, transported to the factory, powdered and purified.
Finally…We reach the Salt Flats!
Yes! It begins here. As our 4×4 crossed the market, the landscape began to change. From brown the colour kept fading till it became pure white! We have entered Salar de Uyuni!
If you Google Salar de Uyuni, there are high chances that you will come across many strange photographs that appear unreal. Since the land is absolutely flat & white, and horizon is empty due to vastness, here you can take amazing trick photographs!
Rahul researched in advance, learned the science behind it, even had some props ready. But it is not that easy. It is difficult to take these photos with a DSLR, Mobile Camera works best. And to get the shot right, you need some coaching (from the very able driver/guide) and some practice! Trust him with your Mobile phone and he will create magic!!!
Fish Island or Isla Incahuasi
After having had fun with Perspective photography, we continued the drive through the salt flats to reach Isla Incahuasi, otherwise popularly known as Fish Island! When the prehistoric lake existed this was an Island, now a hill. In an hours time you can climb to the summit for stunning panoramic views! The Island has Giant cacti that can reach up to a height of 10m! Their wood can be used to make furniture!
If you look closely at the rocks/soil on the island, you’ll observe they are of coral origins. Yes, this was a coral island long long time ago, now they are fossilised!
Sunset on the salt flats is a surreal experience. From bright white the landscape fades away as the sun disappears below the horizon.
If you have opted for the Day Tours, usually you head back to Uyuni. But we had 2 more days of exploring the Altiplano region beyond, so we continued to our night camp.
Staying in a Salt Hotel
I have heard of ice hotels in Scandinavia, but a salt hotel ? Yes, we spent the night in a hotel made of salt bricks! The ground was rock salt, while bed and walls were made of salt bricks. Since we were a couple, we got a whole room with attached bathroom for ourselves. Everything was gas powered here. I wanted to take a bath and there was not hot water (although they mentioned it would be available). Then Rahul went and said something in Spanish and finally after some time got Hot water. But it was a bad decision to take a bath! As soon as I got out I started freezing. However, it didn’t last long and we had a good night sleep!