The epic Salar de Uyuni: Bolivia’s world famous salt flats

For the entirety of my trip, even during my planning before I left the UK, I’ve been excited about going to the epic Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats and Bolivia’s most popular tourist attraction. Just from searching the name on Google images you can see how awe-inspiring the landscape is. I’d been quizzing each traveller I’d met who had already been there on what it’s like and which tour company they went with to make sure I had a truly amazing experience when I reached the salt flats myself.

Getting to Uyuni and choosing a tour company

Catching a bus from Sucre was the start of my adventure to Uyuni. Bolivia has a national holiday which basically translates as ‘no cars day’ – due to high pollution levels, one day a year there are no cars, buses and lorries on the roads in all the towns and cities across the country for 24 hours. This day was planned for a Sunday that I had intended to use to travel so I was forced into getting a night bus the Saturday before. I was on the second bus leaving Sucre at 8:30pm and was lucky that my bus was practically empty, giving me two seats to spread out on. I had expected the journey to take about 10 hours, arriving around 6:30am so it wouldn’t be worth booking a hostel for the night. I fell asleep without much problem and hardly realised when we’d stopped around 4am. I assumed this was a toilet stop as we didn’t have one on the bus, little did I know we had already arrived in Uyuni and I needed to vacate the bus asap. I wandered around in the freezing cold ghost town wearing thin cotton trousers and flip flops thanking God I’d downloaded a map and had my Lonely Planet bible on hand to find a hostel nearby.

After lying in until just before 10am, I ate the hostel breakfast and made some plans for finding the right tour provider to suit my needs. Uyuni is a very small town in the desert where most tours of the salt flats start from and consists of hostels, restaurants and hundreds of tour operators all offering variations on the same trip. So I did some research and made a list of my requirements.

I was looking for:

  • A 4 days trip
  • An English speaking guide
  • A transfer to Chile included or available as an optional extra
  • A sleeping bag included or available to hire
  • A company with good reviews and reputation

With the help of the LP bible and TripAdvisor I set out with a list of four operators to talk to, but seeing and it as a Sunday and a national holiday, this was harder than I thought it would be. My first stop, Cordillera Traveller, had a charismatic sales attendant and a good price (1220 bs) but no English speaking guides available so I unfortunately had to rule them out early on. Next I spoke to Red Planet, a high-end tour operator. They only did 3 day trips but had everything else on my list for 1450 bs. Next up on my list were Esmeralda Tours but their office was closed all day so I couldn’t get a quote from them in time to compare them with the rest. Finally, Salty Desert Aventures, number 1 on TripAdvisor, offered the same as Red Planet for 1250 bs. I wasn’t as convinced by their sales advisor but the reviews were really strong so I decided after comparing them with Red Planet to go with them. This took up most of the day and wasn’t an easy choice but I hoped I had made the right one.

Day 1 – The salt flats

The trip started at 10:30am the next day when I met my group for the next 3 days who I’d be sharing a jam-packed Toyota Land Cruiser with. My group was made up of a Belgium couple, a French girl and a British guy – we were all aged between 21 and 26 years old. Thankfully they turned out to be a great bunch of people and we all got on really well, mostly bonding through our dislike of the tour guide. This was probably the only negative of the trip for me – our guide was an idiot – but at least it kept us laughing for most of the trip and we had a great driver so we could fact check his information at least.


The route for the tour is pretty standard and you soon realise that all the cars go the same way and stop off at the same places for the majority of the three days. The first stop is a train graveyard which was really interesting to walk around and people were climbing on top of rusty trains in all directions. We only spent a short time here before driving to Colchani where the local community manufactures salt from the salt flats. We were briefly explained how the process works and watched a local man package salt. I would have liked to know more about this but the manufacturing isn’t done on a industrial level so perhaps there wasn’t that much more to know.

After lunch in Colchani, we headed off to see the salt flats themselves. I was so excited to finally see them after months of anticipation and they did not disappoint. It’s dry season in the salt flats at the moment so we could see the amazing polygon shapes formed by the salt crystals and had ample opportunities to take lots of fun perspective pictures. I could have spent hours taking pictures here and not gotten bored of looking of the amazing salt planes. I can’t describe how truly spectacular they were but hopefully some of the pictures managed to capture their magic.



Next we went to Incahuasi Island which I would rename cactus island because it was covered in hundreds giant cacti – apparently they grow 1-2cm a year so they must have been hundreds of years old. The salt flats are caused by the evaporation of what would have been a sea within Bolivia so although not technically an island now, Incahuasi is surrounded by the salt flats like an island. We had plenty of time here to enjoy the amazing views, take pictures and relax in the warm weather before heading off to take sunset pictures on the salt flats. 

Although it was cloudy, I took some great pictures here and I was sad to leave the salt flats so soon; the day had felt like a matter of seconds for me. Too soon we drove out of the salt flats and onto our accommodation for the first night, a hotel made out of salt with salt bricks and a crumbly, salty floor.




Day 2 – Lagoons, flamingos and the desert

The next day we were back into the car and off driving south, away from the salt flats and towards Chile. I was disappointed to only get one day, basically half a day, in the salt flats but that’s just how it is unless you book a bespoke tour and I don’t think I would have enjoyed this on my own.


Now we were driving through high-altitude desert to lagoon after lagoon and rock formation after rock formation. The scenery was really impressive and like nothing I’d seen before on my trip or in my life. Although it did feel repetitive, they were all as amazing to see as the last and the novelty didn’t really wear off as they all had their own distinct differences. If I’m honest I can’t remember the names of all the lagoons but looking online, I think, we went to Laguna Cañapa first and saw loads of flamingos which we were able to get really close to. The lagoon was highly reflective and I could take some beautiful pictures of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. At this point I wished I had my proper camera with me. Next we went to Laguna Hedionda (I think) which was similar but a much lighter colour of water so the reflection was different and the lagoon was larger. We had lunch here and the views were so tranquil that I almost forgot about missing the salt flats.


More lagoons followed after lunch with Laguna Honda up first and this was an even paler blue lagoon. The light sandy coloured shores made the lagoon look different to the previous two and I think this one was close to my favourite, despite or because of the lack of flamingos, I can’t decide.

Next was a quick stop at the Rock Tree, basically some rocks in the Desert of Siloli that look like a tree, but I thought the bigger rocks formations were more impressive.

Then we went onto the Laguna Colorada or Red Lagoon (much more helpfully named) and spent an hour walking around the large lagoon in the strong wind. The red colour is caused by the high concentration of red algae and sediments. It was distinctly different to the other lagoons and the offset of red with the surrounding yellow-green shrubs bordering the lagoon made the colour stand out beautifully.


The last stop before our accommodation was the Sol de Mañana Geysers. I’ve never seen geysers before and despite their being quite small, they were still quite impressive. We were free to walk around them however we pleased and I was quite nervous of tripping and falling into one. It was around this point that I realised I’d broken my Kindle, a generous donation from my brother for the trip. I was gutted but it is as least seven years old and had made it all the way around Russia and Asia, and now most of South America so it’s had a good life. Near our accommodation there were hot springs which we went to at night in the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen. This soothed the loss and my aching knees from being cramped in a car boot for two days.

Day 3 – One more lagoon then onto Chile

On the last day, which turned out to be a couple of hours really when you’re getting a transfer to Chile included in the trip, we went to see the Dali desert, named after Salvador Dali. The barren landscape was quite beautiful so I can see why people thought it had inspired his work. Our final lagoon and my final stop before heading across the border to Chile was the Green Lagoon, only it wasn’t green. It was pretty but apparently there needs to be a wind creating a current to see the green colour and the colouring more obvious between 11am and 3pm, not 9am when we visited.

It was just a short trip to the border after this, where I said goodbye to my fellow travellers and joined a bus to the Chilean border. I gave my remaining Bolivianos to the driver instead of the guide – he deserved them more – and waved goodbye to Bolivia, five days ahead of schedule.

Was the salt flats all it cracked up to be? (Excuse the pun)

In my eyes yes it was, and more. I hadn’t expected to see all the lagoons, flamingos, volcanoes, deserts and geysers, as well as the amazing salty landscape. I’d like to go back in the future with my family to see the salt flats in more detail for a couple of days and learn more about the origin, formation and composition. But at least I’ve left something to come back for. Now onto my last three countries of South America: Chile, Argentina and Brazil – the most expensive places on my list!

Sucre: the real capital of Bolivia

Before coming to Bolivia I had never even heard of Sucre. I thought La Paz was the undisputed capital of Bolivia and when I heard people talking about the city I thought it must just be another popular place tourists visited. I decided to add it to my itinerary just because of that and I choose a hostel from Hostelworld without much thought. I even managed to fly there because the last minute flights were so cheap. Little did I know that Sucre would turn out to be my favourite city in the country and one of my favourite cities from my entire trip so far. 

When I look back on my time in the charming city, it’s hard to pinpoint what it was I enjoyed so much about it – I only visited one museum in the five days I was there, the food wasn’t anything special to talk about, I didn’t do any exciting day trips and even the walking tour I paid for wasn’t that good. What I really liked about Sucre was the relaxed, sunny atmosphere and the heritage of the city reflected in the architecture. Although not a huge city centre, it had a calm and welcoming feeling that you’d expect to find in a European city. The people are used to having tourists wandering around and our activities don’t disturb their daily lives. I felt perfectly safe strolling around the city, sitting about in parks reading on my Kindle, getting juice in the market and catching the local buses (they only cost 15p!).


The one museum I did visit, Casa de la Libertad, was really interested and taught me loads about the history of Bolivia. The guide spoke perfect English and shared a lot of information that I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere in the country. Sucre holds the oldest university in South America, dating back to the 1600s. The city used to be the capital until a civil war with La Paz; it lost and subsequently lost it’s power too. The city still retains the national Supreme Court – the judicial centre of the country but the political power and the president’s palace moved to La Paz. The museum also holds one of two original Argentinean flags from its creation. The guide also explained about the many international wars Bolivia has had with this neighbours, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay, losing all and shrinking land mass considerably over time. The history of the country has interested me throughout my stay in Bolivia and Sucre was the answer to a lot of questions I’d had.


The hostel I stayed in also made my stay in Sucre relaxing and helped me to get over the illness and fatigue I’d picked up recently. Villa Oropeza Guesthouse really felt like a villa instead of a hostel, the staff were helpful and friendly, the rooms were nice and clean, the WiFi was strong (especially for Bolivia) and the bunk beds even had curtains for privacy. Most of all it was easily affordable at £5 a night. Finding a nice hostel is definitely an art and although I’d like to stay somewhere sociable, I’ve decided I like quiet, sophisticated hostels too.

Sucre is definitely a place I would recommend visiting and there’s possibilities to do a lot more with treks starting here to some great scenery nearby – unfortunately there weren’t any groups going on the day I signed up so I had to move on to the next stop on my trip. But getting ahead of the schedule leaves me more time for Patagonia so I’m happy about that.

10 best things to do in La Paz (and the surrounding area)

I spent four days in La Paz, the political capital of Bolivia. I had expected something quite different from La Paz but now that I’ve been there I can’t quite describe what that was. It’s not a metropolis like Lima and it doesn’t have the architecture of Quito. I’d probably say it’s closest to Bogota but without the economic development. Maybe a mix of Quito and Bogota. If I’m honest, I was probably a little disappointed by La Paz, although it was still interesting and unique in its own way.
Here’s my highlights of the best things I did while in La Paz:

1. Visit Chacaltaya and walk to the top – Okay so this first one isn’t technically in La Paz city centre but it’s on the outskirts and was part of a day trip I did from the city. It’s one of the impressive snowcapped mountains in the Cordillera Real range nearby. The minibus drives you almost to the top, passed colourful lagoons and wild flamingos. Then you have a short walk to the summit for amazing panoramic views. The glacier is melting there because of global warming but apparently people do still ski there – it used to be the world’s highest altitude ski area.

2. Go to the witches markets – La Paz is famous for it’s witches markets which sounds quite spooky – I had imaged dark shops with women in black robes and pointy hats. Other than the dead, dried baby llamas, it wasn’t too gross. It’s mostly filled with “potions” to help you with any problems you might be having from love life to cancer. There is an interesting tradition of hang your wishes from a little statue of a local man and burn a cigarette from his mouth to bring good fortune.

3. Watch the Cholitas wrestling – although the Cholitas wrestling is completely touristy and staged, it’s still really funny to watch. The local women who dress in the traditional outfits are called Cholitas. The outfits include big skirts, two plaits and a black hat – not exactly the best fighting attire. But the made-up arguments and difficult stunts make for an exciting viewing experience and a fun yet cold evening out.

4. Stay at the Wild Rover for a night – The Wild Rover is a popular, Irish, party hostel. I’d recommend staying here for at least one night because it’s really sociable and busy. I met lots of nice people here and watching the boxing match with an Irish fighter in an Irish hostel had a great atmosphere.


5. Get a smoothie in the market and ask for yupa – I love smoothies and in the markets here (and in most of Bolivia) you can ask for any combinations you want – my favourite is strawberry, blackberry and pineapple. Once you’ve drank about half, you can ask for your yupa which basically means extra smoothie for free! They are so fresh and cheap, I went a couple of times.

6. Ride on the cable cart – La Paz has four different lines of cable cart and they are considered public transport across the city. The cable cart isn’t anything too special but it gives you good view of the downtown and the line I took (orange or red – I can’t remember) goes over the city’s huge cemetery.

7. Go to El Alto and see just how big the market is – El Alto is a large district in La Paz and considered by the local people a city in its own right. It has a huge market which runs everyday across the whole area with thousands of stalls – you can find everything here from car parts to hiking gear. A lot of the products are second hand or imitations but that’s not important to the local people who need low prices.

8. Search for interesting graffiti – I saw a lot of great artwork and graffiti in the city and I would have really liked to have done a graffiti walking tour here if there had been one like Bogota. You get the impression they have the same tactics to cover large walls with commissioned work to improve the environment rather than having lots of tagging. Look out for some of the creative artwork here, ot’s really high quality in places.

9. Go to the Valley del Luna – I also visited the ‘Moon Valley’ as part of the day drip with Chacaltaya. It’s located in the south of the city and it surrounded by loads of deep red and yellow mountains. The rock formations are really interesting to see and walk around. They’re made of clay and caused by erosion of the softer sand over time.

10. Ride on the old local bus – They have some funky looking local buses which are the oldest and cheapest type of local transport in the city. You can hop on and off at any time and flag them down on the street without being at a bus stop. They look a bit like jazzed-up American school buses from the 80s but they’re a fun ride if you know where you’re going.

Mesmerising Lake Titicaca and crazy border hopping

Lake Titicaca is famous for being the world’s highest altitude lake (3,812m) but once you visit, you soon realise there’s much more than just a lack of oxygen to make you breathless. Luckily for me, I was still mostly on schedule with my route so I could visit both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of the lake – oddly the border crosses the middle of the lake, cutting it in half. I started out in Puno on the Peruvian side with a day trip offered by my hostel before heading across the border to Copacabana (not to be confused with the popular beach in Brazil – a momentary lapse of brain power).

The day trip from Puno included a boat trip to the Uros islands – famous as the floating islands with over 2,500 indigenous people still living there – and Taquile island. Having scrimped on a cheap bus to Puno (20 soles for 10 hours) I was able to cover the cost of the whole day trip in the price it would have cost to by a tourist bus ticket (80 soles). This made me quite smug, like a proper traveller rather than a tourist. However, the island trip definitely makes you feel like a tourist.

The Uros Islands

The Uros islands are becoming less authentic as time passes and their main income becomes tourism. I had been warned by my trusty Lonely Planet bible that some travellers don’t enjoy the commercialisation of these islands and I have to agree with that – although it was still a truly interesting experience to visit the islands. All the women are dressed in bright, traditional clothes and welcome you to the islands with waves and singing. After a brief look around you’re given the option of a short boat ride in a traditional boat made of totora reeds powered by hand. This is probably just another way for them to gain a bit of extra cash as it’s hard to believe the locals actually still use these but it was still nice – when it only costs about £2.20 it’s hard to turn it down.

After the boat ride you go back to your island and are given a short talk by the tour guide and island president on how the islands are built and maintained. This was probably the most interesting part of the visit for me. The base is constructed from blocks of roots from the totora reed plants – also used to create the homes and boats. The blocks are tied together using large bamboo rods that are stuck through the blocks. On top of this they lay many layers of the reeds in opposite directions which are replaced every 15 days. When you walk about on the islands they feel spongey and kind of wobbly – definitely not like any other islands I’ve been to before.

It was interesting to learn how the Uru have lived on these floating islands since the Incas invaded their lands but the historical important of these islands is steadily flushing away. It’s hard to see how fixated these communities are by monetary opportunities and in part I did feel guilty for contributing to this.

Taquile

Next we hopped back onto the boat and went to see Taquile, one of the northern islands of Lake Titicaca (not a floating island, just a normal island). This island gives you a much more comfortable feeling about the tourism here. It a naturally beautiful place and the terraces and stone archways add to this. The clear blue waters and bright blue sky trap the dusty yellow and green island in the horizon. Other than a small square and crumbling church, there isn’t much to see other than the stunning views. We had a traditional lunch on the island and learnt about the local weaving and marriage customs.



Copacabana and Isla del Sol

The next day I was up early to take a short bus journey across the border to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake. This border crossing was my quickest so far, taking less than half an hour in total. Copacabana is the main Bolivian town to visit the lake from and boats depart for the Isla del Sol twice daily. Most travellers skip Copacabana entirely, heading straight for the island and then straight to La Paz when they return. Although this wasn’t my original plan, it did turn out to be what I ended up doing – other than stopping for lunch at a nice gringo cafe called La Choza.

The Isla del Sol welcomes you with a very steep climb up the restored Inca stairway. With my main backpack and day pack it was quite a climb but since the north of the island was closed due to protests, I wasn’t in too much of a rush (most of the interesting ruins are in the north). I wondered around for a while looking for a hostel (Hostelworld is a real let down here so I pitched up without accommodation). The hill is filled with hostels and hotels though, in fact this is basically all there is on the island, except for restaurants. I put my Spanish to the test finding a room for one at a reasonable price but managed to find a nice double room for £6 a night – probably more luck than skill.


I walked to the viewpoint at the top of the island for the beautiful sunset and somehow didn’t find the altitude all that hard – maybe I am getting used to it. I met some Aussies also enjoying the sunset who had just finished ski seasons at Whistler in Canada which was great for me as that’s where I’m hoping to go in November. So I bombarded them with lots of question while we waited for the sun to go down. The stunning views were some of the best I’ve seen and the weather was clear so you could see across to the snowcapped mountains near La Paz and probably back to Peru if I knew where to look. On the way back to my hostel I was also lucky enough to see the stars as clear as I had in Colca Canyon too.

Crazy border hopping

In the end I only stayed on the island for one night and arrived back in Copacabana by midday. I went back to the same cafe for lunch and bought a bus ticket to La Paz. This is where the madness started. The road to La Paz was blocked by protesters so the simple three to four hour journey turned into a five to six hour journey, including driving back to Peru, around the lake and then back into Bolivia. Well, I’d only been in Bolivia for about 20 hours by this point so it felt weird to know I was going back to Peru so soon. Very luckily for me, being British means I don’t have to pay for a visa or entrance fees so other than three times the paper work, it didn’t cause me too many issues. But for the South Africans on the bus this was a nightmare as they’d have to pay again to enter Bolivia, and it’s not cheap for them.

I was very glad that the Puno border is so easy to cross because I would not have wanted to queue for hours to get back into Peru and then back into Bolivia. There was once hairy moment getting out of Peru the second time where the immigration officer wasn’t happy with my passport – probably because I had so many stamps for the same border in the space of two days. But after 10 minutes of awkward waiting around, he decided it was fine so I ran off with my stamp and bags to Bolivia before he could change his mind. Now I have two pages in my passport dedicated to this crazy border hopping experience but at least it’s a relatively new passport so there’s still lots of space for the adventures still to come!