I am not going to lie, Bolivia is not the amongst the most beautiful countries in the world. But there is one thing that makes it worthwhile to visit – the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world.
Consider this: Fill up a bowl with water and 3 table spoons of salt. Leave it uncovered in your kitchen for a week. At the end of a week, what would you find? The water would have evaporated and the salt would have been left behind. This is how Salt Flats are formed.
Water in the bowl = water collected from the surrounding mountains in a plateau (“Altiplano” area in Bolivia). The area being a desert, led to faster lake water evaporation than replenishment with rains. In the absence of a discharge outlet, these lakes evaporated and left behind tens of thousands of square km of salt (~the size of Connecticut or Qatar for that matter).
In addition to being a major tourist destination, the salars hold ~55% of world’s lithium (used in lithium ion batteries) reserves making it of substantial industrial interest.
Every year roughly 1 million people make their way into this country to visit the Salar. And rightly so! The salar is a photographer’s paradise – perspective and reflection take a whole new meaning here.
Best time to visit:You will have to plan your trip to the salar, according to the kind of experience you are looking for:
November to April: Its hot and rainy in the Salar. Summer is when you find flooded Salars, which are good for taking “walking on the water” kind of photos that you might have heard of. Few pointers if you are planning to visit in this season:
- December- January are the hottest months of the year.
- Oruro carnival in March and Virgen de la Candelaria in February make up for a good time to visit Bolivia and experience its culture.
- Transportation to and from this place may be dangerous at this time.
May to October: The winter season is when you see the dry flats, which is good for highlighting perspective in your photos. Few pointers to consider:
- Days are shorter in winter, giving you less time at the Salar, but you don’t have to worry about wearing sweaters/ jackets as it gets pretty sunny during the day. That said, temperatures go down at night, especially in May/ June with cold winds (called surazos) from the Patagonia flowing in.
- August is the month of land clearing in Bolivia, when farmers burn and slash the Amazon forest, filling the neighboring cities with smoke and ash and the winds do not make it any easier. So, it may not be the best month to visit.
I was going to visit here in April, but somehow it got delayed to May and in my opinion, this was the best time to go there. I could see the best of both worlds: There were parts of flooded Salar while most of it was dried up.
Making a trip to the Salar is only possible by signing up with the tour agencies at the town of “Salar de Uyuni”. The whole town depends on tourism and you can talk to a couple of them to negotiate for prices before finalizing the tour. I did a 1 day tour and was stuck with a bad agency, the driver was in a hurry to bring us back to the town, he promised to take us to the salt hostel for lunch, while he just took us to his own house (so we never got the salt hostel experience). So, make sure you negotiate on all these factors in the very beginning. So, there are 2 different kinds of tours:
One day tour (120 Boliviano): The tour starts at 10 am, when the driver will pick you up in his 4×4. The one day tour will take you through the train cementary, a salt museum (salt scuptures), the salt flats and then back to the town. Also included is a trip to Isla Incahuasi (cacti island), for some nice pictures (only in the dry season). Lunch is included and driver also acts as a tour guide, explaining about the Salar. Tour ends at 5:30 pm and driver will drive you back to the town. You can take an overnight bus back to La Paz or Sucre from the bus stop.
Three day tour: Basically, the first day is the same. At night, you will be checking into the salt hostel and if you are with a good tour agency, they will take you out to witness sunset at the Salar! Added bonus it is! The next day, you will be traveling south to see dormant volcanoes, red flamingoes and then Laguna Colorado (red lagoon)!! The last day, you will be taken to hot water pools where you can relax and then to Laguna Verde (green lake)!!
Be prepared to get some of the most memorable pictures of your life. And make sure you are well prepared:
Clothing: Must haves: Sun glasses (to avoid burning in your eyes due to reflection of sunlight from the salt surface), jacket (to keep warm in the evening). You and your clothes will be coming in contact with the salt pretty frequently (for the fun pictures), and as the salt dries up, it leaves the clothes hardened with white salt deposits, which is a tad bit uncomfortable. Wear a good pair of denims to protect yourself from the harsh salt.
Props: Take whatever you can think of: pringles, bananas, oranges, Locks, dinosaur toys. I could go on and on and on. Just see some pictures here and decide what you want to take! Goes without saying, your camera and extra batteries!
Snacks: Take good amount of water to wash your hands if you have a OCD, Other than that, really just any snacks because you will be stopping just once for lunch.
By direct bus: An overnight bus with the bus service (Todo Turismo~100 Boliviano) will take you direct to the town of Salar de Uyuni. I slept in the semi-cama direct bus, so that I could sleep un-interrupted. The bus reaches around 6 am and the tours start around 10 am. You will have enough time to walk around the town or find an open cafe to have breakfast and some coffee. It shouldn’t be difficult to find one, as a lot of tourists take this bus from La Paz. There will be some tour agencies that open their offices early. You can make your Salar tour bookings here and negotiate for a good price (try not to make the booking at La Paz if it is not a high season)
By train and bus: The road from Oruro to Uyuni makes up 2/3rds of the trip and is really bumpy. Rather than taking a direct bus to Uyuni, you can take a bus from La Paz to Oruro (which you will find in abundance, at any time of the day) and then a train from Oruro to Uyuni. This will reduce the time taken to reach Uyuni. It’s a tad more comfortable AND you get to explore Oruro on your way to Uyuni.
Break bus journey to Uyuni: If you want to visit Potosi or Sucre on your way to Uyuni, you can always break your bus journey to Uyuni, by stopping over in these cities:
- La Paz to Potosi, Potosi to Uyuni and back
- La Paz to Potosi, Potosi to Uyuni, Uyuni to Potosi, Potosi to Sucre and Sucre to La Paz
- La Paz to Sucre, Sucre to Uyuni
Flying from La Paz to Uyuni: If you are not pressed for budget, you can take a flight from the La Paz airport. Amazonas and TAM airlines operate flights to Uyuni airport on select dates. Flights cost around 150$.
Check out what else you can do, while you are in Bolivia.