The real meat and potatoes of why I came to Bolivia was a three-day excursion into the salt flats and its high desert landscape. You could say that the Top Gear episode really left a lasting impression of Bolivia upon me, and I wasn’t mad at it. If you’re on a time crunch there is the one-day tour option, but we’re on sabbatical here, we got nothing but time. Everyone who I’d spoken to was adamant you needed three days to experience it. With no hesitation, I booked through Perla de Bolivia for another adventure.
If you missed part one then you should catch up on it here.
Getting to Uyuni from La Paz is rather easy as there are multiple bus operators leaving daily. This is where the location of my hostel came in clutch because you can see the station from the front door. I booked with Todo Turismo for their more luxury-style bus that was reminiscent of the ones I rode in Peru (definitely one of the pricier options around.) They ran a good outfit and had dinner options, reclining seats, power outlets, and multimedia. I’d recommend their services but do note they operate only night buses.
On day one you will be loaded into your 4×4 vehicle with some other compatriots, gear, and food for your multi-day adventure. You’ll need to pack your own water and spare change for the bathrooms. First, we headed out towards the “Train Graveyard” located on the outskirts of Uyuni. True to its name this was indeed a graveyard for trains. Rusted-out box cars, derailed locomotives, and quite the collection of people all vying to see the graffitied gems in the desert. You’ll be able to spot the giant transformer-inspired creation out of old parts in the graveyard, but other than that I could’ve done without this portion of the trip.
Next up we moseyed over to Colchani, a settlement created for the harvesting of salt in these parts. Yes, the salt flats here are actually mined and sold as commodities, souvenirs, and you guessed it condiments. The place was PACKED when our crew rolled up. 4X4s can be seen parked bumper to bumper for the entire length of the outpost. My crew and I set about some souvenir shopping while our tour guides set up for lunch. You begin to feel Colchani now only served one purpose: entertaining tourists and haggling over alpaca ponchos.
After we finished lunch and the hordes of vehicles had left the town literally started to shut down, all at the convenient time of 1PM. Soon after our rig pulled out I took a quick look back and Colchani went back to the sleepy outpost it probably had been a few hours earlier.
Our guide advised us to close our eyes for an unspecified duration as we neared the salt flats. We didn’t ask questions as the Land Cruiser started rocking back and forth before smoothing out. On the count of three, we all opened our eyes and the only sound you could hear in the car was shrieks from its passengers as everyone’s eyes adjusted to the IMMENSE light reflected off of the salt flats. What a sight to see once my eyeballs adjusted themselves! Ahead of us were 100+ kilometers of just empty, solid white salt flatness, it was bare. At this moment I was happy to have purchased those sunnies earlier that morning.
For the next few hours, our driver and guide took us around showing the natural beauty that is the Uyuni Salt Flats. We visited the Dakar outpost (all you rally fans out there mark this one down), geo-thermal-like pools, and drove further out into the blinding white surface of the flats. Ever seen those distorted-sized photographs from this site? This is your chance to throw up some creativity and see what you can come up with! I want to say our group got some spiffy photos from our time out there, but you be the judge.
While photoshoots of TRex and jumping into shoes were taking place behind me, I chose to walk about and soak in the 40,000-year-old view behind $5 sunnies. The big draw of coming to the salt flat is during the rainy season when the water pools at the surface a few inches, creating the world’s biggest mirror. Videos and photos make it so incredibly stunning, but on this trip, no precipitation would allow for that magic. Regardless, I still had an amazing time during my visit and this was just the first day.
Rounding it out was a visit to “Isla Incahuasi” or Fish Island. Here you can hike to the top of the island to take in 360-degree views of the salt flats all the while staring up at some glorious giant cacti, of which there was a plethora. I opted out of this part and instead I had a great conversation with Stephanie who was on this trip with her gal pal, Mariana. No matter how caught up you are in your own life, striking up conversations with others should always be a priority, especially when backpacking. You never know who you might just meet on your adventures.
Catching the sunset was the last thing on our docket after an incredibly long day, did I mention I had gotten into town that morning straight from an overnight bus? High winds, big mountains, and pink skies were just about the best way to sign off for the day. Desert sunsets, all sunsets on this trip really, have been immensely beautiful, and this was no exception. Before turning in for the night at some quaint hotel located seemingly in the middle of nowhere we had a hot dinner with everyone on the tour. Day one was in the books now, a hot shower later I layered up the blankets and caught a few hours of sleep.
Day two started off with a lovely breakfast spread while everyone got bright eyes and bushy tails for the long agenda ahead. It was all about nature as we penned to paper stops at checking out how quinoa is harvested, a few natural reserves, some active volcanoes, and a pitstop for alpaca bbq, cause it’s what you do. Did I mention we were going to see some flamingoes?
In between stops were met with a backbreaking induced car ride. What happens when you have to sit in the third row as a full-grown adult. Comfort is at a premium that I couldn’t afford and wished I knew before I chose to volunteer for the back seat. Needless to say, the ride once you leave the salt flat is incredibly bumper, so hang on to the oh shit bar if you can.
Fun fact Bolivia was the first to introduce quinoa to the world and now it’s gone mad over the superfood. The first stop was super informative if you love the pseudo grain and there are tons of it. We learned how it’s planted and harvested and thereafter introduced to the masses. Unfortunately with other countries participating in the agriculture of the superfood, Bolivia’s prices per ton fell quite dramatically. Once a cash cow for local farmers now an afterthought aimed mostly towards educating tourists.
Afterward, it’s a leisure drive through the Chiguana Desert for a stopover at the Galaxy Caves, a unique rock formation our guide was ever too happy to talk to us about. You can sample some alpaca bbq here which I suggest you do! In the far-off distance, you can spot Ollagüe, a still active volcano, and a treat for some of the passengers in my car who haven’t seen one erupt until now!
The reserves were something I looked forward to most on our second day. Once we arrived at the Andean lagoons it looked like something Bob Ross would’ve painted had he ever found himself this far south. Picturesque mountains in the background, a clear, but super ripe, lagoon filled with semi-pink flamingoes in the foreground, literally like a postcard. Though I would have my doubts the old timer could paint up something better than what I was seeing live. The views were immaculate and we didn’t have just one lagoon to visit, we hit up Cañapa, Hedionda, and Chiarcota Lagoons, too! Each is just as breathtaking as the last. Also, at 4300m you better catch your breath because as mentioned, these lagoons were RIPE.
Winding down this leg of the tour was the eventual visit to Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve where we would also be staying for the night. The viewpoint to start the evening was something straight out of Nat Geo. High mountains laid the backdrop as the sun slowly sets, with a pinkish-red lagoon stretching the full frame of your eyes, filled with hundreds of thousands of flamingoes. Standing up top was definitely the place to be. I couldn’t possibly think of any more adjectives that could’ve described the colors of the sky that evening, they just became something you felt.
A hot dinner and two bottles of wine were on order after a long day spent in close quarters with strangers. Though by now we became a sort of an adjunct family on the road, everyone playing their part, mine keeping all others on their toes and laughing. We all turned in early that night for the final day calls for a super early start with a hot spring dip!
Before I turned in I took the opportunity and went outside to stare up at the night sky. In an area not polluted by man-made light fixtures, the dark sky is illuminated with billions of little dots, a haunting reminder of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Day three, the finale, of what’s been an amazing road trip already saw us up early, leading a convoy of 4x4s that seemingly appeared out of the desert hills. The first stop would be checking out some natural geysers located in the National Reserve, followed by a dip in some thermal hot springs. Eventually leading us to the Dali Desert and the Green Lagoon, equipped with two volcanoes, Licancabur and Juriques, which straddle the border with Chile.
The geysers were super chill for a very early start. Once we arrived the first thing you’ll notice is the sulfur smell piercing through the air. It brought back memories of the time I was summiting Mount Ijen on Java in Indonesia, minus the blue flames and gas mask. Hold your breath for a few seconds if you do venture in beyond the smoke. Both eerie and beautiful just be careful of where you step, don’t want a tourist falling into a geyser!
Next up is a hot spring dip all before having your morning coffee. With a few pools to choose from it makes the walk from the changing room in the brisk cold worthwhile. I sound like a broken record with the views, but how could you not enjoy the vista while bathing in a thermal hot spring with flamingos just feet away? It’s hard to not keep getting surprised out here.
Were there any disappointments on this road trip? Of course, you can’t always expect it to be sunshine and rainbows and exploding volcanoes, not everything will be amazing. The Dali Desert for me was the culprit. As a piece of nature, it was still beautiful, but Dali was actually never here! Gasps were heard from here all the way back to La Paz. The natural rock formations have some resemblance to pieces of his artwork, understandable, so as a result, they named it after him. We could’ve driven past this without anyone ever noticing.
Our final stop, the Green Lagoon, marked the end of what were an amazing three days. Normally with heavier rainfall, the lagoon would be reflecting a green hue against the two volcanoes it shares the vicinity with, making it a spectacular sight. However, today was a different story with it being a trickle of its former self. Bolivia has been experiencing a drier wet season that takes a bit longer to come on.
If you take this three-day tour and your final destination is no longer in Bolivia you can actually get dropped off in Chile. Chino, our driver, loaded up the gang as we headed for the border from Bolivia. Alice and her mother were heading onward toward the Atacama Desert on the Chile side, meanwhile, Stephanie, Mariana, and I were to swing back through Uyuni for our night bus to La Paz that evening. It’s bittersweet to have to say goodbyes, especially with people whom you shared amazing experiences and broke bread with. Needless to say, the show always goes on.
By the time I landed my ass back in my seat on the bus towards La Paz, I was happy to have gone with others’ advice on this one. Of all the things I’ve seen and wanted to experience have been parts planning and researching but also word of mouth. Be it from the counter peeps at my hostel, or a stranger I met waiting for a chicken bus, hell, even friends I’ve made by running into them on Andean treks. The point is to be open to people while you travel because their insights and experiences can lead you to adventures you would’ve never even dreamt of, yet!
Happy travels, amigos!