Tupiza to Salar de Uyuni, Salt Flats of Bolivia – what to expect 🌌
The $1000,000 question: what is Salar de Uyuni?
First thing is first. El Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia are the largest salt flats in the world. The Salar is actually called el Salar de Thunupa but is more commonly known as el Salar de Uyuni due to the proximity to the town of Uyuni. Covering an area of 10,500 sqKm, Salar de Uyuni has roughly 11 layers of salt varying between 2-10m thick that sit on top of mud and brine.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain around 10,000 MILLION 😲 tonnes of salt.
Ooooo. Where is Salar de Uyuni?
Salar de Uyuni is in the south west of Bolivia, not far from the border of Chile.
Why did you go from Tupiza and not Uyuni?
The first thing to consider when planning your visit to the Salt Flats is how it will fit with the rest of your itinerary. You can start and finish in Uyuni, you can begin in Tupiza and end in Uyuni or you can start from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and finish in Uyuni.
Both of the options from Atacama and Tupiza actually take in more of the Bolivian countryside before arriving to Salar de Uyuni. Both of these tours are over 4 days, as you cover much more ground. There is a lot of time spent driving in a 4 Wheel Drive (4WD), but the scenery is constantly changing from desert and rocky formations to colourful lagoons surrounded by snow-topped mountains.
I chose to go via Tupiza, as this was the marginally easier route from Samaipata. I say marginally – it took me an entire day. I finished my tour in Uyuni and travelled straight on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Getting to Tupiza for Salar de Uyuni
Getting to Tupiza largely depends on where you’re coming from. Most travellers come on the overnight bus from Tarija.
I came all the way from Samaipata in the North East of Bolivia. Absolutely poor idea. It was 18 hours with a change in Tarija, arriving in Tupiza at 2am.
Who did you go with to el Salar de Uyuni?
I went with Tupiza Tours, who replied very quickly via e-mail and were able to accommodate me 3 days before travel. With many tours in South America (and probably if you go from Uyuni) you can arrange up to the day before travel – for the El Choro trek we arranged it at 9pm the night before and for Colca Canyon at 6pm the night before! However for Salar de Uyuni from Tupiza, try and book your tour a couple of days before – especially if you’re planning on a border crossing.
Tupiza Tours quoted me 1400Bs (£140) online however I whittled them down to 1200Bs (£120) + 350Bs (£35) extra to transfer me to San Pedro de Atacama. Proud of my negotiation skills, I smugly announced this to the rest of the team, only to discover that everyone had received a discount. Gah.
Salar de Uyuni Day 1: Tupiza National Park
After spending 1 night on a bumpy flota and 6 hours sleeping on a hotel lobby couch, I arrived not-so-sprightly to the Tupiza Tours office at 8am to meet my guide (Santos) and the rest of the group. Sitting in the office were a French speaking couple, who peered at me strangely when I tried to make conversation.
“Español?” I offered, “Inglés? English?”
Turned out that Tiffany and Joel (aka Mark Corrigan from Peep Show – or in my brain David Mitchell) as in thought that they’d booked onto a French speaking tour. Tiffany spoke okay-English but Jolie could only manage the very basics. Neither of them spoke Spanish. Luckily for them the fourth member of our group (Maria) spoke English, French AND Spanish.
So everyone in your Salar de Uyuni group was French?
Yep, and ‘Où est la gare’ (where is the station), ‘la-bas’ (over there) and ‘omelette du fromage’ (cheese omelette) is where my French starts and finishes. Looks like Santos and I will be getting to know one another very well…
What was Santos like?
Santos spoke no English, and his first language was Quechua but despite this we bonded quite nicely. He was 52, had 5 children and had been a Salar tour guide for about 20-years.
He couldn’t remember my name at all (‘Ambre? Andre? Andrea? Andale?’) but somehow remembered the name of my small white dog Barney. His argument was that “Amber is not a common name” to which I replied “well Santos is not a common name either.”
“Yes it is,” he retorted “I know many people called Santos.”
In BOLIVIA, Santos. In Bolivia. Santos is probably more common a name than Amber, but Amber is also a baltic stone…
Amber you’re going off-piste a bit
Amazingly in the 20-years that Santos had been working as a guide, he’d only ever listened to Bolivian music. When he blasted Quechuan hits on his rather cool ghetto-blaster, I asked him what type of music that was. “Normal music?” was his reply – as if he suspected I listened to Quechuan tunes back in London. Not once a tourist had ever enlightened him to a bit of Radio 1.
Turns out that Bolivian people aren’t so keen on hip hop, but they are partial to a bit of 80’s Madonna.
😂 Who else came on the trip?
Benita – our cook. Nice lady who fed us a lot of biscuits. My dairy allergy threw her a bit. Did the best she could with limited ingredients and makes a nice quinoa soup.
Tupiza National Park
Day 1 was very long and a lot of time in a 4WD. I have to be honest, I had to Google some of the names of the places we went – we weren’t given names, more kicked out of our Jeep at specific points.
Leaving Tupiza, we crossed into a spectacular countryside of rolling hills, eroded rock formations & valleys. This road was known as the Quebrada de Palala & El Sillar (The Saddle) – famous for its 3 tiered coloured rock formations where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their last days. You can go horse-riding through this park – I wanted to go, but I only had 5 days left on my Bolivian visa before my Salt Flats tour.
We had a roadstop at Awanapampa, to stroke some llamas with little bows in their hair. Perhaps I should get some bows for my dog Barney to wear in the park.
TIP: careful of these strange looking cactus formations. You’ll see them everywhere on the Salar tour. They’re also pretty painful if you accidentally fall onto one of them – I tried to hide behind one when I was desperate for a wee, and it was also pretty windy. So windy that I was blown over backwards and wound up with a load of spikey cactus pricks in my bum and legs!!! 😞
We also en-route went to view some ruins. I’ve got to be honest – they were pretty boring. Basically there was once lots of minerals, but the Spanish came and took ’em all and now they have nothing. I did the right thing – wondering around for 10 minutes whilst nodding and taking photos.
It was pretty dark when we arrived at our accommodation for dinner, but we saw the most spectacular sunsets en-route.
Salar de Uyuni Day 2: Flamingos, Flamingos, Flamingos
I was demoted to the back of the 4WD with our cook Benita. I gave Benita the opportunity to stretch out a bit, but for some reason she preferred to clutch all of her bags on her lap. All the more room for me 😏 cheers, Benita.
What was for breakfast?
Every morning Benita cooked us (not enough) scrambled eggs, with bread, dulce de leche and an assortment of tea and coffee. We also got a banana if we were lucky.
Day 2 was basically a lot of flamingos and lagoons, with a glacier and some hot springs chucked in for good measure. Again it was a very, very long day squashed in a hot 4WD (whilst being freezing outside at very high altitude – I was now used to being at crazy altitudes, but the anxiety in me still regularly convinced myself that I would collapse and die of altitude sickness at any moment).
Anyway, the main thing I learned was that flamingos are absolute tw*ts.
The little girl in me was delighted to see a flamingo up close and personal in its natural habitat. I’d try and creep up slowly to them as to not disturb them (whilst glaring profusely at the Frenchies speaking really loudly behind me). HOWEVER anytime I got even remotely clear, they turned their backs to me and literally stalked off. Can you believe it! What teases!
These photos were taken to Laguna Kollpa. My photo quality is sh*t which shows just how much I had to zoom in to take a photo. I ended up slipping and falling in some flamingo poo, and schmearing it all over Santos’ car.
What else did you see?
We also visited some smaller salt flats – as a taster of what was to come. We were here quite a while as the Frenchies insisted on having a romantic photo shoot everywhere we went. The grumpy single crazy cat lady within me braced myself for a potential proposal on the Salar de Uyuni. I think Salar de Uyuni is a great place to propose. Future husband – if you’re reading this, my expectations are high.
Laguna Verde was the next stop before lunch. Laguna Verde means Green Lake, and it sits on the Chilean border at the foot of the Licancabur volcano (5868m high). Usually when I’ve previewed natural wonders on Instagram they’ve turned out to be lackluster in real life (I’m looking at you – Rainbow Mountain). However even I must admit that Laguna Verde was pretty spectacular.
On our way to lunch we passed through desolate valley of Desierto Dali, characterised by the barren landscape reminiscent of the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali. Here we took some photos and hid behind the Jeep for a wee (you’ll we A LOT on the Salt Flats tour, the air is very dry and you’ll always be thirsty).
Lunch was the usual affair of pasta, quinoa soup and veg. We ate our lunch Polques hot springs – where afterwards we were given 20-minutes for a deep soak. The springs are absolutely packed with tourists, so it is hard to get a good photo. At this point I was 4-months on the road and didn’t feel so conscious in front of strangers, so I stripped off just by the pool and dived in. Something I regretted, as I then spent the next 2 days with sulfur in my hair.
That being said – have you ever sat in a pool with a better view?
Well it isn’t quite the Hanging Gardens of Ubud
True – but I only had 10-minutes to achieve a Kardashian-esque photo.
We also saw some geysers:
And finally basked in the glory of the pink Laguna Colorada, a shallow reddish salt lake abound with more flamingos (and even MORE flamingos are to come on day 3, folks).
Santos told us that the Laguna Colorado circuit should take an hour to complete, but my little legs got me around in 40-minutes (and that was with a lot of stopping to practice my Español and admire the flamingos). Whilst waiting for the French to finish their photoshoot, Santos and I sat in the jeep and discussed Manchester United.
Well, I say discuss – it was more “Manchester United!!!” “Sí, Santos.” “Conoces _______ (insert player I do not know)?” followed by me attempting to explain lacrosse (“Como hockey pero en el aire”).
I genuinely couldn’t tell you what we had for dinner that evening – as usual it was probably quinoa soup followed by vegetables, rice and pasta. But what I can tell you is that due to extremely high altitude (~4,000m above sea level) it is COLD at night. Pack some thick socks before embarking on Salar de Uyuni – not that it is hard to find cheap llama wool gear around Bolivia.
Salar deo Uyuni Day 3: Arbol de Piedra (and MORE flamingos)
Waking up at the crack of dawn again with a runny nose, we embarked on another long day of being in a 4WD.
We firstly drove to Arbol de Piedra, (the Stone Tree). Standing alone amidst the sand dunes of SIloli, the Stone Tree sits at 7m high. Strong winds carrying sand erode the soft sandstone, over time this the Stone Tree its strange shape.
More colossal boulders are scattered around the area. It looked like a cross between Stonehege and Bedrock from The Flinstones.
Thanks Amber – I wasn’t sure which one would have been Bedrock 🙄
After that we saw another selection of lagoons and flamingos. If I had a bit of feedback for Tupiza Tours – it would be flamingo overload. Once or twice and you get excited to see flamingos. After the 17th time, it is a lot less fun.
In fact I was so sick of flamingos that for a little while I followed around this coyote instead. What are you doing here, young man?
We visited yet another flamingo filled lagoon, which was our lunch spot. I complained at the time about the sheer volume of lagoons, however now as I eat my lunch in Longbenton, Newcastle I must admit that the Canapa mirror lake was a much nicer lunch spot.
I’ve got to be honest – at this point I was starting to feel a bit peaky. This was day 3 bumping around off-terrain in a 4WD, the air was thin due to altitude and really dry, sand and dust were continually skimming my face. After lunch we drove for forever until we reached some random nondescript town (with no signal) and a quinoa beer museum.
The group all chipped in (I only had about 100Bs or £10 on me to last until the border) to buy Santos and Benita a beer.
After visiting some random train tracks (apparently the train that delivers freight from Bolivia to Chile, Santos didn’t say much more than this) we dumped our stuff at the hotel and headed for the salt flats to watch the sunset.
I was initially disappointed by the salt flats.
Well, when you google Salar de Uyuni you see all this flat land of cracked dry salt. However the spot Santos took us to looked more like a snowy mush.
“Quiero ver sal agrietada,” I asked Santos “En forma de cuadrados, como en las fotos.” – I want to see cracked salt, shaped like squares like on the pictures.
Santos promised me that these would come tomorrow, however as the rainy season was beginning much of the salt was beginning to become moist. Soon the salt flats would be mirrored.
Anyway, we sat here in the freezing cold and waited for the sun to set. Trust me though – it was worth it.
After we headed back to the hotel, which was completely made from salt. I don’t have any bloody photos of the hotel, but I promise it was made of salt and I even licked the walls to check. I spent some of my final few Bolivianos (10Bs or £1) on a hot shower, and retired to bed early. Hey – for the salt flat pics I didn’t want my hair a sulfur filled rats nest!
FYI: some luxury Salar de Uyuni tour companies will try and sell ‘staying in a hotel made of salt’ as a really exclusive thing – it isn’t. Literally every tour once you reach the salt flats you stay in a hotel made of salt. There are a few around the area. The concept is cool but they’re not that special. Don’t be made to feel as if you need to pay extra for it – you don’t.
Salar de Uyuni Day 4: Salar de Uyuni
We’d already admired them the day before at sunset, but our group got up at the crack of dawn to view the sunrise and to hike Isla Incahuasi, a hilly and rocky outcrop of land (and cacti) situated in the middle Salar de Uyuni at an elevation of 3,656 meters.
I was in need of an energy boost from the sheer cold (the frenchies had to lend me a very cool wool hat – I dont normally wear hats as they don’t lend well to my masses of curly hair), and I was also a bit grouchy and hungry from the late breakfast.
As a result I marched to the top of the Isla, only to find myself waiting a while for the rest of the group. Luckily I found two Brazilian boys to help me with my Portuguese (still terrible). These two Brazilians were the first Brazilian members of my Latino fan club.
Latin fan club?
Hahahaha yes. When you meet a Latino, within the first 5 or 10-minutes of conversation (especially if you speak Spanish) they will ask to follow you on Instagram. They make it a bit difficult to say no (i.e. shoving their phone in your face with Instagram up). Occasionally I’ve lied and said I don’t use Instagram but as a woman in her mid 20’s this isn’t very convincing.
Anyway, I call this random collection of Latinos my ‘Latin fan club’.
I am not special – basically anyone (male or female) who backpacks around Latin America and meets the locals will get a Latin fan club.
😂 anyway – back to the Salar de Uyuni
Anyway after a hearty breakfast (where the Frenchies and I competed over whose country was better – YES France has good cheese but they do not have cheddar, and we have better music) our group returned to the salt flats to take the famous concept photos.
SO cool. Cooler than the Salar de Uyuni.
I know right – and that was pretty cool (I was freezing with no coat).
After this we went to the ‘famous’ salt hotel in the middle of the salt flats, to be sold some touristic crap and to use the toilet. Of course I found myself arguing with a Bolivian here.
As I approached the loo I saw that it was 5Bs to use it. Realizing that I did not have any money on me, I changed tactics.
Firstly – he wouldn’t let me use the toilet for free even though I AM PREGNANT. ESTOY EMBARAZADA!
You’re not pregnant though…
He didn’t know that. Secondly – when I finally produced some money for him, he didn’t have any change! So I ran in and used the loo anyway despite him protesting.
I’m sorry but it isn’t my fault you “have no change”, and I am not paying 50Bs (£5) to have a wee.
Outside the famous salt hotel is the probably more famous world flag collection. I couldn’t find the British flag, and after weeks of jibes from my fellow European (mainly German) neighbors I decided to take a stand and pose with the EU flag.
Did you visit the Train Cemetery?
Yes! Yes I did, we were left in a flea market for a bit on the edge of the salt flats (after posing with the European flags – the final day did feel very ‘tourist trap’ but I imagine this is from day trippers via Uyuni) before going to The Train Cemetery.
The Train Cemetery is basically a selection of rusty old trains, and I had to look up online the reason behind its existence. It was also the first place with mobile phone signal – the first place in four days! WOOOOOO!
Why is there a Train Cemetery in Salar de Uyuni?
In the past Uyuni served as a distribution hub for trains carrying minerals to Pacific Ocean ports. The train lines were built by British engineers who arrived near the end of the 19th century and formed a sizable community in Uyuni. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies, however in the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed due to the mineral depletion. Many trains were therefore abandoned.
The Bolivians are thinking of making a museum near the Train Cemetery. I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Would you recommend visiting the Salar de Uyuni?
YES YES YES AND ABSOLUTELY YES.
It was my highlight in Bolivia (alongside finishing El Choro and Samaipata). Even with the majority of my group not speaking English. And feeling motion sickness 80% of the time.
It was a lot of beauty in one go, and in hindsight I should have appreciated my Salar de Uyuni tour more rather than feeling vermisht.
Been to Salar de Uyuni? Let me know in the comments below!
See my latest posts ✌🏼