A day tour to the Uyuni Salt Flats might seem silly to those who know what is offered during the 3 to 4 days tour… No doubt about it, that’s what we also thought before heading to South America. In fact, traveling all this way to this very remote spot on Earth to only stay a day, can appear slightly mad and irrational. And yet, this is what we did. Here are our reasons for deciding to take the one day tour, and for those considering it, this is what to expect during that exceptional day.
Why did we choose the one-day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats?
Our avid readers might remember our time in San Pedro de Atacama and the arrival of the first snow of the year. In fact, after our tour of the Salar de Tara had been canceled, due to snowfalls, we requested a refund for our 4-day tour into the highlands of Bolivia which was due to start the next day. We didn’t want to cross the border and take the risk not be able to visit the famous colourful lagoons because of snow. We were right to do so as the Eduardo Avaroa National reserve remained inaccessible for a few weeks. After visiting Arica, on the coast, and crossing onto Sucre – Bolivia, we made it to Potosi before finally arriving in Uyuni one month later than planned!
While looking around the different travel agencies in Uyuni, we made the choice to go for the day tour instead of the 3 days. This was for sure the best option for us.
First, we knew the national reserve was still closed despite what all the tour agencies were telling us. Only the laguna Colorada was open to tourists and the Geyser Sol de Mañana was apparently also closed to visitors. We didn’t want to pay $150 each and not getting what we paid for…
Secondly, having spent a week in San Pedro de Atacama, we had already visited the astonishing highland Lagunas and the breathtaking Geyser El Tatio (if you haven’t seen that post, make sure to check it out too). At this time in our travel, what once seemed so tempting to us, became less attractive on the day of booking. We, therefore, hopped on a day tour to see the Salt Flats, take lots of perspective photos, visit Incahuasi island and finally end the day with one of the most incredible sunsets we have had the chance to see.
What to expect when visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats for the day?
We booked our tour the previous day, but since the tour doesn’t start until 10 am, it would be possible to arrive with the night bus from La Paz or Sucre and join the tour at the last minute. All of the agencies are located pretty close to one another, around the main square: Plaza Arce. We went with Andes Salt Expeditions Tour Operator who was well ranked on Tripadvisor.
On the day, only 4 people had booked with Andes Salt Expeditions so 2 other people from other agencies joined us. This often happens, which is why you need to make sure before that you choose your agency carefully. Sometimes you end up paying a good agency and end up put in a less ranked one with others who have paid less for the same tour. Of course, it can sometimes be the contrary. Upon booking, we made it clear with the agency we were signing up because of the Tripadvisor reviews and hoped he wouldn’t let us down. The owner kept his promise and at 10:30 am, we left Uyuni with our Spanish speaking driver to our first stop.
The Cemetery of Trains
Only a couple of kilometers from Uyuni, the train graveyard is the remaining of the promises of a major transport hub that has never seen the light. The trains were left behind and the salt coming from the Salar de Uyuni quickly started deteriorating the metal along with graffiti taggers.
Now, every single tour to the Salt Flats makes a 20-minute halt at the cemetery of trains, pretty much at the same time, which ultimately deceives the atmosphere of the place. Despite the crowd, we still managed to have fun crawling through these early 20th-century steam locomotives and take pictures.
For those who want to visit the cemetery of trains on their own, it is preferable to come early in the morning or arriving in the evening. It’s a short taxi ride or walkable distance from Uyuni’s city centre. As far as we know it is safe, but it might be better to check with locals before heading out.
Uyuni market / salt museum
Shortly after the cemetery of trains, and just before entering the salt flats, the car stops at a small village which has been converted into an open-air market for tourists. There you can buy any souvenirs double the price of other parts of Bolivia… This stop is mainly known as the Salt museum break… In fairness, it is quite disappointing. A 3m² room made indeed of salt and decorated with two sculptures also in salt. 1 minute and it’s done.
We hung around outside and found a couple of places to eat street food and try Llama. Our memories of Llama meat in Chile has nothing to do with the greasy meat they served us along with an uncooked side of choclo (maiz). We recommend to pass and just patiently wait for your driver to come back and start the day at the Salt Flats!
Driving the Salt Flats of Uyuni
70, 80, 100… 120 ? 130 km/h… we won’t lie, this is how fast our driver (and all the others) made his way through the desert. Nothing to make us feel comfortable. There are many terrifying stories of drunk drivers and car crashes at the salt flats. But the salt is quite flat and dry, which in the end acts like a normal motorway except there are no lines and that if you don’t know the way or don’t use a GPS, you can easily get lost.
As large as 10 thousand square kilometres, the Salt Flats of Uyuni sits at more than 3,600 metres above sea level. Its formation is the result of ancient lakes that have dried and left behind incredible amounts of salt and in some parts, the salar salt is 140 metres deep. Today, Uyuni is a phenomenal source of lithium and sodium which are only exploited by Bolivian cooperations. The country known for its reluctance to open to foreign corporations in any sector, is willing to only produce and sell a certain amount per year through Bolivian workforce only. We won’t blame them, mainly because more than 75% of the world’s lithium is found in the area…
The car stops by some excavations. Far from the large plants we could imagine, the salt is actually collected on site with shovels, and trenches for lithium exploitation made with a backhoe. The raw products are then transported to the cooperation plants to be processed and exported.
Lunch in the salt hotel and the Dakar monument
The next stop is one of the many Hotel de Sal that can be found in the Uyuni desert. All tours go to the same one where the famous Dakar monument was created in 2014 to welcome the 8th stage of the rally. It was kept and became a symbol of the Salt Flats along with the flag platform adjoining the hotel. This year, on the occasion of the 2018 Dakar, the letters of Bolivia have been painted with the colours of the national flag, red, yellow and green. That was unfortunately done after our visit.
The lunch was served by our driver inside the hotel but we also saw tours eating outside on camping tables and chairs next to the van. The lunch was well served with salad, meat and an omelet for vegetarians. Bananas for dessert. We were however a bit surprised (and upset) that only coke was offered. Not water…
The perspective photos
After lunch, we drove a bit further into the desert looking for a remote place with an infinite horizon and no other cars. Our driver, Felix, gave us all his props and told us what to do. He for sure knew what he was doing. Well, he does that every day! He made us do some cool videos and took great pictures of us. The driver left us for around 2 hours playing and trying different positions/props.
At first, we were a bit frustrated as our DSLR was no use for these types of pictures, the depth of field making either us or the prop blurry. We instead used our phones.
Incahuasi used to be an island in the lake. Mainly made of coral, it is nowadays covered with hundreds of cactus and gives excellent views of the salar once you climb to the summit. A circuit has been created to avoid crowds crossing each other on the narrow paths taking the visitors from the entrance to the highest point and back. The entrance ticket is not included in the tour and costs 30 Bs (€3.90 pp). Felix gave us 1 hour to visit which was enough for us. We spent the remaining time taking more perspective photos close to the island.
Some agencies (and online websites) call this island Isla Pescado, which is in reality another one situated more than 20 km away. Don’t be mistaken, the tours take you onto Incahuasi (Inca Wasi) and not Isla Pescado.
The sunset over the Salt Flats of Uyuni
As we left Incahuasi, the sun started its course down to the horizon. It was time for Felix, to drive as fast as possible towards the edges of the desert where a water source spills onto the Salt Flats to create Earth’s biggest mirror. This place is particularly impressive at sunset, which is only visited at this time of the day, by the one-day tours. Lucky us!
Is the one-day tour worth it?
Absolutely. But depending on the circumstances, it is probably better to do the 3 to 4 days tour.
At that time of our travel, it made sense to us to only do the one-day tour as the snow was responsible for the national reserve and geyser to be closed. Even if we had already spent time in San Pedro de Atacama and seen beautiful lagunas and geysers, we would have probably done the 3-day tour if it wasn’t for the snow. Because when it’s good why not do it twice, right? It’s not every day we can see colourful highland lagunas and insane geysers at more than 3,500 masl…
Now, if you don’t have the time and the budget to do both, it is worth looking into the different options. The one day tour at the Salt Flats is one we would recommend if you only to spend time at the Salar and at the Incahuasi island.
Cost and Useful informations
Exchange rate (avg. June-August 2017) : €1 = 7.82 Bs
Bus – Potosi to Uyuni: 25 Bs (€3.20) – 4 hours
Bus – Uyuni to Sucre: 70 Bs (€9) – night bus
One-day tour Uyuni Salt Flats: 150 Bs (€19)
Entrance Incuhuasi Island: 30 Bs (€3.85)
Hostel Uyuni: 70 Bs (€9) – Dorm, shared bathroom, kitchen (on the main square)
Llama Chicharron: 10 Bs (€1.30)
Note: Everything is quite pricey in Uyuni (compared to the rest of Bolivia), bring snacks and water with you.
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