As The Who famously said “I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.”
That phrase rings clear when you are out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by miles and miles of salt. Literal SALT, as far as the eye can see.
By now you should have realized that I am talking about the largest deposit of salt in the world, the Salt Flats in Uyuni, Bolivia.
Back in the summer, my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I decided to travel in her home country of Bolivia. Once I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia and visited her family for a couple of weeks we decided to make the trek by bus and train down to Uyuni.
We bused from La Paz to Oruro and then took a train from Oruro down to Uyuni. In total, traveling from La Paz to Uyuni it cost me around $550 Bolivianos (Bs) round trip which is about $80 in the American dollar. Also, that train was literally the slowest train ride I ever took. As my wife would say “the llamas were moving faster than us.” The trip from La Paz to Uyuni took the entire day.
Once we arrived in Uyuni it was freezing!
I mean freezing. My wife was prepared (I am being sarcastic). She is one of those people who are like “we will find a place to stay when we arrive really late to a location we have never been to, where it is freezing outside.”
This brings me to lesson #1, plan out your trip.
Tip – Finding accommodation in Uyuni
Have at least one place lined out to stay for the first night and let me tell you why.
When we got off our bus my wife chose a hostel at random. Let me remind you that it was freezing. On the trip we also took along her younger brother and young cousin.
I kid you not, in the hostel they gave us a dinky little electric heater that barely generated any heat. On top of the heater situation, in our room’s bathroom there was a hole in the wall that I could literally stick my hand through.
Again it was freezing. We went during “our summer”, but since Bolivia is on the south side of the equator the seasons are switched compared to what I am used to. Therefore the dead of winter down there is during June.
Due to our experience from the first night, I booked a highly rated hotel the second night with a nice hot shower and breakfast included.
Uyuni Salt Flats Tour
For the tour throughout the salt flats we went with a local travel agency, this cost us around 550 Bs. Before leaving La Paz my wife purchased this tour in downtown La Paz on Sagarnaga St. where travel agencies line the street.
The first stop of the tour was not even on the official salt flats, we stopped at the train graveyard. The name suits the place: a bunch of abandoned trains and train cars that were left to rust. They were used for exporting salt at one time. The trains were neat to jump around on, like a big jungle gym, but ultimately the flats was the most exciting part for me.
The first stop on the actual flats started by taking us to holes in the salt that supposedly had the clearest, most pure water in the region. We were allowed to put our hands into it. The tour guide told us that a lot of people travel to these holes in the ice in other parts of the flats to take baths. According to him, people believe that the minerals from the water are very healthy for their body and would make them look younger.
The baths would have to be freezing, I mean surely they take these baths during the summer when the water is hopefully warmer. During the winter, the holes were some of the coldest yet clearest water I ever felt.
After the openings in the salt we headed to what they called an Island on the Salt!
An island full of cactuses!
The story goes that back in the day when Incas roamed the flats they would travel from island to island during the night.
Why travel during the night you might ask?
During the day the reflection of the sun against the white as snow salt would be too bright for them to travel during the day. Which leads me to lesson #2… Check out further beneath what to bring!
On our way to lunch, we took a short stop at the Dakar Rally Monument. The Dakar Rally is an extreme car race. According to efe.com, the Dakar Rally was hosted in South American from 2009 to 2019. You can find out more about the race at www.Dakar.com
After the island our tour guide took us to the very first lodge on the flats where we ate llama and quinoa for lunch! Yes Llama, I don’t want to say it “tastes like chicken,” but yes it did, only it was more chewy and pretty lean. At the lodge a majority of the furniture was made out of salt!
Check out our lunch table:
The location was not only neat because of the structure and history of the building, but also because of travelers that you would meet from all over. This hotel was a frequent stop by multiple travelers from all over the world. To verify this, right outside of the hotel were flags from all over the world, I like to think they represented all who have traveled there.
Before we headed to our hotel for the night, we took the typical proportion pictures. Where one person looks small and the others look huge or vise versa. With the endless background, you have a huge playing field to work with.
Also, there is a famous photo that a lot of people who visit the salt flats take. The photo makes it seem like people are walking on water. This only happens during the summer when it rains and parts of the flats are covered in water in order to give the illusion that people are walking on water. The water pictures also provide a perfect reflection of the night sky. Google image search “Salt Flats Bolivia,” and you’ll know what I mean.
When you go it is a must to take the classic proportional pictures! I recommend bringing a plastic toy or two, like the T-Rex you see chasing us in the picture below. Do some research and think outside the box to come up with a cool picture!
Next stop, Hotel De Sal Luna Salada; the hotel of SALT. The entire hotel is made out of salt. Remember how I told you that we booked a night in a different hotel since we essentially froze to death during our first night. Little did I know that I booked one of the most well known hotels in the area, the entire place was made out of salt! Also it had a free breakfast which I was pretty excited about.
Check out this neat video by National Geographic, highlighting the hotel:
The next day we got to hike a portion of the Tunupa Volcano. We also got to see mummies in a small cave on the hike up. The mummies give an idea of the history and culture of the area. Another neat aspect of the volcano was the rock walls. As you hike higher up the mountain, you will see rock walls that the Incas built back in the day, that divide portions of the land surrounding the volcano. For all you history buffs, you would enjoy this little portion of the tour.
After the hike, we made one last stop before we headed home; the gift shop. Well not really one shop, but multiple tiny shops set up in one area. This is where you can get your souvenir made out of salt. I bought my mom a little cup with dice made out of salt.
What to bring to the Uyuni Salt Flats
Bring sunglasses! The reflection of the sun off the salt is so bright! You know when you go outside on a snowy day where everything is covered in snow? Imagine that, but everywhere you turn for miles and miles. When I first arrived at the flats I did feel like I was surrounded by snow, but it’s just cold grainy salt. I even licked some.
If you forget to pack your sunglasses, don’t worry you can purchase some foakleys (fake oakleys) in a local shop in Uyuni before you head out to the flats. A pair of sunglasses are fairly cheap, they will probably run you 20 Bs.
Legend of the Salt.
Milk from mom. Now, there are a few stories online behind how the salt flats came to be. Along with helping us take pictures, the tour guide told us of the legend. So, the “queen of the flats,” Tunupa Volcano, gave birth to a smaller volcano, but during the night the child volcano was stolen from her by the gods. Since she was locked in position and could not move to search for her child she cried all night and let her milk into the valley since she never found her child.
BOOM the salt flats were born.
Tips for the trip & conclusion!
If you are wanting to take the cheap route, travel via bus and train. Once you arrive I would recommend booking a tour if you do not know the area. Looking back on our stays, I would not stay in that hostel and probably would book a room at the salt hotel. Typically I like to save money by booking a mid range price when it comes to hotels, but looking back on it I am glad I chose the salt hotel because of the experience it provided.
When in Rome dine like the Romans right? By staying at the salt hotel it gave me an experience that I will never forget, mostly because it is a stand alone building out in the middle of nowhere and it is completely made out of salt! Also the hot shower was much needed after freezing our butts off all day.
All in all, I would very much go again. This time around I would hike the entire Tunupa Volcano and I would probably spend both nights in the Hotel De Sal Luna Salada. I would bring my own sunglasses and better hiking gear to reach the top of the volcano. The cheap sunglasses did the job for sure, but they were cheap. I would bring my own better quality sunglasses. The tour guide was pretty good at his job, entertaining, took us to the best locations on the flats, and took our proportional photos with the T-Rex toy he provided. The trip was well worth the price and provided a priceless experience.