Updated May 21st, 2019.
When you see the reflective photos of Salar de Uyuni, it’s hard to believe you’re looking at somewhere on earth. Bolivia’s famous salt flats are without a doubt the biggest draw for backpackers but this is not the only natural marvel that the country offers. Colourful lagoons, quirky rock formations and hoards of wildlife mean that there is far more to Bolivia than salt.
South America Backpacker Ambassadors Sheree and Tim went to explore Uyuni and the surrounding areas with Altitude Alliance Travel. Here is their review of Bolivia’s biggest attraction, along with the rest!
Tim and I had just arrived at La Paz bus terminal. It was nearly 10 pm and our bus to Uyuni would be leaving imminently. As battered local buses drove past, we assumed we would be in for a long night.
However, upon showing our ticket to one of the staff, we were pleasantly surprised (and relieved) to be led to a premium coach. After finding our seats and reclining them back into a very comfortable position, the English speaking travel concierge brought round fleecy blankets, neck pillows and informed us dinner was on the way.
We feasted on a hot meal of chicken, veg and rice before settling into our seats for the night. At this point, the concierge collected the food tubs and brought round the WiFi password! As all travellers know, plenty of buses advertise free WiFi but very few deliver. The connection was excellent and after twenty minutes of catching up on social media, I slipped into a deep and comfortable sleep.
Before I knew it, we had arrived in Uyuni and were left to gather up our things. It isn’t very often you sleep right through on a night bus which just goes to show how exceptional this one was!
Day 1 – Salar de Uyuni (The Bolivian Salt Flats)
We were greeted off of the bus by a friendly lady with our names on a sign. It was very early and I was pleased to discover we weren’t going to be left to kill the four hours before the tour by walking around the town.
She led us to a nearby cafe equipped with WiFi and free toilets (a rarity in Bolivia). Here we could enjoy our complimentary breakfast which had been provided on the bus or opt for something hot in the cafe.
We spent the next few hours eating, browsing the web and getting psyched up for Bolivia’s most famous attraction.
After being met in the cafe by our driver, he took us to the local market in Uyuni to buy water and snacks for the day ahead. At 10 am, we met our fellow travellers and tour guide, Hector. There were five of us on the trip and Hector would be delivering the tour in both Spanish and English. After being sized up for wellies, we piled into the waiting 4×4.
Our first stop was going to be Uyuni’s train cemetery. The areas surrounding the town were found to be hugely rich in minerals and a train line had been constructed to transport these around the country.
After diesel engines were introduced, the coal-powered locomotives were abandoned in favour of more modern alternatives. They were left on the outskirts of Uyuni, forming an extensive train graveyard.
We walked around the area and watched as other travellers climbed on board the old trains. Although there were a lot of other groups there, the area was big enough that you could wander off to quieter areas to get good photos. Despite how busy the train cemetery was, it was also creepily eerie in places.
After leaving the train graveyard, we continued to the community of Colchani and learnt about how the locals process the salt collected from Salar. This gave us a fascinating insight into the work that is done to distribute the salt to the rest of Bolivia.
In the same village, there were streams of artisanal markets where you could buy everything from alpaca products to plastic dinosaurs for those funny Uyuni photos. We spent around twenty minutes perusing these stalls before piling back into the 4×4 to head off to the salt flats.
As the skyline blurred and the ground became white, it became apparent that we were crossing the vast plain that is Salar de Uyuni. It felt like we were driving to nowhere until the hotel where we would be eating lunch came into view. This was a surprise in itself, the whole place was made of salt bricks!
The interior was surreal, equipped with salt chairs, tables and walls. We hadn’t long been seated when an extensive buffet lunch was brought out, featuring quinoa, salad, llama meat and mixed veg. We ate until we were stuffed, before heading out to really explore the salt flats.
After seeing how crammed the restaurant was, I felt a little concerned about our photos. Of course, the salt flats are an Instagrammers dream and I didn’t want there to be other people milling about in the background of our bucket list photos.
I needn’t have worried. We drove for around fifteen minutes before making our first stop, a random set of stairs that acted as a viewpoint. It was here that I truly realised the scale of this natural wonder. Salar de Uyuni spans a whopping 10,582 square kilometres. That is bigger than the second largest county in the UK!
Luckily for us, our driver Jimmy and guide Hector knew all of the best places to get pictures. As we visited at the tail-end of the rainy season, we were lucky that there was surface water on the ground. This meant we were able to see a beautiful reflection of the sky which in turn melted the horizon line away.
The water here was surprisingly deep so I was very grateful for the welly boots that we had been provided with! We got some stunning photos and were all very excited to head off to drier salt for the funny shots. As Salar de Uyuni is so flat, it is an amazing place to get deceiving perspective shots. Our group all messed around, filming funny videos of us running away from big monsters into Pringle cans and coming out of hats! Both Hector and Jimmy were brilliant, helping us all to get the best photos to remember the day by.
As we started to lose the sun, we headed off to another wet part of the salt flats for some sunset photos. I couldn’t believe how successful these pictures were, nor how incredible the sky looked illuminated. It was a really special experience that I will never forget.
Heading to the Salt Flats independently? For more information, check out our article – How to Rent a Car and Explore the Salt Flats of Bolivia Without a Tour.
After a long and tiring day, we headed back to Uyuni for dinner. We sampled some of the local cuisine which was delicious, before heading back to a hotel. Although the plan had been to stay in a salt hotel, unfortunately, it was fully booked. This was no matter though, the rooms we were supplied in the backup accommodation were clean and spacious, not to mention very comfy!
Day 2 – Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve
We reunited with Hector early and made our way to the breakfast spot. After getting our fill of sausage, eggs, bread and jam, we took our seats in the 4×4. Hector informed us that the day would consist of a lot of driving with a new driver as we were heading to Laguna Colorada which was a few hours away.
As we drove out of Uyuni, I took in the sights of the landscape around me until I fell victim to sleep. Before I knew it, Hector was telling us we had reached our first stop: the Valley of Rocks. He explained that this landscape had been created by volcanic eruption millions of years ago.
We spent around twenty minutes exploring the area and climbing on the rock formations. The view really was stunning. Hector also informed us this spot was a favourite with Viscachas (small rabbit creatures with tails) so we kept an eye out for them too.
The terrain was dry and arid, which it turns out are fantastic conditions for medicinal plants to grow. These plants grow very slowly and therefore they are protected by the government.
The day was a bird watchers dream. We visited a whole host of lagoons which showcased three different species of flamingos! Surprisingly, they all looked very different from each other and every lagoon allowed us to see them closer.
Near to one of these places, we stopped for a buffet lunch of chicken, rice and mixed veg. The food was delicious and it was here we were lucky enough to see our first Viscacha of the trip! After lunch, Hector informed us we would be heading to the famous stone tree, located in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve.
By the time we had arrived at the stone tree, the weather had changed and snow was pouring out of the air. It was bitterly cold so we listened to Hector’s explanation about the weathering of the stone, snapped a few pictures and headed off.
One thing I loved about this tour was the flexibility afforded to us regarding time. If it was chilly we could head off earlier and also make unscheduled stops for photos.
As we drove away from the ominous black clouds, the sky lightened and we headed to the entrance of the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. Here we paid our entrance fee (150 bolivianos, not included in the cost of the tour) and got stamps in our passports!
We had reached the day’s highlight: Laguna Colorada, also known as the red lagoon. This spot was incredibly beautiful and we were all shocked when Hector said the intensity of the red colour changed depending on the time of day.
After losing ourselves in the majesty of the lake, we headed to the town to find a place to sleep. The first accommodation choice was full so we headed a row back to the reserve choice. The hostel was very basic (there was an extra cost for showers and WiFi) but fine for one night. Here we had dinner and were even treated to a bottle of wine for the table!
After we’d eaten, Hector invited us outside for a short walk and a bit of stargazing. This is an area so devoid of light pollution that this activity proved to be a real treat. It was freezing cold but looking up at the sky in awe while Hector pointed out constellations was the perfect end to the day.
Day 3 – Geysers and Laguna Negra
We had a very early start to the morning, rising at around 4 am for breakfast. Having been warned of the cold weather, we were all bundled up in everything we owned, grateful for the warm pancakes that had been supplied.
After breakfast, the group took refuge from the cold in the car and Hector explained we would be heading to see some Geysers. These are hot springs where the water boils just under the earth’s surface. The pressure builds up then creates a jet of steam that rises high into the air.
I was excited but still used the hour-long journey as a good opportunity to catch up sleep I had missed that morning. After what felt like a very short time, Hector was informing us we had arrived at the site.
He warned us to stay close behind him and watch where we were putting our feet. Visiting the geysers is dangerous and can be life-threatening if you fall in. We huddled in close and listened as he explained how the geysers were formed.
At an altitude of nearly 5000 m, I was shivering along with everybody else so we didn’t stop too long for photos. Instead, we got back into the car and headed to some local hot springs to warm up.
The hot springs were located a the base of a mountain and overlooked a stunning lagoon filled with different birds. There was a 6 boliviano entrance fee per person (not included) which was well worth it to warm up after the cold start to the day.
After around an hour of lazing in the water and taking in the views, we headed back to the car where we would be travelling to Laguna Negra. Although the itinerary said we would be headed to Laguna Verde, Hector informed us that this lagoon doesn’t appear green until the early afternoon but to make it back on time we would have to visit the site earlier. Laguna Negra was located elsewhere but also beautiful and he was sure there would be far fewer people there.
We left the national reserve and witnessed Bolivia’s largest Borax mine on our way out. This mineral is commonly used as a preservative, in cosmetics and in medicines, as well as many other things. Bolivia exports this mineral worldwide.
When we made it to the site of Laguna Negra, I was shocked to see no lagoon. I asked Hector where it was, to which he replied, ‘It is hidden,’ with a wink.
We traversed the spongey ground interspersed with small trickling streams in the company of only each other and the resident llamas. This lagoon was part of the Valley of Rocks so the landscape was striking, although I still saw no lagoon.
Hector bounded up some of the rocks and invited us to follow him. It was here where the lagoon came into sight. After explaining some of the history to us, Hector allowed us some free time to explore the area and climb the rocks.
Being swept up in the beauty of the area, I just continued to sit by his side, watching the animals below and taking in the tranquillity of the scene. It was truly breathtaking.
Once our time at Laguna Negra had passed, we headed back to the car which would be taking us to a viewpoint over the Valley of Rocks canyon. I took a sharp intake of breath when I saw how high it was but unperturbed, Tim skipped along the highest section with the best view.
There was to be one final stop of the day, in the small town of San Cristobal. Here Hector explained some of the town’s history and allowed us some time to look around. The highlight of this town was definitely climbing up to the church bell tower!
From this point, the car continued its journey to Uyuni, where we arrived around 5 pm. Tim and I were dropped at the bus station where we were informed that Jimmy (the driver from day one) had arranged our bus tickets for us.
Sure enough, he later turned up with our tickets and change telling us exactly what we needed to know for our journey to Sucre. Although this wasn’t part of the tour, we were hugely impressed by the commitment that the Altitude staff had shown to make sure we had a great trip!
A Bolivian Highlight!
Although we could’ve seen the salt flats on a day tour, I was so grateful that Tim and I had the opportunity to do the full three-day option. The extra time meant that we were not rushed during our time at Salar de Uyuni and were able to bear witness to perhaps the most impressive sunset I’ve ever seen.
Prior to this trip and despite having already spent a month exploring Bolivia, I hadn’t realised just how geographically diverse this country is and the three-day tour really reiterated this.
With everything from colourful lagoons, to volcanoes and rocky outcrops, the scenery never failed to impress and frequently left me in awe of Bolivia. Both of our drivers were professional and competent and I never once felt unsafe, despite many of the roads being in desperate need of smoothing.
Whilst I don’t think a guide is 100% necessary for a tour of this nature, there is no doubt that Hector hugely added to our understanding of Bolivian landscape and culture as well as being a great companion across the three days.
With so many horror stories regarding Uyuni tours, it is imperative to go with a trustworthy and reliable company. I am pleased to say Altitude Alliance Travel was definitely one of these and truly gave us a trip to remember!
Currently backpacking Bolivia? Read more in our comprehensive travel guide!