The most difficult part while organizing a Salar de Uyuni tour is finding a reliable travel agency. Multiple stories about drunk drivers, fatal accidents, or even being left alone on the border, make you wonder if it is really worth the risk. Especially at the end of July, when winter weather makes the conditions even more extreme.
However, when it comes to South America, Salar de Uyuni was always one of my biggest dreams. So when we decided to visit Atacama desert on our tour before the Congress in Mendoza, I couldn’t resist extending it to Bolivian Salt Flats. After reading many more or less terrifying reviews, I finally decided on the Cordillera Traveller. Partly because of quite good reviews and affordable price, partly thanks to finding it in one of the old Lonely Planet guides. The 4 days/3 nights tour cost us 230$/pp and
Quick preparations in San Pedro
Before booking the tour, we received answers for all our questions and clear information about the next steps. Both, the email contact, as well as the meeting in Cordillera Traveller office, were handled by English speaking worker. The day before departure we went to the office to set up all the details and pay for our tour. Unfortunately, it turned out that because of bad weather (snow) we can’t cross the Chile-Bolivia border in San Pedro de Atacama and have to go further, to Ollague crossing, skipping the southern part (Geysers Sol de Manana, Desert de Dali and few lagoons). A random event that couldn’t be predicted 🙁 After the meeting, we did a small shopping to buy all the necessities (water, toilet paper) and went to sleep.
First day – volcano, lagoons and llamas
We spent our night in Hostel Ckapyn with nice backyard. During our winter stay it was a bit cold (outdoor bathroom), but it seems to be a perfect place for summer. As we had to cross the border in the more distant city, our departure took place around 5 a.m. We got picked up straight from the hostel by bus, which took all the participants to the Chile-Bolivia border.
Bienvenido a Bolivia!
It took us about 3 hours to reach the border, which was just a small barrack in the middle of nowhere. There we went through the quick customs and had breakfast on the Bolivian side. Our whole group from the bus split to smaller groups of 5-6. Each one with own 4×4 and driver for the whole tour. As there were only four of us, a young couple from Sweden joined us. From there, all Cordillera Traveller’s cars were traveling for the most of the time in a column, in the case if someone needed help.
The first sighing of our tour to Salar de Uyuni was Licancabur volcano. It’s located on the Chile-Bolivian border and considered a holy mountain by the Atacameno people.
Lagoons and flamingos
From the snowy border area, we went further into the Bolivian Altiplano to see it’s beautiful lagoons. Located on the altitudes of over 3000 meters (reaching even 5000!), these salt lakes offer amazing sights. Among others, we visited Laguna Honda, Laguna Chiarcota and Laguna Canapa. At one of them we stopped for the lunch.
Besides the peaceful and quiet views, some of them are inhibited by flamingos. Birds, that I’ve always connected more with Africa and other warm places, aren’t a rare sighting in these cold and deserted Bolivian highlands. You can spot there three different species of pink birds and their number in Laguna Colorada reaches even over 30,000!
Rock formations and llamas
After visiting lagoons and admiring flamingos, we moved further to see some rock formations and head to Villa Mar, where we had dinner and spent our first night. On our way to the “hostel”, we also get a chance to spot our first herd of llamas and alpacas.
Unfortunately, it turned out that despite traveling as a group of four pharmacists, we didn’t take enough preventive measures against the altitude sickness. As we were staying at approx. 4,000 m., one of our friends felt very ill and couldn’t enjoy the evening like others. We shared with her our medicines and our driver helped us with some coca leaves. Thankfully, on the next
Day two – canyon and rock formations
The second day of our tour to Salar de Uyuni covered different wind-formed rock formations. Starting with Italia Perdida – “the lost city of Italy”, called so for the resemblance to the ruins of Rome. A hidden highlights of this place are rock drawings which can be find on some of these
The next stop was a place with rock formations in many different shapes, including the Stone Camel and World Cup. Perfect place for posed photos and small climbing training for more sport-oriented people.
After the time spent in the rocky desert-like landscape, we came across a small lagoon with a herd of llamas. We stopped there to take a few photos with these adorable animals and set off to the next sight.
The next stop was also at the lagoon. Laguna Negra presents a really surreal landscape, as the rocky surroundings make it quite unique compared to others. It was definitely one of my favorites lagoons.
Our next stop was the Anaconda Canyon, whose name comes from the meandering shape of the river on its bottom. Besides the amazing views, I got a chance to spot there a rabbit-like Southern viscacha, the first Bolivian animal which wasn’t a domesticated llama/alpaca or wild vicuna.
After the day full of amazing sightings, we arrived in San Juan, where we spent our night in the salt hotel. Before dinner, we also took our time for a short visit to see the “city”, where we bought a few beers for the evening, including the famous coca beer based on coca leaves.
Third Day – Salar de Uyuni, cactus island and train cemetery
During dinner, we agreed to postpone the breakfast and leave before dawn to experience the sunrise in Salar de Uyuni, the aim of our tour.
The Uyuni Saltflat is a place that cannot be described with words. Everyone should experience, at least once in his lifetime, that surreal landscape and the feeling of being surrounded by infinite emptiness.
In the middle of this enormous, flat, salt desert you can find another surreal and unexpected place. Isla Incahuasi (Inca house), also called the Cactus Island – a hill with a total area of 61 acres, which hosts hundreds of gigantic cacti. And to make it even more abstract, it is actually the top of the remains of an ancient underwater volcano, from the times when the whole area was a part of the gigantic, prehistoric lake.
Salt hotel and train cemetry
Another interesting place in Salar de Uyuni is its first salt hotel, now closed for accommodation, but still open for tourists. With a small souvenir shop and many photographable objects, like salt chairs in llama’s shapes, flamingos sculptures or flags gathered in the front of its entrance.
The next and last stop of our Salar de Uyuni tour was the famous Great Train Graveyard, located about 3 km from Uyuni. The abandoned trains and locomotives come from the 19/20th century. Back then, there were plans for developing the rail network from Uyuni, which was an important transportation hub. Unfortunately, the project had to be dismissed and due to the logistics costs, the trains were left to rust.
End of the Salar de Uyuni tour
After the visit to Train Cemetery, we went to Uyuni which was a final stop for the part of a group which wanted to continue their travel in Bolivia or further to Peru. As we were going back to San Pedro de Atacama we got about 2 hours of free time to stroll around Uyuni and after that, went back to Chile with a new driver. On the way back we stopped again for the night in Villa Mar and reached our destination on the 4th day around noon.
Cordillera Traveller’s sum up:
- 2-4 beds rooms
- quite cold, but with the possibility of renting warm sleeping bags
- paid showers, with cold (or very cold) water
- poor access to electric sockets, but it was possible to charge phones/cameras in the staff’s rooms.
- Breakfasts and dinners in the hotels, lunches outdoors
- Fresh food for the whole tour, with lots of avocados and vegetables, wholesome meals
- They even served us a few bottles of wine in San Juan’s salt hotel!
- Unfortunately, only Spanish-speaking, but we could communicate with him with basic English and gestures
- Helpful in emergency situations (our friend’s altitude sickness on the first day) and very friendly
- Wasn’t drinking and was driving very carefully for the whole time
In general, the travel agency choice was very good – the great value for a comparably cheap price, without any major (or even minor) problems. Despite the forced change in the tour schedule, thanks to the Cordillera Traveller, the whole Salar de Uyuni tour was a really amazing experience.