This was why I came to Bolivia. It was the sudden fire of enthusiasm in my brother’s eyes when I mentioned which part of the world I was visiting, and the shock and horror when I mentioned that I’d never heard of the salt flats. Anything that produces that reaction, I decided, was worth seeing.
And I (or he, more accurately) was right. The popular three-day trip to the Uyuni Salar was one of the most breath-taking trips of my life. It is not an easy trip, over rough terrain and no roads for most of the journey, travelling six to a jeep and staying in the most basic accommodation with no heating at -16 degrees at night, but wow, it’s worth it.
You should know that all the tour companies do exactly the same thing, go to the same places, stay at the same hospedajes, and eat more or less the same kind of food. The difference, I am given to understand, is the drivers and guides. Some are drunk. Some are lazy. Some fall asleep at the wheel (not as dodgy as it sounds, on an empty salt flat where there’s nowhere to go, but still not exactly what you want). But most, it would seem, are perfectly nice and competent people who just want to do their jobs and show you their country. Get recommendations from others on your journey – you’ll be fine. Just remember that you can haggle the price down and you won’t go far wrong.
Day one of the tour involves going to a railway cemetery (so much cooler than it sounds – I don’t know many places where you can climb all over nearly a hundred year old rusty trains) and then onto the salt flats themselves. It’s a mind-boggling place – just sheer white, as far as you can see, like being on the world’s biggest ice-rink. They’re certainly the world’s biggest salt flats. You can take those funny photos and generally have a great time. It’s stupendously beautiful, and definitely not to be missed. You also visit rocky islands within the flats, which are covered with giant cacti and provide fantastic views over the flats. It’s very cold, but very sunny, and even absurdly high factor sun cream isn’t going to do the job. Wear a cap and keep anything you don’t want burnt covered.
Both nights of the tour will be spent in the kind of accommodation that people who get all enthusiastic of rough travelling in the name of culture call “basic”. It’s dark. Literally, actually, because in at least one place the electricity goes off at 10pm, and did anyone mention bringing a torch? Ever played the game of finding-things-to-provide-light-because-you-forgot-your-torch-/-left-it-on-a-bus-/-ran-out-of-batteries? It’s fun. So far we’ve used the LCD glow on a camera, the bright white light from my iPod that blinds people when you’re trying to search for a new album in the middle of the night and a candle cut into three pieces (“you’ve got ten minutes before this thing runs out; go brush your teeth!”) Good times. Other things to be prepared for include no running water (after three days, the dirt will be ingrained into the lines of your hands), mattresses shaped like bananas and, as mentioned above, minus 16 degrees Celsius at night with no heating whatsoever. The extreme gorgeousness of the stars at night out here just about makes up for it, but it’s a close call. But quite simply, if you want to do this tour (and you must), you have to stay in places like these: there is no other accommodation. Brace yourself – it’s all part of the experience!
Day two involves driving further south past some gorgeous lakes to see some flamingos (warning: by May they’ve nearly gone, having the sense to fly off to somewhere warmer) and some general natural beauty, before entering the expensive (150Bs) but very beautiful Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, in which you’ll spend your second night. By this point you’re really into wild territory, and you feel utterly isolated from towns and cities. It’s a great feeling.
And day three is up to you: you can do the eight hour drive back to Uyuni, or instead go to the border with Chile and head to San Pedro de Atacama, depending on how rich you’re feeling. Either way, you pass through the mountainous desert on the border, driving through the “Dali desert”, full of weirdly eroded rock formations, and past gigantic volcanoes of reddish rock. It’s a bizarre and wonderful place, and utterly fantastic. You also get to go and see geysers at nearly 5000m, which is quite an individual experience, really impressive and a bit too sulphury!
All in all, this is not a trip to be missed. It’s not easy or comfortable, and you do have to be prepared for that. But it doesn’t matter; I’ve never seen landscape more incredible than this, and I can’t possibly regret a moment of it. Nope, not even the moment on night two when I lay in my sleeping bag under five blankets and wearing the clothes I had been wearing for thirty-six hours straight and was still freezing. Not even then.