Salar de Uyuni & Bolivia's SW Lunar Landscape

Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
Trip End May 2010

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ever since Ben's trip to Bolivia in 2006 when he first started talking about the Salar de Uyuni, we knew a journey into this remarkable landscape would be on our itinerary. After a spectacular day of horseback riding in Tupiza, we were already on a high and stoked for our four day journey that would take us across surreal landscapes of salt plains, hot springs, geysers, coloured lagoons, volcanoes and flamingos!

Our Land Cruiser loaded and ready to roll! Daniel, our driver, was a young Bolivian student who has been a tour guide for the last four years between university semesters.

We managed to hook up with three other folks who we'd met on the horseback adventure the day previous! Our Salar group from left to right: Emma (Eng), Lindsey, Ben, Andy (Aus), Ciara (Eng)

The first few hours, our Land Cruiser climbed from Tupiza up canyons to the altiplano at approx. 4200 meters (13,800 feet). We stopped at many small villages that subsist on agriculture (quinoa, llamma farming), small, cooperative mining operations (gold, tin, silver), and manual brick manufacturing.

Plenty of llamas to see!

Most buildings in the small villages of Bolivia's southwest are made of these small, deep reddish brown bricks. The mud and soil of this region is used to not only make these villages' buildings, but are also exported to other areas of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

We were stoked to see that solar is making its way into these villages as a viable option of electrical power. Some of the villages nearer to Tupiza have electrical lines running from Tupiza, but most have generators that are run from 6-9 or 10pm to provide electrical lighting (all lights are efficient Compact Fluorescent), semi-warm showers and televisions or radios.

Though our accommodation was basic throughout our trip on the Salar, it was better than camping in tents. And, our cook, Carmen, made fantastic meals throughout the trip. We really didn't expect to eat very well at all, so fresh veggies, soups and nutritious meals were a great treat.

The second day, we arose early (4:30am) since we apparently had much distance to cover on very rough road. We found the first day fairly uncomfortable; seven people crammed in Land Cruiser from 10:30am to 7:30pm, not a bit of it on paved road. We were somewhat hesitant about the second day to say the least!

In 2002, a very long and cold winter caused several llama herds to die. The shepards collected the bones and scattered them across this area as an offering to Pachamama.

The landscape really started to open up after we descended from the 4850-meter pass. Flamingo-filled lagoons began appearing with regular frequency. Daniel sped through a lagoon of Borax while explaining the process of Borax extraction. The majority of Borax that is extracted is exported to Chile where the Borax is used to make plates, cups and other random household products. This situation is not uncommon in Bolivia where other South American countries (and some international companies) exploit the raw resources from Bolivia and then prosper in the downstream manufacturing and productization of these resources. This situation, among other reasons, helps explain why Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.

Our first stop of the day: 6008-meter Volcano Uturuncu and a salt lagoon. We're only at 4850 meters (15800 feet)!


We stopped at Aquas Calientes for a dip in the hot springs and a scrumptious lunch. This dip would be our only "shower" of the trip. And we were all showering together!!

The landscape turned downright surreal as we sped out of Aquas Calientes.

(Both pictures) This particular area is named after the famous surrealist, Salvador Dali: the Dali Desert.

We then visited Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur. At this point, we were only 20km from the Bolivian/Chilean border and the Atacama Desert - the world's driest desert.

Laguna Verde and Volcan Licancabur

On our way back, our trusty Land Cruiser got its first flat tire. Ben and Lindsey were on the scene to help-or at least get in the way.

Just as we finished swapping tires, the clouds dropped low and opened up on us. It started snowing like crazy and our stop at the geyser field was a mix of breathing sulfur gas while navigating through the blizzard. We didn't stay long.

Daniel navigated the roadless route to that night's accommodation, for which we were thankful. Others arrived throughout the evening. One particular Jeep group we met earlier had a new driver who spent five hours driving aimlessly in the blizzard to finally arrive at the outpost at 10pm.

We arose to a snow-blanketed landscape and sunny skies! What a magnificent contrast to the previous day. We stopped at the famous Laguna Colorado with views of hundreds (maybe thousands) of flamingos.

Flamingos on Laguna Colorado. Tough to get good shots of these guys.

The next stop was one of our favourites: the crazy Arbol de Piedra.

The bizzarre rock formations were perfect for a little morning bouldering in the middle of nowhere!

Lindsey hanging out in the front of the famous Arbol de Piedra (rock tree). The last bit of last night's snow melting away.

We sped off the other lagoons that day and finally reached the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.

Wannabe honeymooners

Another flamingo

A group shot of our last night on the Salar trip, and after some bad wine. Our accommodations were in a building made mostly of salt blocks. The bed frames, tables, etc. were all made of salt blocks too! Was pretty trippy.

The journey out onto the salar was something special. We arose at 5am to catch the sunrise on the salar! The Salar de Uyuni is a 10,000 sq km expanse of salt that is perfectly flat, sitting at ~3600 meters. It is so flat, in fact, that the salar is used for calabrating satellites in space! It is surrounded by volcanoes and contains approx. 10 billion tons of salt as well as half of the world's lithium, which may, in the future, be used to power the world's next generation batteries. There are a few islands that jut up out of the salar, which make it even more surreal!! There are endless opportunities for amazing photography on the Salar. We captured a few good ones.

The salt flats just before sunrise with a little water left on the salar from a previous storm

You can really get going fast when it's this flat and straight!!

These hexagonal shapes are formed as impurities in the salt migrate to the natural pores that exist between salt and water layers in the salar. The impurities gather at the edge (sort of like dirt and other impurities in the our skin migrate to their surface of our skin pores).

Classic salar group shot with our driver and cook, Daniel and Carmen, up front

The flats are known for the lack of perspective, allowing for silly photos like this...

...and this...

...and this

Lindsey and Emma getting some airtime

Another flat tire on the salar!

One of the islands jutting up from the salar has a small hostal. We stopped to roam around the catus-covered island! The volcano in the distance is Volcan Tunupa.

Extracting salt

This car is in pretty good shape considering it sits next to the world's largest salt flat!

A couple tips for the Salar trip if you end up going...

1. You can go from Tupiza or Uyuni from Bolivia or from San Pedro de Attacama in Chile. It's cheaper to go from Uyuni than Tupiza for the full tour (Uyuni offers 1, 2, and 3-day tours whereas Tupiza only offers 4-day tours), but we feel it´s worth it to go from Tupiza if you can for a few reasons: 1) Tupiza is a beautiful little town where you can take other fun excursions like the horseback-riding adventure we posted in our last blog, whereas Uyuni is lack-luster, 2) If you go from Tupiza, you lead up to the Salar on the final day, which is more of a climax, whereas if you come from Uyuni, you`ve already seen the best part and the rest might be less exciting in comparison, 3) You have the option to finish in Tupiza or Uyuni for the same price if you leave from Tupiza, which could save you some money and time on another bumpy bus ride, whereas if you leave from Uyuni, you only have the option to return from Uyuni, and 4) You sometimes end up paying for the cheapness of the tickets from Uyuni in other ways. For example, they sometimes don't provide a cook and jam up to seven people in the jeep to save money on their end, which is really uncomfortable!

2. If you do the Salar trip, calculate how much you will need ahead of time and get all the money out for the Salar and beyond in Villazòn if you`re coming from Argentina. There is currently no cash machines in Tupiza, leaving you to either get a cash advance (and pay a lot of fees) in Tupiza or pay what you have in Tupiza and the remaining amount in Uyuni. We took the second option and when we arrived in Uyuni, the only cash machine was down! Dozens of people from the Salar trip were in the same predicament as us. Luckily, we called our travel company and they let us pay directly to one of their bank accounts on Monday from Potosì and we had friends nice enough to let us borrow money from to buy our bus tickets to Potosì.

There are many more fun photos on our Flickr site!
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bramjw on

Hee hee...
Love the tiny Lindsey, two flats though? How many spare tires do you bring on that trip?

As usual, I do not feel worthy of these amazing pictures. You guys rock.

therunningdog on

I can only imagine..,,
....the interesting perspective shots you could have gotten with your RiLikpa in the foreground!?!?

And all along all I can think about is how hot J-Park42 is!!

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