Bathing in a 'white sea'

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
Trip End Sep 04, 2011

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Here was a day when I was moving further south to warship beauties of destination, which I have considered not to be only a highlight of my South American journey, but also my whole RTW trip - Salar de Uyuni. I doubt that there is a single person who would never hear about this world natural phenomenon, a12, 000 sq km salt flat sitting at lofty altitude of 3,653 masl. I remember how impatient I was, when preparing my RTW itinerary, about seeing this remain of the pre-historic salt lake, which used to stretch through most of the south-west Bolivia. Once the lake dried up, it left us a few salt pans with Salar de Uyuni being the biggest one.

Knowing that the bus trip from Potosi to Uyuni is quite picturesque, I could not do otherwise than to take a day bus. What a great decision it was! Not only that the bus ride led through a bone-dry, western-like countryside framed by looming mid-high mountains, and on mostly rock-and-dust unpaved roads (it must however be said that there were intensive road works in progress along almost the whole road ), it also allowed me to meet my next 7-day travel companion - Eric from France. Travelling, or rather meeting new people, is one big co-incidence. It is all about being in the right place, and the right time. With a bit of luck you always meet nice people to keep you company. After 6 hrs of bumpy, but beautiful scenery ride we reached solitary and dusty city of Uyuni, a settlement sitting in a middle of desert-like countryside with cloudless sky above it. Folks, not having good sunglasses in this blinding environment equals to a suicide. Even though arriving as late as at 5 pm we were still hoping to get on a next-day-starting 3-day tour around salt flat. It might sound as too courageous goal, but not that much, if you consider that there around 80 travel agencies eager to book you into their off-roads. Then, it is all about picking a reliable tour operator. We did our circle of agency negations, experiencing front desk hunters not speaking any English, or totally off the face, to at the end sign  up to Oasis Tour. As Lonely Planet advices, we did not fall for the lowest price offer, as the cost cutting usually makes operators to corners of their services. Speaking of local agencies, do not expect any kind of professional organization. Most of them are just local family-run business.

3 days of an once-in-a-lifetime experience, a full board, transportation and accommodation - all that for just 750 bolivianos. That is what I call "almost for free". Once our backpacks and other equipment were loaded on and secured on the roof of our transportation means, Toyota Land Cruiser, we were ready to hit the road.

DAY 1 – 19 November
Just 2 km outside of the city is a place where you can return back in time to the beginning of 19th century, the train cemetery. At those times, most of precious metals mined out from the mineral-rich mountains around Uyuni were transported to the Chilean harbors using trains. The graveyard now serves as a touristic attraction, which allows us (tourists) to see a fraction of beauty of those steam-propelled monsters. Our next kilometers brought us to a small town of Colchani where salt is extracted. Visiting Colchani was a gentle introduction of what can be expected in a few minutes in Salar – salt, and once again salt. Piles of salt shoveled by a local guy, who was more than happy to let us take pictures; piled up salt bricks; buildings being erected from these bricks.  No more than a 5 minute drive from Colchani, and we entered a staggering scene of an eternal, blinding whiteness of Salar Uyuni. Like cake cuts, numerous tracks crisscross this vast, snow-white desert. Standing in the middle of this amazing place was truly a fantastic and very emotional moment. One big dream came true for me at that moment. To make this scene even more picturesque, not far from us, an old-fashioned truck was manually loaded by a few local workers with the salt scraped from the desert surface. As explained to us, the salt comes up from the underground when a rain comes. Stock of salt seems to be eternal here.

A short ride further inside of Salar, and you pass by a solitary construction camouflaged with the surroundings, a salt hotel entirely (besides windows) made of, what else than, salt. Driving on Salar's smooth surface feels like being on a highway where ending up in a car accident is as unlikely, as winning in lotto. Somewhere in the middle of this vastness, soaring up like a dark cloud, is Isla del Pescado (Fish Island). This piece of rock, covered by gigantic Trichoreus cactuses, offers an amazing view at surrounding “white sea”, and volcano slopes in a background. Would you believe that some of these cactuses are 1,200 years old; quite impressive.  After climbing up there and taking plenty of pictures, our on-board cook (she travelled with us in the car) invited us to the table-cloth set table with 3-course lunch. It was unreal how you are taken care of. By the way, the lama steak was delicious. Right after the lunch, Salar turned into one big photo shoot with most of tourists posing to make those famous Salarīs illusionistic pictures. We had our turn as wellJ.  Being on Fish Island, you can fully understood how big Salar tour business. I counted around 27 parked SUV, all of them with up to 6 tourists aboard. 

Unlike most of other tour operators heading south to spend a night in a salt hotel, our driver took an east-bound direction to check on a small hill featuring the Devil’s Cave, a cave used by pre-Colombian inhabitants, later turned into a graveyard. As mentioned above, Salar once used to be a big salt lake with corals and algae living on its bottom. An amazing fossilized piece of this underwater world was preserved in the Galaxy Cavern hiding in the middle of the Davil’s Cave hill. The countryside around this hill is also fascinating with strong winds raising high dust clouds on the surrounding desert being burned by an intensive sun.

We finished the day by arriving into a village of San Pedro, a place in middle of nowhere; just a desert and wind. Walking through its dusty deserted streets, seeing neglected house facades, and hearing echo of creaking metal doors literally felt like being in a ghost town. To be here and to see in what kind of hostile environment people can live was however a very precious and enriching experience. You realize that even here a life can thrive. At the end of my stroll I managed to see kids happily playing on the streets, or hear a pop-music coming out from one house. Checking yourself into such place can be a priceless therapy on hectic, and career-driven western style of life. And climate? Nothing pleasant! Even during a day-light a cold does not allow you to wear anything less, than at least a fleece jacket. Nights then get seriously chilly. Sleeping with pants and fleece jacket on, I still was covered by 6 wool blankets.

DAY 2 - 20 November
After a rich breakfast, we left San Pedro at 7 am to explore countryside so different from yesterday. Being outside of Salars, we were about to be spend the whole day driving through rocky or sandy desert with looming reddish volcanic cones, and colorful lagoons nestled in between them. Just a few minutes south of San Pedro is a beautiful site called Ejercite de Piedras (the Stone Army). When the pre-historic lake dried-out, algae covering its bottom was shaped up by winds and covered by sand. Both these factors then caused algae to fossilize. It was beautiful scenery. But the best was just to come. 

After crossing rail trails leading to Chile, and passing by surfer-colored top of 5,600 m high volcano Ollague, we reached Lagoon Canapa. Breath-taking, spectacular, stunning are words perfectly matching to this site where blue-watered lake, with hundreds of food-searching flamencos and grass feeding vicunas on its banks, reflects reddish slopes of background volcanoes. Truly surreal scenery somehow out of this world. I have never seen more beautiful place in my life. Visiting Lagoon Canapa started our “mini-tour” around volcanic lakes. The next to come were similarly beautiful Lagoon Hedionda, and Lagoon Honda. Do you see the white maps around the lakes’ shores? You say ice? No, it is a chemical called Borax, which is used for production of anti-perspirants.

To reach the last stop of the day, Lagoona Colorada - an adobe-red lake with abundance of flamencos, and extremely strong winds, we were driving through Siloli Desert where we were served with a view at beautifully colored Mountain of Seven Colors, and the Stone tree – a piece or rock shaped by winds and sand into something resembling to a big mushroom, or a tree.

After this long and interesting day, we were more than happy to spend a night in a basic lodge close to Lagoon Colorada. And one surprise at the end of the day. Would you expect to experience snowflakes after absolutely cloudless day? No? Neither of us. When I spotted “something” falling down the sky, nobody believed me telling me to stop chewing coca leafs. But I was so right, it was a snow! As we were said, it is nothing unusual. No wonder, as it gets freaky cold there after sunset.

DAY 3 - 21 November
The last day of Salar tours is mostly about driving back to Uyuni. Number of sites to be visited this day is just a fraction of what was seen the previous day.  We left the lodge at 4 am to head towards Sol de Manana geysers, a scene of boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles at altitude of 4,950 masl. The place gives you an idea how the hell can smell like. Do you fancy taking a hot bath in a middle of freezing wilderness? Then, the next stop is of your interest, as a natural hot spring with 35 degree Celsius warm water makes a great spot to relax at altitude of 4,200 masl. Even though the outside temperature was just 5 degree Celsius, the pool got quite crowded during our breakfast break. I resisted getting inside, as I trembled as an aspen leaf.

Another drive through the bone-dry countryside with absolutely no vegetation brought us to a new scene, a range of sandy slope with pieces of mid-range rocks sitting on them. Due to resemblance with Salvador Dali’s paintings style, the place holds his name.

Being propelled by a freezing and savage wind we arrived to the last lagoon, an intoxicatingly beautifully Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon). As its frozen waters shine in green due to high concentration of copper and arsenic, its waters remain deadly even for flamencos. Standing at the lagoonīs shore, we were all the way south-west in the Bolivian territory (Chilean border is actually crossing the summit of the volcano looming behind the lagoon) with Uyuni being 500 km north of here.  Before reaching Uyuni, we drop off half of our group at Chilean border, and the rest of us visited the Rock Valley where rocks, with a bit of imagination, look like people.

Our trip turned to be a history on Sunday, November 21 at 4.15 pm. All 6 of us who underwent this great, memorable trip were super happy with our tour agency, Oasis Tour. The driver/guide was responsible and drove safely; the cook prepared some delicious multi-course meals; and of course, the best was delivered by breath-taking countryside of Salar, and the south of it located deserts and in-colors shining lagoons. Neither Galapagos, nor Machu Picchu, or any other locations I have visited so far, cannot by any mean match this trip. Simply unforgettable and overwhelming experience.

Greetings from Tarija, Bolivia

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Faran on

Better than Galapagos, Macchu Picchu? You re kidding! Really?

I hope you get a notification for each an every single post I put up here on the blog... boom boom boom boom boom

luxguy on

For me, this was the best destination which I enjoyed the most. Absolutely fantastic place which makes you speachless many times.
Do not worry, all your comments go directly into my email box. Whenever I see that I have 19 or similar number of new emails I know that you were going through my blog. Keep your comments comming! I love them.

Faran on

Cheers buddy. I love you (sobbing...)

luxguy on

I love you even more!! ;-)

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