That time we went on a Salt Flats tour!
When? August 2018
With whom? Martin, three crazy Brazilians, two honeymooning Russians, and a couple of French students.
A well-trodden tourist route usually involved hiking to Machu Picchu, crossing the Peru-Bolivia border at Lake Titicaca, spending a few days in La Paz before heading down to Uyuni to start a Salt Flats tour. This is more or less exactly what we did this summer, before heading into the Atacama Desert in Chile (a future post).
You can get a tour from La Paz for slightly more money, or you can get a cheapo bus down to Uyuni and pick up a tour from there. Most tours leave at 9.30am and the bus arrives just before 7am, plenty of time to find a tour operator, haggle your price down, and grab some breakfast.
The cheapest option we could find was from a company called “Laura Travel”. The owner explained the route with a giant map mural on the wall of his office and various other visual aids to entice us into entering this deal! He probably thought he was a fantastic salesman, when actually we chose him because he was the cheapest available. There are so many companies offering the same tour that you don’t need to worry about booking in advance, and most people were doing the same thing as us too. There are markets around Uyuni that began to open but we were hungry so prioritised food. After a bit of a nightmare with finding a cashpoint that was compatible with our bank cards (I suggest sourcing your money BEFORE arriving at Uyuni – we almost weren’t able to withdraw any money to pay for our tour, or for breakfast), we adopted a fellow Brit who had done the same thing as us and was waiting for her tour to start, and the three of us had breakfast together in a restaurant called . It was the only one open.
We met outside the office where we had bought the tour, meeting Maria and Gleb; two Russians on their honeymoon, Camille and Leah; two students travelling for the summer, and Pedro, Alex and Marcelo; a trio of Brazilian amigos exploring more of the continent. We had really lucked out with our group.
Our driver, Luis , piled us into the jeep and off we went to our first stop – the train graveyard/cemetery. This was as awesome as it sounds. I enjoyed how mostly 20-somethings and a 30 year old (Martin is the old man) reverted back to childlike tendencies, saw metal structures and scrambled all over them like a toddler on a climbing frame. We competed to get to the highest point off the ground, to find the skinniest bit of metal to shimmy up (like a backwards fireman’s pole) and to jump down from the highest point.
Top tip: rather than following the crowds to the trains on the right of the car park, turn left instead. For some reason, this part was completely empty so you don’t have to share your train with any intruders.
We were then taken to a small town called Colchani to have an average bite to eat and a wonder through the tourist markets. The food is usually included with the price of the tour, so no complaints here! The market is your last opportunity to buy warm clothing/sleeping bags, but if possible, try to make sure you have done so before to avoid high prices, or better still, haggle to include a sleeping bag in the price of the tour!
Then came our first glimpse of the salt flats. Luis stopped the car and let us out to play around in the iconic landscape of plain white that stretches on forever. We played around to get perspective photos with whatever props we had on us, mostly wine.
When driving on these planes, there are no roads nor any kind of reference point, so although we were hitting 80km/hr, it didn’t look like we were moving at all until we could see Cactus Island (its proper name is Inca Huasi Island), which was exactly what it said on the tin. It certainly looked like an island in the sun as the salt planes resembled the sea. Hundreds of cacti clothed a small raised land mass, with a marked out trail for the tourists to wonder round and admire. It didn’t take us long to duck under the barriers and make our own path.
We were lucky enough to watch the sunset from what felt like the abyss, as Luis took us to the perfect viewing spot in the expanse. We had the dry white salt plane, but we also had a few small lakes/large puddles, which provided everything with a startlingly clear and glassy reflection.
We left promptly to get to the salt hostel before dark, as with so few reference points on the salt planes it would become even more difficult to navigate once dark, but this did not quite go according to plan. Unfortunately, we got stuck in the salt which was acting like mud. We tried reversing, we tried pushing, we tried putting bits down under the tyres for them to find some grip.. It felt like we had tried everything except rescue.
The rescue didn’t go to plan either. Three of us walked to the hostel, which was about 20 minutes away, asking one of the other drivers to go back to help Luis and the rest of our group. Without hesitation, they showed willing, so off they drove into the darkness as heroes. Now there were two 4x4s stuck in the mud. If it weren’t so cold, this might have been funny. Fortunately, The third car was a winner, and was able to free the other two.
The hostel was mostly made of salt. Thankfully the bed linens weren’t, but the bed frame was, the chairs, tables, walls, floors, stairs, ceilings.. The bathrooms were not, for fairly obvious reasons, but it was still very impressive.
Day two will be my next blog post!
Tip of the week: if you want to have a drink on any of the evenings then BYOB. There were certain places we stayed that did sell booze but their prices were exorbitant. Most places did not sell alcohol. It is necessary to cope with the cold temperatures of night two.
Product of the week: A ski jacket! If you don’t have one, then you should buy one in the La Paz markets (so cheap!), but if you have a decent one then make sure you bring it! I would recommend Saloman ski jackets – this link will take you to the latest version of my jacket which I wear all the time (the UK is cold).
Info: As I mentioned at the start of the post, most backpackers arrive in Uyuni, find a tour and leave the self-same day. Some more careful travellers might book in advance. The two big companies are Red Planet and Banjo Tours, and for these you will need to book in advance, however, all of the tours are identical. If you request an English-speaking guide, you will have to pay more. We went with a Spanish-speaking guide, as between us we had a good enough understanding of Spanish that we felt we could get by.
Expect to pay between 120 to 220 USD for a three-day tour. This should include food but often you have to haggle entrance to Cactus Island and to the hot baths, moreover, you have to haggle a sleeping bag and this should be a priority. We huddled together for body heat under multiples layers of alpaca wool blankets on that final night at -22 degrees and we still didn’t sleep.
There are two day and one day options but everybody does the 3 days because you simply miss out on so much if you opt for a shorter trip. You can arrange to be dropped off at San Pedro in the Atacama desert (Chile) at no extra cost, or you can arrange to be taken back to Uyuni. Make sure you agree this before you leave Uyuni.