A Trip to Salar de Uyuni: Salt Flats of Bolivia

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Why I went to Bolivia?

At the end of my second year of University I decided I needed to go somewhere, anywhere. I just wanted to go. It was a toss up between Asia and South America and for some reason. South America just appealed to me more at that point. The Bolivia tour compromised cities, small towns and the mystical salt flats: Salar de Uyuni. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that they were my main reason for picking Bolivia. But Bolivia had variety, and since I didn’t really know what I wanted a bit of everything was my best bet.

My mum was aware I was contemplating booking a trip but she was trying to get me to at least rethink how far I was going. Even though I’d be in a group and she trusted me I felt like she didn’t love that I was going alone at such short notice. But the Tour was only for 11 days, I’d be away for just 2 weeks including travel time. I’d still be home for most of summer.

As it happened, the same time as I was in the travel agents booking my trip, my older sister, who has done a lot of travelling herself, was visiting my mum. They were in the middle of talking about me wanting to travel. My sister was encouraging her that it would be good for me and my poor mother talking about how she might try to convince me to leave it for now. The phone rang, “Hi mum, can I get my passport number I’m booking my trip!”

And that was that!

Salar de Uyuni: A quick background

So Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometres. It’s covered in this weird two metre thick crust of salt, and yes it does feel very crusty. I did a cartwheel on it and it hurt my hands.

The salt flats are perfect for photography. As you can see the vast expanse is completely flat. That means that you can have great fun with perspective. No doubt some of you will already have seen some of the really cool photos people have taken. This is one of my favourites of myself. But we also took some really cool ones in groups. You can easily find ideas for pictures by looking at hashtagged pictures of the salt flats. The best ones are of course the most creative.

Spoiler Alert: It gets cold

Surprise surprise is gets REALLY BLOODY COLD AT NIGHT. It can reach -21 degrees celsius cold. Here’s a picture of me being really cold at about 6am in the morning standing in the dessert. We were waiting to watch a sunrise which really wasn’t worth that amount of cold. We had to sleep in all our clothes as well as in an extra sleeping bag. I didn’t shower at all during those three days. The cold genuinely wasn’t worth it. Come to think of it I’m not sure I changed my underwear even. Like that cold. Any amount of the cold was too much cold. I’m getting carried away talking about the cold but I need you to understand how cold it was. Look at that face. That face is not of somebody who is warm.

What else is there to see round the salt flats?

Train Graveyard

Before you reach the salt flats many tours stop at the eerily cool train graveyard. It’s a prime spot for interesting photography and you’re free to climb all over the rusting trains. During their time the trains were used by mining companies. However when the mining industry collapsed because of mineral depletion the trains were left to rust. There’s not really much else to say about the train graveyard but it’s definitely another interesting place to take photos. Supposedly there are proposals to build a museum next to the train graveyard.

Isla Incahuasi

This strange rocky outcrop is overrun by huge Trichocereus cactus slap bang in the middle of salar de uyuni. It’s actually a former island which is easy to see from the strange dried coral like structures all over the surface. The island is actually the remains of the top of an old volcano which was submerged 40,000 years ago when the entire area was a prehistoric lake.

Now, Isla Incahausi is overrun with tourists visiting the salar. There is an entrance fee for a trail around and to the top of the island, a visitor centre and a café. During the wet season when the salt flats are flooded the island is inaccessible so be aware if you’re visiting Bolivia during this time.

Geiser Sol de la Manana

On the outskirts of the salt flats we also visited a geothermal field. The area is alive with volcanic activity with steaming sulphur springs and mud pools of thick grey boiling mud. The smell of sulphur is strong here. Rather than a traditional geyser shooting water there is a hole that emits pressurised steam that goes up to 50m high. It’s a really cool place to see but you definitely need to be careful walking round the pools and steam pits. We were told a story of a tourist who was walking too close to the edge and their leg slipped down into a pool and was badly burnt. Despite this warning one guy from our tour decided to make the most of the experience by peeing in a steam pit. Luckily there were no repercussions for him.

Lakes

Laguna Verde & Laguna Colarada are two of the main lakes that tourists tend to target round Salar de Uyuni. Laguna Colarada is coloured red by the algae that live in it. The Laguna Verde is coloured green by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and other heavy metals but for some reason will only colour up when it’s windy. Even if you don’t catch the green in the lake there’s still a great view of Licancabur Volcano behind it. There are many other lakes located all around the Salar including a white lake coloured by the Borax in it, clear blue lakes and even yellow sulphur lakes.

Flocks of Flamingo

Salar de Uyuni is home to many flocks of flamingo. In November the Salar hosts breeding season for three species of pink South American flamingo. During our trip we came across many flocks of flamingo chilling out in the lakes where they feed from algae. The noise was incredible, but of course as soon as we got close enough to get pictures, off they flew! Besides the flamingo there isn’t much else in the way of nature because the salt flats are so barren.

And more!

My trip to the Salar only lasted 3 whole days sadly but there was loads more to see. Some other things we saw along the way were smoking volcanoes and rocks that had been shaped by the sand to look like trees. I highly recommend visiting the Salar, there is nowhere like it on Earth and it’s a photographers paradise. I’d love to go back there now as a more experienced traveller and see even more of what it has to offer.

I’d love to hear your own experience of the salt flats. What was your favourite sight? Let me know in the comments!

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3 Comments

  1. June 4, 2016 / 2:28 pm

    I love the story of how and why you booked your trip! Heading to Salar de Uyuni myself in a week or so – are they really that cold?!

    • June 4, 2016 / 3:05 pm

      Thank you! I thought it was pretty funny, not sure how my mum feels about it!!! You’ll have an amazing time!!!! In the day it’s fine but because it’s a desert the temperature drops a lot at night, so that’s the cold bit. Also there’s quite high altitude. Particularly if you’re staying there then you need to remember that the guesthouses in the middle of nowhere don’t have much in the way of heating and electricity. If you can fit a sleeping bag in your backpack (I had mine strapped to the outside) I’d recommend one, or just layer up! Enjoy your trip 🙂

  2. November 8, 2017 / 12:20 pm

    Beautiful images. I love your blog because I love to travel 🙂

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