An excursion into Bolivia to see the salt flats has always been one of the top items on our trip bucket list. The only option is a guided tour as you’re led hundreds of miles through the middle of nowhere for three days, so it isn’t something you can do on your own. The tours drive you through southwest Bolivia stopping at one epic spot after another and culminates with the actual salt flats on the last day. One reason most of it is in the car is that you’re at very high elevation (10,000-15,000 feet above sea level). Due to the altitude you never want to walk for a long period since you get winded doing most anything physical.
An overwhelming amount of companies do these tours. Luckily we met a Canadian couple in Mendoza who had just done it and recommended World White Travel which has tours departing from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile where we’d be prior. So once in San Pedro we booked the 3-day/2-night tour and paid extra for an English speaking guide (obviously worth it).
To kick it off, a shuttle picked us up from our hostel before sunrise. It took us through Chilean immigration then an hour drive away to the Bolivia border station where we would meet our guide and transfer vehicles. And by “border station,” I mean a run down building in the middle of nowhere with a Bolivia flag out front. We were happy to see the line of tourists quickly getting their stamp and on their way, but realized none of them were American and we require a tourist visa plus $160/person. So we filled out the paperwork and had our $320 in US dollars ready. We step up to the counter and the border officer takes our money and promptly throws it back at us muttering a bunch of stuff in Spanish we didn’t understand. We were so confused. We did our homework and knew you had to pay in Bolivianos or US dollars, so what’s the problem? Via hand charades we managed to figure out he was claiming the dollars were “ripped” so they wouldn’t accept them. For the record, there were no rips just some slight bends on the edges. Most of our crisp dollars didn’t cut it either, a few had serial numbers that were “unacceptable.” They had had enough of us, called the next person in line and escorted us out of the building. Cue panic! We prepaid in full for the tour that was about to leave, were in the middle of nowhere and had no place to quickly go exchange more money. Just as I started to imagine what it was going to be like to fend for ourselves in the Bolivian desert, we managed to track down our guide for help. Luckily him and another guide were packing US scrilla so long story short, they exchanged us some dollars then loaned us the rest which we would pay back once we got to Uyuni. Phew, crisis averted! Welcome to Bolivia.
Over a quick breakfast (Trav’s was eaten by a seagull while he packed the car) we met the other four people in our group who turned out to be an absolute blast– Jess and Graham from the UK and Nathalie and Sabrina from Switzerland. We crammed into the Toyota Land Cruiser (all tours use them as they are the only vehicles that can handle the terrain), put our backpacks on top and were on our way! We had an awesome guide Neffy, he had a solid playlist in the car, loved him some Sia and was extremely handy helping to fix three broken down vehicles throughout our trip.
The next three days were filled with the most incredible scenery we’ve ever seen. No exaggeration. Car rides were breathtaking as you are in desolate areas with diverse topography that’s consistently changing as we drove across desert, mountains, volcanos, geyers, lakes, and valleys. Even the lakes changed colors from white, to green to red. We saw wildlife like llamas, flamingos, birds and alpacas. We also had the chance to take a dip in a thermal pool which of course had a great view. But at the high altitude you had to be careful to not stay in too long for fear of passing out.
The first night for lodging we stayed in a facility that solely houses groups doing these tours. It was pretty bare bones with one large room for dining, bedrooms each with five twin beds, then a shared bathroom with a few stalls (no shower). Local families run it as a business and do all the cooking which was actually pretty good considering the facilities they have to work with. There is no heat and electricity is turned on every night for two hours so you can charge cameras and have light to eat dinner. Then lights promptly went dark at 9:00pm so we had an early bedtime. The second night we stayed at the cutest little hotel made completely of salt! Yes, salt. Walls, tables, pillars, floor, and chairs, all made from salt blocks. I even licked the wall to be sure (I know, pretty gross). Trav and I had our own room, a hot shower and there was electricity around the clock. The little things.
The salt hotel is about 15 minutes away from Salar de Uyuni (the salt flat), so on the third and final day we woke up at 5:00am to drive out and catch the sunrise. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world at over 4,000 square miles. It looks like a sea or desert of salt that just goes on and on. Stepping on it feels like you’re stepping on ice because it is so crunchy and completely white. The vast white space also creates some crazy photo opportunities since you can’t tell depth perception (check them out at bottom of the post).
I’ll let the pictures speak for the rest, but all in all, the trip was amazing and I would recommend everyone to put it on your bucket list. There literally is no other place like it in the world.