If you’ve followed the blog for a while now, you’ve probably seen that the common theme in some of my photos are of sunsets. I’ve enjoyed many of them whilst equally enjoying many beers at the same time trying to solve the worlds problems. On the other hand, Full moons are something I’ve never planned for, but the ones I saw in Bolivia during the Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats of Uyuni) tour just blew me away. Definitely one of the HOWAWESOMEISF*CKINGNATURE moments and a highlight of my time in Bolivia and South America.
Prior to the tour, I had spent three nights in La Paz which I used as a base to prepare myself for the trip. Up until now, I had no warmer clothes because I had no need to in the warmer climate of Central America and the northern countries of South America. Three days isn’t too much in the capital city, but by now I was well and truly in my zone out of big cities and didn’t want to spend more time than needed there. For me, La Paz is a crowded city and with exhaust fumes constantly billowing every car, bus and truck in the city. Also, Bolivia is still a bit behind the times where smoking is still allowed indoors, thus the hostel was smelling a bit like an old ash tray 24/7. Get me outta there!
The journey to Uyuni takes about 11 hours on an overnight bus. The first section where you’re the most comfortable and fed dinner is on paved roads earlier on in the evening, however the majority of it is on gravel roads which hits you around midnight. I’d been told that busses in South America were cold and bumpy however this was quite extreme. The temperature had dropped overnight where the windows were frozen over by time sunrise came up. After 6am it was quite impossible to stay asleep and there were a number of short stops to let traffic through at the bottle necks so we just had to grin and bear it for the remainder of the bumpy trip.
Uyuni is a town that was discovered in 1890 and was used as a trading and transportation hub that connects La Paz, Calama in Chile, Potosi and Vilazon. It also was used by the mines that would transport minerals from the nearby sulphur mines. Our plan for Uyuni was to only stay there for a day to book a tour of the Salt Flats that would drop us off at the Chilean border after 3 days and then catch a bus to San Pedro in the Atacama desert. There isn’t much else to do in Uyuni and with the number of tour operators, it wasn’t difficult to find a range of quotes for a tour.
After some research, we ended up going with an agency called Brisa. They were actually one of the cheapest which wasn’t our priority, and they did get a good review on Tripadvisor. Our first choice based on other peoples recommendations was Red Planet however, with a group of six people who I had met along the way, it was difficult to secure a tour to start the next day. From my previous research, there were quite a number of stories of drivers being drunk all the time, but my impression was that most of the tour operators have cleaned up their act and offered an acceptable standard of service.
Day 1 – Salar de Uyuni
The salt flats in fact are’t that far from Uyuni. Every promotional shot you’ve seen of the different perspectives and people in crazy poses with plastic toys, are taken from an hour away. But the salt flats tour is more than that. Before we get there though, our first stop was the locomotive graveyard about five minutes drive from Uyuni where old trains go to rust and die and young locals with poor graffiti skills go to town on them. Afterwards, we stop at Colchani which is a salt mining town where they also sell a lot of touristy stuff. What’s a tour without stopping at places like this yeah? After this, we head straight out to the salt flats where in the distance you can see the reflection of the mountains reflect off the surface even though it is dry. Our guide ‘Nefy’ explains that light refracts off the salt crystals to give the mirror effect. Cool eh?
We stop briefly at a point where the local miners manually shovel the salt into piles prior to transportation. There’s a lone miner not too far from us and he starts telling us off so we just move on to where we have lunch and then start setting up props for our silly photos. To be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of taking these photos. If you see a lot of my photos, there aren’t many of me in them. I’d rather be the one behind the lens, but when in Rome yeah…?
After bypassing the opportunity to check out a touristy salt hotel, we headed to Incahuasi Island where we can hike up a hills in the middle of the salt flats amongst giant cactus’ to get a 360degree view of the salar. A lot of the cactus’ were flowering and there were also Al Pacas roaming around which was odd despite being in the middle of nowhere and with no water source for them except for the toilets facilities that had been constructed for tourists…in the middle of the salt flats.
Whilst enjoying a chat over a Quinoa beer, somebody points out of the window to the distant horizon where the moon is rising. I have an app which tells you the moon cycle so I knew it was a full moon, but it was still daylight which caught me off guard a bit. This thing was gigantic like what you would see in magazines and always scream out “photoshopped”. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a full moon rise but by the time I could grab my camera and run outside, it already a decent way up in the sky. On previous shots of the moon, I’ve only been able to just get the moon in the shot an crop the hell out of the image in order to get any detail, but seeing it against the distant mountain range was quite magical.
Day two: Lagoons and flamingo poo
By now, early morning starts on a tour becomes easier the more times you do it. After a 6am wakeup to view the sunrise and breakfast, we continue on to check out a few of the lagoons that dot the desert mountain ranges. The first one being Kanapa Lagoon where we see quite a few flamingos. These guys seem to have it good with their main purpose in life to eat and provide photographic opportunities for tourists with massive zoom lenses.
We’re told there were more at the next lagoon, so we are back in the Land Cruiser and head to lagoon number 2: Laguna Honda which is also referred to as the Stinky Lagoon. The smell’s pretty bad, caused from the sulphur content in the ground and water. There are indeed more flamingos and at this particular lagoon they seem to poo a lot. Dark and sloppy poo, perpetuating the stench and black like mud that the hugged the edge of the lagoon.
Afterwards we continue through the Chiguana desert area where the scenery includes a number of extinct volcanoes plus the semi active Volcan Ollague . From here, we start climbing up even further and further into what I would imagine would looks like Mars. The colours, landscape and terrain continually change, from vegetation to desert and a crop of massive boulders and of course the famous Arbol de Piedra “tree of rock”.
We end our day at the Red Lagoon which gets its name from the red sediment and pigment present in the algae. Here there are hundreds of flamingos and the the water is protected from the wind, giving off a beautiful reflection of the distant mountains.
Day Three: Geysers and bone chilling altitude
Third and final day is a short one as the Chilean border is just behind the volcano Licancabur. We start again around 6am and it’s quite cold at this altitude around 3,500m. We keep climbing and climbing in elevation it seems like we couldn’t go any further and the full moon is still bright and suspended in the morning sky even though the sun is well and truly up by now. We eventually arrive at the Sol de Mañana Geysers where the earth bubbles with smoke escapes from her bowels and smells like rotten eggs. We’re advised to stay away from the edges as they are known to collapse with the danger of falling in and being poached in a sulphurous mud bath.
Afterwards, we head on our final leg of the trip down to the hot springs followed by the Laguna Verde. By now it’s about 8am and nearly zero degrees, meaning that nobody is really in the mood for a dip especially when the wind is gusting quite heavily.
When we arrive at Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), it doesn’t seem that green. Apparently it’s changed its colour of the years and seems like a normal colour now. Given the amount of time we spend at these locations has become less and less over this final leg, the general vibe feels like we just want to get to the border, bus it to San Pedro Chile, have a hot shower and chill out.
Although it’s called the salt flats tour, it was the combination of all parts that made the trip for me. Despite being cooped up on the back and middle seat in a 4WD most of the time, the views were never boring and had my attention the entire time. From salt flats to deserts, lagoons, mountains and geysers it all felt like five separate trips in one and for at a ridiculously cheap price. Just when I think I’ve seen quite a bit on this trip, something else manages to astonish and remind me that this is a mammoth continent and the current pace that I’m going at is way too fast.
Other useful info:
- Stayed in Uyuni: Piedra Blanca Backpacker Hostel. US$10 a night which is expensive for Bolivia but remember, you are in the middle of nowhere. Comes with ‘breakfast’ of bread, jam and coffee
- Transport from Uyuni from La Paz – US$35. Leaves from the main bus terminal at around 8:30pm and comes with dinner and breakfast. Make sure you bring some additional warmer layers as it will get cold in the early hours before sunrise.
- Salt Flats Tour: US$110 with Brisa Tours. It was the shoulder season so prices may fluctuate. Make sure you do your research beforehand and visit various operators to compare prices. The more people in the your group the more difficult it will be to get a very good one for the day after arriving if you’re looking to organise a tour to leave the day after you arrive in Uyuni.
- Additional Costs not charged: National Park Entry: US $22 on the third day.
- Eat: To be honest I didn’t find anything that great in Uyuni. If you find something nice then let me know!
- Cost of tour: Remember that the cheaper you negotiate it, the lower the standards might be. Although I thought our accommodation and food was ok, others may still expect the world. So consider this and ask for a menu or photos of where you are staying and beds to a room etc fore booking the tour.
- Power: The accommodation up here is pretty simple so don’t expect too much, including power and heating. The power is only switched on for a few hours per night so when it comes on, be ready as there are about twenty chords plugged into the power board.
Checklist of what to bring :
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- Warmer layers, beanie and gloves for the evening and early morning starts.
- Main meals provided but bring extra snacks and plenty of water (about 3 litres should be enough) although you can buy some on the scheduled stops and hostels.
- Props for your salt flat photos. If you want decent looking shots then it’s best to bring something that is around 20cm+ in height to use.
- Make sure you phone and all of your gadgets are fully charged.
- Toilet paper and wipes.
Have you been to the Salar de Uyuni? Share with me your you funny perspective pics and maybe you can change my mind about appearing in them 😉