Salar de Uyuni by Combi – I AM Family Adventure Trip
Bolivia’s famous star, Salar de Uyuni, is simply the the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers of pure white and by far Bolivia’s most important tourist attraction.
Located at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level and with less than 1 meter of variation over the entire expanse is estimated to hold as much as ten billion (!) tons of salt.
Not only, the underneath brine is estimated to contain somewhere between 40% to 50% of the world’s lithium reserves (though no extraction operations are currently operating — the Bolivian government strongly distrusts the foreign corporations who wish to do so).
More interesting facts about this natural beauty:
- The salt is over 10 meters thick in the center. In the dry season, the salt plains are a completely flat expanse of dry salt, but in the wet season, it is covered with a thin sheet of water that is still drivable.
- Apart from the islands (which are home to giant cacti and the chinchilla-like Viscacha), Salar de Uyuni is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation. Exception is made by three species of pink South American flamingo which are using the salar as a breeding ground.
- As the largest salt flat on Earth and usually with clear skies, Salar de Uyuni makes an excellent place for satellites to calibrate their altimeters.
- The salt is over 10 meters thick in the center. The center is considered to be around Incahuasi Island.
- Tours are available from the nearby towns of Uyuni and Tupiza, generally ranging in length from one to four days. The standard price from Uyuni for most companies is similar (100$ for the 3 day tour with a basic accommodation and around 25$ for a 1 day tour).
Another major tourist attraction is an antique train cemetery. It is 3 kilometers outside Uyuni and is connected to it by the old train tracks. The town served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals en route to Pacific Ocean ports. Honestly, we didn’t found it so major but it was worth giving it a try. The kids were super happy to hang around the steel like graveyard playing hide and seek and we had a nice half an hour coffe time. In the cemetery you won’t find anything to buy but as we came with our combi-house, we’ve made our coffe on sight.
Anyway, our last post was about North of Chile and we’ve skipped the long and hard road to Bolivia, climbing again with our combi at more than 4200m altitude, we can say that the border crossing from Chile to Bolivia was kind of a joke. We’ve reached the border around 8 PM and we’ve crossed it without realizing it. The next day we returned to stamp our passports and we did it without any problem. We left the car in the nearby Bolivian village with our pets and we walked to the border. The next 500km through Bolivia were much easier than we expected. The roads from the Chilean border to Uyuni turned out to be a breeze. Before reaching Bolivia we had been told that the roads are awful and that Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America. Neither of these did we find to be true. The roads are good but Bolivia is more expensive (than Peru at least), by far!
As we didn’t hit any major city on our way to Uyuni, we camped in our combi. I can say that the cold made us creative and we heated big stones on the stove. Yes, we have a house like gas stove in the car. At -15 degrees Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) at night it was harsh. The days are mild in this period, between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius (50 – 68 F).
As we are five we couldn’t afford a tour in the Salar. There were not only the financial reasons, but mostly because of our pets, we didn’t want to let them in the car for so long. And besides, we wanted to make some pictures with our classic ’74 Volkswagen Combi in the middle of the salt desert. And we’ve made it!
It was the only 2×4 car in the desert and, as Bolivians said, the only cat that they ever saw in the desert.
We stayed for four nights in Salar de Uyuni. To drive through the desert during this period of the year is relatively ok. You can see easily the routes on the perfectly white desert and helped by GPS, we’ve reached all the major points from the salar.
The ugliest part are the 5 kilometers from Colchani to the entrance of the Salar de Uyuni. The dirt road is simply tearing your car apart. We drove only in the first gear and 5 kilometers took us one hour driving. The roads in Salar are crystal clear comparing with that 5 km road.
Another important thing for those who want to venture into the salar by themselves is gasoline. In the salar we drove more than 400km so take some spare gas with you. Not an easy thing to do, with Peruvian plates, in Bolivia. Bolivia subsidizes their fuel pretty substantially. Locals pay roughly $2 per gallon of gasoline; foreign vehicles are paying around $4.5/ gallon. The big gas stations will not sell to you with the cheaper price due to cameras but you can speak with a local and ask his help to buy gasoline for you, with a little fee of course. As a hint, as you are entering Uyuni, pass the gas station on the right and after 200m on the left there is a car repair shop. Ask for Gonzalo and he will sell to you with a cheaper price.
At the end of the one hour drive from the main road to the salar itself, we were hit by a surreal landscape. It has been endlessly described as being like something from another planet, but that description really is accurate.
As you enter the salar and going straight, no more than 10 minutes driving we saw the Dakar monument and the flags zone. There you can find a salt hotel also. This is the first selfie moment in the salar.
The next stop was Incahuasi Island. I cannot say if it is to the West, North or any cardinal point but by some kind of miracle we reached our target directly. The entrance fee for visiting the island is 30 Bolivianos wich includes a free overnight spot in a big room. No heat but it’s not like outside. We decided to stay overnight, to see the stars and the sunrise. Incahuasi Island is the mystical heart of Uyuni and right in the top of the island there is ceremonial aymara sanctuary.
The view is heartbreaking and the silence invites you to meditate. The “cactu” plants seems to be from the ‘’ Avatar’’ movie in the light of the sunrise or the dawn. Camping in the desert is quite dangerous overnight. The Salar is a major car transport route across the Bolivian “altiplano”, except when seasonally covered with water, and it can happen easily to be hit by a car.
The next three nights we spent at the base of Tunupa volcano. The nights were milder than in the middle of the salar. At least there was no wind! At the base of the vulcano there are laying one after another some old villages where time has stopped. Nice people, nice food, a lot of tracking tracks to reach the vulcano crater and some prehistorical caves with well preserved mummies due to the natural dry and cold climate.
These 3 days we wandered around, we went to where the salt is covered with a thin film of water to experience a walk-on-water sensation and take hundreds of photos. That is a major impulse in Salar de Uyuni, to continuously take pictures. However, as many pictures as you may take, with the sunrise, the sunset, the cacti, the salt, you know that you will also have to stop, pause and “fill yourself” with the scenery as the sensation cannot be captured by camera.
As for the kids, that enjoyed every moment, asked as usual a million questions and used the salar as an enormous playground.
As nothing happens by chance, here we met Max. An Argentinian overlander who cured himself by a stomach cancer after 8 years of agony. As we’ve felt a connection from the beginning as if we were brothers, we decided all of us to continue together to Paraguay and further down the South.
After five days in the Salar we made sure to get a thorough car wash in Uyuni (60 Bs), as the crusted salt is horrible for the underside of your vehicle, before hitting the highway to Potosí.
What to bring
- Coins and small bills – The bathrooms aren’t free to use in the Salar and as we discovered, they don’t have change for 100Bs bill.
- Sunglasses – The whiteness of the salt flats is blinding.
- Camera, extra battery and loads of memory cards – There are no better pictures than here.
- Extra water – Very important!!
- Sunblock, lip balm and hat – At 3700m above sea level there is significantly less atmosphere to absorb the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
- Sleeping bag
- Warm clothes – Layered is best.
- Rubber boots
- Extra snacks, dried food – you cannot find easily something to buy in the salar. Normal food will freeze during nights.
To Bolivia we came through Chile. You can find our trip adventures here!