I’m not sure when we first heard about the Bolivian salt flats in Uyuni — maybe it was a National Geographic article about mineral extraction a decade ago. It described an island that provided the only refuge for tourists in a vast empty and harsh landscape. It talked about divisive tour operation practices that left human waste on the Salar and deep tire tracks on the salt surface. What a strange preconception to have floating in our mind! It was not a positive memory — it made visiting the Salar seem much more dangerous and logistically challenging than it was. In reality, visiting the Salar de Uyuni was a total highlight of our time in Bolivia.
Preparing for the journey:
The drive from Tupiza on the brand new Ruta 21 to the city of Uyuni was fabulous. We drove along a crazy mountain ridge all by ourselves for hours on perfect new pavement. We spent the night on the street in Uyuni, met up with Maayan and Chai from @practice_freedom, and then made plans to head out in the morning to prep the vans for the salt.
We had also made sure to fill our water tanks before we hit the desert — Uyuni and the surrounding area doesn’t have a lot of fresh water, and that was made doubly clear to us when we went to get the undercarriage of the vans washed and greased up. The lavadero we went to did not use ‘agua dulce’, but salty water to do the first rinse of the undercarriage before spraying everything (brake rotors included, be careful!!) down with used motor oil. The motor oil protects a little bit the undercarriage of the car from the salt — when we left the Salar we found another lavadero that uses fresh water to do a very thorough power wash of the bottom and engine bay – make sure to cover your alternator and starter with a plastic bag beforehand.
After washing and oiling and negotiating with folks near the gas station to fill ‘bidones’ (jerrycans) of fuel for us at the local subsidized price, instead of the ridiculously expensive ‘extranjero’ (foreigner) price for fuel – we hit the road! We left around noon, which was perfect as most the tour operators had left in the morning and we weren’t in a big queue to do the first water crossing onto the Salar.
Out on that great salt lake
As soon as we hit the Salar and all that was in front of us was white gleaming salt and a couple of Toyota Landcruisers packed full of tourists flying towards the Dakar Monument. We were in heaven. It’s such an incredible landscape and against the white salt everything is exaggerated — the blue sky is as cerulean blue as a sky can ever be and the sun is as golden bright as you’ve ever seen it. We were also at an altitude of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) which doesn’t hurt.
Our intended route in the Salar was a triangle — from the entrance to the Dakar Monument/Salt Hotel (gotta put a sticker up on that window), then to Isla Incahuasi (because it’s like the place to go), and then to find a campsite, and then south to the edge of the explorable Salar (at a certain point it is cordoned off for mining) and then back to the entrance.
The Dakar Monument was fun because there were so many people out there with big smiles excited to be exploring the Salar. Isla Incahuasi wanted 30 BOL ($4.30) to walk around the island (and use the bathroom) — we weren’t impressed, and moved on after making lunch.
For the next few nights we ended up at an island named TNA Island by other overlanders because it was so out of the way that you can hang out naked all day if you like — not personally recommended though with all that cacti and sharp volcanic rock and a really high UV rating and you know, lots of burning salt, but you do you.
This island, though, was amazing. It had all the fun of Isla Incahuasi – weird ruins, tons of big beautiful cacti, gorgeous views from the top, bathrooms (of the ‘dig your own’ variety) – while being free and full of vizcachas and explorable caves.
Sunset and sunrise on the Salar
The salar used to be a giant prehistoric lake (technically a series of lakes) – as the tectonic plates shifted and the Andes rose, there wasn’t anywhere for the water to drain. As the lakes dried out, the salt concentrated into a thick crust, in some places 10 meters thick, over a liquid brine containing huge deposits of lithium, magnesium, and potassium. The islands that rise from the salar are all that’s left of ancient volcanoes – they provide shelter for vizcachas who live among the giant cacti and shrubby aromatic bushes.
Since the salt we drove on is actually just a crust over a still liquid lake, you have to treat your approach to the islands the same way a boat captain would consider approaching land from water – with great care so as not to run aground and get stuck in the thick mud. We saw a lot of deep tracks where other vehicles needed to be dug or pulled out!
The Island and Cueva del Diablo
The next day we hiked to the top of TNA Island (also known as Cerro Phia Phia) to check out the beautiful Cueva del Diablo.
And of course you can’t go to the Salar de Uyuni without a few cheesy perspective photos.
Cementerio de trenes
Uyuni is a small town – it’s got a nice market and a great pizza place, but once you’ve checked those off you’ve really seen the town. The only other big attraction after the salt flats is the train cemetery where the trains of the old mining companies were hauled off to rot when the bottom fell out of the mining market here in the 1940s. We walked out there at sunset and had a pretty grand time crawling around on these old hunks of iron.
Thanks for reading!
until next time,
Camille + Ryan