“One, two, three… jump,” yells Elvis our guide. Easier said than done at 3656 m (11,995 ft) but I muster the energy for the requisite crazy photos on the world’s largest salt flat. We are on a 4-day Salar de Uyuni tour, traveling from Tupiza, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile with La Torre Tours. Our off-road journey takes us across the giant salt flat and through volcano-studded landscapes dotted with outrageous rock formations, flamingo-filled lakes and steaming geothermal fields.
We know right away we have scored a great crew with Elvis our English-speaking guide, Leo our driver, and Agustina our cook—definitely an over-the-top indulgence having three staff for the two of us. Our Land Rover is loaded with food, fuel, supplies and oxygen. The latter alleviates a bit of our angst about the almost 5000 m (16,404 ft) elevations we will be reaching.
Day 1: Stunning landscapes, salt flat sunset and a salt hotel
From Tupiza, La Torre’s headquarters, we drive steadily uphill into the Bolivian Altiplano (high plain). Enrique Iglesias croons through the SUV’s speakers. Why does everything sound so sexy in Spanish? It’s an elixir for my nerves on the curvy gravel path with its precipitous drops.
Our excitement about seeing the salt flat is high, but there are many impressive sights enroute. My favourite is Ciudad del Encanto, with scenery right out of a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon.
We arrive at the Salar de Uyuni in time for sunset. A thin layer of water covers the salt. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a frozen lake that’s just beginning to thaw. “It’s thick,” Elvis assures me, “several meters in places.” The salt crust extends as far as the eye can see. It covers a pool of brine that acts as a levelling agent and gives the Salar its extraordinary flatness.
Our April timing is perfect for the coveted mirror effect when portions of the salt flat become a shimmering reflection of the sky. The water reaches just to the top of my soles and I cavort on the shiny surface like a kid in a puddle.
By the end of day one, we are feeling the altitude. Mike has a splitting headache and mine is simmering. It’s time for coca leaf tea (a traditional remedy for altitude sickness) and a comfortable bed at the Palacio de Sal, a stunning hotel built almost entirely from salt. We are overwhelmed by the luxury of our room.
Day 2: Fotos locos, Isla Incahuasi and a wet drive
It was a rough night for Mike, but his headache is gone the next morning. I can tell he’s on the mend by the way he enthusiastically poses for Elvis who takes fotos locos (crazy photos) of us. The trick photography that shrinks people to miniature and grows toy dinosaurs into ferocious giants is enabled by the Salar’s epic whiteness and endless horizon.
As Leo skillfully navigates the 4X4 across the salt flat we get a sense of the size and exquisite barrenness of the place. The Salar de Uyuni measures 10,582 sq km (4086 sq miles). There are distractions here and there: salt harvesting operations where workers shovel piles of salt into huge trucks; a salt monument dedicated to the Dakar Rally that has rumbled across the Salar the last two years. Hidden underneath the salt crust we learn about the massive deposits of lithium, reportedly the largest reserve in the world.
Was the sun playing tricks on me…an “island” surrounded by a sea of white? As we get closer, we see that the rocky outcropping of land is covered in towering cacti. Isla Incahuasi (Inca House Island) is not really an island, it just looks like one. We climb to the top of the hill along a path of fossilized coral. “It’s the the remains of an ancient volcano that was submerged when the area was covered by a prehistoric salt lake,” Elvis tells us. “The Incas used this landmass as a refuge on their journeys’ across the salt flat.”
While we were exploring, Agustina has exchanged her traditional Bolivian garb for a starched chef’s uniform, her jet-black braids extending from underneath her toque. We are treated to a tasty tailgate lunch at Incahuasi—a current day pit stop for Salar de Uyuni tours.
We experience some off road excitement (and stress for Leo and Elvis) as the water covering the salt flat gets continually deeper. We can see where we’re headed, the elevated track in the distance, and hold our breaths that we don’t get stuck in the salty slush. It is just one of several occasions that affirms our decision to use a skilled and respected company like La Torre.
Day two ends at the far western edge of the salt flat, at Hotel de Piedra— a rustic but comfortable place built of rock, salt blocks and cactus wood. The thin air and a hearty local dinner of quinoa soup and chicken stew knock us out. We are asleep by nine.
Day 3: Rocky fun, lots of llamas and their sexy cousins
Cool rock formations beckon me to climb on day three of the tour. Mike is happy staying below taking photos. Some spots, like Italia Perdita and Anaconda remind us of the geology of the US Southwest. Others, around Valle de las Rocas and Laguna Negra are pure Seussian fun, sculpted into fantasy creatures by nature’s forces.
“That’s it, reach your foot down just a little more,” Elvis says calmly as he senses my anxiety. We’re at the top of a marvellous rock structure at Italia Perdida (Lost Italy), and like a cat, I’m afraid to go down. I’d read that the name comes from an Italian traveler who disappeared there, but Elvis presents a more tourist-friendly version explaining that the lava rock formations are reminiscent of the lost city of Pompeii. It’s something to ponder as I gingerly make my way down.
Seeing large herds of llamas is still a novelty for us and I’m sure our crew was chuckling as we snapped hundreds of photos. But vicuñas, wild cousins to domesticated llamas, seem to impress even Elvis. “I call them sexy llamas,” he says. It’s a good nickname for these graceful creatures.
A small change in itinerary has us sleeping at Villa Mar (3900 m/12,795 ft) on our final night. The original plan had been to stay at 4300 m (14,107 ft), at a nicer hotel. But after Mike’s miserable first night we decide to play it safe— feeling OK at a basic hostel is better than an excruciating headache (and maybe worse) at a fancier hotel.
That evening, Elvis cracks open a bottle of Bolivian red wine. It’s a lovely gesture but we’re both leery about drinking and only take tentative sips. We’re getting old and cautious…perhaps a good thing.
Day 4: Flamingos, bubbling caldrons, hot springs, volcanoes…
It was indeed a good decision to stay at lower altitude and go easy on the wine. We feel rested and ready to tackle the high altitude attractions of day four. One of our favourite moments of the tour is at Laguna Colorado. The lake has a striking red hue from an algae that is much loved by hundreds of flamingos. The colours, the birds, the volcanoes in the background—it’s a very special place.
I wonder when the uphill drive will finally end. We are heading to Sol de Mañana, a geothermal field at 4950 m (16,240 ft). The thin air and sulphur smell create a hostile environment but the otherworldly allure of bubbling mud cauldrons and steaming vents is extraordinary.
Back down a few hundred meters, we soak in hot springs overlooking a ring of Andean volcanoes. “Time to go” Elvis motions. It’s like dragging a bunch of little kids out of pool. Our Salar de Uyuni trip is coming to end and we are loath to leave.
Luckily, there is no anticlimax as sometimes happens at the end of a marvellous journey. Nature’s drama continues to unfold as we travel toward the Bolivia-Chile border, through the surreal Desierto de Dali, and past freakishly green Laguna Verde with perfectly formed Volcan Licancabur looming above it.
Now, months after our trip, we’re still feeling the high of the remarkable Salar de Uyuni.
IF YOU GO
Many tour agencies offer Salar de Uyuni tours starting from Uyuni and Tupiza in Bolivia, and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. La Torre Tours , who get my highest recommendation, offer a variety of group and private trips of varying length and comfort levels (budgets).