Salar de Uyuni: Tourist Trap or Tourist’s Treasure?

Many people have told me that Salar de Uyuni is a “must see” in Bolivia. Others have said that it’s not worth sitting in a hot Jeep for three days straight. So who do I believe? I decided to risk the tedious Jeep ride and see for myself. Having spent most my time in cities for the past few months, I was ready to see some of Bolivia’s unique natural beauty. It took 14 hours, one sweaty bus ride and a late night train, but I arrived safely in Uyuni, ready for a 3-day excursion into the salt flats. Tip: Do not spend a full day in Uyuni. There is nothing to do. Two hours is more than enough.

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There were 6 of us tourists, plus our driver, in the Jeep. In the morning, we loaded up and head out for our first stop, the train graveyard. Tourist trap, I thought, as we were instructed to get out of the car and take photos. From what I could understand (my Spanish is still limited) these trains were built in the 1800s and used to transport minerals to the Pacific, but the indigenous people persistently attacked the trains because they threatened their traditional lifestyle. Eventually the trains were abandoned and never cleaned up – typical.

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We drove a bit more before reaching a small pueblo on the outskirts of town. There, we stopped again. 50% of the people in this town earn a living by making crafts from the salt, our driver said, this is the last place to buy souvenirs. What a tourist trap, I said aloud this time, beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

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Finally, by midday we were headed off to la salar. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, expanding over 4,000 square miles, and is actively mined for its lithium and salt. We spent the entire day driving across it, stopping for several hours along the way to have lunch in the middle of nowhere, take ridiculously fun (yet touristy) perspective photos and hike up la Isla de Incahausi, a random island of giant cacti in the center of the flat.

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By sun fall, I realized I was sunburnt to a crisp and exhausted. That evening we settled into a beautiful little hotel made of salt on the edge of the flat and enjoyed a typical Bolivian meal of soup, fried chicken and potatoes.

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Day two began at sunrise. After an early breakfast, our group piled back into the Jeep, leaving the salt flat for the southern lakes. It was a long, bumpy ride through the desert that morning, but we were eventually greeted by a string of volcanoes straddling the Chilean border.

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By lunch we had reached Laguna Hedionda, a major breeding ground for several species of pink flamingo. I have never seen a flamingo in the wild before. It was breathtaking to watch these striking birds feed in the lake’s shallows. No pictures could do it justice.

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Again we loaded in to our Jeep, which by this time was the same color as all the rest: dust colored. After a couple more hours of driving, we stopped to take photos of Arbol de Piedra, a rock formation shaped by the strong desert winds, before continuing on to Laguna Colorada, the red lake.

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This was stunning. Definitely worth all the touristy parts and the bumpy car rides to get to this. A lake that shows blood red from the algae; home to flamingos, and streaked with white from a plentiful supply of Borax. A photographers dream to say the least.

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Our wake up call came at 4:30am the next morning. We dressed quickly in the cold darkness, eager to race the sun to Solar de Mañana, the geysers. It was no Yellowstone, but it was pretty incredible to see how the landscape changed from salt flats, to desert, to lake, to volcanic gas. This geyser country reminded me of what the moon might look like, and stank of sulfur.

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Before long, we had made our way to las Termas de Polques, some natural lakeside hot springs. It was still early in the morning, so the air was refreshingly cool against the hot water and the steam provided a temporary relief from the dryness. Although swarming with tourists, it was nice to sit in the warm pools and swap stories with other travelers.

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Finally, we arrived at our last stop, Laguna Verde. However, it was not much of a verde when we got there, making this mildly disappointing. Apparently the wind was not strong enough to break the reflection and let the green of the algae show through, so we didn’t stay long.

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For the last time, we got back into our Jeep and started the 8 hour journey back to Uyuni. The drive back was horrible. It was painfully hot and we had to keep our driver awake by blasting French hip-hop and Lady Gaga. Everyone was coughing from breathing in the dusty air. Eventually made it, safe and sound, back to Uyuni, with only a minor case of heat exhaustion. Tip: Continuing south on the third day to Chile avoids the long leg back.

Overall, I’d have to go with the majority and say that Salar de Uyuni is one of the most unique attractions Bolivia has to offer. A tourist trap in many ways, but not of the worst kind. Plus, you really do get some spectacular photos.

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