Travelers tend to visit Uyuni for one reason only: to see the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni. At 10,582 square kilometers and at an altitude of 3,656m, the Uyuni Salt Flats are an incredible, surreal, other-worldly sight. A number of our friends who have traveled around South America visited Salar de Uyuni and all of them raved about it, so we were really excited to see this amazing natural phenomenon for ourselves.
We stayed in a great little place called Bunker Hostel which turned out to be ideal in terms of location – it was next door to the railway station where we would be catching our train to the Argentinian border, and opposite the offices of Hodaka, the company we had decided to do our Salt Flats tour with.
Our decision to go on a tour with Hodaka was largely due to a great review of them on the travel blog Along Dusty Roads – our bible for this trip – and because they offer 1 day tours for a very reasonable price. Most tour companies in Uyuni offer 3 day tours of the Salt Flats, but because at this point we were getting conscious of the need to save as much money as possible before crossing into Argentina, we decided to just do a day trip.
The morning after our arrival we were picked up outside the Hodaka offices at 10.30 by our English speaking guide and met our tour buddies for the day – a couple from China and a guy from the USA. We were then driven just outside of town to visit the train cemetery, a giant graveyard of rusty old locomotives that have been left to rot out in the desert sun. Uyuni is an important transport hub in South America, and in the 19th century plans were drawn up to build an even bigger train network out of the town, but due to technical difficulties and conflict with neighbouring countries the project was eventually abandoned. Not knowing what to do with all the trains and equipment, these were simply left behind and forgotten. It is quite a strange and almost eerie sight, all these giant old machines dotted around in varying degrees of decay, but what is possibly even stranger is the lack of health and safety precautions surrounding the area – not only are none of the huge, jagged-edge metal structures fenced off in this massive tetanus playground, but our guide even encouraged us to climb all over them with nothing more than an obligatory, “please just don’t fall off anything” to caution us. We couldn’t help but think this would never be allowed in a million years back home!
After the train cemetery we were driven across the Salt Flats to what was the original salt hotel of Salar de Uyuni, but is now in such a state of disrepair that people no longer stay there. The hotel dining room however is still standing, and this was where we stopped for lunch.
The next item on the agenda was the famous Salt Flats perspective shots. Our guide took us out to our own spot away from all the other tour groups and pulled a bag from the back of the jeep containing a number of props including a Pringles can, two plastic dinosaurs and a beer bottle. He then began to set up a series of perspective photos, both for all of us in a group and individually, which saw us drop kicking dinosaurs, dancing out of the Pringles can and tightrope walking across boot straps. It was such a lot of fun, and our whole group got some fantastic shots.
After the perspective shots we visited Isla Incahuasi, a strange little rock island jutting out from the middle of the Salt Flats. This island is the remains of an ancient volcano and is made up of coral-like structures of fossil and algae, left over from when the whole area was submerged in an ancient lake. We spent an hour walking around the island and climbing to the top of the rocky outcrop, where we could see the blazing white landscape stretching out all around us. Our guide also told us that Isla Incahuasi was once used by the Inca people as a place to stop, rest and trade goods when travelling through the Salt Flats.
Our last stop after the island was a place on the Salt Flats where water has collected, allowing us to take some amazing mirror photos as the sun was setting. At one point our guide had us climbing on and off stools to take some funny pictures, which nearly involved me ending up on my face in the water a couple of times! After the sun had gone down it was time for us to head back to Uyuni, driving across the great white planes as the moon rose in the sky and cast an eerie glow over the landscape.
It really was a magical day, and something you can’t miss if you are travelling to Bolivia. We are so glad we did it, and also in our case very happy with our decision to do the one day tour – you do get to see some more cool sights if you sign up for a multi-day visit, but for us our experience was more than enough. When we got back to town we had a bit of time to eat and have a short nap, before heading to the train station at 2am to catch our train to Argentina.