Friday, December 3, 2010

Salar de Uyuni - trip of a lifetime?

We´ve been seeing and experiencing all kinds of amazing landscapes on this trip. One we were intrigued to explore was Salar de Uyuni. So we took the only viable option: a 3 day, 2 night 4x4 trip plus an overnight bus there and back from La Paz, making for 4 nights in total. The Salar is a bleak desert that is not reasonably accessible any other way.

If you think about this trip, here are some things you might consider:
Our fine travel companions from Norway at Laguna Verde.

All 4x4 share a similar route along a bit of infrastructure.
  1. 8 to 10 hours on the bus from La Paz to Uyuni one way. More than half this time is on unpaved roads.  Basically, you gotta be OK with a rough ride. The bus drivers seemed very confident in their skill and vehicles: they motored through anything at roughly the same speed. Note: There is a train that is more comfortable.
  2. Do you want Salar de Uyuni only? There is a one day 4x4 excursion you can take, instead of the 3 days. The 3 day trip has 1 day on the Salar and then heads into the mountains to explore lagunas, flamingos and volcanic landscapes.
  3. If you go for the 1 day only, then you likely will spend a night or two in Uyuni. Uyuni is rustic, but then again, if you visit the countryside in Bolivia rustic is your thing, right!?
  4. Your 4x4 will break down. It´s best to be confident in your driver´s ability to handle such breakdowns. Ours changed tires 2x and then handled the running out of gas situation. Our travel companions were pretty relaxed about this sort of thing, but depending on the tourist´s expectations and driver´s competence that could be really stressful. After all, you are in what you might think of as the "middle of absolutely nowhere" - which is why you came here (but that can be easily forgotten, when things get rough).
  5. If the itinerary changes, is that always bad? Well, in our case it was good. The place we stayed at the first night was awesome and brand new. But really, we were supposed to be in a whole different town about 2 hours away that night. Again, the driver (a competent 21-year-old), made it so and it worked out very fine.
  6. Chances are you will get sick ... OK: in our sample of 6 people, 2 got very sick (major gastro) and 2 had some lesser gastro trouble and 2 stayed healthy. Again, if Bolivia is your thing, you will be prepared to deal with such sickness, but from what I observed a landcruiser with a driver and cook and 6 tourists is a pretty tight spot to feel sick. 
  7. You are booking 3 days in a 4x4. The only stops are for taking pictures, 10 or 20 minutes at a time. Lunch is longer, of course. It´s a ton of landcruiser time. Make sure you are ready for that mentally and physically. Note: the people in the back row are in a tight spot, with no leg room to speak of. So, if your group has large or tall people in it, be aware of the potential for discomfort on that count, too (At least, most people I saw taking this trip were pretty fit looking, adventure type travellers.)
  8. You will get up early, one day it was 4:30 am to leave at 5, so we could make it back to Uyuni by about 6 pm. A long day of driving for everyone. One reason for this is to make the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile for the border-crossers. Pretty surreal to see the seeming randomness of 4x4s and busses meeting in the high sierra at 10 am or so to exchange people.
  9. You will be hot, you will be cold. The desert dust could get a bit much; actually that´s why windows get rolled up and no air conditioning is used ... which is why you will get hot.
  10. While the Salar is at about 3,600 m, the high point of the 3 day trip is actually at 4,800 m. You´ll spend 2 days between about 4,200 and 4,800 m. Even if you are well acclimatized this can be a challenge due to the extreme aridity here. 4,500 m in Peru´s Cordillera Blanca felt way easier than 4,500 m in this place! So, drink even more water than usual on this trip to at least try to stay hydrated. Of course, this is really hard to do when you are the one with the gastro issues...
Volcanic rock formations are cool ...

And we did see quite a few of them.

Geysers are interesting, even at 6 am.
The $64,000 question is whether given the lived experience of the 3 days, 4 nights would we do this one all over?

My thought is probably not. But then again, I am not sure we would have gone all that way for just a day trip either. And I am happy to have seen these landscapes, especially the Salar.

I wish they could develop the area for hiking. It´d be stunning. However, given the harsh and high mountain environment that seems like a very long shot. In part because there seemed to be very few natural water sources left in the area (really, it is bone dry!), so that human habitation is very sparse and only exists on the edges of the Salar.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on good moments and ... less good moments. A trip like that is about adventure, and most of them are good ! Guy

  2. There is now a flight option between La Paz and Uyuni. Worth checking out as an alternative!