Jan 6, 2012

Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni and Southwest Circuit

The Salar de Uyuni is maybe the main attraction of Bolivia and one of the most famous in Latin America. It seems to be very hard to visit the Salar and the southwest of Bolivia without a guide, most of the roads being on unmade terrain and the roadsigns and markings nonexistent.

It is common to visit the Salar on a one day trip but as we planned to cross the south border to Chile, we opted for a three days tour leading us to the Bolivian/Chilean border.

Our group of six foreigners was composed of an Argentinian girl, an Italian boy, a French couple, and the two of us.

Lino, our nice and competent driver/guide/cook, a former cop

We started the trip around 11am, only half an hour late! In fact we were very lucky: another group which was traveling with the same agency (Empexsa) waited for a driver.. that never came. Our guide told us that New Year's celebration in Bolivia can last a week!

The first stop was for an antique train cemetery which, with the arrival of numerous jeeps, becomes a huge playground for excited travelers.

All the jeeps of all travel agencies then stop in a craft market for tourists. Losing half an hour there seems the price to pay before arriving at the beginning of the Salar.

Located on the Altiplano at 3.650 meters, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with nearly 10.600 square kilometers. It offers amazing oneiric landscapes and resources of salt and lithium (between 50 and 70% of the world's lithium reserves) for Bolivia.

A radiant sun welcomed us increasing the UV radiations with the reflexion on the water.

At the beginning of the Salar, the salt is quite crumbly and melt with water (when it rains). On this part we saw some workers shoveling pyramids of salt.

All the jeeps stop for lunch at a Hotel de Sal (salt hotel) which becomes internationally crowded. It is the only part of the country where we saw a lot of Japanese.

The Salar is the ideal place to take some stupid pictures like those ones:

Continuing our road south the salt became harder and the reflexion on the water stronger. Our camera got crazy with the luminosity and took some strange abstract pictures.

We spent the first night in a recent salt hotel which was less cold than we would have expected. Everyone had a private room with bathroom. However the showers were outside and cost 10 bolivianos! The evening was nice but short. We had to wake up at 5am the next day.

 At Atullcha

The second day of the tour is mostly about swallowing kilometers heading south and making some breaks at various view points or local curiosities, more or less interesting. We felt like in the Dakar Rally. The landscapes were passing before our eyes, changing fastly.

Valle de Dali (4.250m)

Flamingos at the Lagoon Cañapa (4.100m)

Lunch was in front of a volcano. Unfortunately after lunch it started raining and, as we were going higher in altitude, the rain turned into snow.

Lunch at the Mirador Volcan Ollague (4.200m)

The landscapes became radically different and our hostel was already under 10 centimeters of snow when we arrived. The accomodation was more than basic. No shower, no electricity after 9.30pm, no isolation whatsoever (the roof was leaking on Luis's bed, and on several spots in the eating area). We all changed to add three or four layers of clothing. The spaghetti that were served for dinner did not help warming us: they were cold and not really eatable. Anyway the evening passed smoothly and we all went to bed in the same dorm around 9.20.

We woke up at 4.45am after a cold night, a two hours drive to the Bolivian/Chilean border ahead of us. In between we made a few stops, the most interesting of them being a field of geysers.

Geysers (4.700m)

Geysers (4.700m)

At Aguas Calientes

However we had the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads: with snow the Chilean authorities usually close the border (4.350 meters). The day before, the border only openned at 4pm. The bus we had booked was supposed to leave the border at 10am.. But would the border be open??

We arrived at the border at 9.30am only to find we had to wait. The border was closed for the moment and the Bolivian immigration officer had no idea whether it would open or not. There is no communication between the Bolivian and the Chilean sides of the border.

Finally a jeep went to the Chilean side and came back to tell us that buses should come and pick everyone up around 11 or 12am. We waited. The back up plan was to go back to Uyuni (at least 8 hours with a jeep) and to take a bus the next day at 5am to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a 10 hours ride.

At 1.30pm we were asked to enter the office to have our passport stamped. Two buses came but not the one from the company we booked. Luckily Lino agreed to drive us to the kilometer 33 (on the Chilean side of the border) where a bus was waiting for us..

Chile, here we are!


  1. Brilliant article!
    Thank you for sharing, David

  2. Meilleurs voeux de bonheur à vous deux !
    C'est génial, ce que vous faites et merci pour ces magnifiques reportages !
    Danielle et Serge

  3. Coucou les loulous,

    Vos photos sont magiques !

    Gros bisous


  4. Fantastic world! Siete meravigliosi! e belle le foto! Robi

  5. Merci à tous pour ces gentils messages! :))
    Des gros bisous