The Salar de Uyuni: What you need to know before you go.

The notorious salt flats of Bolivia have become something of a travel sensation in recent years thanks to all the fabulous, mirage-esque looking pictures on the Internet. Hoards of tourists diligently wade through the muck of Bolivia´s tourist visa process and then trudge across the country to its most remote, sun blasted corner.

All of this, of course, is for the opportunity  to snap a photo of themselves inside one of the world´s largest optical illusions.

The place that made perspective photos famous!

But is that all there really is to this destination?

And the answer is: Of course not!

So here are some important things to know before heading out to the Salar de Uyuni.

  • The Salar is only one small part of the incredible beauty in that región.

When most people picture the Salar, they think only of the salt desert that made perspective shots on Instagram famous. However, the standard Uyuni tour is 3 full days, which I highly recommend. Don´t cheap out and do the 1 day tour, you didn´t come this far just to cheat yourself. Only the first day is spent in the actual Salar that you know from travel photos.

Days 2 and 3 will take you to even more impressive places!

Surreal colored lakes that boast the highest altitude colony of flamingos in the world (colorfully known as the “frozen flamingos”). You´ll also see active volcanoes, take a dip in thermal hot springs, traverse painted deserts and a stone forest that will leave you wondering if you´re on another planet.

Laguna Colorada somewhere in the vast wilderness on day 2.

Like I said, spend the 3 days. You´re welcome.

  • The Train Graveyard is worth more time than you get on the tour.

Known locally as the Cemetario de Train , this visually stunning area came into existence thanks to the silver mining boom back in the 1800s. Uyuni was a little (but important) mining town between Potosi and the Pacific Ocean. Silver shipments would pass through on their way to the coast via train to be loaded onto ships bound for Europe and other parts of the Americas.

The town of Uyuni was an important stop on that journey, since they also had mining operations that sent their shipments via train to the Pacific. Today, the glory days of the silver boom have long since passed and more efficient ways of shipping minerals are being used.

Which has resulted in hundreds of abandoned train cars lying all over the desert.

You can see locomotives from  the 1800s-1900s scattered in a concentrated hulk of elegantly sculpted iron just outside the town of Uyuni like some magical, post-apocalyptic looking playground.

You´re allowed to climb all over the decomissioned trains and most tours stop here at the very beginning or end of their tours for about 20 minutes.

I stayed an extra day in Uyuni after my 3 day tour just so I could go back to this wonderland that looks like something straight out of a Mad Max movie.

Me being weird in the Cemetario de Train.

Insider Tip: If you decide to spend extra time here after your adventures in the Salar, try to go after all the tour groups leave (which is  around mid-day) and you´ll have the entire place to yourself! You can still catch a night bus out of town to your next destination same day.

  • The Salar is an eco-system under fire.

Believe it or not, there are endemic species of plants and animals that thrive in this merciless climate. Like so many fragile eco-sysetms throughout the world, they are threatened not only by climate change and commercial industries, but mass tourism poses an equal danger.

Because with tourism comes exploitation and garbage. Literally.

Having lived for many years in a resort economy on a small Caribbean island, I have seen first hand  what rampant, thoughtless tourism can do. Where as tourism can be great for economics, it can absolutely destroy the natural beauty and wildlife you´re coming so far to see.

It´s easy to get up close with the “frozen flamingos”, but be respectful!

I encourage visitors to support sustainable tourism (and operators who observe such practices). Pick up any trash you see lying around (even if it´s not yours) and spread  awareness of the issue. Don´t pick flora and fauna as a souvenir or harass the local wildlife.

Do your part and this wild, remote place will stay beautiful a lot longer.

  • The Salar de Uyuni is at higher altitude than you think!

A friend who recently came to Bolivia for my wedding was so excited to go to the Salar and take the 3 day tour. Sadly, there were 2 girls on her tour that had done NO research on the area and suffered so greatly with the altitude, they were forced to cancel their trip and return to Uyuni to seek medical treatment.

Here´s what most people don´t realize: The Salar is at 3,656 meters (or 11,995 feet) above sea level. You will also continue to gain altitude over the next 3 days as you progress toward the Chilean border, topping out at 5,000 meters (or 16,404 feet) near Laguna Verde on the 3rd day.

Welcome to Laguna Verde. It will literally take your breath away.

And you´re not gaining this altitude slowly. You´re gaining it in a 4X4 blasting across the desert at 90km per hour.

So if you´re even slightly prone to getting altitude sickness, then you will be sick as a dog and find yourself in a potentially life threatening situation. There are no medi-vac opportunities once you´re in the Salar and no hospitals either, so please take this into consideration before visiting.

If you´re not on a tight time schedule, you can acclimate in La Paz (which I recommend). They have modern medical treatment available and it will give you an idea of what to expect up here on the rooftop of the world.

  • The water or “mirror effect” usually only happens in the rainy season.

If you´re like so many who come to the Salar, catching the “mirror effect” from the water that´s occasionally present is your #1 priority.

If so, then you better plan to come in the rainy season!

The Salar is part of the driest desert on earth and even in the rainy season, you aren´t guaranteed being able to see it under water. So if it´s important, try to come in Jan-Feb, which is summer (and also peak tourist season) so you have a better chance of seeing it after a rain.

Trying to stage the mirror effect in the dry season is not nearly as impressive.

Something to consider though: When the Salar is under water, other parts of the 3 day tour aren´t accessible, as the water can get too deep in some places for vehicles to safely pass.

Well that covers the big stuff. Now…what the heck should you bring into the middle of nowhere with you? The tour agencies will only let you take a day bag for the 3 day tour (because of space limitations in the vehicles), so I took the liberty of creating a packing list:

  • Warm layers and a heavy coat for the nights
  • Gloves
  • Warm hat (I recommend wool)
  • Sun hat for the day
  • Sunscreen
  • Baby wipes (there will only be a chance to shower on the 1st night and the hot water is not reliable)
  • Extra purified water (seriously)
  • Extra snacks
  • Any required medication (Sorichi Pills are helpful with the altitude and easy to find in any pharmacy in Bolivia, but be warned: It contains asprin)
  • Change of socks (I recommend wool)
  • 1 Full change of clothes
  • Something warm to sleep in
  • Toothbrush/paste
  • Good camera
  • Solar charger or spare battery for your camera (you won´t necessarily have charging opportunities at night, depending on where you stay.)
  • Swimsuit for the hot springs

This whole list fits easily in a 25-30 liter bag (you don´t need to cram the extra water in the bag itself, but definitely bring some!) Your main gear will be locked in the tour agency office in Uyuni and will be awaiting your return.

Hope that helps! Until next time, keep wandering folks!