Exploring the Strange and Surreal on Bolivia’s Salt Flats

The sky is huge in Bolivia.

There's something about the vast amount of blue up there that makes me feel different; like I'm at once an intrinsic part of something, and yet I'm also utterly tiny and insignificant.

It's both dangerous and strangely thrilling to think of yourself as nothing more than a speck.

Two boy-sized specks by a Bolivian lake. In the desert.

The vast, open landscapes that make up the southwest of Bolivia illustrate this feeling like no other place I've been. For hundreds of miles, this region is desolate, empty, and enormous – and there's a strong likelihood that you would get completely lost and probably die if you tried to journey through it alone.

Of course, a place like this was always destined to whip tourists into a frenzy – particularly when you throw Bolivia's infamous salt flats into the mix. Whether you find yourself in Tupiza or Uyuni, both towns are home to a myriad of tour companies willing to put you in the back of a jeep for a few days, accompanied by a guide and a cook, and let you loose.

The salt flats tour from Tupiza to Uyuni is hands down one of the most bizarre trips I've ever taken. But what I hadn't realised before our trip began was how little time you actually spend on the salt flats themselves. Bolivia, as ever, has been underselling itself.

It's not just about perspective-skewed photos while surrounded by salt; it's also bright pink flamingos, lakes, mountains, hot springs, llamas, rocks, geysers, sand dunes, and a few more flamingos.

In short, this area of Bolivia holds the most spectacular array of contrasting scenery that I've ever seen in such a short space of time.

Four days, six people, one jeep: welcome to the Bolivian desert

We set off from Tupiza with English Becky and Canadian Paul, a couple who we'd spied in the tour company office and immediately snapped up as likely looking travelling companions. Along with Elvis, our driver/guide, and Nancy, his mother and also our resident cook, our jeep trundled out into the Bolivian desert – and it didn't take long for the surreal nature of the trip to kick in.

Within hours, we were off any recognisable path and seemingly following an invisible track that only the drivers could see. Deep, steep canyon drops flanked by cacti, rocks and dust quickly gave way to dry scrub land that stretched indefinitely in every direction.

Occasionally we'd spot a herd of llamas or vicuñas, but for most of our first day, the landscapes ruled over our eyes.

It gave us optimum time to get used to our mobile home for the foreseeable future: seating plans, where to store all our water bottles, bags and much-too-heavy walking boots, and learning the ways of Elvis's jeep politics.

“Cerran las ventanas, por favor!”

The terrain of the Bolivian desert is, unsurprisingly, rather dusty. The altitude there varies, but we were usually at around 4000m – so when the sun was shining, it was also pretty warm. And thus a paradox was formed: Elvis didn't want dust in his car, but we didn't like overheating…

The amount of window opening was therefore in constant flux. Every time we caught up to another vehicle or passed a cloud of dust, up went our windows – only to immediately pull them open again when we deemed it safe.

A typical amount of dust in the Bolivian altiplano. Topped by optional llama.

That same dust, though, became very familiar over the course of four days. Each evening I would pull out a pack of baby wipes to run over our heads, faces and hands; the rudimentary accommodation buildings where we slept didn't have showers, and the water from the taps was freezing – much like the night outside. I often forget, on a hot sunny day, that it's possible for the temperatures to drop below freezing at night when you're at such a high altitude.

As we buried ourselves beneath layers of blankets in our concrete room, we could hear the wind whistling eerily over the rooftop – and I even saw the static from my clothes sparking as I turned over in bed.

These sounds and sensations are one of the things I remember most vividly from the whole trip. The feeling of the wind pushing angrily against the sides of the jeep; the visible heat rising from the hot springs; the overpowering stench of sulphur from numerous lakes.

Lakes, loo breaks and more lakes

I, for one, definitely wasn't expecting so much lake action. But every hour or so, a vast body of water would appear on the horizon, the jeep would slow, and we'd stare at colours that seemed like they simply couldn't be natural. Surely someone was wreaking havoc with a paint pot?

It's actually red because of the minerals in the water. There must be a hell of a lot of them.

With these constant water-related stops, it's no surprise that bathroom breaks were also necessary. Maybe it's altitude related, but I've found myself needing the loo significantly more in Bolivia…

Of course, in a place as sparse as the Bolivian desert, there aren't exactly toilets at the side of the road. While it wasn't a problem for the guys, Becky and I had to embrace the “squatting anywhere” mentality – and it was actually strangely liberating to simply drop your trousers beside the jeep and go for it, regardless of being in full view of anyone that might come along.

Which wasn't very likely in some places – and almost impossible to avoid in others.

Ooh, look! Another lake!

In the midst of these jaw-dropping natural scenes, though, there were also a number of animals maintaining an existence – surprising, seeing as there's barely any vegetation for them to feed on.

The times we spotted condors circling in the sky above was understandable. The herds of grazing llamas, a little less so. But the flamingos?

Hey! Guys! Wait for me!

Dear lord, the flamingos. Clearly totally unbothered about standing in the middle of a blood red lake, feasting on algae, while the surrounding gale force winds batter the hapless tourists trying to capture them on camera. It's a tough life.

Paul had been reliably told by a friend that by the end of a four day tour of the salt flats, he would be sick of flamingos. Paul had scoffed. But it was truly incredible how many groups of flamingos we spotted – and even if we weren't sick of them, our cameras certainly ended up taking a backseat whenever another group appeared.

The Salar de Uyuni is actually a major breeding ground for four different species of flamingos, some of which never once leave the lakes they live in.

...and that's the end of the flamingo photo spamming. Promise.

Approaching the salt flats

When we reached the edge of the salt flats on the third night, we were done with Bolivian wildlife and ready for the main salty attraction – and we were just in time.

Just as one of the well-discussed salt hotels opened its doors to us, a truly violent rainstorm began, and it didn't cease the entire night: causing a room full of tourists in llama-patterned-jumpers to navigate their dinner with head torches, as the lights kept blowing out.

The salt hotel, though, was an experience in itself. With salt ceilings, walls, furniture and even scattered salt covering the floor, the hotel's marketability clearly lies in the fact that it's 'made of salt'; except that only the area where the tourists stay is actually salty.

When I headed out to explore the rest of the building and found myself in the kitchens where the guides and cooks spend their time, it was all normal – plain brick walls and green tarpaulin on the floors. A very interesting and somewhat sobering realisation of just how tourist-centric this place can be…

But soon enough it was time for the grand finale of the trip – and visiting the source of all this salt.

Uyuni salt flats: the stats

At over 3600 metres above sea level, the prehistoric lake bed of Salar de Uyuni covers a distance of 12,000 square km. When the original lake dried up under the fierce sun, it left behind puddles of water and a huge amount of salt deposits due to the water's high salinity.

The Salar contains over half of the world's lithium reserves (currently being extracted) and is the largest salt flat in the world.

But we didn't see any of this to start with. Driving along the flats at five in the morning, a hazy sun struggling to rise above the horizon behind us, Elvis worryingly letting his eyes close a bit too often, we eventually reached a cactus island.

Presumably something many tourists want to enter, our group were less than keen, and so wandered around the outskirts of it, checking out the salt underfoot.

Next up was breakfast: weirdly located on the salt flats themselves, in amongst a few slightly intrusive cacti. Our group were getting a little frustrated by this point.

Surely we could get on with exploring the flats?

When we finally reached a photo-worthy spot for the long-awaited “loco photo” session, Elvis succumbed to his sleepiness, and reclined his driver's seat for an hour of nap time while we took perspective-skewed photos outside on the salt flats to the best of our ability.

I'd heard that many guides really get involved with this part of the trip, suggesting ideas and playing the photographer. I can only glean that Elvis either thought we had it under control, or simply wasn't keen to help out.

Either way, we had fun posing in the falling snow (or was it salt?) – and I even found my blogging namesake hiding out on the salt flats!

Ok, so I found her in Tarija market, in amongst a table filled with old toys. But who's judging?

Our first shower in four days! Although it looks suspiciously more like drowning...

It was really hard to keep my balance on his shoulder, ok?

A surreal and salt-filled trip

Our salt flats tour was breathtaking, there's no doubt.

For me, it evoked memories of Scotland, and driving through barren stretches of the Highlands. On occasion, I could have been in the the stark Icelandic countryside.

It felt like so many parts of countless landscapes I've looked out on through train and bus and car windows were all mixed up together – through England, out into Europe, across India and Thailand and so many of the vistas I've come to love in South America.

And my words will simply not do this place justice.

Bolivia may have had me speechless on many occasions when dealing with the sheer obstinacy of many of its people, but driving through its landscapes has really struck me dumb. Staring through jeep windows, yes, but in no way feeling disconnected.

All the senses are involved in the Bolivian desert. A total sensory overload which, when it gets too much, prompts you to look up, straight towards that ridiculously giant sky.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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44 Responses to Exploring the Strange and Surreal on Bolivia’s Salt Flats

  1. Zara @ Backpack ME December 26, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    I have seen so many perspective shots in Salar de Uyuni with people posing… but I’ve gotta say the one with your Flora doll is the coolest!! She looks so huge and cute! 😀

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      She’s pretty damn awesome! After the salt flats I decided she’d be better used as an actual toy, so I gave her to the three young daughters of a hostel owner in Cochabamba. They spent the rest of the day playing with her, floating her in the swimming pool and dressing her in doll’s clothes! A worthy donation I feel :)

  2. Agness December 26, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    Wow, what a great collection of photos. What I love the most about them is the sky – purely blue and crystal clear!

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

      The sky in that part of Bolivia is honestly such an incredible thing to see!

  3. Kiara Gallop December 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Haha I love the shot with Dora the Explorer :-) Looks like such an awesome place, I can’t wait to see it for myself in June!

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      I’m sure you’ll have a great time Kiara! Get thinking on your salt flat photos now :p

  4. Stef December 27, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    Love these photos! The one with the doll is pretty cool and I love the one with the caption “Ooh, look! Another lake!” :) Hope I’ll make to the Salt Flats soon :)

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      There are seriously SO many lakes! Glad you like the photos Stef :)

  5. Britany December 29, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Great idea with the water bottle! That’s one I’ve never seen.

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

      It’s probably my favourite shot that we took! Apart from Dora, of course :p

  6. Ryan December 29, 2013 at 5:53 am #

    One helluva adventure. So desolate but surprisingly full of wildlife too. I’ve gotta say, those photos on here toward the end are freakin’ HILARIOUS!

    Amazing story and something I’d love to do someday. The Salt hotel looked pretty surreal.

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

      Definitely an adventure – and I seriously wasn’t expecting to see so much wildlife! You need to get to South Am Ryan – although after Asia of course :p

  7. Lunaguava January 1, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    Stunning photos. You mention Iceland, and I can see that in the striking blue and otherworldly landscape, but those immense open skies reminded me of the Serengeti. We live in a gorgeous world. Can’t wait to reach Bolivia. Thank you, good luck and happy 2014!

    • Flora January 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

      Don’t we just? What a lovely sentiment to start a new year with :) Happy 2014 to you too!

  8. Sally January 3, 2014 at 11:59 pm #

    Gorgeous. I love those photo tricks! I sometimes wish I’d made it up to Bolivia’s salt flats while I was traveling in South America, but I wasn’t done with Argentina yet. Another reason to go back. :)

    • Flora January 18, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

      Most definitely a reason for heading back!

  9. Brenna January 13, 2014 at 1:47 am #

    Amazing photos! I have never seen the water bottle one either, that’s great. I was actually just thinking of my time on the salt flats and how incredible it was… and, as you said, how the tour actually encompasses so much more than just the salt flats themselves. I’ll have to write about my experience, too, thank you for inspiring me to do so! x

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:06 am #

      I was pretty proud of the water bottle idea actually – I haven’t seen it anywhere but I thought it was quite an obvious one – particularly as our car was constantly worried about how much water we had! Just a tad over dramatic… Can’t wait to read about your time there Brenna!

  10. NZ Muse January 21, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    That photo with the bottle reflection? Spectacular.

    Bolivia’s salt flats have always intrigued me but honestly, I don’t know if I can cope with the dust.

    • Flora January 24, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

      Glad you liked it! The dust really wasn’t that big a deal, except when a jeep was driving right ahead of us and then we had to shut the windows sharpish.

  11. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs February 5, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    I love those creative picture everyone brings as a memory from Bolivia salts! The one with a bottle of water is great!

    • Flora February 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      Cheers Marysia! There’s a lot of time spent discussing what photos to attempt to create during those jeep rides..

  12. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 18, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    What fantastic fun photos you have! I would love to see the salt plains one day – a friend of mine recently stayed at the salt hotel and raved about it. Looks wonderful!

    • Flora February 22, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      It’s really an amazing experience!

  13. Jamie S. April 28, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    The Salt Flats definitely inspire some of the most imaginative snaps I´ve ever seen..:) The scenery, animals, and ruggedness must be a perfect combination! Not to mention a dream come true for any astronomy fanatic..I mean — to see the starscape in a place like this..once in a lifetime experience!

    • Flora April 30, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

      It’s an absolutely insane series of landscapes, particularly because they keep on changing! Unfortunately we were never on the Salt Flats at night so I can’t speak for seeing the stars there specifically, but the stars on other nights of the tour… AMAZING.

  14. Amanda February 8, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

    Hi Flora, I’m planning on visiting Peru and Bolivia in October and the salt flats is obviously one of the major sights I have to visit but I don’t have that many vacation days. I have allocated 2 days for the salt flats…do you think it’s enough?! Most sites I’ve been reading have recommended at least 4 days but I haven’t figured out why…maybe you can provide some insight?

    • Flora February 13, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

      Hi Amanda, the reason all the tours state a 3/4 day tour is because just going to the salt flats is a tiny part of the standard traveller’s experience of Uyuni: the area is actually a huge national park and it’s really worth exploring as the landscapes are beautiful! Lots of flamingos, crazy coloured lakes etc.. However if you really don’t have much time, I’d suggest simply heading to the salt flats for a quick couple of days from the small town of Uyuni – although it’s right down at the Chilean border so will be much more out of the way. Bear in mind that it takes quite a while to get around Bolivia on buses too, as they’re pretty slow..!

  15. Landon @ Uneven Sidewalks February 10, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    Great writeup and photos! There’s so much to see it’s hard to share it all in one post! I’m jealous you got to stay in a salt hotel. Our guide company wouldn’t arrange this because he said the toilets contaminate the salt flat – seems like there’s a simple fix for that though. I can’t wait to go back in a few years! I just finished a post on our trip and it was fun to look at all the awesome pictures again!

    • Flora February 13, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      Cheers Landon – glad you guys had a good trip to the salt flats too!

  16. Asia February 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi there,

    How much did you pay for the tour ? which tour company ? I am planning a trip and will be crossing into boliva from peru and would be interested in doing something similar it looks AMAZING !!!

    • Flora February 13, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

      Hi Asia, I’m afraid I can’t remember the exact prices or the company but I started my trip in Tupiza and there are only two companies to choose from there, both offering pretty identical trips :)

  17. Sanvi Choudhary April 27, 2015 at 7:01 am #

    Amazing photos! Nice work, appreciate your work!!!

  18. mjthecreator January 31, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    Hi I’m really excited to go to Bolivia. I may end up traveling alone as a solo female i n October. I don’t speak Spanish though I do speak French so can at least understand some things and plan on figuring out some basic phrases. I have experience solo traveling through Europe and a bit of Asia, and have been other places but in a group setting. I would have 3 weeks off from work to do the trip and woul dbe willing to spend more on things for additional convenience/safety though I would probably be staying in hostels because it’s fun as well. Do you think it would be a fun and safe solo trip?

    My basic plan was to fly straight to Rurrenbaque from La Paz without leaving the airport, do the rainforest in like 2 nights with a tour, fly back to La Paz, spend a day or two acclimatizing and seeing La Paz, then bus down to Uyuni, 4 nights on a tour, and then stop in Sucre and maybe Potosi, with the possibility of doing spanish lessons in Sucre/volunteering to give some English lessons, and then back to La Paz & try to see Lake Titicaca. I haven’t worked out the details yet, and the Salar de Uyuni is really the must see thing for me. If the rainforest didn’t work out or was a bit too dodgy to do as a solo female I could live without it.

    What do you think?

    • Flora February 17, 2016 at 11:10 am #

      I definitely think you’d have a great time in Bolivia while travelling solo – there are a lot of fellow solo travellers and if you stay in hostels you’re likely to end up making friends with lots of people – maybe even some who can help you with your Spanish :)

      That itinerary may be too much for a three week period, though – and I wouldn’t go through La Paz three times! If the Salt Flats is your must-see then why not arrive in La Paz, do a weekend trip to Lake Titicaca, bus the whole way down to Uyuni for a 4 day tour and then slowly move back up to La Paz through Sucre & Potosi? It’d mean missing out the rainforest but I think trying to fit three separate flights into three weeks (particularly in a country where there are copious road delays which may screw with catching your flights on time) is maybe not the most sensible thing to do!

  19. Alex February 17, 2016 at 6:42 pm #

    Hey Flora! Awesome blog post. What time of the year did you go to Bolivia? I’m planning to be there in 3 weeks. Also, do you remember the name of the tour company you went with? Do you recommend it? Also want dot ask if you did any hiking by chance?

    • Flora February 27, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

      Hi Alex! I was in Bolivia during October-December. I can’t remember which company I went with I’m afraid, but as I started from Tupiza (instead of Uyuni) there were only two companies and most online reviews said they were pretty much the same in every way :p You can’t really hike on the tours as it’s predominantly an overland-driving tour, but maybe if you look into getting a personal guide (rather than in a group) you might have better luck?

      As for your separate comment below – I’m pretty sure it’s the ‘only’ salt hotel out on the flats, and the stay is included as a night’s accommodation through the tour so we didn’t specifically book it ourselves. When you’re organising your tour just check with the organisers that you’ll be staying there! Hope you have a fantastic trip :)

  20. Alex February 17, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

    Oh! Also, do you remember the name of the hotel you stayed in, in the Salar de Uyuni? Looks amazing!

    • Flora May 21, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

      Sorry for not replying earlier, Alex! It was included as part of the tour but I’m pretty sure there’s just the one ‘salt’ hotel out on the flats :)

  21. Martha Gutierrez February 27, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    Hi Flora, I am planning to go to Bolivia in August, but I am finding the flights quite expensive. Did you arrange your full tour from UK? I have 2 weeks, what do you think of organising my tour once I get there? I found the ones online quite expensive

    • Flora March 9, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

      Hi Martha, thanks for your comment! I’d actually been travelling through South America for over nine months when I arrived in Bolivia so didn’t book any kind of tour from the UK. However, arranging a Salt Flats trip in either Tupiza or Uyuni (or, indeed, other places in Bolivia!) is a pretty easy process, and you’ll be able to haggle with tour operators too to find yourself a good price. Best of luck!

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