I’m addicted to two things: passport stamps and pictures. This Thanksgiving I had to choose between spending time with my mom or my dad, and I chose Machu Picchu and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
I sacrificed turkey and my favorite sweet potatoes topped with roasted marshmallows to visit a place that looks nothing like the thousands of pictures you’ve seen, there are few words to describe how it feels as well, my only recommendation is to make plans to get there, book the panoramic suite at the Rupa Wasi, and to most definitely add the Huyana Picchu hike to your entrance ticket for $10.00, it’s worth a million.
After what is one of the most extraordinary experiences of your lifetime, you’ll think to yourself what a wonderful life and then question how you could possibly make your trip to South America any better? My answer is to begin with the end in mind by booking your airline tickets into Lima or Cusco and out of La Paz, Bolivia because you’ll take a flight on Peruvian Airlines or Amaszonas Airlines for less than $200.00 from Cusco to La Paz for another experience that will take your breathe away, literally.
At 3,600 meters or 11,995 feet, you’ll most certainly feel the altitude when visiting Salar de Uyuni, a ten-hour overnight bus ride away from the country’s capital of La Paz. Salar de Uyuni is the largest dead lake in the world; to put it in perspective, it is larger than Belgium, at approximately 12,000 square kilometers or 4,000 square miles, and it continues to grow every year because salt does not absorb water so with every rainy season, a new layer is formed. The salt flats are also home of the largest lithium reserve in the world. The country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, is hard at work ensuring any excavations and research of the lithium does not take away from the spectacular sight where tourists come to chase the horizon, shoot pictures made for magazines, and walk on islands made of cacti and corral more than 30,000 years old.
There are two night buses that leave daily from La Paz to Uyuni at 9:00pm, Todo Turismo comes highly recommended and reservations are essential as every night they leave at full capacity. If a ten to eleven hour journey, five of which take course on unpaved terrain, doesn’t suit you, you can fly from the city to Uyuni every morning at 6am with Amaszonas for eight times the price of the round-trip bus fare. I’m an adventure seeker, and a traveler out to make the most of my money so I can wander more often than once a year, so I booked a round-trip ticket with Todo Turismo, and instead indulged on a five course tasting menu at Claus Meyer’s (co-founder of award winning Noma in Copenhagen) cutting edge, farm to table restaurant, Gustu. Lick your lips and think alligator almonds covered in honey with cappuccino flowers, pickled cucumber, and caramelized watermelon and Santa Cruz Parmesan with roasted pears and cane sugar. As a side note, Todo Turismo does provide dinner, but if you know me, and you follow my @happyplaceshappyfaces instagram, you know I’ll go the distance for deliciousness, and Gustu is definitely delicious!
After dinner, I hailed a cab for a few Bolivianos, or US $2, changed into my PJ’s (surprisingly I was the only one willing to get comfy cozy on the bus), reclined my seat and tried to snooze. (Don’t forget to grab your earplugs and eye mask for this journey!) For the first few hours you’ll have WIFI, and they’ll show a feature film. On my own trip the feature was Sex Tape, and had it not been for the earplugs and eye mask, I would have found myself in an awkward situation watching Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel work through their relationship troubles in the bedroom while sitting next to an elderly gentleman from France who kept looking at me for reassurance that it was okay to laugh.
Hopefully before you depart by bus or by plane, you make a reservation for your tour of the salt flats with one of the many operators because 4×4’s are quick to fill up and aside from the salt flats there isn’t much to do in Uyuni besides watching your tour operator impressively fill car tires with a bicycle pump.
You can choose between 1, 2, and 3-day tours of the salt flats, and how much time you have or where you are headed next will help you make your decision. My recommendation is the one day tour, as most people I spoke with about their own experience on the salt flats said that both the 2 and 3-day tours include too much driving if you’re planning on returning to La Paz from Uyuni. If your South American itinerary includes Chile, then you can be dropped off at the border making the 2 and 3-day tour options optimal for seeing the most, with the added benefit of witnessing the infamous pink flamingos at the Red Lagoon and soaking in the hot springs.
All tours include identical activities for the first day of exploring, and as you go from location to location you’ll be surrounded by 4×4’s, the newest of the bunch sporting Salt Life logos from Red Planet Expeditions. The difficulty in booking a trip is feeling confident about having reserved your spot because all of the tour operators refuse payment until you arrive and a few are not so quick to send you an email confirmation.I booked the 1-day tour with Red Planet Expeditions, and my seats were in fact reserved when I arrived. Request an English speaker if you are not fluent in Spanish, and definitely ditch your partner if you’re traveling as a couple or with friends and call “shot gun”.
The first stop you’ll make is at the train graveyard where you can hop in and around old locomotives from the 1940’s when the mining industry collapsed.
Next, you’ll be on your way to the small village of Colchani filled with salt miners who will give you an inside tour of the factories, explain how they cut bricks from the shoreline with chain saws, and then fill small, plastic bags before your eyes and melt the seams with a torch.
Then, the moment you have been waiting for takes place just two minutes away. You’ll cruise out to the salt flats to climb salt pyramids, get down on your knees to catch the reflection in your camera from small pools of water (or vast expanses if you visit in the rainy season from January through March), seemingly climb out of Lays Potato Chip cans or take a seat in your boyfriends hat, and speed through miles of salty hexagons.
Then, you’ll head to one of the smaller salt hotels to witness pure salty construction, everything from the beds to the tables and chairs is made of salt and leave you wondering what it would be like to sleep in a salt bed in another salt hotel should you opt for the 3-day tour.
In January 2014, for the first time since the Dakar Rally moved to South America in 2009, the off-road racers revved their engines through the salt flats and remnants of the race are the only obstructions you’ll see for miles.
As you stand in the middle of what was once a lake, and question everything about what your senses are experiencing given the snow-like surroundings, blinding sun, thin air, and curved horizon, you’ll understand why you chose to take a ten hour night bus to experience one of the world’s greatest marvels.
The sun will paint the salt shades of orange and rose as you make your way back to the small town of Uyuni for another night bus within a twelve-hour period. Only this time, the first five hours will be bumpy and you’ll be able to find more time to rest later in the night as the last five will be smooth on your descent into the valley of La Paz where you’ll arrive at dawn. Take two night buses and go see the salt flats for a day!
A few tips to make your experience better than mine:
- Wear a thick layer of sunscreen and lip protection
- Wear a hat
- Bring toys for your perspective photo shoot
- Bring more water than you think you’ll need and stay hydrated
- Bring granola bars
- Make a playlist on your iPhone to plug into the car’s radio
- Order the vegetarian meal if your stomach is easily upset