The inside of your room windows are frosty and you're peeking out from the sleeping bag. Your body is numb and cold despite having slept under a layer of clothing and a blanket. Even breakfast is consumed fully clothed with steam coming out off your mouth. You ask yourself why would anyone like to put themselves through this ordeal? The answer is simply because of the incredible landscapes and animals you can experience in this beautiful part of Bolivia.
You'll arrived early morning to the regional hub Uyumi by bus from La Paz. There are various bus companies to choose from, but I would recommend the company Todo Tourismo that by far have the most comfortable buses. Tickets can be bought from their agent Kanoo Tours. You will get a warm meal and a warm blanket. Just make sure to bring extra layers of clothes as it gets cold during the night.
Once you arrive to Uyumi the pre booked tour operator will be waiting for you. If you're not made any previous arrangements just visit the various offices to check availability and prices. Basically the whole town consists of tour operators, banks and hotels. Make sure to bring cash with you as the banks have limited money and you can run into problems trying to extract larger sums.
I would strongly urge you to try to check beforehand as much as possible about available tours. Many of them have questionable reputation and some have been involved in serious accidents. Although I did not witness any dangerous situations some of the drivers were going at a very high speed and some of the jeeps were overloaded. If possible try to meet the driver before you decide as you can quickly get an impression of his personality.
The cheapest option is to sign up for a tour with 6-7 other people. Keep in mind that it gets very crowded and to be able to accommodate that many people the luggage department is substituted with an extra row of seats. The luggage in then stored in racks on the roof. Make sure that the driver does not put too much stuff( pack backs, suitcases, petrol, food) there as it increases the risk of the jeep tipping over when making sharp turns.
A more comfortable, although more expensive alternative, is to rent the whole vehicle meaning you will have much more space and will be able to stop whenever you want to take photos and experience the views.
You also have to decide on the length of you tour, which could range from 1-4 days. A longer trip will give you a deeper understanding of the vastness of the Altiplano. The chances of seeing wildlife like lamas, vicuñas, desert foxes and flamingos also greatly increases the longer you tour lasts.
To help you make up your mind what tour to take I've written a general description of what to except to see each day. Hopefully this will make your decision easier.
After leaving Uyuni you will stop at 3 locations, the train cemetery, the salt hotel and cactus island.
The train cemetery are the left overs from the time when the region was a transport hub for minerals being transported to the Pacific Ocean. Now it functions as an outdoor museum and this is generally the first stop on your tour
Your next stop will be the salt hotel. It's no longer in use due to environmental concerns. The water supply in the Salar de Uyuno is very limited and having a large hotel there is simply not an environmental wise option. That's the reason the hotels are located in Uyuni city. Instead the salt hotel is used as a stop for lunch breaks and all tour companies must bring their own food.
Cactus island, sometimes refereed to Inkawasi, is pretty much self explanatory. Here you will pay a small entrance fee and you will walk on a small trail for approximately 30 minutes including plenty of time for photography.
The one day tour is what most tourists choose to see and it gives you a nice picture of the actual salt flats. However it can get very crowded as all tour operators run the same rout, sometimes even hurrying the tourists to move to the next location. You will also miss the sunset photos as the one day tour will conclude before the nice evening golden light.
You will now leave the salt desert. While the landscapes will not be as spectacular as during day 1 there is still a lot to be seen. Lamas, vicuñas, occasional desert foxes and stray dogs are available everywhere. You will also have the chance to see wide canyons.
However the main purpose of this day is to get deeper into the Altiplano to experience a lunar landscape that makes you forget that you are on planet earth.
This was the day that I had been looking forward to for some time. Finally a chance to see and hear the pink flamingos. Some of the lakes in the Altiplano are rich with plankton making it an ideal place for the flamingos. It was a feast for the eyes and I spend way too much time here although the driver never specifically said anything :-). Having rented your private driver and not going with a larger tour group makes it much easier making longer stops for photography.
At some of the lakes the flamingos are used to people and allows you to get really close. Just make sure to follow the marked borders at the lakes as not to disturb the birds. At other locations the flamingos are more reserved but you can still watch them from a distance.
Travelling even further south will expose an even harsher yet beautiful landscape with a feeling of a lunar environment. At 4000m above sea level it's harder to breed and you could experience a slight headache from time to time. There are far fewer tourist here compared to the Salt flats. Make sure to slow down, don't rush it and make time to take plenty of photos. It's in the area you'll find the Laguna Colorada, famous for it's plankton rich pink colored water and it's famous inhabitants, the flamingos.
Another spectacular sight to experience are the active geysers. While they are not as explosive as in other parts of the world like Iceland or in Yellowstone you can get much closer and literally look into the bubbling heat and feel the smell off rotten eggs. Be very careful though as it's very easy to take the wrong turn, especially when taking photos, and fall into the hot geyser. I was told that this is exactly what happened a french tourist in 2016. Despite being transported to Chile with an ambulance helicopter his life could not be saved.
At the end of day 3 (it could also be beginning of day 4 depending of how many stops you make during the day) you will enter the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna where you have to pay an entrance fee to enter the nature reserve. The area is very close to Chile and it's considered the coldest place in the Altiplano. The desert landscape is incredible wide, with hot springs, lakes and sandy grassy plains with mountains in the backdrop. You will constantly want to make stops for taking pictures.
By day 4 you have travelled several hundred kilometres and it time to slowly start the return trip back to Uyuni. There are several interesting rock formations that are well worth visiting during the way. Lamas will also become more frequent again as you decent to lower altitudes. The last day will act as a recap of the previous days.
I hope this blog post has helped you to decide to visit this interesting region of the world and how many days you would like to stay there.
My favourite moments were the salt planes, the flamingos and the lunar landscapes combined with the close look at the geysers. I am convinced that although the costs for a 3-4 day trip is significantly higher compared to a 1 day trip it's absolutely worth it.
Let me know below your thoughts. Maybe you have been to the Altiplano and would like to share your story.
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