Following on from a truly amazing 5 days in Atacama Desert, the next logical part in the journey in this part of South America is to venture from Chile into Bolivia through the Atacama Desert from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni and enter the iconic salt flats of Bolivia on a 3 day/2 night 4×4 jeep tour.
It is worth mentioning that this tour combined with our 5 days in San Pedro were some of our absolute favourite during our six month stint in South America. It was probably the hardest in terms of early starts, extreme conditions, high altitude and freezing temperatures but all of that made it seem worth while as the scenery and wild life we saw was nothing short of amazing.
Day 1 – Flamingos, rock formations and serious altitude
We got picked up from our hostel at 8.30am and taken to the border at San Pedro, we waited for around an hour to get through the border and drove for a further 45 minutes of complete ‘no mans land’ before arriving at the Bolivian border. We’ve crossed some weird borders in our time but this one was extreme. It was so high up, freezing cold and super windy and it was totally isolated but it felt good to be entering Bolivia.
Breakfast was provided in a tiny little shack and it was a good opportunity to get to know the people we were sharing our 4×4 with over the next few days. Breakfast was cheese, avocados and bread before heading through customs and receiving another stamp in the passport.
Straight away the landscape changed dramatically as soon as we got going. Snow capped mountains, rolling hills and lagoons everywhere. The first stop once we entered the National Park was the beautiful Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), straight away I was struck with how hard it was to breathe due to the high altitude so I only stayed out of the truck for a short time.
The next stop was a natural hot spring at the Daly Desert. We quickly got changed and hopped in to the hot spring to enjoy the warm water and bask in what is a truly remarkable place for a hot spring! Our guide suggested a time of 20 minutes to spend in the hot spring so we hopped out and got changed faster than I ever have done before due to the low temperatures.
We carried on and found ourselves at our accommodation for the night in time for lunch, it was basic but good enough and most importantly they provided lots of blankets as there is no heating whatsoever and temperatures drop well below 0 during the night. Lunch was served by the local ladies – eggs, fruit and coca cola (to help with the altitude) and before we knew it we were heading to one of the most iconic places in Bolivia. Laguna Colorada is where 30,000 flamingoes find themselves every year during nesting time, I have a new found respect for flamingoes after seeing how they live in these harsh conditions.
Fun fact about flamingoes – the plankton that they eat turns them pink!
The lagoon was beautifully pink in colour and it was so great to get up close to this natural wonder and see the flamingos in their natural habitat. Mountains surrounded the lakes and it made for one of the most picturesque places I’d ever been to.
After seeing the flamingos we went back to the accommodation for tea and biscuits and hung around until dinner which was served up at 6pm. We were all in bed by 8pm, living at altitude is truly knackering and the 6 of us were all sound asleep not long after. I personally did find sleeping a bit tricky at altitude, when I laid down I felt like I couldn’t breathe and it was so cold. Even turning from one side to another was a huge task and very tiring. It’s a strange sensation to explain but do prepared during this trip for the altitude. I did get up in the night to take some photos of the night sky, as I’m a total beginner they didn’t turn out great but it was wonderful seeing the night sky in the middle of nowhere.
Day 2 – Lakes, mountains, lagoons and a salt hotel
It was an early start for day two, we had breakfast and headed off (no showers) to the first stop on the second day was the other side of the amazing pink lake we saw the previous day. Only today it was even better as there were so many more flamingoes and the sky was bright which meant we could see far and wide to the beautiful Bolivian landscape.
After driving through some seriously dry and desolate areas we ended up at the Siloli Desert where there are a series of rock formations which appeared due to wind erosion. Although it was an amazing sight, I was struggling with the altitude so I just walked very slowly and took rests where I could. Dan scaled some of these rocks as the altitude wasn’t affecting him as much.
How anything survives in this harsh environment I’ll never know, plants and animals seem to be able to grow and thrive here and it astounded me. We saw beautiful foxes hanging around our jeep, our driver said that some people feed the foxes and that’s why they were here but he was very firm in saying not to feed them.
We continued on to Laguna Honda, Chiarcota and Cañapa, the lakes, lagoons and mountains got better and better throughout the day and the last one was definitely saved until the best. Our lunch spot was probably the most remote hostel I’ve ever seen, somewhere in the middle of this crazy landscape was a hostel overlooking a mountain range, lake and more flamingos. It topped off a seriously incredible day.
Lunch was served, it was lovely fresh vegetables and rice (and coke again) and we sat at a table overlooking the beautiful mountains. It was definitely one of those pinch me moments.
The final part of day 2 was bumpy as the roads were more like rocky pathways and I suggest you wear a sports bra when doing this! We visited an incredibly high salt lake, a canyon and bumped into some more wildlife.
It took 2-3 hours to reach our accommodation for the night which was a hotel made entirely out of salt, when in the salt flats I guess? Like the last accommodation it was freezing but they did have showers albeit luke warm water but it was welcomed after two days on the road. Dinner was cold chicken and chips but wine was provided but I couldn’t face drinking it as it just gave me a headache. It was another extremely cold night so it was sleeping bag and every layer topped with various blankets and jackets to get through the night.
Day 3 – The Bolivian Salt Flats
We left the salt hotel at 5.30am to get to the salt flats for sunrise but we soon found that we left it a little late as the sun had already begun to rise by the time we got through the gates and entered the salt flats but it was OK because WE WERE AT THE BOLIVIAN SALT FLATS!
I’ve seen a million and one photos of this place so to stand with my own two feet on that gleaming white cracked salt was pretty amazing and I’ll never forget watching the sun rise over the horizon on that fresh morning.
We took some photos, marvelled at where we were before heading off to an island in the middle of the salt flats that was completely covered in cactuses.
The view at the top of the island was truly awesome, you could see bright white salt flats for miles. We took a moment or two once people had gone down to just sit and take it all in without the photos and selfies and everything else. Taking in just how diverse and surprising the world and nature can be. I’ll never forget that moment.
Breakfast was served up and it was eggs with cake (as you can imagine the food isn’t great when you’re in the middle of nowhere) before driving to a good spot to get our perspective photos. Our guide was a pro when it came to capturing the shots but I felt a little silly doing some of them I must say.
From here we went to a former salt hostel and the place where all of the worlds flags reside. Unfortunately there was no New Zealand flag but many more from other countries (note to travelling kiwis take a flag with you!)
The final stop on the salt flats was the Dakar rally monument and at this point it was time to leave the salt flats. I was really disappointed in the amount of time we had there, although there isn’t much to do I felt the morning was super rushed and it would have been nice to spend more time there.
The final stop of the day was the Bolivian train cemetery “where trains go to die”. An eerie location where a huge amount of locomotives that date back to the 19th century have been abandoned. It’s kind of a weird place but does make for good photo opportunities so we hung out here for about half an hour climbing in and out of the old trains.
We finished with a lovely lunch in Uyuni where the tour finishes. We farewelled our guide and try to work out how to get out of Uyuni as fast as possible as it’s not the kind of place you want to hang out in.
Cost: £150 per person which included our guide, transport, three meals a day and accommodation.
Tour company: Cordillera Travel
Where to book: There are many many tourist shops in San Pedro where you can book these tours, they all cost around the same price and from all accounts from fellow travellers there wasn’t much difference between them.
Are there English speaking guides? From all accounts no, so when you’re booking see if you can be put in a jeep with a Spanish speaking guest as that’s what happened to us and thank goodness because none of us other than one person spoke Spanish.
Once the tour finished: Uyuni to La Paz – We got an 8pm bus from Uyuni to La Paz that got us in for 5.30am.