When I had heard about the tours of the Salar de Uyuni, I had only been told, and seen pictures, of the salt flats themselves. But although these are arguably the highlight of the three-day tour, they actually only make up a small part of what you see.
Day one and we drove off in our jeep to the train cemetery just outside of town. Towards the end of the 19th century, Uyuni became a transportation hub for the mineral trains going to the ports. We were told that the trains came from Britain (along with a second import from this great kingdom, football), and the engineers who built the tracks were certainly British. By the 1940s, however, the mining industry had collapsed, and many trains were abandoned. Now the rusty old trains serve as a popular, if unusual, tourist attraction.
Then the salt tour started in earnest: we went to a salt museum which consisted solely of salt statues of animals (you had to pay for the privilege of taking photos of these works of art), artisan stalls where you could buy various little objects made of salt, and the salt factory where we were taken through the process of heating and drying the salt to make a sellable product. You could also buy salt but it looked dangerously like cocaine so I didn’t think it was such a good idea. According to Wikipedia, the Salar de Uyuni contain as much as ten billion tonnes of salt, of which only 25,000 tonnes are extracted each year; and the salt is constantly being replenished, as it rains and the water evaporates in an endless cycle. We had lunch (cold lama meet with cold cheese sauce, cold quinoa and cold fries; but warm apple pie, yum!) in a salt hotel, with the tables and chairs, and in fact the whole building, made out of salt. Can you be allergic to salt? I don’t think so but if you are, don’t come on this tour.
The most famous images of the Salar come from the middle of the salt flats, where the salt is more than 100 metres deep. In the rainy season, the ground is transformed into a perfect mirror with heaven and earth blending together in one huge canvas. In the dry season, as when I visited in June, the game is to play with the perspective in an optical illusion of endless white.
When we’d finished playing, we continued on to Incahuasi, an ‘island’ on the salt flats with giant cacti. From the island, you can see three big mountains, about which Aymara legend tells of a classic tale of affairs and deceit. The giant mountain Tunupa married Kusku, but soon ran off with the third mountain Kusina. Tunupa, devastated, cried as she breastfed her son. Her tears and milk blended together to form the Salar; among the Aymara, therefore, their correct name is Salar de Tunupa.
After spending a chilly night in another salt hotel (these have sprouted up in response to tourist demand), we left the world of salt and headed into a different landscape with volcanoes and lakes populated by different species of flamingos, as well as a very exciting tree of stone. The music taste of our driver and English-speaking guide left a lot to be desired but at one point we did let ourselves get swept up in a roaring rendition of YMCA and another of Wake me up before you go go. We had a great group: I was joined by a tall and talkative Australian girl, a not-so-talkative Dutch guy, and ‘the kids’ as we called them, a young English guy and his Slovakian girlfriend who we put in the back of the car (they had seats, we didn’t put them in the boot, I promise). (We also met a funny English guy who was very particular about how he wanted to take his photos; he was going to teach us kackerlacka-poker but sadly we didn’t see him again – so if anyone knows how this apparently fabulous game is played, please let me know!) We lost our children on the second day, as they were heading back to Uyuni in one jeep while the other three of us were joined by a Bulgarian couple as we continued on to San Pedro de Atacama, across the border in Chile.
Day three, alas, we didn’t get to see the Laguna Verde or the geysers, or bathe in the hot springs, due to too much snow, and we also couldn’t cross via the usual pass. This meant a long detour and a (with hindsight) hilariously drawn-out journey across the border and into Chile. But more on that another time.
The practical bit – Salar de Uyuni tour recommendation:
-Lonely Planet and online forums tell you not to book in advance but to do so only once you’ve arrived in Uyuni and talked to other travellers and met the agencies in person. This is all well and good but you may arrive to find that the tours for the next few days are full – so you need to have a buffer of a few days in that case, or to be willing to go with one of the other random agencies.
-After much um-ing and ah-ing, I went with Red Planet Expeditions, recommended by a friend and receiving more or less positive reviews online. It was far from perfect – the guide wasn’t very clear in his explanations (the guide in the other jeep was much better); the food was, well, interesting; and on the third day, they woke us up early only to leave us hanging around for an hour and a half as they ate their breakfast at their leisure – BUT the driver wasn’t drunk, which I understand is a problem with many of these tours, and overall it was a good trip.