By jeep from the Bolivian salt flats to the Chilean desert
No one’s land – that’s the best way to describe this place. An isolated piece of South America that you can explore in three days by jeep with a driver from Uyuni in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. A journey across salt flats and deserts along impressive rock formations, active volcanoes and lagoons full of flamingos. A memorable route through a constantly changing landscape that is still fully dominated by the elements.
Uyuni salt flats
What started as a modest trading venue is now the gateway to the world-famous salt plains where every year about 60,000 travelers start their route to Chile. This is Uyuni, a village located in Southwest Bolivia at an altitude of more than 3,700 metres. Full of expectation, we board our jeep and leave the sandy streets and busy Uyuni market stalls behind – and with it the last bit of the inhabited world that we will see for the next little while.
Special pictures on the salt flats of Uyuni
Soon after our departure, the horizon turns white and the world’s highest salt plains appear. This is an immense area of over 10,000 square kilometres where you can’t have enough sunscreen on during the day and you lie under a pile of blankets to keep warm at night when temperatures drop to -10 degrees celcius. Salar de Uyuni is a place of extremes. Annually, about 25,000 tonnes of salt is extracted in this place, mainly by small family businesses. Besides the colonies of flamingos and a single viscacha, they are the only other inhabitants in this area. The surrealistic views of the salt plain and the lack of optical depth provide fun entertainment for visitors. In the distance, we can see jeeps with groups of tourists standing on the salt in the craziest poses. You can get incredibly funny photos as a result. Our driver and guide Ricoberto knows exactly how you can take the best pictures and he is very happy to help.
By jeep over the salt flats of Uyuni
We are on the Altiplano, a highland clamped between the Andes mountains, the next three days. After a good lunch in a restaurant completely made of salt, we step into the jeep again to cross the plain. Ricoberto follows invisible roads over a completely bald and bright white plain. In whatever direction we look, we see mountains and whimsical volcanoes glow at the horizon, some of which are even active and others are covered with an eternal layer of snow. As we stare into the distance we hear that we are actually driving across the bottom of a lake. In prehistoric times, this place was a giant lake, one that eventually completely dried up and exposed the salty plain. And with the island of Inca Huasi in sight, this history suddenly comes alive. We walk over the island, between metres-high cacti, and we have a phenomenal view of the vast white plain that lies at our feet. Just before we arrive at the restaurant and lodging where we will spend the night, we stop to watch the sunset. Well packed in against the cold, we see how the sun colours the salt surface pink and orange.
Lagoons and Flamingos
On the second day of our route, the salt surface slowly makes way for vegetation with some quinoa fields and grazing lamas. We pass small villages, where inhabitants live off of small-scale farming, herding of lama’s and – with a hostel and shop here and there – also a bit of tourism. We are on our way to Laguna Cañapa, one of the many lagoons we will pass on our way. On this part of the route, the landscape also gets more colourful with mountains in all the earth’s tones and at its foot emerald green or clear blue lakes in which flamingos wade around. These lagoons are a welcome change to the rest of the bald and empty landscape, which in spite of that never bores. As our guide tells us, “In nothing you see everything here.” And he is right. You can stare for hours into this landscape. It is empty and abandoned, yet full of impressions. From the jeep we see how colliding temperatures make the air vibrate and the wind makes miniature twisters with loose sand.
Awakening under the galaxy
Early in the evening we crawl under the lama blankets, because the alarm will go off early before sunrise on the last day of the tour. Yet this is no punishment, because the early morning greets us with an overwhelming galaxy in an otherwise still-dark world. In the light of thousands of stars we begin the last part of our journey. As the sun slowly comes up, we approach the geysers Sol and Mañana. Already from afar we see their smoke clouds hanging in the sky. Carefully we walk through the smoke curtain and around the hot geysers. Less than an hour later we bath ourselves in hot water with a view of a lagoon slowly lit up by the sun. We take our time as we enjoy a rest in the natural springs.
Snow in the desert
We go from one extreme to another, because as soon as we have swapped our swimming costumes for thick sweaters we discover another special phenomenon: snow in the desert. We are slowly approaching an altitude of 5,000 metres and in the midst of the desert sand we walk between shiny spots of paved snow. Ricoberto tells us that a few months ago all the surrounding mountains were white. That snow has melted, leaving only some spots of snow here and there. The wind and great temperature differences have created a bizarre landscape with spiky forms of snow and ice, and it feels like being on a different planet.
Crossing the border
From here the road leads us through surreal desert landscapes, colourful lagoons and finally towards the mountain range separating Bolivia and Chile. A waving Bolivian flag next to a tiny office building reveals that we have arrived at the border. Within a few minutes we will go out with a brand new stamp in our passport and we can enter Chile. We exchange the bumpy Bolivian desert paths for a perfectly tarmaced road through a wide landscape of volcanoes and mountain ranges. Lamas graze along the road and in the distance we see something that has become almost strange after these three days: the civilized world.
San Pedro de Atacama and beyond
The end of this 3-day jeep tour means the start of a trip through Chile. The cozy desert town of San Pedro de Atacama lends itself well as a base for exploring the surrounding area. For example, visit the impressive El Tatio geyser, go on a day trip through the Moon Valley or drift into the salt water of Laguna Cejar. From the city of Calama you can board a plane to Santiago de Chile and follow your itinerary.
Marion, our Bolivia / Chile travel expert, can tell you more about available accommodations during the 3-day jeep tour. There are many accommodations on the route which have rooms completely made of salt – a special experience! You can choose basic family hotels or options with more comfort. Marion is happy to advise you about the possibilities.
Do you want to go to the Uyuni salt flats?
At Better Places Travel you can compose your own Bolivia and Chile tour with a visit to the Uyuni salt flats. You can request a travel proposal directly from Marion, our travel expert who has lived in Chile for years.