Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni might be the country’s biggest draw. At over 4000 square miles (10,600 square km), the Bolivian salt flats are the world’s largest. In comparison, the Salar de Uyuni is about a thousand times larger than biggest of the Utah salt flats.

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The Salar de Uyuni is in the southwest of Bolivia.

Uyuni, the gateway town for the salt flats, is a shithole in the middle of nowhere. I’m usually fairly adept at finding things to do in “boring” places, but I have to admit there’s really nothing to Uyuni other than the salt flats tours. Coincidentally, those tours attract an incredible amount of mainly low budget backpackers, most of whom go on a three day tour of the area.

There are dozens of companies in Uyuni offering tours, all of which have identical itineraries and pricing. Having so many options is a bit deceiving, since the tour providers just contract the trips out to various locals with SUVs. Thus, pretty much every company, no matter its ratings online, is the same.

The three day tour, costing about $109 including accomodation and food, only spends one day in the salt flats. The second day is in valleys outside albeit near the salt flats, which I didn’t have much desire to see, let alone on a restrictive guided tour, and the third day is a return to the town of Uyuni. So I opted for the one day tour, costing about $22. One day was plenty.

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For some reason the first stop on the tour is an abandoned train yard.

“Don’t tell anyone, but this is my first day as a guide!” some dude from La Paz in our SUV told me as the local driver went around to pick up the others on our tour. There were two Chinese students working on their PhD in psychology in Spain, a Chinese businessman stationed in Panama, a Russian guy my age who seemed to have visited every club in Beijing, and me.

The guide was pretty incompetent, but the driver seemed to have everything together. The guide kept mistranslating everything the driver said from Spanish to English, and after he heard me speaking to the driver in Spanish the guide immediately asked me to be the de facto translator.

The first stop was at an abandoned train yard that wasn’t terribly interesting, I overheard the Chinese man and women on the tour speaking in Mandarin with a northern accent. They seemed a little shocked when I jumped in the conversation by asking them in Chinese if they were from the northern provinces, and afterwards I was the go between for settling misunderstandings from Spanish to Mandarin. At the beginning my Mandarin skills were fairly rusty, probably from speaking largely in Spanish for the past year and a half and not Mandarin, but I think most things were coming back to me by the end of the day. I have a lot to learn, but after a couple years in China my language skills should be pretty good.

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All the tours stop at the trainyard and a touristy market, above, at the same time. Thus, there’s a glut of SUVs. Once we got to the salt flats everyone spread out and it was pretty isolated.

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Finally on the salt flats! They stretched out farther than I could see. It was like being on a sea of flat salt punctuated by “islands” of rock rising up out of the featureless expanse. Volcanoes ringed the area.

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The salt flats were remarkably flat.

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For some reason there were a bunch of flags.

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We stopped for lunch, provided by the tour, at a salt hotel. As the name implies, it was made entirely of salt.

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When we stopped in the salt flats we couldn’t see a single other car, or any signs of people. It might’ve been because I was there in the off season, but the Salar de Uyuni really is massive.

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There were various “islands” of cactus and rock that rose up out of the salt. We spent an hour and a half at this one, which was way too long. It was nice to take a break, though.

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Two members of the tour hanging out on the salt flats.

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Another one of the islands that rose out of the salt, this time inhabited.

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Locals harvesting salt.

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Sunset on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.

By the end of the day the guide was drunk and obnoxious. To be honest, I’m not really sure why he was there. He didn’t really say anything all day, and seemed to  annoy the driver by screaming “next next next” when it came to every song the driver put on the stereo.

But overall the tour was good, especially considering how cheap it was.

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