Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni, is the world’s largest salt flat. Sitting 3650 meter high, Salar de Uyuni sits in the Departmento of Potosí in southwest Bolivia near the crest of the Andes.
40,000 years ago the salt flats were a part of Lago Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. When this lake dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Lagos Poopó and Uru Uru, and the two major salt deserts, Coipasa and the larger Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt of which less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually. Every November Salar de Uyuni is also the breeding grounds for three breeds of South American flamingos – Chilean, James and Andean. Salar de Uyuni is also a significant tourist destination in south-western Bolivia.
How to go
Plan to arrive a day or two before you intend to depart on a salt flat tour, especially if there are only 2 of you. That gives the chance to meet other travellers, thus a larger group has more bargaining power for the ‘daily rate’.
Uyuni has a small airport (IATA=UYU, IACO=SLUY).
TAM flights to La Paz (via Sucre) several times a week. Currently (July 2015) you can’t buy a ticket online but they have office in the Uyuni centre.
Amaszonas is also servicing Uyuni. There are three flights per day and cost about $250 each way. However, for many the Amaszonas is the worst airline in South America. It’s very often late, usually by 2-3 hours. In these occassions Amaszonas doesn’t care at all and provide passengers absolutely nothing. To sum it up, you pay fortune just for a one-way 50-minutes long flight which is at the end slower, less comfortable and ten times more expensive than an overnight bus. I strongly recommend you think very hard before booking any overpriced flight with this unreliable and unprofessional airline. Rather get a flight with TAM instead.
You will need around 12 hours from La Paz, by bus. The bus ride with worse operators can be bitterly cold in winter – travellers have been known to sit in their sleeping bags on the night bus from Oruro to Uyuni. With other companies (Todo Tourismo, Trans Omar and Panamerica Sur) it’s much better. There is direct line, heating and toilet. Buses to Oruro/La Paz are often booked up in advance – you likely need to book at least the day before, several days if you wish to take the comfortable tourist bus or one of the better bus companies – best to do this before going on a Southwest Circuit tour (if coming from San Pedro de Atacama, be prepared to spend a night in Uyuni and have little choice of bus company).
There are several buses daily to and from Potosí (4 hours, 30 Bs.), from there you can go one to Sucre (3 hours more). There is also a nightly bus to Sucre leaving at 9 p.m., arriving at 3:30 a.m., for 60 Bs. Beware however, companies such as Transporte 11 de Julio have been known to cancel buses without notice, and without even opening their office to explain. As of June 2014, beware of companies such as Flecha Bus selling “direct” tickets to Sucre, when the bus reaches half-way in Potosi, the bus driver claims the service ends there and will try and make you go all the way by taxi, this is a scam, you should ask for ALL your money back from the bus driver and get a taxi if you´re stuck in Potosi to Sucre(3hrs about 40B each).
Many daily departures around 5:30 – 6:00 AM for Tupiza, stopping halfway for lunch in Atocha, 7-8 hours, 60 Bs. Three days a week there are 9 AM departures, and occasionally a Land Cruiser departs 6-7 PM, -ask around. Although the train is definitely smoother, and somewhat faster, this bus ride offers terrific views.
Trains of Ferroviaria Andina run south to Villazon on the Argentinian border, stopping in Tupiza and Atocha. Northbound trains go to Oruro. The formerly existing train connection to Calama, Chile has been discontinued. The views from Oruro to Uyuni are interesting – the train goes over the Poopó lake (with flamingos), then over the altiplano (terrain and towns are quite depressing), you can see nice sunset on the way. Expreso del Sur (better class) trains leave from Oruro on Tuesdays and Fridays at 15:30 and arrive 22:30 to Uyuni. You can select executive and 2nd class (Bs 56) tickets in Expresso del Sur. It’s best to buy the tickets, i.e., 5 days in advance to have a seat – for this you may contact the company offices in La Paz. The other Train Wara Wara leave Oruro on Sundays and Wed at 7pm and arrive in Uyuni at 2:30 am.
You can also rent a car in La Paz and drive. After Challapata the road signs are scarce to find Uyuni, in the rainy season the rivers grow and it’s dangerous to come in a car that is not a jeep 4×4.
All pictures by the author
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