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Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)

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Salar de Uyuni is home to the world's largest salt flat.

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      22.05.2009 18:33
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      well worth the trip

      Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats of Uyuni is some of the most impressive and unusual scenery I have seen in a long time travelling. It is virtually impossible to see the salar without joining a tour, unless you have your own transport, equipment and possibly backup team too, so most people join a tour group in Uyuni. Many tours leave every day from the town and it is cheaper to book on the spot rather than in advance from La Paz or abroad. The most common tour is for 2 nights, 3 days and cover the salt flats and the lagoons and geisers of south-east Bolivia although since the salt flats are only visited for one day it is also possible to see them on a simpler one day tour. It seems a little pointless to come all the way here without seeing all the sites available though so doing the full 3 days is recommended.

      Starting from Uyuni most jeeps wind through a few minor sites such as the train cemetery before arriving out to the salt. This is the main attraction of the trip and it doesn't fail to amaze-seemingsly endless kilometres of flat crystal salt with it's characteristic hexagonal pattern stretching out in every direction. Personally the tour during the wet season (december to april) was for me even more impressive because the salt is covered with a layer of water that reflects the sky-never before or since have I felt like I was just floating in a white sky as the sky and land are indistinguishable.

      On the second and third days the tours go past many coloured lakes, volcanos and spectacular lunar scenery up to the hot springs and geisers on the last morning. Whilst fascinating, I have to admit nothing could match up to the first day on the salt flats for me although the whole trip takes in unusual views and is well worth going for.

      A few things to bear in mind if going on this trip; firstly, it gets really cold at night so bring warm clothing. Secondly, the altitude ranges from about 3500 up to almost 5000 metres so try to acclimitize for a few days before starting out or you may spend the trip fighting with altitude sickness. Even being used to altitude it is still breathless especially near 5000 metres. The food provided is usually edible but basic and there are a lot of hours of driving between the sites where biscuits, chocolate and other snacks are appreciated so bring some from Uyuni. Finally, sunglasses for the salt flats are important as the sun, high altitude and white salt reflecting the light mean that snow blindness is a real danger.

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        19.05.2009 21:36
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        An isolated, lofty corner of Bolivia which deserves to be better-known.

        It's about half five in the morning, it's pitch-black, and it's minus-a-lot-degrees. I haven't had a proper wash in four days and I've been consistently cold for just about all that time - although I'm also sunburnt, somehow. Standing in the midst of a great empty plain, I'm not getting any warmer - and the sun doesn't seem to be in any hurry to rise.

        Rise it does, however, and the icy waiting starts to pay off. With nothing to interrupt them, our shadows stretch far behind us, long, blueish, parallel lines cast by our legs. In every direction, nothing but a sea of white stands between you and the horizon; mildly disorientating, but quite stunning. It's still damn cold though.

        The Salar de Uyuni - the world's largest Salt Flats - make up a four thousand square-mile corner of Bolivia; hover over the country on Google Maps and it'll be the great white splodge in the south-west of the screen. Hundreds of tourists visit each day, but the immensity and emptiness of the place creates a pervasive sense of isolation from the outside world.
        The Salar is a surreal environment with a split, weather-determined personality. In dry weather, the flats are a gleaming white dessert that dazzles the eyes and, in the absence of landmarks or interruptions, makes depth-perception difficult, creating illusions of distance. Come rain, however, and the Salar becomes a giant mirror, reflecting the sky - as such, perhaps the most striking time to explore the area is on a clear day after rainfall, when the waterlogged salt takes on the blue of the sky, creating an illusion of walking on air.

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        To And From Uyuni
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        Uyuni is the closest town to the Salar, a few miles to the north, and the majority of excursions originate from here. A dusty, dry desert town, there really is no reason for anyone to come to Uyuni except to visit the Salar, save for a vast graveyard of disused and crumbling trains just outside of town. Mercifully for the place, the salt flats are enough of a draw to keep a steady influx of tourists coming through. Uyuni has a modest range of hotels and amenities - just be sure to check if and when your accommodation has hot water and heating available; due to the altitude, nights can be seriously cold. Keep this in mind when choosing your bed for the night!

        Eating options are not extensive, although MinuteMan Pizza, roughly opposite the train station, comes highly recommended. It may not be delicate, refined eating, but they do absolutely first-class pizza and beer, in generous portions for reasonable prices, as well as a range of home-made bakery bits and pieces - an excellent place to stock up before long bus journeys.

        On that note, it's worth pointing out that Uyuni has a reputation for being a difficult place to get out of. The train arrives (in the middle of the night) twice a week, but tends to be booked up some time in advance. Otherwise, there are plenty of companies who'll tell you they can get you to your destination by coach, but the vehicles they use are often at death's door, and many break down on the unpaved roads outside the town - it took me forty-three hours to get to La Paz, a journey that should take around twelve. Whoever you choose, it's unlikely to be the most comfortable journey you've ever had, but doing a bit of homework before parting with your money might be the difference between arriving late and breaking down in the middle of the desert.

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        Salar Tours; Getting the Right One
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        Although a few people make their own way into the Salar, the vast majority join an organised tour, hopping aboard a weather-beaten, but generally reliable 4x4. There are a great deal of companies in Uyuni who offer excursions, and amongst them, you should be able to find the one providing the right trip for you. The main variables to consider are: length of trip, number of clients, guide and/or cook and, of course, price.

        Trips are normally either one-day, Salar-only excursions or four-day tours of the "South-West Circuit", taking in a number of other sights and overnight stays in basic, and very remote, accommodation as well as the flats. If you've got the time, the longer trip is very much worth it - although the Salar is the highlight of the region, there's so much more to the area. Rugged and harsh, this corner of Bolivia, tucked in against the Argentinean and Chilean borders abounds with lakes in vivid hues of green, blue and scarlet, flutes and gullies of rock carved by the wind and vast, untouched panoramas.

        On these tours, one tends to pay at the start of the trip; one price that includes everything - accommodation, food, transport. The only thing you might want to take is extra water; a fair amount is usually provided, but as cold as it gets at night, the heat during the day can take it out of you if you're in the sun - and the altitude (3000-4000 metres) will sap your energy reserves. Prices are generally extremely good for what you get, although the exchange rate isn't what it was only last year - expect to pay around 1000 Bolivianos, which would currently equate to a little under £100, although you may be able to negotiate this.

        Check exactly what you're getting for your money; in particular, the amount of clients in the 4x4. Each vehicle can comfortably seat six (including driver and cook, if there is one); seven is bearable enough, although can get a bit much on long drives, while some operators will try to squeeze in eight - steer clear unless you enjoy lengthy journeys pinned in place in the middle seat, getting a little too well-acquainted with your fellow travellers. Check also who will be leading the tour; there'll be a driver-cum-tour guide - how much of the latter he is will probably depend on your level of Spanish, as few speak any real English. Naturally, this may change if you're willing to pay a premium. Additionally, some vehicles may also take a cook along, while in others the driver doubles up - the food was one of the high points of the tour I took; fresh, delicious food dished up from the back of the 4x4 for lunch or brought to the table in the evenings.

        It should be pointed out that you don't have to start the trip in Uyuni, although most people do. If you can get to Tupiza, a small town further south down the rail line, a couple of hours from the Argentinean border, there are a number of companies who run excursions. The itinerary (finishing in Uyuni) is essentially the same as the Uyuni-Uyuni circular trip, but as it's a more A-Z route, rather than a loop, it involves less backtracking and is inevitably much quieter - you won't see many other tourists for the first couple of days. Tupiza is also a much nicer town than Uyuni; slow-paced and laid-back, with a dramatic Wild West setting - fittingly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their ends a few miles from here. Amongst the companies offering the journey, Tupiza Tours have a good reputation, and I found them to be excellent.

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        On The Road; Sand, Sulphur and Salt
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        There's too much to see and describe to fit in here, but suffice to say, you're in for four days of remarkable scenery in a remote, totally unspoilt corner of the country. The drives can be long, but there are plenty of stops along the way, and the driver is likely to be pretty easy-going in terms of schedules, and will be happy to break the trip wherever the clients want in addition to the planned stops. The itinerary should run something like this (for Tupiza-Uyuni - if leaving from Uyuni, read pretty much backwards).

        Day One - Gaining in altitude, this portion of the trip covers hillier terrain, making for some wonderful scenery and far-reaching views. You'll see plenty of Alpacas, Llamas and cactuses, and stay in the first of some very basic accommodation.

        Day Two - On the road towards Laguna Verde (The Green Lagoon) and the Chilean border, the landscape takes on a flatter, more barren appearance, less varied than day one but with an epic sense of isolation and scale all of its own. You'll stop off at a number of lagoons and salt lakes along the way, and pay a visit to some foul-smelling geysers before settling in for a decidedly chilly night.

        Day Three - Visiting Laguna Colorada in the morning, you'll see great flocks of flamingos gathered in the blood-red waters - stop off at a group of thermal pools to ease weary limbs (and get the first wash in a few days), then stay at a "hotel" made entirely of salt, from walls to floor.

        Day Four - Waking up painfully early, arrive on the Salar before sunrise and take in the emerging spectacle before heading to Isla Pescado (Fish Island - with no fish to be seen) for breakfast. Play around with the deceptive perspective of the flats for some unusual photos and arrive in Uyuni early afternoon.

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        So, Is The Cold Worth It?
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        Visiting the Salar de Uyuni and the Southwest Circuit is not a comfortable experience - it can't be, really, what with the lack of roads and electricity. This, though, is also its charm and appeal - arriving dusty, tired and smelling awful, you'll certainly feel like you've had an adventure - it's rare to experience this kind of isolation and removal from the comforts of everyday life, and it's well worth some nippy nights to see this. So long as you're prepared - stock up on warm clothing before leaving - this remote corner of Bolivia rewards those who make the effort to get there.

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          17.05.2009 19:39
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          If you're in Bolivia or near the Chilean border, you must see this place!

          Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) is what has been left behind after the drying up of a huge salt lake - yes, salt lake, not fresh water!!!

          The Salt flat I was told is beyond 20 metres deep and crystallised salt can be seen for miles - as far as the eye can see - and yes of course, you have to taste it to believe it is salt! You see salt formations along the way - like the lines of salt boulders or little mini pyramids! By looking at photos, it looks like snow. It is an incredible sight!

          In the middle of the salt flat, like a traditional mirage, is a desert island, with its very own llama and a few other friendly animal folk! The island has cactuses growing, is rocky, and just looks so out of place to the rest of the surroundings - which is white as far as the eye can see! It is incredible!! The slat crackles as you walk on top of it and you do feel in awe of the scale of the salt flat!

          With the sun beating down on you and the refection of the sun in the white salt, you do feel somewhat blinded - like if you were somewhere snowy! It is one of those gems that haven't been plagued by people dropping litter, whilst in high season, it is frequently visited, it is so huge, that you are far away from other tourist jeeps so you have your own space to take in the natural beauty.

          (Don't forget to pick up a tiny piece of salt for the mantelpiece at home!)

          Without a doubt, you have to see this. It is just simply amazing!!
          Best way to do it is a three day tour from San Pedro de Atacama - the final stop is at the salt flat - in Bolivia, or the other way around, so a really good way to border hop into the next country!!

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          Salar de Uyuni is home to the world's largest salt flat.