Dig Deeper
July 26, 2019

By: Nick Dall

Your trip to Uyuni doesn’t have to be all about silly selfies

Secondary Categories: Bolivia, Uyuni

Nature’s biggest blue screen attracts influencers and hashtaggers in their droves. We prefer to dig a little deeper (and avoid the crowds) when we go to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Read on to find out how to get the most out of this high-altitude gem in the wastelands of Southern Bolivia.

Measuring a whopping 4,086 square miles, the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia is the world’s largest salt pan. Located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, and fringed by deserts, volcanos, and varicolored lagoons, it is as Instagrammable and otherworldly a place as you’ll find on this planet. The Salar’s obvious photogeneity has seen it surge in popularity as a destination, with over 300,000 souls making the pilgrimage in 2016 – a 20% rise on previous years.

The Bolivian Amautas greet the rising solstice sun during their ceremony at Salar de Uyuni. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Far from the madding crowd

While there’s no denying that the Salar de Uyuni is busier than it’s ever been, fitting 850 people (the daily average of 300,000 annual visitors) into an area the size of Connecticut doesn’t have to be a squeeze! Especially if you consider that almost all Uyuni tours entail driving around the flats in a 4x4 for several days. Machu Picchu sees more than 1½ million visitors every year (despite being fairly confined) and the postage stamp that is the Eiffel Tower tops seven million annual visitors.

There’s more than enough space to have the Salar de Uyuni to yourself, if you plan your trip carefully. Here are just a few of the ways SA Expeditions trips manage to spread the love across a wider swath of the Salar…

We visit Pulacayo instead of the Uyuni train cemetery

The first stop on (almost) every guided tour of the Salar de Uyuni is the Cementerio de Trenes – an assortment of long-abandoned locomotives – on the outskirts of town. Because all tours set off after breakfast, the train cemetery is crawling with tourists between 9am and 11am every day.

The Train Museum on the historic industrial site of Pulacayo. (Photo: Manuel Menal)

SA Expeditions trips sidestep this issue by visiting the virtual ghost town of Pulacayo. This village, a 30-minute drive from Uyuni, was home to the richest silver mine in Bolivia in the 19th century (not to mention what was then the world’s second largest mine). This excerpt from Pulacayo’s UNESCO Industrial Heritage Site nomination gives a good idea of Pulacayo’s historical significance:

During [the mine’s heyday], the per capita income of the Bolivian citizens grew like never before or after. Bolivian history in the second part of the 19th century is, in a big way, the history of the Huanchaca mine, located in Pulacayo. Bolivia saw in Pulacayo, for the first time, the use of steam engines and other modern machines as well as the first railroads.

Pulacayo became a backwater overnight when the mine was abandoned in 1952. Today its thousand-odd inhabitants scrape a living from the remaining mineral reserves, while the town’s many touristic treasures go largely unappreciated. Historical highlights include the mansion of Aniceto Arce (the mine’s owner and Bolivia’s President between 1888 and 1892), a train that was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (check out our in-depth look at the gangsters’ Bolivia connection here), the oldest Alpaca wool spinning mill in the country (and perhaps the world), and an impressive theater.

We visit the Isla del Pescado instead of Incahuasi

Some of the weirdest features of the Salar de Uyuni are its islands. These rocky outcrops dotted with cacti were once real islands when the Salar was an inland sea about, 40,000 years ago. The vast majority of Uyuni overland trips visit Incahuasi, the largest and most well-known of these islands and – once again – they all descend on it at pretty much the same time. Instead of putting folks through this chaos, SA Expeditions tours go to Isla del Pescado a slightly smaller island, that has all the otherworldly features of Incahuasi and very few of the crowds.

The deserted island of Isla del Pescado bordering a sea of salt. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

We’ll take you to the remotest corners of the Salar

If your schedule allows, we’d love to show you the many otherworldly attractions of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve which is home to abundant wildlife (three different flamingo species, vicuñas, vizcachas, Andean foxes and, if you’re really lucky, pumas), varicolored lagoons, and the eerie Siloli Desert which is home to the famous Stone Tree.

Due to the reserve’s close proximity to the Chilean border post, this detour makes especially good sense if you’re continuing on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. But it can just easily be incorporated into a round-trip that begins and ends in Uyuni.

We manage expectations

One of the biggest considerations when planning a trip to Uyuni is whether to visit in the dry or the wet season. For most of the year the Salar is a blinding haze of white, but in the rainy season (usually between December and April) it is transformed into a knee-deep lake that becomes the world’s biggest mirror.

In the rainy season the Salar has to be seen to be believed. (Photo: Mayumi Ishikawa)

In recent years, visiting during the rainy season has become increasingly popular, and although we love taking folks to the Salar at this time (it really is quite unlike anything else on earth), we do warn them to expect bigger crowds and not quite as much freedom to roam. We also provide gumboots!

We think on our feet

In addition to all the strategies above, we also know the Salar well enough to be able to cater to specific requests and requirements.

If your itinerary makes a visit to Pulacayo impossible (if you’re coming from San Pedro de Atacama, for example, and have an evening flight to La Paz), we can arrange to take you to the Uyuni train cemetery at sunset when no one else is around and the place really comes into its own.

Likewise, we don’t avoid Incahuasi at all costs. In fact we make frequent use of its excellent bathroom facilities and – if your choice of salt hotel allows – we are quite often able to fit in a later afternoon visit, when the masses have long since departed the island.

Laguna Colorada gets its reddish color from pigmented algae. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

And if you’re planning on crossing over to Chile, we’ll allow you to have a leisurely breakfast before setting off for the border post at 8am – unlike the group tours which all leave at 5am and end up creating a logjam for themselves.

None of the tips above are rocket science but they will make a massive difference to your Uyuni experience. To ensure that your Uyuni trip lives up to your expectations, check out our Uyuni tours or speak to one of our Destination Experts about tailor-making your own.

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