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Thousands of tourists go to the incredible salt flats from Uyuni, completing the one to three day tour, and back. There’s a better way: THIS is the best way to see the Uyuni salt flats!

Big hint: do not start in Uyuni. Start in Tupiza.

Tupiza is a Bolivian town further South, close to the borders with Argentina and Chile. The surrounding reddish rock formations are stunning for a horse-ride and trek. But, if you don’t have time, don’t worry – it’s still worth the trip to begin the Uyuni tour there.

This is part of a travel adventures blog post series in Latin America

Why start in Tupiza?

See incredible landscapes, lagunas and rock formations you wouldn’t otherwise, miss all the Uyuni crowds to get these stunning views solo, spend more time in Bolivia’s incredible alti-plano region, understand the region’s incredible natural resources better and how they (including the salt flats) came to be. Do I need to go on? One of those reasons alone should convince you!

The usual tour from Tupiza to Uyuni is four days long. The extra days are completely worth it, factor them into your Bolivia trip planning. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Off we go

Now, for the details. (in case the above did not convince you)

We set off from Tupiza – a group of eight. There was only one other tour group setting off that day. Making us a total of 16 people in this wide, breath-taking landscape (at staggered times). Needless to say, it did not feel crowded.

In our car we had my two cousins and I, Alon – an Israeli guy, and Edwin – our tour guide, his wife Maria, and their daughter Belen. Over the following four days, we all became close, with good banter and music always in the car. Personally, too, I was so happy to spend quality time with Lea and Elliot -my cousins – who I had not properly seen in four years due to the pandemic.

The first day, you begin to see the incredible diversity of landscape in this region, and slowly edge up to 4,000m altitude. You drive through the Quebrada de Palala, a stunning route, and stop at the Ciudad del Encanto. This is a cluster of rocks in astounding formations, with extremely pointy tops, making them all look a bit like Disney’s castle. Edwin (our tour guide) explained that his grandfather was one of the first to lead tours to this “Enchanted City”. He grew up “around the corner”, just a one-hour’s drive away. The cluster is very large, and the formations quite mesmerising.

Ciudad del Encanto
Quebrada de Palala
San Pablo de Lipez

Ghost town

Next, back in the car, for lunch, and then to the “ghost town” at the bottom of a mythical volcano. San Antonio de Lipez. There are completely abandoned structures of what looks to have been a village down below. We meet a woman who acts as sort of a “guardian” for the village. She explains the minerals found in the volcano behind us, along with the myths surrounding this village. There used to be a mine operating here (as is the case in quite a few of the volcanic parts of the region). During the age of Spanish colonisation, the Spanish built the village to exploit the silver of this volcano, bringing slaves from around the world with them too. However, it seems that an illness took hold of the village, leading to its end. This is the more logical story.

Then come the myths. Apparently, the people of the village did not believe in the Catholic God, only the “tío”, a local worshipped figure that is in between the devil, an uncle, and a saint. Bolivian miners to this day tend to still worship the “tío”. After all, you are in the dark underground most of the day… Someone said that whoever got to the top of the volcano first would be the ruler of the village. Someone did, and they led the village to craziness. There were more myths, and by the time we left this lady, we could not help but wonder if she herself was making it up… But Edwin to the rescue, he explained the tío, and some other stories.

Ghost Town

The Chilean border

First stop of the day: Laguna Kollpa. A beautiful lagoon with flamingos, and a backdrop of barren volcanoes and mountains. Walking around it is a wonderful way to wake up. On the lake shores, you can see salt-looking white sand. Well, its not sand – this is called Borax (or sodium borate), and is found in many cleaning products. The Borax in these lagoons is shipped to Chile, where it is processed, and put into our soaps and detergents!

We then continue onwards to the Dali Desert, an impressive landscape with rock formations and inactive volcanoes all around. Was definitely a fun setting to take funny panoramic photos in.

We race to get to the next stop – the green lagoon, because the colour depends on the wind, which brushes the minerals from one side to another, and to the top. These minerals – primarily sulfur – give it the blue-green colour. The volcano behind has snow on its peak. I picture the view to Chile from the top, and the other green lagoon in its crater – something to add on the bucket list. But for now, this is perfectly picturesque already.

Green Lagoon
Borders all around
Red Lagoon

Whenever we are introduced to new Bolivian natural resources, it strikes me that the vast majority of the processing happens in Argentina and Chile. This makes Bolivia, and the economies around these natural resources, highly dependent on those countries. It also keeps the country in the first-tier industry, rather than developing to manufacturing and services, which Argentina and Chile happen. This would be a storyline I heard time again in Bolivia. It’s also one I have heard many times before when travelling Africa and South-East Asia.

Latin America: Locked up in the middle-income trap?

We stop by some geysers, with bubbling lava-looking baths around too. The smell, heat and general power of them is remarkable. Our Earth’s power…

Final stop: laguna colorada, a red-coloured lagoon (due to sediments and algae that grow in it), with flamingos showing off their pink colour all across it.

Evenings in altitude under the stars

At 4,000m of altitude (most people start feeling altitude between 3,600m and 3,800m), its not easy to sleep. You dream much more, and for some a headache bothers them as well. You also might get diarrhoea! (a new discovery for us on this trip)

After reaching our accommodation, adding at least three layers for the night-time chill, and eating, Lea and I take our nightly stroll below the stars. The sky is stunning, we spot the Scorpio constellation (the best), and count the shooting stars. One wish for each shooting star, here’s to hoping they come true!

T-1 until the salt flats!

The beauty of going from Tupiza to Uyuni, is also that you save the best until last. Because, realistically, after seeing the Uyuni salt flats, not much compares… One more factor making this the best way to see the Uyuni salt flats.

Each day, the scenery was different: the first, more arid and rocky; the second, more lagoons and volcanoes; and the third, more vegetation and variety. Of course, the last will be the salt flat’s incredible expanse.

Today, we start with rock formations in all sorts of shapes. They are fun to climb up – challenging at times – and each has great views from the top. The world cup, a camel, Italian ruins… though the latter requires slightly more imagination.

We reach the laguna negra, black lagoon for lunch. What could these murky, dark waters be hiding beneath? Chill with the llamas a while, drink a coffee, and off to the once-again-stunning San Agustin canyon (does it surprise you anymore?).

Rock climbing to the rock formations
Black Lagoon

Sunset on the Salt Flats

Highlight of the day is undoubtedly reaching the salt flats for sunset. The photos will just never do it justice. But I will put some in anyways.

We have an aperitif with drinks and snacks on the salt flats, and music from the car. It was such a beautiful, special moment. With two of my favourite people in the world, a wonderful group, the salt flats seemingly all to ourselves, the volcanoes in the background, and the sunset giving way to the stars.

We dance to stay warm, we chat and drink, and of course admire the scenery and sky, feeling incredibly grateful for the moment. In the evening, we sleep in a hotel made fully of salt – funky concept!

Sunrise on our last day

5am wake up. Yes, its brutal, but it is 100% worth it. Cactus island to watch sunrise on the salt flats. We are literally only a dozen people on the entire “island” of million-year-old cacti, in the centre of the vast salty expanse. To appreciate one of the most incredible views I have ever seen.

the best way to see the uyuni salt flat

I repeat! This is the best way to see the Uyuni salt flats. None of those starting in Uyuni make it here for sunrise.

We have breakfast and a long walk, breathing in everything around us as much as we can. Of course, we tasted the salt flats we were walking on. I can confirm, that it was indeed very salty.

The salt flats are formed by water evaporating. A long time ago, the salt flats were a lake, and there remains water underneath the 10,000+ sqm salt crust today – which is still evaporating too. The Bolivian government is currently building lithium harvesting plants on the salt flats. But, no worries, you can barely see them, and after the stories of those three days, you will be glad to see that Bolivia is finally taking control of the processes following raw material extraction.

Then, photoshoot time. We thought we would get bored of taking “insta-worthy” photos quickly, but actually it was a lot of fun. Edwin and Belen and Maria joined in. Using all our creative juices to stage the best photos, we jumped, we fell, we did some acrobatics, and even had a little boogie to come out of our pringle box! (see above)

the best way to see the uyuni salt flat
the best way to see the uyuni salt flat
the best way to see the uyuni salt flat

We were sad to leave, but the road to La Paz is long. Farewell to Edwin – who we had become close to throughout the journey, after all it’s a lot of car time, and he had to handle Lea and my giggles! A promise to write this article to promote that this way, is indeed the best way to see the Uyuni salt flats, and off we are, on our way.

The long bus journey will help us digest the wonders we have seen over the four days. Had we the chance to, we would all absolutely do it again tomorrow.

Take the advice, it truly is the best way!  

You won’t regret it, I promise.

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