White Hot Days and Cold Desert Nights: From San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni

 The first time I saw a picture of the majestic salt flats of Uyuni, I had decided that I wanted to go there. A place where the red sun goes down over a horizon of miles of white as far as the eye can see.

After a week in San Pedro de Atacama we had decided it was time for a change of scenery and country.

We were heading to Bolivia!

Unless you have your own car and have done the route before the only real way to travel is with a driver in a jeep. We booked to leave on the Sunday in a 4×4 with a tour company that we had heard good things of. Cordillera Traveller was amongst the most expensive (only by about A$10 – approximately $150 for three days travel, food and accomodation) but reputation, responsibility and safety for us was everything.

There are many horror stories from the altiplano, from drunk drivers to reckless driving. Apparently there have been 18 deaths on the flats since 2008. Considering that there are miles and miles of nothing but flat, open plains they must have been doing something wrong.

Day 1

Early Sunday morning we were off. We travelled in minibus from our hostel to the Bolivian-Chilean border, in the middle of the desert, where we stopped for immigration, breakfast and to change vehicles. It was the start of adventure, and we would share it with our driver Jonny, an American couple Kaylee and James and an Irish girl Yvonne.

The first stops once we were over the border were two stunning lakes – Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde – both surrounded by a backdrop of mountains and encrusted by borax, which gave a dramatic contrast.


From there we travelled to what would be the highest point of the whole trip – Sol de Manana – a series of geysers and hot springs at 4,950 metres above sea level. To put that in perspective, we were standing more than 2 km above the highest peak in Australia.


Next stop were the thermal baths Polkes at the banks of Laguna Salada. In the middle of the day, the waters are a balmy 32°C, just right for relaxing and enjoying the views. However early in the morning the water temperature gets as high as 60°C.


After our mid-morning bathe we headed on to the refuge where we would stay for the night. The accommodation was basic, but better than any of us expected. There we had lunch and a brief siesta before heading out to the nearby Laguna Colorada, quite possibly the second best views on the trip.


The lake is coloured bright red from the plankton that exists in the water, which also attracts the most number of flamingos in the region. Here there are 36,000 flamingos gracefully posing and feeding from the lake. Among them exist three species: James (the smallest at around 70cm), Andean and Chilean (the largest at up to 1m).


When the sun began to fall back at the refuge we felt the stinging chill that we had heard about. The coldest point in the trip is the first night, where temperatures fall below zero, often down to minus 10. The day’s altitude changes were exhausting.. With a hot water bottle, heavy duty sleeping bag and a crushing load of blankets I got some much needed rest.

Day 2

The next morning once we had eaten breakfast and thawed out we were back on the road. The first stop for the day was the Arbol de Piedra, in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. The rock tree is called so because of its form, shaped over thousands of years from strong winds in the altiplano.


From there we continued along a series of lagoons, each as beautiful as the next, until we reached the piece de resistance, Laguna Hedionda.


On the banks of the lagoon is Ecolodge Los Flamencos, which would be the perfect hideaway for flamingo watching. The 3km wide sulphur-tainted, salt-crusted lake is home to both pink and white flamingos that bask in the deep blue water amongst black volcanic rocks and desert steppes. We spent quite awhile watching, in awe of the crimson creatures, before heading off again to our next stop – the tiny village of San Juan.

Along the way the road got a little rocky and rough. We were all chatting and laughing away in the car, listening to some of Jonny’s Bolivian tunes when suddenly he stopped dead, jumped out of the car and threw his head in his hands. We had a punctured tyre.

We all got out of the car, the boys helped Jonny change the tyre for a spare. They jacked up the car, swapped the two and off we went again…until we heard a faint hissing sound coming from outside the back window. We stopped again, the boys got out. Now the spare had a puncture too.


It was late afternoon and us girls sat on the side of the tracks on the hard salty surface watching the three of them fiddle around and patch the puncture. And we were off…again. That is until…well another one. This went on a few times, we would get out, the boys would patch up the punctures and we would be on our way.


Just as we were about to cross the Chile to Bolivia railway line, Jonny asked us to get out of the car to make the crossing over the elevated tracks easier. The boys got out and shouted “the hissing is getting louder”. The tyres were now holey beyond repair. Jonny yelled “get back in…Vamos, vamos” we had to cross the tracks as quick as possible before we got stuck there for the night. The boys didn’t quite make it in, we slammed the doors shut and Jonny revved the engine and zoomed across as carefully but as quickly as possible. We stopped to a halt and in the rearview mirror were the two boys Antoine and James walking in the cloud of dust with the desert behind them, like something out of a Hollywood scene.

We were all in stitches until we had to stop again. Then adventure turned to doubt and nervous jokes of being stuck in the desert for the night. Did we have enough water? Check. Enough snacks? Check. Warmth for when the sun goes down and a pack of cards to kill the time? Negative. Luckily after some playing around with the two now completely defunct tyres another jeep came to our rescue and lent us his spare until we reached San Juan. The passengers snorted that we should reconsider our tour company, but a flat tyre is a flat tyre and can happen to even the most prepared driver, especially on unforgiving terrain.


That night after a very comic and an adventure-filled day, we stayed in a Hotel de Sal, on the edges of the salt flats and about 6 hours from Uyuni. The Hotel de Sal is made entirely of salt, from the walls to the floors, the tables, chairs and everything in between – save the sheets and the shower.


On the menu was llama and so Antoine and I had commenced our vegetarian stint.

They cranked up the generators for electricity and hot water and we all got a very restful night’s sleep.

Day 3

The next morning was the start of our last day and the beginning of the cruise across the salt flats. The first stop was Isla Incahuasi – “Inca” meaning “ancient” and “huasi” meaning “house” in Quechua. The harsh, rocky land mass is famous for its gigantic, prehistoric cacti. It was 30 pesos (around A$4) to enter and climb to the top of this very prickly island where awaits a blindingly white 360° view of the salt flats.

In the middle of the summit was a well in which to place offerings to Pachamama – Mother Earth, a goddess revered by the Indigenous Peoples of the region.

The salt flats are actually the remains of a prehistoric saline lake that covered an area of over 2,000km in circumference 30-40,000 years ago. The crusted salt is 100 metres deep, below which is a water source of unknown depth. The flats are now exploited as a source of minerals including lithium. Beyond here lies the largest lithium factory in the world and the largest salt mines in Bolivia.

The islands in the middle are subject to concerns from tourism impacts, as fragile coral deposits and fossils are disintegrating from increasing tourism to the area and a lack of sustainable tourism management.

From the island we cruised across the salt flats, carefully following the tyre tracks marked out in salt until we reached the middle, where for as far as the eye could see there was no one and nothing but crunchy, washed-out terrain.

After a picnic lunch and further down the flats we stopped at the mines where Jonny explained that all mining here is done manually, with a shovel and spade, and then transported to a processing factory in Cochabamba.

Continuing along the flats we drove until we reached our very last stop for the day, el cementario de los trenes (the train graveyard) where old trains go to spend the rest of their days.

I sometimes find it interesting what some places consider as tourist attractions, and unless you’re a trainspotter or engine enthusiast you’re unlikely to find the place very appealing. What concerned me more were the piles of rubbish strewn across the desert landscape, in addition to the scraps of metal that could be recycled and reused.

We headed on into the town of Uyuni where we were met with little round women sporting plaits in bowler hats and pleated skirts, chaotic streets where chickens, dogs and children zigzagged in front of oncoming cars and motos, and where rhythmic Latin beats followed us everywhere we went.

We were now well and truly in Bolivia, and at the start of something new.

2 Responses to “White Hot Days and Cold Desert Nights: From San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni”
  1. What an adventure! And beautiful pictures! Thank you for sharing!

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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