Uyuni feels like a place at the end of the world. The air is bone dry, winds sweep across the town’s dead-straight streets. During the day the sun burns at an altitude of 3650 meters, at night the temperatures drop to below zero degrees. One should be prepared for all climatic conditions here.
Nevertheless, it is Bolivia’s number 1 tourist destination, because just beyond the city limits begins the largest dried salt lake in the world: the Salar de Uyuni. The white salt crust has an area of over 10,000 square kilometers and extends to the border of Chile.
There are various ways to view this natural spectacle. During the dry season (between May and September) you can explore the salt desert yourself by rental car, motorbike or even bicycle. But finding your way around this glistening white surface is not at all easy. And so most tourists – like me – opt for a multi-day, organized tour. Due to lack of time, it’s only two days for me.
It’s freezing cold in the hostel in Uyuni
Many mistakenly think that they are staying in the salt flats. This is not the case, because the salt lake is a protected area. So you are always chauffeured back to Uyuni. My tour provider even allowed me to book my own accommodation to save on additional costs. It’s usually around $150 for three days, I only pay $60 for two days.
My accommodation is actually a charming hostel tucked away in a backyard right in the center of town. Spacious rooms, clean, small breakfast. But it wouldn’t be Bolivia if there wasn’t a catch. As soon as you enter it smells extremely of petrol or oil. Apparently some of it spilled on the front steps, because my travel companion slipped down the steep steps on the very first day. Luckily without getting seriously injured.
The second problem: It’s freezing cold in the big hostel. In order to save costs, there is no heating there. Although there are electric heaters in some rooms, the bossy hostess mother doesn’t want to provide us with any. They are all broken. Ah, I see. Well, I’m already used to freezing cold nights in the Himalayas. If you dress thick enough, you can sleep in sub-zero temperatures.
The salt lake looks like a gigantic mirror
All that is forgotten the next day when I undertake the tour into the salt flats. While I’m not a fan of organized tours, this is honestly one of the best I’ve been on. In a small group of six people, you will drive through the endless white in a robust Toyota Land Cruiser. It is a breathtaking landscape that one rarely sees in one’s life. Lunch is served in style in the middle of the salt lake, perfectly prepared by the driver.
Later we go to the few water points that are left over from the lake at the end of the rainy season. The water surface looks like a gigantic mirror that encourages playing with photographic motifs. And so we waddle very carefully in rubber boots through the shallow water so as not to destroy the reflective surface as much as possible.
In the evening, surprisingly good Bolivian red wine with the German name “Kohlberg” is served. There is also local feta cheese and a sunset that is out of this world. A perfect ending.
Shortness of breath in one of the highest cities in the world
The next day is then less perfect. We drive almost three hours to a lagoon where we want to admire flamingos. Unfortunately, the nights have already become too cold, so that most of the birds from this lagoon have long since said goodbye to warmer regions.
On the way back, some spectacular views make up for it, for example at Laguna Negra, where we can observe a wild herd of llamas up close. So the second day was worth it in the end, despite hours of driving.
From Uyuni we continue north. A popular stop on the way to Sucre is the town of Potosí. It is 4100 meters above sea level, making it one of the highest cities in the world. And definitely not one of my favorite destinations: I can’t get a good night’s sleep here. I wake up in bed gasping for breath several times.
Young people should probably find it easier to get used to the thin air. But after your mid-30s, it gets harder. Even locals tell me that once they’ve been at lower elevations for a few days, they have a hard time acclimating to the altitude.
And so I’m looking forward to finally traveling on to Sucre after two nights. Because the city is at 2800 meters, hopefully I can sleep through the night again. It’s also said to be the most beautiful city in the country – I’m excited.
Read more parts of the world tour series “One Way Ticket” here. The column appears every two weeks.