Which agency to choose for the tour to the Salar de Uyuni and how to book
As I anticipated in the article on San Pedro de Atacama, a San Pedro de Atacama there are more than 100 tourist agencies. The guides (like Lonely, but also the others) make a decent terrorism on the choice of the agency, especially with regard to the tour in Bolivia because several people died doing this circuit (most of them due to accidents caused by the intoxication of the driver - the jeeps load the petrol cans on the roof for all 4 days of tour, so if the jeep overturns ...). Apparently the risk of choosing an unreliable agency exists, agencies that use old vehicles, unsafe drivers (who may raise their elbows), and so on and so forth.
Precisely for this reason I went to read several reviews on the web before choosing this one agency (which is also certified for Sustainable Tourism) And his name is Denomades . Through their site you can buy all the excursions online by paying with PayPal or by credit card. I must admit that they did not disappoint me: all the tours I did with them were up to par, with good vehicles and good guides. I recommend it! In particular, the 4 days-3 nights tour of the Salar starting from San Pedro can be found at this link. This is the price of a shared tour, but you can also book a private tour.
In case you intend to continue the journey directly from Uyuni you must book the 3 days and 2 nights tour instead.
Health insurance is required
In Bolivia our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip (country, duration, etc.) and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online.
How much is the tour in the Salar de Uyuni
Prices are standard; for the 4-day tour with departure and return to San Pedro you will spend approximately between 160 and 180 euros (low and high season). This figure includes: transport in 4 × 4, all meals, 3 nights in the hostel and drinks during meals. To this you must then add another 30-40 euros (to be changed into Bolivian pesos before leaving) for the entrance to the reserve, the entrance to the Incahuasi island, the border taxes, the extra water, the entrance to the baths. during the tour and what you decide to buy during the trip.
When to go to the Salar de Uyuni
You can always go to see the Salar de Uyuni. During our summer the Salar is completely dry. If you go there in February, the expanse of salt of the Salar is covered by a thin layer of water and becomes like a mirror. It goes without saying that it is wonderful in both dry and dry versions! Just calculate that the tour they offer when there is water is smaller due to the rains and you can go inside less (you cannot reach Isla Incahuasi for example).
With respect to temperatures, during our summer (June-September) the temperatures are very low: it ranges from -15 / -20 ° at night to 10 ° degrees above zero during the day and you will need to bring technical clothing. During our winter (November-January) it goes from -5 / 0 ° at night to almost 30 ° during the day. In this case you will have to dress like an onion because you will go from the down jacket to shorts and tank top.
What to bring to the Salar de Uyuni
Considering that the whole tour takes place at an altitude between 3500 and 5500 meters, it is essential to bring at least 4 liters of water (drinking a lot helps acclimatization), coca leaves or candies to chew, very warm technical clothing (including hat, tights and gloves), some snacks, sunglasses and sun protection (the glare of the sun at those altitudes is very strong), without forgetting the sleeping bag (if you don't have your own, rent one from the agency).
If you want to organize the tour
As I told you, I have organized a large part of my trip independently or relying on local people. If you want to travel without fear of unforeseen events and organize your tour in Bolivia, perhaps already from the comfort of your home, I recommend the online travel agency. All-otherworld. True experts in the sector and specialized in Central and South America: with Maria Grazia and Angela we start calmly.
The itinerary: from San Pedro de Atacama to the Salar de Uyuni
Day 1 (Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, geiser and Laguna Colorada)
The first day we leave by bus from San Pedro around 8 in the morning and we immediately head towards the frontiera boliviana di Hito Cajon which is less than an hour away. After having carried out all the customs procedures, you have breakfast and transfer to the jeeps on which you will travel throughout the tour. Both breakfast and all other meals are prepared by the driver who will also be a cook and mechanic. The Bolivian border is located at an altitude of over 1 meters and you have to stand in the queue outdoors so cover up a lot, it is one of the coldest spots of the whole tour!
We are finally off! From the border, go down the slopes of the Licancabur volcano (5960 m) towards the Laguna Blanca (4500 mt) whose shoreline is fringed with brilliant white deposits of borax, a particularly valuable mineral that is mined and sold to Chile. A heavenly sight! From here continue towards the Green Lagoon (4400 m), a beautiful blue-green lagoon whose color is due to the enormous concentration of lead, sulfur, arsenic and calcium carbonate. This lagoon is always beaten by the icy winds that stir the waters, forming a brilliant foam that prevents the water from freezing even in the middle of winter when temperatures drop tens of degrees below zero.
The road (unpaved and quite bumpy along the entire circuit) continues until you reach a stone desert called Salvador Dali because it is scattered with enormous boulders that seem to have been carefully arranged by the great Spanish painter; in fact the landscape is decidedly surreal. The glance of these stones streaked with red and yellow is incredible. From the desert you arrive at a lagoon with a natural hot water spring in which you can immerse yourself. The water is at 30 ° and they have created a kind of swimming pool where you can get wet enjoying the benefits of these mineral-rich waters (great for arthritis sufferers apparently). At this point there are changing rooms (for a fee), toilets and a restaurant.
You go on and the landscape changes again drastically when you reach one large area of gejser called Sol de Mañana (4850 mt). Here you walk next to pools of bubbling gray-green mud, hellish fumaroles that smell terribly of sulfur (luckily we visited them before lunch!). The last stage of the day is dedicated to the stupendous Laguna Colorada (4278 mt), an amaranth-colored lake where the water does not exceed one meter. The red color is given by algae and plankton while the edge of the lake is edged with brilliant white deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax and gypsum. As if the spectacle of the water and the landscape of the volcanoes that stand out in the background were not enough, this lake is populated by thousands of pink flamingos! There are no words to describe the emotions I felt, really. The power of nature in these parts is beyond imagination.
From here we reached the village of Villa Mar to have dinner and sleep at the Huayllajara hostal. The hostels are extremely basic and without heating; you all sleep together in one room and barely brush your teeth (there is only ice water). You sleep with everything on, plus a sleeping bag, plus a couple of blankets.
NOTE. But in your opinion, could the idyllic day really end like this? The answer is no. Satisfied with everything we had seen, we got a puncture as we were reaching the village of Villa Mar. And what's the problem, you say? There will be the spare tire. In fact, it was there but the rim didn't fit, it was a spare tire for another jeep. All of this happened at sunset, and after 10 minutes of standing still the temperature started to plummet. I do not deny that the worried face of the driver has begun to worry me and my travel companions (two couples of Brazilian guys). Fortunately, other jeeps stopped and, with 2 hours of work with several hands, they managed to get us started again. From this point on the tour I realized that these issues are on the agenda. Fortunately, the drivers of the various jeeps help each other a lot because they know it can happen to anyone and they will need the same treatment.
Day 2 (Mysterious Lagoon, Anaconda Canyon, St. Augustin)
The alarm goes off at 7 and getting out of that mountain of blankets with the cold air outside is not easy. But we have breakfast and leave again. The landscapes of the second day are less spectacular than the first, but you can see still different scenarios, always new.
During the first half of the day we visit various rocky conformations formed by petrified lava that have taken on decidedly particular shapes: there is the world cup, the tree, the sleeping camel and Lost Italy. The latter is so called because it is said that two Italian cyclists arrived in this place and disappeared, nothing of them was found except bicycles. After this area, you walk along a very beautiful lagoon (without a name perhaps) full of llamas and pink flamingos to then arrive at the Mysterious Lagoon. I loved this place! From the point where the jeeps stop there is a kind of mini-trekking to reach a panoramic spur from which you can see this magnificent hidden lagoon.
The itinerary proceeds through a desert area furrowed by canyons, the most spectacular of which is the canyon dell’Anaconda. We have lunch outdoors and set off on a super panoramic road that runs along the Canyador Sora until we reach the sleepy village of St. Augustin where you taste the local beer and stretch your legs.
Finally we arrive at the salt hotel where we will spend the night. There are several salt hotels near the Chuvica village on the eastern edge of the salar de Uyuni and are almost all the same. They are unique and comfortable places where almost everything is made of blocks of salt; there is no heating but, paying 10 pesos, you can finally take a hot shower! I must admit that here I suffered a lot less from the cold than the first night.
Day 3 (sunrise on the Salar, Incahuasi island, train cemetery)
The alarm goes off at 5 and at 5:30 we start, it is very cold, there are -20 °. It is completely dark outside and you have to arrive in time to see the sunrise over the salar fromIncahuasi island. From here on, the road no longer exists, the road is the same expanse of salt as the salar, there are no tracks and it is very easy to lose orientation even with the light. After about 1h-1 hour and a half you will arrive at Incahuasi Island, which is the largest island in the salar. There starts to be light and everyone runs along the path to reach the highest part before sunrise. The island is covered in huge Thichoreus cacti that light up like matches as they are hit by the rising sun. The sunrise on the salar is a dream and will remain among the strongest memories of the whole trip, it is one of the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen in my life. The landscape is surreal, there are only cacti and a white sea of which no end can be seen. The cold is really bitter here, despite having gloves I could barely shoot, I was shivering. As the sun comes out, the salar presents itself in all its splendor with a blinding whiteness and the contrast with the blue sky is dazzling. It's hard to keep your eyes open even under sunglasses. It is truly amazing how the salt settles on the ground in the form of perfect hexagons, they seem drawn. In addition to being a center of salt extraction of course, the salar (below the surface) is rich in Lithium and it is estimated that 50% of the world's lithium deposits are located right here! Car manufacturers around the world keep their eyes on this resource (lithium is essential for hybrid and electric vehicles) but to this day the Bolivian president continues to avoid foreign involvement in the management of this precious mineral (and we hope it continues. like this!).
After breakfast there is time to take a million photos and proceed to Salt Hotel, an old salt hotel now converted to a museum / souvenir shop.
Leaving the salar, you then stop in Colchani village to buy something in the market (it is very convenient!) and have lunch before reaching the famous train cemetery. In this deserted land there is a large collection of abandoned historic steam locomotives and wagons that date back to the XNUMXth century, when there was a locomotive factory in the city. You can climb the wrecks in this post-apocalyptic Mad Max-like scenario.
With the train cemetery, alas, the circuit ends and we arrive at Uyuni. There are those who stop here to continue towards the rest of Bolivia or Peru and those, like me, get on a new jeep to go back.
We leave Uyuni at around 16:30 pm to reach the hostel again on the first day in Villa Mar and spend the night there (color note: during this stage we managed to pierce the hole twice, arriving at the hostel at 22pm).
We leave at 6:30 am to reach the border with Chile. After the customs formalities (quite long, with drug dogs, baggage searches, etc.) we arrive back in San Pedro around lunchtime with a smile printed on the face and full heart.