The Salar de Uyuni and the Sur Lipez

Long ago volcanoes could walk and talk, just like humans. One of them, Tunupa, had a child, the father of which was unknown. All the other volcanoes loved Tunupa and they wanted to be father of the baby. So a huge fight broke between them, until they kidnapped the baby. The gods got angry and took away the volcanoes ability to speak and move. But Tunupa’s milk and tears for the loss of the child continued to flow, creating what we now know as salar de Uyuni.

Salar Uyuni
The never ending whiteness of the salar de Uyuni. At the horizon you can see the profile of some very distant mountains.

The salt flat (salar) of Uyuni has an extension of 10582 km2, making it the largest salar on Earth. It is now a popular touristic attraction. We visited it together with the Sur Lipez, the region close to the border with Chile.

How to visit the area

Usually the tours to visit the salar de Uyuni lasts around four days. One of these days is fully dedicated to the salar, while during the others you’ll explore the beautiful region of Sur Lipez. There are two possible towns from which to start these kind of tours: Uyuni and Tupiza. You can see the same things regardless from where you start, the only thing that changes is the order.

We were coming from the north of Argentina so we started our tour from Tupiza. Here you’ll find a lot of different agencies. We chose to visit the salar de Uyuni in four days and three nights with La Torre tours. They also have an hotel so it’s easy for you to leave early in the morning with them.

The price of the tour includes a guide/driver/mechanic, and all the meals and accommodations along the way. The meals are prepared by a cook, riding in the same car with the rest of the group. Our cook prepared a lot of typical dishes, always super tasty.

Day 1: San Antonio de Lipez

During the first day you’ll cover a lot of kilometers. The landscape is amazing and, in normal weather conditions, the driver would normally stop a lot of times for you to take a million photos. But we were quite unlucky and the extreme winds and cold were not pushing us too much out of the car.

In the afternoon we reached the town of San Antonio de Lipez, at 4800 m. It was created by the Spanish as a mining town. They brought slaves from all the parts of the Southern Cone: Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay. Here, they extracted silver until a terrible epidemic broke loose. The Spanish escaped and the slaves moved downhill to raise lamas. As a consequence, the city is now a ghost town.

San Antonio de Lipez
The ruins of San Antonio de Lipez, the old mining town where prisoners and slaves worked for the Spanish.

Day 2: Lakes and hot springs

The day started with the visits to the laguna Kollpa, a rich borax deposit. Afterward, we moved to the Dali desert. Don’t expect things like melting watches though, it’s a simple desert with big solitary rocks which apparently could have fit perfectly in one of Dali’s painting.

On the way we were also able to see the Licancabur volcano, the one we were seeing from everywhere while exploring San Pedro de Atacama. We did not realize we were so close to the border with Chile!

The next stop was the laguna Verde, although it was not so green at the time. This is due to the very low temperature that makes the lake freeze. Consequently, it loses part of its characteristic color, created by chemicals like arsenic. Do not take a bath there, it’s highly toxic.

For the bath, wait to arrive at the hot springs of the laguna Hedionda. There are two pools, one at 37 and the other at 25 degrees. It was really cold and hard to find the motivation to undress but once inside, it was amazing to warm up in the water while looking at the mountains and lake around us.

In the afternoon we went seeing the geysers at 5000 m. They were nice, with a strong sulfur smell and a lot of vapor, but after the view of the geysers del Tatio our expectations were a little bit too high…

The boiling geysers. The sulfur in the rocks around it has a strong odor of rotten eggs.

Day 3: Rock formations and the Laguna Colorada

We started the day by visiting some crazy rock formations. Created by tectonic movements and modeled by the wind, we saw world cups, a dromedary, broken hearts and a lot of other rocks perfect to climb on.

Can you see the dromedary? Caroline is sitting on its head and Paolo on its back.

We also visited Italia Perdida, a labyrinth of rocks. The name, Lost Italy, comes from a group of Italians that adventured alone in the area to take photos of the night sky. They got lost among the rock formations and needed to call for help. In doing so, they involuntarily baptized the area.

Italia Perdida
Italia Perdida: this natural rock labyrinth is filled with windows and crazy formations.

After we went for a walk in the Laguna Negra. It is a lake wonderfully hidden among small canyons. I think we just saw a really small part of it, it was really big!

In the afternoon we arrived to the Laguna Colorada, the colored lake. It is incredibly beautiful: white, red, pink, green and yellow all present in a single lake. And to top it off, it is also home to a lot of flamingos!

Laguna colorada
The many wonderful colors of the laguna Colorada. Those small pink points are flamingos!

When we arrived there, most of the flamingos already left to warmer countries. But we had he luck of seeing a family of vicunas from quite close: a nice consolation.

vicuna laguna colorada
A family of vicunas comprises a male and many females. This is the male, closely watching on us, ready to sound the alarm. Behind it, other flamingos.

At sunset we arrived at the salar de Uyuni. The water that covers it until April had already completely dry off, so no mirror effect. But the huge white flat is impressive as it is.

At night we slept in a salt hotel. Everything was made of salt: walls, columns, tables, bed frames… Luckily the blankets were made of normal wool.

Salt hotel
The salt hotel, where walls, columns, tables and chairs are all made of salt.

Day 4: The salar de Uyuni

We woke up at 4 am to reach the Incahuasi island, one of the small island of the salar. It is filled with cacti, and a popular spot from where to see the sunrise. There is no roads on the salar, so our driver just went on, following what seemed to be some random car tracks and using the barely visible shape of the surrounding volcanoes as reference. It was quite impressive! But apparently, he got it right since we arrived at the island just on time for sunrise. It was soooo cold, but the show was totally worth the suffering.

Salar Uyuni sunrise
The sunrise over the salar as seen from the Incahuasi island.

After a breakfast on the island we moved to take the traditional perspective photos. We had fun for almost two hours, trying all kind of poses. We finally moved to the spot with all the flags from all over the world, right next to the Paris-Dakar monument, but we weren’t quite impressed by it.

Perspective salar Uyuni
One of the many photos you can take playing with perspective in the salar de Uyuni.

The last stop of the tour was the train cemetery out of Uyuni. We actually found it quite sad, also because some tags were defacing a lot of them. But at least on one of them there was a really nice graffiti.

Uyuni train cemetery
Probably the only part we really enjoyed in the Uyuni train cemetery.

And just like that the guide left us in Uyuni and our amazing tour was over.

Should I start from Uyuni or Tupiza?

As we said at the beginning, in both cases you would see the same things. We really enjoyed starting in Tupiza because the whole tour was going crescendo. Indeed, each day was better than the previous, with the apotheosis of the salar at the end. Starting from Uyuni, the tour is done the other way. We think it might result kind of boring towards the end. In addition, you will have to spend the night before the beginning of the tour in one of the two cities. We found Uyuni extremely dirty and totally lacking any charm. Tupiza on the other hand, while not being beautiful, was much better. So, our suggestion, if there are no other reasons, would be to start in Tupiza.

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2 Replies to “The Salar de Uyuni and the Sur Lipez”

  1. Amazing. I did a tour starting from San pedro earlier this year and didn’t realise Argentina was so close after travelling by road from Argentina to Santiago and then flying up to San Pedro 🙈
    The salar is such a unique and beautiful place and I really hope it won’t get destroyed for the Lithium business 😭

    1. The salar is amazing! As of now only a small part of it can be exploited by industries. Talking with different people they had different opinions about its future… let’s hope for the best!

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