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Travel in Latin America

How to Visit the Bolivian Salt Flats
By:Katie L. Norton

The Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) are vast plains of level earth covered with a thick residue of gray-white salt, the vestige of an ancient inland lake. The world’s largest salt flats, they extend for four thousand miles and are a wonder to behold. They have become a popular ecotourism destination, but a visit to the Bolivian Salt Flats is still not an easy one to make. The journey involves traveling many miles through a country with a shaky infrastructure, and arriving in a place made beautiful by its inability to support life. The beauty, though, can make the effort worthwhile.

Decide to visit the Bolivian Salt Flats wet or dry. The plains of the Bolivian Salt Flats are, during part of the year, flooded with a shallow expanse of water. During the rainy season the flats reflect the sky like an enormous mirror. Because the water only rises a couple of feet cars can still travel across it. There is the risk, however, of being prevented from travel by heavy rain. From May to November (wintertime in the southern hemisphere), the water evaporates. If you want to see a second sky at your feet, you can take your chances with the rain, but wintertime travel is less likely to be hampered by the weather.

Travel to Bolivia.The international airport closest to the Bolivian Salt Flats is that in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia. American Airlines flies there direct from Miami in about ten hours. Be aware that the altitude of La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can make some newly arrived visitors feel ill, an effect that lessens with time.

Travel from La Paz to Oruro.Oruro is a small town with bus and train service to Uyuni, the even smaller town at the frontier of the Salt Flats. There are frequent bus departures from La Paz to Oruro during the day. You’ll catch the bus at the central terminal. The route follows a paved road and takes around 3 hours. The train runs less frequently (only on Tuesdays and Fridays at 10:00 a.m.). For this leg of the journey, you can also use a local travel agency that will obtain bus or train tickets for you. Some run private buses that may be less crowded than the public ones.

Travel from Oruro to Uyuni.A public bus can take you to Uyuni, as can tourist buses run by different agencies. But the road is rough and the ride is shatteringly bumpy. The more comfortable train, which takes about 7 hours, runs at limited times (Tuesday and Friday it departs at 3:30 p.m., while on Sundays and Wednesdays it departs at 8:00 p.m.). Plan to arrive in Uyuni at least a day before your visit to the salt flats. This will allow for the delays that commonly occur and will give you time to choose a tour company.

Select a tour company in Uyuni.In Uyuni more than 60 tour companies provide transport to the Bolivian Salt Flats. A tourist information center in the center of town provides you with their rates and descriptions. Tours include meals and lodging within very simple guest houses. Some tours last for several nights, while others are day trips. A four-day trip can return you to Uyuni, where you can retrace your steps back to La Paz. The tours are competitively priced (English speaking guides may cost more). In many cases, the low prices come at the cost of safety. The 4x4 vehicles the agencies use wear out quickly from constant use and the salt of the flats. They can be crowded, as agencies try to get as many people aboard as can fit. Be mindful of your safety when you choose your tour operator. Look for cars that seem to be kept in good order. Check for things as simple as full gas tanks and seat belts. (Ranking Bolivia, a non-profit agency in Uyuni that once ranked the tour operators is now, sadly, closed.)

Traverse the Bolivian Salt Flats.The arid beauty of the salt flats makes for freezing nights. The guest houses are rarely heated, so plan to wear winter clothes after the sun goes down. Ask if your tour operator provides sleeping bags. If not, buy one before you leave Uyuni. Bring water and snacks for the many hours between meals. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from glare as well as cutting winds. And, after all this traveling and shivering, you will feel very sad indeed if your camera isn’t working. Carry extra batteries and extra film (or extra storage) to ensure that you can record the bleak beauty of this place you’ve worked so hard to reach.

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