Salt flat tours: Argentina vs Bolivia
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.