Salar de Uyuni

I woke up standing at our hotel room door. Am I sleep walking? I thought, feeling that jittery, buzzing sensation that comes with waking up too fast. Then came the knock and the faint “Mama?” in a shaky voice. My subconscious mind must have heard the door next to ours open and close. I was in mommy-hyper-drive since the girls were staying in a separate room from us, so I had apparently launched out of bed before I was even fully awake.

“What’s the matter, sweetie?” I said to Liv as I opened our door.

She stood in the freezing cold hallway looking miserable. “I feel like I’m going to throw up and my head hurts.” At some point during our trips back and forth to the bathroom that night, it hit me. Yep, this is altitude sickness.

Going up in elevation from 1,600 feet above sea level in Santa Cruz to 9,000 feet in Sucre had only affected Brian for one night, so I thought we were in the clear. However, it looked like coming up to 12,000 feet in altitude had gotten us. One kid down to altitude sickness. As I helped Liv I wondered how many of us would bite the dust.

Our trip to Uyuni, Bolivia was pretty unplanned…not a surprise for us these days. Most tourists see the famous Salt Flats of Bolivia through an orchestrated, multi-day tour with a local guide company. As has become our modus operandi, the Carisch crew took the opposite approach. We got a flight from Santa Cruz to Sucre, booked a hostal for our one night there and reserved hotel rooms for our days in Uyuni. We figured all the other details would work out. And they did.

Our taxi for the 6-hour drive to Uyuni fell into place easily in Sucre through our hostal’s management. It was a curvy, jolting ride through stark desert hills and mountain plateaus. We stopped in Potosi for lunch, where our driver squeezed a couple more passengers into our van. Before long we had arrived in the flat, dry, desolate-looking town of Uyuni sitting at 12,000 feet in altitude. This would be the highest point any of us had ever spent the night.20150701-DSC0240720150701-DSC0247920150701-DSC0249420150702-DSC0259820150702-DSC0257420150702-DSC0262620150702-DSC0261920150702-DSC02610

Brian quickly found the town’s main streets with restaurants, shops and guide company offices. Within a couple hours we were choosing from multiple options to tour the Salar de Uyuni the next day.

But now here I was with one kid showing clear signs of altitude sickness. The mother in me wanted to load her into a car immediately and start heading toward lower ground out of fear her mild symptoms could jump to life threatening at any second. However, the optimistic traveler in me insisted she would be fine in a couple hours and we’d all get to spend a glorious day at one of the most acclaimed natural attractions on the planet. Guess who won that bet? Yay!! Optimistic traveler!!!

Salar de Uyuni is absolutely spectacular. The vast whiteness set against the brilliant blue sky was like nothing we’d ever seen. We spent the morning setting up funny perspective photos and cruising around with our guide on the impossibly flat landscape.

We had our lunch at Isla de Pescado, a fossilized coral reef covered with massive cactuses. “I think Dr. Seuss must have visited here,” Liv pointed out looking around at the bizarre terrain. Taking in the stark white salt flats running up to the massive mound of earth covered in tall, fluffy, multi-armed cacti I could definitely see her point.

During the rainy season from December through March, Salar de Uyuni is famous for its amazing mirrored images created by the thin layer of water blanketing the ground. With it being the dry season in Uyuni, we didn’t expect to see the effects of water on the terrain. However, after we asked our guide about it, he drove us over to an area that did have standing water. Ours was one of very few cars out there to experience the mirrored images of Uyuni that day. It was made even better by the incredible sunset we had for it.
When we first arrived in Santa Cruz, we weren’t sure we would make it over to Salar de Uyuni. It required a flight, a long drive, and a stay at very high elevation. With three kids we thought it may not be worth the hassle. Needless to say, that logic seems CRAZY now! (Or as my girls sometimes joke, “Totes cray cray!”) We are so glad we made it to this unique part of our planet.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Salar de Uyuni, DO IT! Should you go, here are a few words of advice:

  • If you’ve ever had trouble with altitude or haven’t experienced high altitude before, think about staying in Sucre or La Paz (whichever you fly into) for a few days before you go to Uyuni. It will give your body time to adjust and decrease the chance you’ll spend your days there battling altitude sickness. Our family has never had issues at altitude, and yet it still affected us a little.
  • Take some pain reliever for headaches. We had some mild headaches throughout our stay in Uyuni.  If you’re really worried about altitude sickness, you can even buy canned oxygen.
  • Getting a taxi from Sucre to Uyuni is easy. You don’t need a tour company to arrange it for you. Just ask at your hotel and they’ll call one for you. We can’t say the same for the drive from La Paz because it’s a much longer route.
  • Multi-day packages are offered by many different tour companies in which you stay in rustic hostels throughout the area. We opted to spend several nights in the same place (with heaters in the rooms), and it worked out just fine. We didn’t need a tour company. Brian easily found several guide companies in town the night we arrived with availability to take us out the next day.
  • Two words: Sunscreen. Chapstick. Don’t forget them, and be sure to use them frequently.
  • For the best perspective shots the camera has to be on the ground. It doesn’t work as well to hold the camera and shoot. Smartphones actually work better than high end cameras for the fun shots.
  • Even if you go in the dry season, ask your guide to take you to a place with standing water for the sunset. As you can see, it’s an otherworldly sight.


About the Author

Tracey Carisch

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. Hi, Salar de Uyuni has been on my list since 4 years ago and I finally get the visa & plan to go either this year or early next year. Your blog is very helpful, especially the non-tour & the fact that there is an area with standing water at all times! I was postponing my trip worrying about not being able to see ‘the reflection’ during dry season… Is there a specific name of the area with the standing water ? Thanks! :)

    1. Thanks for the comment. Salar de Uyuni is a special place, you will love it. The tour operator was very helpful, and knew exactly where to go. I can’t say that it is there all year long, but it certainly was while we were there, and it was very dry during that time. Generally speaking, you drive out onto the flats for a few miles and then head back towards the direction of town. It is about 15-20 minutes of driving on the flats to get to it, and I don’t think it is much of a secret. Any good tour company will know of it. Do it at sunset, and you will love it.

  2. Hi there
    I am thinking of going with my 8year old son in early June 2016. I was curious if it is better to wait till he is a little older because I worry about how could it could get. Looks like you guys went in the dry period as well… was it freezing?

    1. Yes we were there in July. During the day it was beautiful and we were in short sleeves. At night it was cold, but not unbearable. Maybe in the 20s. Just be sure your hotel has heaters in the rooms. Buildings don’t have central heat, so we need to have space heaters to be comfortable.

  3. Love your photos!!! What tour company did you end up using? We will be going with our children as well and would like to find a reputable company. Grateful for you advice.

    1. We actually found tours once we were in Uyuni. The multi-day tours taking people out to rustic housing in the surrounding area didn’t seem like a great fit for us since we were there in winter. Housing doesn’t have heat there, and at that altitude it’s freezing at night. We opted to stay in town at a hotel (which at least had space heaters) and then we found day tours from local travel offices. Finding a tour company is extremely easy. They’re everywhere in town. We went with one that was willing to alter the tour a bit so we could stay out for sunset and get to an area with standing water. The time of year we were there most of the salt flats are dry, so we had to find a driver that would take us to water areas where we could see that mirrored effect.

  4. Really enjoyed your post. We have been considering going to Uyuni. We will be in San Pedro, Chile and wanted to hire a driver to take us to Laguna Colorada and Uyuni and then fly out of the small airport there. We have two kids ages 6 an 8 years old but are worried they might get sick with the altitude. We will be in San Pedro which is pretty high for 5 days. Can you please give me your opinion on going with small kids. Thanks. I realize the last comment here was a year ago but hoping to get some advice.

    1. We had just a little bit of altitude sickness, but it was short-lived. Our girls were 6, 8 and 11 when we were there and only one of them vomited a couple times our first night in Uyuni. The high altitude regions in Chile will likely have cans of oxygen you can buy to take with you for your drive. They really do work. We now live in the mountains of Colorado and I keep one on hand when we have guests from out of town. They take a few puffs of oxygen every fifteen minutes or so and their altitude sickness symptoms disappear. I didn’t even think to look for oxygen cans when we were in Uyuni, but I’m guessing they probably have them there.

      Safe travels! Hope you have a wonderful time!

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