For most gringos travelling this well worn path, the trip from San Pedro to Uyuni (or a round trip from either town) is a highlight of their South American journey, and for good reason.
In the space of a few hundred miles, you will have seen volcanic snow capped peaks, hot springs, camel-shaped rock formations, snake-shaped canyons, a red lake full of flamingoes and a brilliant white salt flat the size of Northern Ireland.
Picking the right tour is infuriatingly difficult, as is making sure you spend your trip with people you actually like – read our guide here.
We should take this moment to give a shout out to the four amazing people we shared our tour with – Ester, Amy, David and Maarten (and Emilie and Tom who were in another car but were equally as amazing!) We laughed, got pissed, put the world to rights and made some lifelong memories.
Our Bolivian guide Ariel led our convoy of Land Cruisers all the way from the Chilean border, his Bolivian pop music blaring all the way.
First stops were Lagunas Blanca and Verde (white and green lakes, in case your Spanish is worse than ours).
The highlight here is seeing the reflection of the perfect mountains in the perfectly still water below. It’s a great introduction to what is to come, but in the words of D:Ream, Things Can Only Get Better.
Next was a quick dip in some natural hot springs, before a trip to the so-called Salvador Dali Desert.
Some of the rock formations here are so abstract, they’re said to have inspired some of the surrealist painter’s most famous works. So as cultured as we are, we used the opportunity to create a human pyramid!
We drove a bit further into the vast expanse of the Atacama Desert to find some more natural geysers, but unlike those at El Tatio we visited a few days before, we could see the earth beneath us bubbling away, as dramatic sulphuric jets of steam thrust into the air (and we had to take some mature photographs too of course!).
Then came a marvel so extraordinary, Planet Earth and David Attenborough saw fit to pay homage. Remember the mating dance of the flamingo episode?
It was filmed in the red-tinged Laguna Colorado in Bolivia, where millions of the pink-plumaged birds nest every year.
There were only a few thousand there when we arrived (the lazy ones who have yet to migrate, we were told), but looking out over the horizon we still saw a sea of pink before us.
We are so used to seeing Flamingoes perched on one leg that the stunning sight of them walking on water as they took flight was quite something. Awesome, in the truest sense of the word.
But this is a trip where gasp-inducing moments aren’t uncommon. On one of the relatively long drives over bumpy dirt tracks between sights, dusk began to cast its orange glow over the giant peaks on the horizon.
Then, from behind them, came the largest, reddest moonrise any of us had ever seen. Photos could never do it justice of course, but it stopped is all in our tracks.
We stopped overnight in the tiny town of Villamar, where the giant vulture the condor is revered, llamas have pink tassels attached and local women still carry their toddlers on their backs wrapped in multi coloured cloths.
We bought a local spirit (similar to Pisco but it tasted like terps), played cards in our room and forgot our alarm was set early.
Day 2 feels a bit like the support act to the Salt flats, which come on day 3.
Nevertheless, we saw some incredible rock formations that wouldn’t be out of place in the Arizona desert, including one shaped like a camel and another nicknamed Italiano Perdida – the lost Italians, after the mediterranean adventurers who went missing here decades ago (or so we were told!)
The aptly named Valle Anaconda snaked its way through the landscape. The Laguna Negro actually was nearly black, complete with volcanic rock cliffs and incongruous lush green surroundings.
Our second night’s accommodation was the Salt Hotel, just on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, which has become the stuff of legend for travellers.
Is it really made entirely of salt? Isn’t it freezing cold? Can you sprinkle it on your food?! It’s all half true; salty gravel fills the floors, tables and beds are made from compacted salt shelves (we were afforded mattresses and warm blankets, mind), as were most of the walls.
It was a unique experience, and again we spent the night drinking (real pisco this time) and playing cards with our new found friends.
Sunrise on Day 3 will go down as a lifetime highlight. We set off for the vastness of the salt flats before dawn, finding a place where surface water produces a perfect sheen across the white salt crust below.
It creates a mind boggling reflection, and ample opportunity to take some unforgettable photos. We’ve been treated to some unreal sunrises and sunsets on this trip, but this one tops them all, hands down.
Then comes the iconic moment of this trip; getting out the props and using the white vastness of the flats to produce some perspective-altering photos.
We went for the classics; being eaten by a toy dinosaur, emerging from a Pringles can in an Ascent of Man style, clinging to a lollipop stick. Our only regret is that we only had half an hour to capture them; it was the only misjudged part of the trip by the tour operator.
Our final miles in the Land Cruiser consisted of a bit of a pointless ‘salt museum’ (think llamas made of salt) and collections of foreign flags, and a trip around the Isla Pescado (shaped like a fish), right in the middle of the salt flats with great views and dozens of giant Cacti for company.
After three days in the Jeep with nothing but South American pop music, we finally found a song we liked just before the tour finished; we couldn’t resist a little sing song!
The trip ends with a scout around the ‘Train Cemetery’ in Uyuni. The town was the birthplace of locomotives in Bolivia but most of the lines have long since been decommissioned, leaving dozens of rusty entrails behind in the desert.
We couldn’t find one made in Birmingham but we’re convinced one of the locos would have been!
Our salt flats experience was the defining moment of our trip so far, yes for the amazing sights and experiences it provided us, but also for the people we ended up experiencing it with.
We couldn’t have asked for a more well rounded, intelligent, witty bunch, full of stories and opinions, and plenty of laughs.
We all counted our lucky stars hourly that we weren’t cooped up in the Jeep behind ours with a bunch of vacant-looking Brits who looked like they’d emerged from a Channel 5 reality TV show, complete with Resting Bitch Face. We christened them ‘Geordie Shore’.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again; the people you meet while travelling are just as important as the places you visit, and by god did we luck out – on both fronts this time!