The Ultimate Guide to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Bolivia might not have been our favourite place during our four-month trip around South America, but it is home to one of the best experiences we had there. Chances are that if you’re travelling to Bolivia you’ll want to visit the salt flats too. So to help you with planning for the trip of a lifetime here is the ultimate guide to Salar de Uyuni. Don’t say I’m not good to you!
So um… what exactly is it?
Seems like a stupid question but it’s one that I hadn’t given much thought to before we left. I think it’s good to know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for so you can manage your expectations. Because as it turns out, the iconic salt flats themselves only take up one day of the tour itself.
Spanning over 10000km² the salt flat is the largest in the world. It was created by a prehistoric lake that dried out and at its centre the salt is 10m thick. As well as the bright white expanse of salt the area is also home to a number of flourescent lakes, otherworldly cactus islands and wildlife including flamingoes, llamas and the famous viscacha.
How do I get there?
If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Bolivia (La Paz, Potosi, Sucre etc) then your tour will pick you up and drop you off from the bus station. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a bus from any of these places. We took the tourist bus from La Paz which I think was a little more expensive as it included snacks, but was no different to other companies we travelled with in terms of comfort. If you’re coming in from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile you can also take the exact same itinerary in reverse but expect to pay more.
Should I book my tour in advance?
This is a question that tends to divide people. Personally I would say that, coming from La Paz, I’d be inclined to say yes. We didn’t and found it quite overwhelming and stressful when we arrived in Uyuni after a sleepless (and very hungover) twelve hour overnight bus journey from La Paz. All I wanted to do was change my clothes and brush my teeth, but with only two cubicles in the bus station to service the busloads of tired, smelly gringos there was a lot of waiting around. It probably would have worked out more expensive to book our tour in advance, but would have been one less thing to worry about in our cranky state. It’s unlikely that all tours will be fully booked when you step off the coach, but you have to act quickly to secure a place with your chosen company. More on that below…
1, 2 or 3 Day Tour?
Again this is all personal preference but it’s worth noting that if taking perspective photos on the salt flats is the only thing you’re interested in then a one day tour should be plenty for you. Along Dusty Roads wrote a great post about how one day at the Uyuni Salt Flats as enough for them. After all, not every body is going to have the best time packed into a stuffy jeep with strangers who haven’t showered for three days.
This sample itinerary from Red Planet explains what sort of thing to expect.
Where do I stay?
There’s no getting round the fact that accommodation out in the desert is ropey at best. You’ll be lucky if you have access to any hot water to shower (and if you do you’ll sure as hell have to pay for it), you’ll be sharing a very basic dorm with your newfound tour pals, limited (if any) electricity and the toilets will be beyond gross. In our second hostel we had to wade through pools of sewage to get to the sinks and toilets.I had so much fun on the tour that I was willing to overlook it, but maybe that helps with the above question 😉
English or Spanish tour?
This one is all down to personal preference. Naturally the tours conducted in Spanish are cheaper, but our limited language skills would have made it difficult to communicate and share jokes and banter with the group. It all depends what you want to get out of the tour.
Which tour company is best?
You will never get a concrete answer for this so the only piece of advice I can give you is to plan ahead. Read up on reviews and speak to other travellers about their experiences. There are a lot of horror stories about drunk drivers and car accidents so don’t scrimp on the cost. Red Planet are the most popular amongst gringos and they were our first choice but their jeeps fill up pretty fast. To save waiting overnight to start our tour we chose Thiago Tours despite them not having many reviews online. Our tour guide Joseph made us feel instantly at ease though and I don’t really have a bad word to say about them.
It’s also important to remember that you’re potentially spending three days in the middle of a desert at extreme altitude. Make sure the company has a good safety record and sufficient emergency medical and oxygen supplies.
What is there to see in Uyuni itself?
Nothing. Unless you’re desperate to sleep or take a shower I wouldn’t stay longer than you need to. We did get a great pizza there though, so there’s that.
When should I visit?
Now! As well as being an amazing natural phenomenon the salt flats are also home to an enormous (and very lucrative) lithium mine. Mining the lithium here could massively boost the Bolivian economy and provide countless jobs, and since the flats aren’t protected by UNESCO they may not exist in their current haunting and peaceful form for that much longer.
Honestly though there’s no bad time to visit the salt flats. The rainy season between January and April produces that amazing mirror effect you see all over Pinterest but even during the dry season you’ll be able to take some incredible perspective shots. In the winter – May to October – temperatures can drop as low as -10 degrees so bring layers!
What should I pack?
You’re just going to have to come back later this week for that information 😉 Suffice to say it involves layers, snacks, water and a LOT of diarrhea pills…
How much does it cost?
For a standard three day tour you’ll be looking at between 100USD and 150USD but this varies slightly by company. For that price you get a tour guide, driver and cook, basic accommodation, three meals a day and limited water. You can probably negotiate a little on the price depending on when you visit. Note that extras such as Fish Island, Laguna Colorada won’t be included. You’ll have to pay to use the toilet at most stops too unless you prefer to use an Inca Toilet…
Is it safe?
Not really, but it’s not exactly dangerous either. Let’s just say that the UK Heath and Safety and/or your parents probably wouldn’t be mad keen on it… But listen to your guide, wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water, try to ignore the car accident you’ve just driven past and you’ll probably be fine.
What about vegans?
Be sure to specify in advance and check before signing up if you have any dietary requirements. Vegan or not though I’d advise bringing your own snacks too. Meals are pretty basic.
And getting out?
Most tours starting from Uyuni (and San Pedro de Atacama) will also end in Uyuni where you should be able to get an overnight bus onward to La Paz, Sucre or Potosi. Take note from the Belgians sitting on the seats in front of us and don’t spend the hours waiting for your coach getting smashed. Nobody wants to be that guy throwing up all over the floor of the bus (or sitting behind him…)
If you’re continuing into Chile ask your driver to drop you off at the border where you can catch a connection to San Pedro de Atacama. You won’t miss out on any of the tour but you may have to pay a small supplement.
Any other things to note?
Don’t underestimate the altitude. By the time we got to Uyuni we’d been at altitude for more than three weeks but it was still difficult hiking at times. Drink plenty of water, limit your alcohol consumption (I know, I know) and spend time acclimatizing if you can. I don’t remember many warnings about altitude sickness from any place other than Cusco but one member of our group was really ill due to altitude sickness and spent most of the tour vomiting in the back of the jeep.
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So there it is…your ultimate guide to the Salar de Uyuni. If you have any more questions or would like to share any of your advice please leave a comment.