The Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia are truly incredible. One of the highlights of my time in South America as a whole, and an experience not to be missed in Bolivia. Actually, the first time I went to Bolivia, I decided to skip el Salar de Uyuni. That was a mistake, although I still had a great time exploring Sucre, Samaipata & La Paz! Luckily, I had the time, and the flexibility to be able to return to Bolivia later on in my journey, and this time I knew I had to do a Salar de Uyuni tour.
What is the Salar de Uyuni?
First thing is first. El Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni Salt Flats are the largest salt flats in the world. The Salar is actually called el Salar de Thunupa but is more commonly known as el Salar de Uyuni due to the proximity to the town of Uyuni. Covering an area of 10,582 square kiliometres, the salar is thought to have 11 layers of salt, which vary between two and ten metres thick, covering mud & brine below. The whole salar is estimated to contain around 10 thousand million tons of salt, of which around 25 thousand tons are extracted each year.
As the name suggests, the salt flats vary very little in height, no more than one metre, although their elevation at 3656 metres above sea level can cause problems with altitude sickness. Drink plenty of water, and try to allow time in Bolivia before your tour to acclimatise to the altitude.
Where is El Salar de Uyuni?
The Salar is in the south west of Bolivia, not far from the border with Chile. Uyuni itself is a town approximately 550km south of La Paz, and is the nearest large settlement to the salt flats, and where most of the tours leave from.
Which Salar de Uyuni Tour is Best for You?
The first thing to consider when planning your visit to the Salt Flats is how it will fit with the rest of your itinerary. There are essentially 3 different routes, which can also be done in the reverse, depending on where you are coming from, and where you plan to go next.
Round Trip Uyuni – Uyuni
Starting the Salar tour in Uyuni is great for those who are coming from Machu Picchu, Peru, or Bolivia, and planning to continue their journey in Bolivia. This is usually a 3 day tour, although if you are short on time it is possible to do a Salar de Uyuni Day Trip to see just the salt flats – but you will miss out on the other incredible scenery and coloured lagoons. If you have time I definitely recommend the longer Uyuni tours which allow you to fully explore the area.
Atacama Chile – Uyuni (or Uyuni – Atacama Chile)
Starting and/or ending in Chile is best for those coming from, or going to Chile. There are several companies based in Santiago de Chile or Atacama which run tours from Atacama to Salar de Uyuni.
Tupiza – Uyuni (or Uyuni – Tupiza)
Starting or ending in Tupiza, in the South of Bolivia, is best for those coming from, or going to Argentina. It is also possible to start and finish the tour in Tupiza, although this means a long final day’s drive back to Tupiza.
Both of the options from Atacama and Tupiza actually take in more of the Bolivian countryside before arriving to the Salt Flats. Generally, these tours are over 4 days, as you cover much more ground. There is a lot of time spent driving in the 4×4, but the scenery is constantly changing and varies from desert sand, to rocky formations, colourful lagoons and snow-capped mountains – as well of course as the salt flats themselves.
How to Get to Uyuni
If you decide to start your tour from Uyuni, you can get a night bus from La Paz to Uyuni, which also runs the reverse route again on a night bus from Uyuni to La Paz. There are several companies which run the route – Todo Turismo has the best reputation, with comfortable seats and a toilet, however I took a cheaper bus which was just fine (although without a toilet on board). Don’t expect to get too much sleep though! The road used to be unpaved, but is now paved all the way, and journey time is around 8 hours. Todo Turismo leaves La Paz at 9pm.
If you are short on time, it is possible to take a night bus from La Paz, and start the Uyuni tour that morning, and take another night bus back to La Paz that night, if you wish. It is best to book the buses in advance if you can, to make sure you are guaranteed a place.
You can also fly to El Salar de Uyuni Airport, flights from La Paz to Uyuni cost around $250-$300, depending on the time of year, and take around 50 minutes.
Hostels in Uyuni Bolivia
If you prefer to spend a night in Uyuni, there are several hostels and hotels in Uyuni to choose from. There isn’t much to do in Uyuni itself, so one night before the tour would be enough.
The Best Time of Year to Visit El Salar de Uyuni
Deciding when to visit the Salar de Uyuni is a tough call. In general, dry season is best as in rainy season some of the routes across the salar become impassable, and Isla Incauhuasi is closed. However, if you can time it right to visit when there is still some water on the ground you have a chance of taking those beautiful photographs with a mirror-like reflection between the sky & the standing water on the salar. With nothing but salt for miles around, you lose all sense of perspective and it seems like the sky goes on forever. I went in March, and although there was still some water I didn’t get the chance to take those reflection shots, so it also depends on the weather, your driver, and a good dose of luck too!
Choosing a Company for the Uyuni Tour
I was getting rather worried when I was trying to find the company which offers the best Salar de Uyuni tours. For every good review one company got, there was a terrible review to match it. Horror stories of drunk drivers, crashes on the freezing salt flats, breakdowns, poor organization, rude guides and everything that could possibly go wrong plagued the reviews on Tripadvisor. It seemed that the various tour agencies contracted the freelance guides, and the experience totally depended on the guide. In the end, due to my route from Northern Argentina to La Paz, I took the tour from Tupiza, to finish in Uyuni. If you are taking this route, I was very happy with my choice of Tupiza Tours. For other routes, check recent reviews on Tripadvisor for up to date experiences from other travellers. Salar de Uyuni tour companies with reasonable reviews include Red Planet, although I can’t personally vouch for them as I didn’t travel with them.
My Experience on El Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats
I decided to start my Uyuni tour from Tupiza, as I was currently in Iguazu Falls, and wanted to finally head back through Bolivia to see some friends at Colibri Camping who I had met last time I was in Bolivia, then back to Peru.
I contacted both of the top Salar de Uyuni tour companies in Tupiza; Tupiza Tours and Torre Tours. I had asked a couple of questions about travelling alone to see if there were other people on the tours for the date I was looking for, and Torre Tours replied with a stock response without answering my questions. Tupiza Tours answered my questions, and offered a better rate for a 4 person tour, and Erika from Tupiza Tours assured me there would be a full tour going to avoid me paying extra fees. Based on this initial contact, I chose to book with Tupiza tours & I’m very happy I did.
As I mentioned, there seemed to be an element of luck with which guide you get on the tour, but our guide was fabulous. Sadly, I have forgotten his name as I lost my original notes when I had my laptop stolen in Ecuador. He was fabulous, explaining our route and the landscape we passed through. He was an excellent driver, safe and experienced, and was the first to drive across the Salar at night so we could reach Isla Incahuasi first for sunrise. Driving across a huge expanse of salt desert with no signposts, and no compass, is no easy task, and other drivers seemed hesitant to lead what became a convoy of cars across the salt flats.
Another reason I was very happy with my choice, is that Tupiza Tours had 2 cars going out on the same day, so we shared one cook between the two cars. Again, this was pretty lucky, but the cook usually went with the other car so we had plenty of space for spreading out in our car! I also noticed each car had a spare wheel, which came in handy when we found Torre Tours’ car needed a replacement, which they didn’t have. I felt our drivers were more experienced, and better prepared than Torre Tours, who also had 6 tourists plus their cook & guide in the car.
The food was good, and we had plenty of hot tea and snacks too. The coca tea definitely helped with the altitude!
The Route from Tupiza to Uyuni through Southern Bolivia
We left Tupiza early in the morning, and headed through the Quebrada de Palala to the Sillar, where we passed fascinating coloured rock formations. We visited an abandoned colonial ghost town, San Antonio Viejo, which was plagued with mysterious illness so the people moved away, leaving creepy ruins of homes and churches. We spent the night in Quetena, and set out again early the next day.
The second day of the tour was all about lakes. We visited several coloured lagoons, all taking on the colour of the minerals from the mountains around them. La Laguna Colorada one spectacular, and had some flamingos sifting through the lake water. Then, the scenery changed to sandy desert as we crossed ‘Dali’s Desert’ where bizarre rock formations stand in the middle of nowhere. Along the way we also spotted a couple of ostriches and vicuna, a rare relative of the llama family.
On the third day, we crossed the Desert of Siloli, with more strange rock formations including the ‘Arbol de Piedra’ (the stone tree). We visited more lakes, passed active volcanos and the Salar de Chiguana to finish in Atulcha, spending the night there in a salt hotel.
On the final day, we left when it was still dark, to drive across our first part of the Salar de Uyuni, to reach Isla Incahuasi for sunrise. This bizarre island in the middle of the Salar is formed from volanic rock, and offers 360 degree views of the Salar. It is also covered with huge cacti, some up to 1200 years old! We climbed to the top and waited for the sunrise, a beautiful sight indeed. After breakfast, we took some of the famous Salar de Uyuni photographs, which was entertaining trying to get the perspective just right. Our guide had brought some props, and with a bit of imagination we got some great shots.
We then visits the community of Colchani, where the first salt hotel was built, and where they extract salt from the Salar for processing. We ended the tour at the rather creepy train cemetery just outside the town of Uyuni.
How Much does the Salar de Uyuni Tour Cost
Salar de Uyuni tour prices vary quite a bit. Remember that cheap is not always best when it comes to your safety, however, in most cases the tours all offer very similar packages, and there is no such thing as a Salar de Uyuni luxury tour. All accommodation in the salt hotels is pretty basic, no hot water in most cases, and with temperatures dropping to below zero at night due to the high altitude, luxury just doesn’t come into it! I was quoted a cost of 5200 BS between 4 people, so 1300 BS per person in 2016.
What is Included in the Salar de Uyuni Tours
Transport in a 4×4 (some companies will have a maximum of 4 people plus the driver & cook, others have 6 people max, plus the driver which can get cosy!)
Three meals per day: breakfast, lunch & dinner, excluding breakfast on the 1st day and dinner on the last day.
Driver/Spanish speaking guide & cook
Entry for the Reserva Nacional Eduardo Avaroa (150 Bs in 2016)
Entry for the Isla Incahuasi (30 Bs in 2016)
Payments for showers/bathroom facilities where appropriate (approx. 15 Bs in 2016)
English speaking guide, if required approx. 200 Bs per person
Personal spending & tips
What Should You Bring on the Salar de Uyuni Tour:
Photocopy of your passport Sleeping bag (available to rent if needed)
Warm clothing Hiking boots
Woolly hat & gloves Bathing suit
Towel Toilet Paper
What are the Salt Hotels?
All accommodation on the Salar de Uyuni itself is in Salt Hotels. A salt hotel or ‘hotel de sal’ is physically made of salt bricks, with a salt floor, and although the beds were comfortable I was still glad of the extra sleeping bag I had booked. There were limited shower facilities, and shared bathrooms, and I shared a room with one or three of my fellow (male) tourists. As it was cold inside I still wore several layers of clothes inside, but I was actually surprised at how nicely decorated our salt hotel was.
Overall, the tour of the Salar de Uyuni was one of the highlights of my travels around South America. I am very glad I chose to do the route from Tupiza as we saw more of Bolivia’s incredible rugged scenery. If you are a fussy eater, or a big eater then take some snacks with you, bring plenty of warm clothes, and enjoy!
Have you been to el Salar de Uyuni? Any other tips you would like to share? Please let me know in the comments below.
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