El Salar de Uyuni – how to plan your trip to Bolivia’s spectacular salt flats
It’s rightly proclaimed as one of the must-see bucket-list destinations in South America. Mind-boggling, remote and achingly beautiful, the Uyuni Salt Flats (aka El Salar de Uyuni) in Bolivia are the largest salt flats on the planet, spanning over 10,000 km2 at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet.
Set within a harsh volcanic landscape in one of the most naturally diverse and striking countries on Earth, the vistas of this region stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other geological giants such as the Sahara Desert and the Grand Canyon. Bolivia still has a relatively unrefined infrastructure, but its tourism organisations are making great efforts to improve the quality and reliability of their tours.
But with so many tour options, how do you know what’s right for you? I’ve put together a guide to help you plan and prepare for your Uyuni Salt Flats tour and make sure you enjoy the best possible experience.
When to go
While Bolivia technically experiences all four seasons, it feels like just two as far as Uyuni goes; namely rainy (or wet) and dry. The rainy season generally runs from November to early April, followed by the dry season from late April until October.
The dry season brings more reliable conditions, more comfortable temperatures and the extraordinary sight of millions of salt hexagons stretching into the distance. The rainy season means the cactus-laden Isla del Pescado (or Incahuasi) rocky outcrop, where you would ordinarily stop for lunch, may be inaccessible, and the conditions are, as you’d expect, more challenging. As a pay-off though, this is when a layer of water turns the entire salar into the world’s largest mirror, reflecting everything above it and creating a mind-boggling effect as your brain tries to make sense of what it’s seeing. Perhaps the decision is out of your hands if you’re on a long-term trip or have a fixed itinerary to follow, but if not, bear the differences in mind.
Top tip: The outer reaches of the salt flats have a layer of water year-round but very few operators head that far off the usual tourist route. An alternative strategy, if your schedule allows, is to book for mid-April or late October and maximise your chances of getting to see both watery and dry sections of the salt flats in one go. No guarantees, mind!
How long should you go for?
1-day round trip from Uyuni – At one extreme, you could opt for a one-day whistle-stop visit from the nearest major town, Uyuni. In most cases, travellers take an overnight bus to Uyuni from La Paz, Potosí or Sucre, arrive at the break of dawn, grab a breakfast and hop straight into a 4WD jeep for their Uyuni experience. In addition to the Salar de Uyuni itself there are stops at the eerie Train Graveyard of the Atacama Desert and at Incahuasi island. After the tour, visitors tend to head off into the night towards their next destination, because Uyuni itself is little more than a base for the salt flats and there’s nothing much to see. You can find a 2-day/1-night option with some operators but in my opinion the itinerary seems like a drawn-out version of the 1-day tour.
3-day/2-night round trip from Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile – While the salt flats take top slot in the list of prime attractions in this corner of South America, it would be an utter shame to miss out on the breathtaking beauty of Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve’s coloured lagoons, twisting rocks and bubbling thermal waters, which extends beyond the salt flats and onto the border with neighbouring Chile. For this, you’ll need a 3-day/2-night package, setting out either from Uyuni or, if you’re hopping over from northern Chile, from the bohemian tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama.
3-day/2-night one-way trip to (or from) Chile – A popular option is to take in the salt flats as you travel onwards through the region. For example, a one-way trip from Uyuni sees you marvelling at the salt flats and Eduardo Avaroa, before crossing the border with Chile and taking a bus transfer to San Pedro de Atacama (usually at an extra charge). Or if you’re starting from Chile and heading northwards, do it in reverse. Compare itineraries carefully, as some agencies will include more sights than others.
Alternatively, book your tour from Tupiza, a dusty little town east of the salar and reserve. Tupiza is a much nicer town than Uyuni and has its own fabulous surroundings to boast of, some of which, such as the Quebrada de Palala, will probably be included in your tour. Because of the more distant starting point and extended itinerary, tours from Tupiza are of 4-day/3-night duration.
Top tip: The border protocol on a one-way trip can be hectic and regulations can be confusing – crossing from Chile into Bolivia is, shall we say, a less rigid procedure than vice-versa. Do your research in advance so you know what to expect.
How much will it cost?
The currency in Bolivia is the Boliviano ($b). Prices start at around $b140 (£27) for an Uyuni day trip and $b750 / £83 for a 2-night/3-day tour but do check what’s included in the price. For 2N-3D trips, entrance to Eduardo Avaroa NR ($b150 /£17) is usually extra. If applicable, check whether entrance to the Isla Incahuasi facilities ($b 30) is included and for one-way trips ask whether bus transfers (for example, from the Bolivia/Chile border on to San Pedro de Atacama) are part of the package or not. If you can afford the luxury of a private tour you’re looking at around $b6500 (£700-750) per person.
Top tip: If you book last-minute at a local agency, watch out for sudden price hikes or extra charges out of nowhere – a sign that they haven’t quite managed to fill the jeep to capacity. And you’ll probably be charged more if booking in San Pedro de Atacama since Bolivia is a far poorer country than Chile.
What to take and expect
Obviously those on a day trip won’t need to worry about overnight stops, but here’s a run-down of considerations for ALL tours.
Clothing & Accessories: Unless you’re travelling with a full arctic expedition kit, what you’re carrying may not be enough at night time, but the tour operator should provide sleeping bags for your overnight stays, in addition to the blankets provided at your accommodation. Warm and comfortable clothing should include gloves, a scarf/woollen hat and adequate footwear with warm socks, plus one of those inexpensive waterproof ponchos if you’re in the rainy season. You’ll probably end up sleeping with all your layers on anyway.
Be sure to take UV-protective sunglasses with you, along with sun protection lotion and lip salve – even though it’s bone-chillingly cold out there at times the sun’s rays can still cause damage. Don’t forget a bit of spare cash for unforeseen extras, a towel (don’t assume your hotel will provide one), some tissues/loo roll and a torch. This will also be one of those times you’ll be glad if you’ve packed a miniature hot water bottle.
And, though you may think it odd until I tell you why – a swimsuit or swimming trunks. Otherwise, you’ll regret not being able to soak in those thermal waters in Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve!
Food & Drink: Make sure you take some extra water with you – unfortunately, this will mean single-use plastic bottles unless you have a giant flask with you. Enough water should be provided, but it’s best to have a little extra, even if it’s just to keep by your bed at night. Meals are mostly good, but you must emphasise any special dietary requirements in advance. For example, ‘vegetarian’ often equates to ‘doesn’t eat red meat’ here, and I’m not sure whether ‘gluten-free’ is a recognised term yet.
Accommodation: Most of the accommodation in this area is at least partly constructed out of salt blocks, supported by wooden doors and windows and concrete bases. Be prepared for cold showers and blocked loos at your accommodation – it can happen as there’s a constant stream of visitors using the facilities and the nearest plumber is probably 200km away! You may not always end up at your designated hotel if you’re on one of the lower-cost tours and you may have to share a dorm at least once (this is an isolated area with limited space), so bear those things in mind.
Restroom facilities on the road: Due to the huge distances and hours on the road, there’s a chance you’ll get caught short at some point (I shall neither confirm nor deny whether I have personal experience of this!). If this happens, and you do need to nip behind a rock, please remember that wet wipes, as useful as they are, are not usually biodegradable, so please don’t dispose of them here. There are basic bathroom facilities at the thermal springs (Aguas Termales de Polques) for a small charge ($b3/4 or about 40p), as well as on Isla Incahuasi.
Altitude: The highest point during the tour is over 5000m (16000 feet), so expect to feel a little lightheaded and breathless, especially if you have come in from the lowland jungle areas of the country. Ideally, you should give yourself time to acclimatise beforehand if you haven’t already done so in, say, La Paz or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.
Communication: Don’t expect an internet connection or phone signal out on the salt flats, it’s that simple. Things may gradually be changing but for the moment, the best you can realistically expect is a slow connection in your Uyuni hotel/hostel or an internet café in the town. You’ll be able to use your mobile in the town too. While your hotel will have electricity and power points, remember you’ll be one of many people all wanting to charge their devices!
Top tip: Take a portable power pack with you, especially if you’re using your mobile phone to take pictures or to listen to music.
Who to book with
Figuring out where to book, who with and at what price can be a bit of a minefield. Everyone wants a piece of the action and a cut of the profits, so how do you know which companies are reputable and which…well…aren’t?
Booking locally: The towns of Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama are unsurprisingly saturated with tour agencies offering salt flat excursions. While it’s true to a point that the tours are similar whoever you book with, I believe the term ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here as much as anywhere else, and the quality of the experience will vary.
Agencies often collaborate to fill vehicles, so arrangements can be rather last minute and vague. Some companies do stand out though, and I have heard that Red Planet Expedition and Banjo Tours are among the best in Uyuni. Interestingly, the agencies in Tupiza, the furthest starting point, have the best reputations of all.
Booking outside of the region: All major cities in Bolivia will have tour agencies offering Uyuni excursions. It depends on who that tour agency is as to whether there’s any advantage in going through a ‘middleman’ in this way, rather than waiting until you arrive at one of the 3 main starting points.
One agency which has caught my eye is Ruta Verde. Based in the tropical lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, their website and the reviews I’ve read suggest they are very well organised. Not only do they have strong sustainability values, but a good range of excursions.
Top tip: For something super extraordinary, look out for companies offering stargazing as part of your Uyuni tour (such as the aforementioned Ruta Verde and Red Planet). The combination of out-of-this world landscapes with the nocturnal riches of a clear, dark sky must be an unbelievable experience.
What else do I need to know before booking?
While I can’t guarantee that you’ll get clear or truthful answers, don’t be hesitant in asking the booking agent for more information. Not only will you get a ‘feel’ for how professional the organisation is, but customer pressure does have a positive impact over time, so your questions could help shape future quality. Use this post to come up with your own list of questions, based on what’s most important to you, for example:
Tour details: Is the tour conducted directly by the agent or subcontracted? The more links in the chain between you and the tour driver/guide the more opportunity for misunderstandings.
Does the tour include both a driver and a guide (English-speaking if necessary)? Often, the driver trebles up as guide and chef and speaks only Spanish. How many will you be? For a standard jeep, there shouldn’t be more than 6 people max when there is both a driver and a separate guide, or 7 if it’s just one driver-come-guide.
As well as knowing which sights you’ll see, you may like to know how long you’ll spend at each place. After all, you’ll want enough time to really take it all in, as well as making sure you get those famous ‘perspective’ photos and a chance to properly stretch those legs.
Accommodation details: What will your overnight accommodation be? Try to get the names and locations and how many people you’ll be sharing with. While adverse weather conditions can result in last-minute accommodation changes, your tour operator should at least know your intended overnight stopover destination.
Will there be heating and hot showers at your hotel? Are sleeping bags included and is there an extra charge for any of this? A little extra comfort without extra expense can make a big difference.
Safety details: Your two main risks on an Uyuni tour are a) vehicle breakdown and b) altitude sickness. I’d want to be sure that the vehicle carries a toolkit and a radiophone. You may also wish to know the make and age of the vehicle. Altitude sickness is potentially very serious so do make sure the tour guide has a decent medical kit, containing treatments for mild altitude sickness, such as ibuprofen, acetazolamide or dexamethasone as well as other first-aid staples. Some companies claim to travel with oxygen cylinders which turn out to be only compressed air, so I’d get that clarified before departure.
I never take safety matters for granted, especially in developing countries or on tours to remote areas, but thousands of people enjoy a trip to the Salar de Uyuni every year without mishap and there’s no reason to think things will be any different for you.
Top Tip: This is where review sites come into their own, and it’s worth taking time to read through different opinions such as those on TripAdvisor. Take the time to compare prices, itineraries and reviews. Tickets Bolivia have a user-friendly, comprehensive website where you can check your travel options and book your journeys to and from your tour starting point.
We were on a very tight budget and opted for a basic 2-night/3-day package, booked through one of the agents in Uyuni (they’re no longer operating, so make of that what you will!).
The back of the jeep was cramped, with my knees virtually propping up my chin. Our guide was amiable, but his English was limited and I would have liked better explanations about the history and geology of the area. There was confusion over where we were staying the first night – the place we initially arrived at appeared to be full, so we had to traipse around for an alternative, which didn’t instil confidence in the fading light.
One of the most annoying aspects for me (albeit a ‘small’ issue) was being endlessly subjected to a series of dance/club anthems on the vehicle stereo. It’s not that I was expecting pan pipes, just something a little calmer or more in keeping with the surroundings! There was nothing especially awful about the tour, but it was a tad ramshackle in its organisation and execution.
In hindsight, I’d recommend paying a little more and getting a better experience.
Top tip: Don’t hog the best seats in your vehicle. Be considerate to your tour mates and rotate places so that everyone takes their turn.
In summary, be prepared for limited facilities, some early starts, the bitter cold and the effects of high altitude. But most of all, be prepared to be utterly amazed by the epic and surreal Salar de Uyuni.
Disclosure: Our trip to El Salar de Uyuni and Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve was part of an independent backpacking tour of South America