Salar de Uyuni Tour: How to Visit Salt Flats in Bolivia
We did the Salar de Uyuni 3-days tour in Bolivia and here is our travel guide with best tips on how to visit salt flats in South America on a budget.
There's not a single person who has been to Bolivia who did not visit the absolute natural highlight of this landlocked country, Salar de Uyuni. The vast Bolivian Salt Flats which happen to be the world's largest salt flat was on our bucket list since we started traveling in South America, and boy, it did not disappoint.
For us, who are on the road for several months now is sometimes hard to be super-excited when we see another colonial city or another ruin. But those three days we spent on a tour traveling the endless scenery defined by blue and white colors, passing by five or six thousands meters high volcanoes, enjoying views of differently colored lagoons with flamingos and traversing moon-like, surreal landscapes, took our breath literally away. Without a doubt, we rank Salar de Uyuni high on our list of the most beautiful places on the planet.
This area is very significant for a country like Bolivia as Salar de Uyuni brings income from three different sources. The first source is tourism (and we are glad we were able to contribute to the local economy), the second source is salt harvesting, and the third source is lithium: Bolivia holds almost a half of the world's known lithium reserves which is used as a component of electric batteries. Here's a good chance that battery of some of your electronic devices contains lithium from Salar de Uyuni!
The three-day tour on Salar de Uyuni turned out to be one of our best travel experiences. After our visit, we've created this guide to share all the essentials you should know if you're planning on visiting this vast part of nothingness, a stretch of land close to the Bolivia-Chile border.
HOW TO GET TO UYUNI
But one after another. In case you would like to start your tour in Uyuni, which is by far the most popular option where to start, you need to get there first. But being the number one tourist destination has its advantages, and you don't need to worry that you wouldn't have made it to Uyuni. The most common route is to travel from La Paz (we explored the nearby mysterious Lake Titicaca) to Uyuni by overnight bus, but you can also get there without a problem from other Bolivia's top destinations: Sucre, Potosi or Tupiza.
WHERE TO STAY IN UYUNI BEFORE YOUR TOUR
You will find quite a lot of hotels in Uyuni, all reasonably priced and conveniently located.
Budget: Hostal Quinoa Dorada - Close to the city center and market (as almost every hotel in Uyuni), this hostel offers good service and lodging for a very reasonable price.
Mid-range: Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel - Close to the city center and market (as almost every hotel in Uyuni), this hostel offers good service and lodging for a very reasonable price.
Luxury: Hotel Jardines de Uyuni - Before and after Salar de Uyuni tour, this hotel provides guests with welcoming comfort.
To check other accommodation in Uyuni, click here.
HOW TO TRAVEL SALAR DE UYUNI
From reading blog posts on the internet, you might have a feeling that there is only one way how to explore Salar de Uyuni. Although taking a one day or multi-day tour is by far the most popular (and the most convenient) option, more adventurous souls can travel salt flats independently, but it requires a bit of planning and in some cases better physical conditions.
In case traveling in a group is not your thing, you can explore Salar de Uyuni by public transport - this can be challenging as this type of transportation is scarce, the schedule is infrequent and unreliable, but we can confirm that we saw some buses crossing the flats so if the patient belongs among your strengths and the call for freedom is so strong, go for it.
Another way how to travel Salar de Uyuni independently is on the bike. You should be an experienced biker to enjoy it though. Not only you will be biking several hundred kilometers on an endless plain, but you also must take all your equipment with you and the strong sun, and picking-up wind can make your day pretty tough. Not to mention that some parts, especially close to Chilean borders are hard to bike on and the altitude is a killer. If biking Salar de Uyuni has been your dream, we certainly don't want you to put away, but it is better when you know what to expect and come well prepared than to regret it later.
THINGS TO SEE ON SALAR DE UYUNI
Many travelers do not realize beforehand what they can see on Salar de Uyuni three-days tour. When you go only for a day, it is pretty straightforward, you will be touring the salt flats, but on multiday trips, you will spend the second day mostly among volcanoes and lagoons. Here's a list of things you will see on Salar de Uyuni tour.
Train Cemetery - the first stop, only about 5 minutes drive from Uyuni is the old train cemetery. Although we thought that this spot would be rather lame, in the end, we were pleasantly surprised because the old trains in combination with blue skies were photogenic enough to keep us occupied for about a half an hour. The only downside is that all jeeps stop by here at first and the place gets crowded.
Colchani Village - this village represents what we dislike about organized tours the most: mandatory shopping stops. But at least our guide explained us the process of the salt harvesting here and then we could carry on to a place we all were eager to see the most. Salt Flats.
Dakar Monument - Bolivia is a proud host of Rally Dakar, so you can't miss a large Dakar Monument standing at the edge of salt flats.
Salt Flats - we were not able to imagine the vastness until we stood under the harsh sun on Salar de Uyuni ourselves. The crunchy salt plates under our feet, blue skies and far away nothing around, it was surely an unforgettable experience. It is also a place where you can play with perspective and take many funny photos as well.
Incahuasi Island - several kilometers away, out from the nothingness rises Incahuasi Island. A sacred place for local people, for us a natural wonder from where you can see the flats from a different perspective and also watch tall cacti plants in disbelief.
Sunset on Salar de Uyuni - ask your guide to watch the sunset on the way to the hotel. You won't regret it.
Salar de Chiguana - the second day, the jeeps make their way through another salt flat, a very photogenic place with rail tracks and volcanoes around.
Volcanoes - this part of South America has one of the most beautiful landscapes we've ever seen. You can expect to enjoy views of several volcanoes over 5000 meters high throughout the next two days.
Lagoons - along the way, you will stop by several colorful lagoons, but two of them stand out in particular. Laguna Colorada with its red color and Laguna Verde with Licancabur Volcano towering behind.
Flamingos - thousands of flamingos (and three species) call lagoons and the altiplano between Bolivia and Chile their home. Bring zoom lenses or binoculars to appreciate those spectacular birds.
Geyser Sol de Manana - thin air and the strong sulfur smell indicated you just arrived at a geyser with a poetic name, Morning Sun. Steam comes up constantly from vents and with the sun behind create a spectacular show.
SALAR DE UYUNI FACTS
Like I said before, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat and also the world's largest producer of lithium, but those facts are not the only unusual things. Apart from that, Salar de Uyuni, spreading over 10 000 square kilometers, lies pretty high above sea level, in 3 656 meters to be precise. Also, if you signed up for three days tour, expect to visit altiplano lagoons on day two where the elevation is even higher.
When talking about altitude, it seemed weird to us that no one in the office had mentioned the high elevation at all before we made the booking. Although the tour is not physically demanding, you should still take into account that you will spend three days in the high altitude and you should adjust your habits for a while - do not eat heavy meals, stay hydrated and do not drink alcohol if possible. Also, it is better to sleep at least one night in Uyuni before starting your trip to acclimatize properly.
The highest point we visited during the tour was a geyser at 5000 meters while the highest accommodation was situated almost 4400 meters above sea level - quite high for unacclimatized people and especially for those who have never been in the altitude before and don't know what to expect.
FOR HOW MANY DAYS TO VISIT SALAR DE UYUNI
Remember, that it is you who pays for the tour and it is only your decision how long you would like to spend in the area. The most common tour lasts three days and two nights, but more budget-focused travelers or people without enough time allocated for Bolivia can choose only two days trip or even one day tour. In case you want to see Salar de Uyuni quickly and in its best, there is a possibility to join sunrise or sunset tour and get back to Uyuni in a couple of hours. If money or time is not a limit, you can take a tour for even more days and explore the area deeper.
HOW MUCH THE TOUR COST
The standard three-day tour price ranges between Bs 850 - Bs 1350, but if you are going to book your tour online, expect to pay twice as much. What we could see, standard tours don't differ no matter which tour company you will choose - the accommodation, food, and cars looked the same, so there is no need to pay more than necessary. Because there are about 80 tour companies in Uyuni, shop around and bargain to get the best deal. The cheapest rate in the price range is with a Spanish speaking guide while the more expensive tour includes an English speaking guide.
You can also start your tour in either Tupiza or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, but expect to pay about one-third or one half more than when you start in Uyuni.
The price above is for the standard tour when there are six people in a jeep following the ordinary itinerary. Prices are steeper in case you want to arrange a private or customized tour.
HOW LONG IN ADVANCE SHOULD YOU BOOK
As we mentioned above, the competition among companies in Uyuni is intense, so there is no need to make a reservation ahead, not even during the high season. It is not uncommon that people arrive by overnight bus from La Paz at 7 AM and at 10 AM start their tour. We made the booking one day before we wanted to depart and it was the smoothest process ever.
WHAT IS AND IS NOT INCLUDED IN THE TOUR
After full payment, you should always receive a voucher where is specified what the final price includes. Usually, it is transport, accommodation, food (starting and ending with lunch on the first and the last day; in case you are not coming back to Uyuni but continue to San Pedro de Atacama, your last meal will be breakfast), water only during the meals (so take approximately two liters per day per person with you) and guide / driver. In case you carry on to San Pedro de Atacama, you should also pay for the bus ticket in the office (Bs 70).
There are several fees you must pay extra while on tour. The entrance fee to Incahuasi Island cost additional Bs 30 (it is not compulsory to go there in case you want to save some money, but we think it's worth to pay for it), Bs 150 for the entrance to Eduardo Avaroa National Park (you can't avoid this) and Bs 6 in case you want to enjoy hot pools the last day. In the winter, you might consider renting a sleeping bag for Bs 30 as temperature during the night drops significantly. In both accommodations was an option to buy some snacks or drinks so bring some extra cash if you know you can't resist. Those who cross borders to Chile must pay Bs 15 to get an exit stamp in the passport.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST TRAVEL AGENCY
If you don't have a volcano climbing in your mind or don't want to spend an extra day discovering the flats, finding a travel agency is a simple task. All tour operators in Uyuni run the same itineraries, provide customers with the same food and similar quality of accommodation. When you look online, you can, of course, find better and worse reviews of companies' services, but it can happen anywhere and anytime that your car will break down or that you won't be satisfied with your guide. That's always the risk.
In the past years, tours on Salar de Uyuni dealt with many problems and bad reputation: bad quality equipment or drunk drivers were the main problems to name a few. And although exceptions can still happen, we believe that all people in Uyuni working in the tourism industry have already realized that to attract future customers, the level of quality must be excellent and consistent.
You can shop around and visit several offices, but it is more efficient to do the research online and then to go to two or three offices to check them out, compare and make a reservation straight away.
WHERE TO START AND FINISH SALAR UYUNI EXPERIENCE
You have three options where to start your Salar de Uyuni experience. The most common starting point is town Uyuni, an alternative is Tupiza, a place with some nice hikes among weathered rocks. We considered this option as well, but the tour from here usually takes four days, and because not that many travelers start here, prices are higher. By far the most expensive option is to travel Bolivian salt flats from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, so it is the least popular option.
On the other hand, it is quite handy, if traveling across South America to start your tour in Uyuni and finish in Chile. It saves you time, money and logistics as on the last day the company will drop you off at the borders where the bus will be waiting for you. Of course, you can get by jeep back to Uyuni or Tupiza.
WHAT TO PACK
During three days, you will visit salt flats and altiplano lagoons, and most of the time you will spend in the high altitude. For that reason, you should not forget to pack a few essential things. In case you carry on to San Pedro de Atacama, it is much easier as you must take all your backpacks with you anyway.
Camera - the landscape is so surreal that you will take a lot of pictures. Don't forget extra batteries - it was possible to charge our stuff every day in the accommodation though. You also might see several perspective photos from the Salar de Uyuni. With dinosaur, a bottle of wine etc. If you want a photo like this, bring whatever you feel is necessary.
Sunscreen and sunglasses, hat - the sun on the salt flats are incredibly strong.
Clothes - pack layers. One time you'll be sweating when in a second the wind will pick up, and you will be cold. Prepare to get dirty from the salt or dust so don't bring your best clothes.
Boots - we recommend taking hiking shoes and flip-flops as well. In the rainy season, it is easy to get your shoes destroyed by salt so don't bring brand new boots.
Towel and swimsuit - in the first accommodation is shower and on the second night (or third day in the morning), you can jump in natural hot pools. It comes handy to have headlamp as well.
Cash - there are no ATMs on the way, bring enough money in Bolivian currency.
Water and snacks - take extra liters of water with you and some snacks in case three meals a day are not enough for you.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SALAR DE UYUNI
Salar de Uyuni is the place where it's hard to tell the best time to visit. It is all year round destination with mostly clear blue skies. Winter, or also dry season is from May to October. It usually doesn't rain at all, but it gets chilly (below zero) during the night.
Wet season or Bolivian summer is from November to April, but it doesn't rain much like in the rest of the country during the rainy season. If you are coming for the famous reflection pictures, the biggest chance to capture it is in February when it rains the most and salt flats (or its parts) is covered with water. The disadvantage during that time is that you can't drive on the Salar de Uyuni as it can be dangerous and all tours stop only at the edge of the flats.
You can read all over the internet that facilities on Salar de Uyuni tour are basic. Well, maybe it's just us, but as we've been traveling the world together for more than ten years, we can say that we had seen many basic places, but food and accommodation on Salar de Uyuni tour did not belong to this category as it was much better than we expected.
You will spend the first night in a salt hotel, which is cool - everything: ground, chairs or bed is made from the salt. Here we had private rooms with shared facilities and also could pay Bs 10 for a hot shower (there is enough water for two people). The other night we slept in dormitories (for four or six people; you can pay additional Bs 150 per person for a private room), but the building was new, well taken care of, and the view from dining room across the lagoon was stunning. There is no wifi, but first, there is not much time to hang around and second, you will soon find out that it feels great to be without a connection for a couple of days.
Breakfast and dinner are always served in the accommodation while lunch is in dining facilities along the way. Food was not somehow spectacular but sufficient given the conditions.
The only facilities we were missing on our tour, especially ladies, were toilets. There are not many stops with toilets (and if yes, the cost is Bs 5!), so most of the time we were going behind bushes, or cars, or rocks.
IS IT WORTH IT TO PAY EXTRA FOR ENGLISH SPEAKING GUIDE?
Because we don't speak Spanish, we were wondering if it is worth paying extra for an English speaking guide as the difference can be up to Bs 500 per person. At least we decided to pay extra only for one reason. The guide wasn't that important to us, but we did not want to end up for three days in a car with non-English speaking people.
Our guide was knowledgeable and helpful, but in case you want to save some money, we don't think it's necessary to pay extra if you don't mind traveling with a Spanish speaking group (and have some quiet times). On every stop, the guide explains a bit about the surroundings, but it is nothing you couldn't live without. The one English speaking guide usually takes care of eleven or seventeen clients (two or three cars) from one company. Although the Spanish and English speaking group eat and sleep at same places, you don't meet during individual stops, and overall those two groups travel separately.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA AFTER YOUR TOUR
After arriving in San Pedro de Atacama, we were unpleasantly surprised by the high prices of accommodation which by no means don't match the standard. Unfortunately, almost every traveler in Chile stops by here, and hoteliers know that they can increase rates.
Budget: Tiny Hostel Atacama - One of the cheapest but well-rated hostels in San Pedro de Atacama where you can find private rooms.
Mid-range: Hostal Pablito - Featuring an outdoor swimming pool, this mid-range prices hotel is a real treat where you can relax after a long and dusty day out.
Luxury: NOI Casa Atacama - A beautiful, sustainable hotel with an excellent internet connection, nice swimming pool, a small spa, and delicious breakfast. You won't find a better place to stay in the town in case you don't mind to pay a bit more.
To check other accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama, click here.
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