There aren’t many places in the world where, in just 48 hours, you can see towering volcanoes, colourful lagoons, sweeping deserts, rainbow-coloured mountains, perfectly reflective lakes, active geysers, 30-foot-high cacti, wild flamingos… not to mention the largest salt flat on Earth.
But that is exactly what you can expect on a multi-day tour of Bolivia’s famous Salar de Uyuni – and it is every bit as unforgettable as it sounds.
When organising a trip to South America, Bolivia’s salt flats are likely to rank highly amongst your must-see attractions. But planning a visit can be incredibly confusing – there is a LOT of choice when it comes to the different tour agencies and trip options available. Not to mention a whole range of mixed (and sometimes altogether terrifying…) reviews, which can leave you wondering whether you’ll survive in a 4×4 in Bolivia’s extreme and desolate landscape for 3 days!
But if you know how to plan and make the most of your visit then, believe me, this will be one of the best travel experiences you will ever have.
Getting to Uyuni
Salt flat tours depart from a number of different locations, including San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, Tupiza in Southern Bolivia and La Paz. But most tours start from Uyuni – a dusty, little Bolivian town located on the outskirts of the salt flat itself. There’s not much here, except for a few hostels, shops and backpacker bars, so aim to arrive the night before, or even the morning of your tour, to avoid wasting precious travel time.
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Flights from La Paz to Uyuni depart several times a day and take just over an hour. There are two main airlines – Amaszonas and Boliviana de Aviacion (BoA). One-way flights will set you back by about £55; alternatively, overnight buses cost a third of this price and take around 10 hours, so it all depends on your budget (and ability to sleep soundly on bumpy bus journeys…)
Most Uyuni tours depart around 10:30am, so make sure you arrive in good time – many agencies offer free airport pick-up, so this is a great option if you’re arriving in the morning. We took an 8am flight with BoA and arrived in plenty of time for our pick-up, with no delays or problems at all. One unexpected surprise of the morning flight was the incredible aerial views we were greeted with of the salt flats in all their dazzling white glory!
There are a million tour options to choose from
Choosing a tour agency in Uyuni can be overwhelming to say the least. The streets are filled with tour operators, all offering different (but ultimately the same!) things and it can be confusing to tell one company apart from the other.
But rest assured, all agencies follow the same route and stop at the same key sights so you should base your decision on other key factors, such as:
– Single or multi-day tours – Most one-day tours only take you as far as the salt flats themselves and therefore miss some of the very best scenery in Bolivia. The most popular tour from Uyuni is the 2 nights/3 days tour, which takes you to the salt flat and then on to some of the world’s most stunning landscapes, including colourful lagoons, sweeping deserts and bubbling geysers.
– Private or shared tours – It’s a lot more expensive to book a private tour – and it’s also a very different experience. Shared tours allow you to travel, sight-see and dine with other travellers and if you’re lucky (like us!), you’ll get a super lovely group who you will make the most amazing memories with. Of course, the alternative is that you get a terrible group, who you’re then stuck in a 4×4 with in the middle of the desert for 3 days… Happy holidays!
– Basic, mid-range or luxury tours – I would take the word ‘luxury’ with a pinch of salt in the Bolivian altiplano. If shared bathrooms and cold showers are a bit too much to handle, then you can upgrade to the luxury tours, which use Tayka hotels but it will cost you big bucks – often 3 or 4 times the amount of a standard tour – and this is still hardly 5* accommodation. My advice would be to save your pennies for the rest of the trip and go with a mid-range tour. Yes it’s basic but it’s all part of the experience!
– Spanish or English speaking tour guide – There is usually an additional cost for an English speaking guide, so this is really a matter of preference and depends on how good your Spanish is. You may be lucky and end up with someone in your car who speaks fluent Spanish and who has the joy of translating every word to their fellow travellers for 3 days!
– Tour ending in Uyuni or tours ending in Chile – With the standard 3-day tour, you have the option to pay an extra $10 for a bus transfer across the border to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. This is a great shout if you’re planning on continuing down through Chile or across to Argentina. Alternatively Day 3 will be spent driving back to Uyuni for your onward travel.
You may also wish to ask questions like whether the tour stops for sunset on the salt flats; and how many people they take in a car – these things really vary from company to company, so it’s good to get a sense of what’s what before you go.
Above all else, I strongly advise doing a bit of research into the agency’s overall reputation before you arrive. You’re going to be entirely reliant on them for 3 days for all your food, accommodation, safety and enjoyment. There are so many horror stories out there about drunken drivers, broken-down vehicles and food poisoning, so you want to go with a reliable company who aren’t going to ruin your once-in-a-lifetime experience!
We booked our tour with Andes Salt Expeditions and had the most amazing 3 days of our lives. Their mid-range shared tours cost $180 per person and this includes all your accommodation, food and transport for the duration of the tour, as well as an English-speaking guide. There are some additional fees for national park entrance fees and hot showers, but all in all we found this to be an excellent value option with brilliant, safe drivers, friendly guides and freshly cooked food.
It works out a lot cheaper to book your tour when you arrive in Uyuni, so even if you have your eye on a specific company, it’s best to wait until you arrive to make payment. We contacted Andes Salt Expeditions the evening before our arrival to arrange airport pick-up and paid in their offices on arrival.
Some of the best scenery can be found beyond the salt flats
Let me be clear. The salt flats are absolutely incredible. This is not one of those places that disappoints in real life – the endless white hexagons of crystallised salt are even more dazzling in reality and the sky even more blue, if that’s even possible.
Not to mention the sheer size of this place. To put it into perspective, we drove at high speed for over an hour and saw nothing but white stretches of salt, as far as the eye could see. It’s truly like nothing else you’ll ever experience.
But what lies beyond the salt flat is possibly even more stunning. A 3-day tour includes stops at Fish Island with its towering cacti and panoramic views and picture-perfect lagoons, including the famous Laguna Colorada with its mysterious red waters and flocks of pink flamingos. You’ll then continue on through the Siloli Desert, past colourful mountains and volcanoes with not another soul in sight.
On the final day, you’ll have the chance to visit active geysers at sunrise and even take a dip in natural hot springs, before driving through the Salvador Dali Desert.
And then there’s the wildlife. Uyuni is home to 3 of the world’s 5 species of flamingo (who doesn’t love a flamingo?!) We were also lucky enough to spot an Andean fox and lots of viscachas scurrying around.
There’s no luxury in the desert!
Bolivia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in South America, so it should be no surprise that driving out into the middle of the Bolivian desert for 3 days is going to be a basic affair, to say the least.
Most tours also include one night in a salt hostel (made entirely of salt!) which in itself is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But beyond that, you’re just going to have to suck it up for a few days and get used to cold showers, limited electricity and zero Wifi. Think of it as a rare retreat from the modern world… (this way of thinking worked on me for at least a day and a half and then I really, really wanted to check my Instagram feed).
But honestly, it’s nowhere near as bad as some of the reviews make out. As long as you know what to expect, it’s all part of the experience – just bring along a few cheap beers and enjoy being in one of the most surreal and beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see. Oh and don’t forget to look up – the starry skies at night are some of the best in the world!
The famous mirror effect only happens between January to April
If you’ve ever searched for “Uyuni” on Instagram, then no doubt you’ll have seen incredible photos of the sky mirroring in the salt flat, creating a surreal “heaven on earth” effect.
But this only happens for a small window of time during the rainy season between January and April, when a thin layer of water settles on top of the salt, creating a perfectly reflective surface. We travelled in May and caught the final hints of this phenomenon at sunset, with the mountains reflecting against indigo skies.
If you’ve got your heart set on seeing the mirror effect at its best, then plan in your trip for early in the year.
It’s cold… seriously cold
Okay, so I knew it was going to be cold at night. I’d read the email telling us to bring thermals and sleeping bags and warning us about the plummeting night temperatures. But this is another level of cold. Like minus 20 degrees, “you’re in the freakin’ desert” cold. Just make sure you have the right clothes and equipment and you’ll be snug as a bug in a rug. Which brings me to my next point…
There are some essentials you’ll need to pack
Most tour agencies provide you with a packing list but there are a few things you’ll want to remember to bring with you:
– Water – It’s recommended to bring 2-4 litres per person but we also took some water purification tablets, just in case.
– Sleeping bag – if you plan on getting any sleep at all, you will absolutely need a sleeping bag to keep warm. Most agencies have the option to hire a sleeping bag for a small fee, if you don’t plan on lugging one around with you for the rest of your trip. I’d also recommend bringing your own pillowcase, as the hostels only wash the bedding every few months, or so I hear!!
– Thermal under-layers – I barely took these off during the whole 3-day tour. They are perfect for day and night and essential for keeping you warm in the cold mornings and chilly nights.
– Hat, gloves, scarf, sunglasses… you know the drill.
– Solar charger – Electricity is a luxury in the desert and some hostels are entirely solar-panelled, so you won’t necessarily have easy access to a charging point during your 3-day tour. If you’re a keen photographer, or simply an iPhone owner, who knows too well the dreaded sound of a drained battery, then this is a good way to keep your devices charged.
– Hanging torch light (and batteries) – With no electricity, comes no light, so a hanging torch will come in handy to use as a room light in the evenings and for making your way to the bathroom at night.
– Travel towel – ideally a quick-dry one and an absorbent case to carry it in.
– Altitude sickness tablets – Parts of this tour will take you up to 5000m above sea level, so be prepared with some altitude sickness tablets. We were lucky not to experience any symptoms but it’s not uncommon at this elevation to suffer with dizziness, nausea and headaches. Coca leaves and coca tea are also good alternatives (but just remember it’s illegal to take this into Chile, if you’re planning on crossing the border!)
– Swim-suit – Most tours include an evening or morning stop at natural hot springs, so be sure to bring along a swim-suit if you think you can brave the initial cold.
– Wet wipes – there’s nothing like a wet wipe shower to keep you fresh, and if you don’t fancy an ice cold shower in the morning then these will be your new best friends.
– Snacks – All agencies provide basic meals but it’s a good idea to bring some snacks in case you get hungry (cos there ain’t no supermarkets in the desert!)
– A change of trousers – if you’re planning to sit on the salt flat for all those wacky prop photos, then be prepared for a white bum! Very hard to wash out manually in a hostel sink, with a queue of people behind you, so just learn from my mistake and bring an extra pair of trousers with you!
So there you have it – a whistle-stop tour of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni and how to plan your visit to one of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes.