If you’re visiting Bolivia, chances are, the Salar de Uyuni (aka the Bolivian Salt Flats) is on your must-see list.
The world’s largest salt flat, it a truly amazing sight to behold. If you want to experience the incredible richness of natural beauty and diverse landscapes that Bolivia has to offer, a tour of El Salar de Uyuni is a great way to do it!
How to get to the Salar de Uyuni
In order to get to the Bolivian salt flats, there are several options. You can take a bus, train, plane, or a combination of all three to Uyuni, the town nearest to the location of El Salar de Uyuni.
Getting to the Salar de Uyuni by bus
The most common route to Uyuni is from La Paz, a ten-hour bus ride away. If you want to take a bus, unless traveling during a really busy holiday weekend in South America (like Carnaval), you can probably walk right into any bus station in Bolivia and purchase tickets at the counter.
If you’re more of a planner like me, use Tickets Bolivia to purchase your tickets ahead of time. That way, you can be sure to get the times you want and a lie-flat, or “cama,” seat if you are traveling overnight.
I’ve used this website multiple times and my reservations have always been honored. Once, when we had a problem at the terminal due to a “Dia de Peaton” (Pedestrian Day… a fun Bolivian tradition that can be a bit less fun if it interferes with your travel plans), the website even refunded our tickets for lost time.
Getting to the Salar de Uyuni by train
From La Paz, it’s also possible to take a four-hour bus to Oruro and then hop on a train to Uyuni, another six or seven hours. away A one-way trip using either method will cost about 140-170 BOB ($20-25 USD).
Getting to the Salar de Uyuni by plane
Uyuni also has a small airport. If you want to save time, and avoid the twisty, turning Bolivian roads, the flights from La Paz to Uyuni are only about an hour. Depending on the time of year, these flights can vary between 1,100 and 1,800 BOB ($170-250 USD).
When to visit the Bolivian Salt Flats:
The Salar de Uyuni is amazing at any time of year, but how your trip looks depends entirely on the season.
Visiting El Salar de Uyuni between December and March
Rainy season in Bolivia is when the Salar turns into the world’s largest mirror, making it, for some, the best time to go! Lasting from around December to March, you’ll definitely want to visit if you’re hoping to snap amazing reflection photographs, where the horizon seems to completely disappear and the sunsets are spectacular.
While rainy season visits are great for photographers, there are also some downsides to visiting during this time. Rain makes mud, so the going gets tough at points along the road. While 4WD vehicles and drivers are well-equipped to handle the terrain, more mud means a greater risk of getting stuck. You also might miss out on some of the activities, like riding bikes across the flats.
Visiting El Salar de Uyuni between April and October
Dry season in Bolivia lasts from around April to October and during this time, the salt flats look less like a giant mirror and more like… well, a giant salt flat. It’s still pretty spectacular, and the expanse of white stretches on forever! You’re also still able to take some sweet photographs – particularly the hilarious perspective shots. Be sure to take along some props for your perspective photos, like a frying pan or toy dinosaur! Be aware that it’s winter during these seasons, so you can expect temperatures to drop to below freezing once the sun goes down (around -6°C or -22°F).
Visiting El Salar de Uyuni in late March or late November
For the best of both worlds, visit in late March or late November. You might get lucky and find a part of the salt flat that is dry and a part that’s covered in water!
What to expect from Salar de Uyuni tours:
Many companies in the town of Uyuni offer salt flat tours. If you’re not a planner like me, it’s fairly easy to walk into a tour office upon arrival and book a tour the same day.
Most tour companies offer one to three-day tours of the salt flats, lakes and surrounding region.
If you are short on time and funds and only interested in seeing the salt plains themselves, a one-day tour will suffice.
Two-day tours add the region’s colorful, mineral lagoons, while in three days, you can see it all – salt flats, lagoons, deserts and dramatic rock valleys.
My suggestion is to choose a three-day tour option. If you’re going to stay in Uyuni for multiple days, you might as well go big and see all there is to see!
Group tours or a private tour are also options. Private tours are obviously pricier but grant more flexibility; to meet new people and save money, go for the group option!
On a three-day tour you can expect to see and experience the following:
- The Salar de Uyuni!
- The train graveyard… a strange, but cool homage to Uyuni’s commercial past.
- A night in a hotel made out of blocks of salt.
- The Laguna Colorado, Laguna Verde, and other Altiplano salt lakes that are home to Andean flamingos.
- The colorful Dalí and Siloli deserts.
- A bubbling, steaming geyser field.
- Unique Bolivian wildlife, such as Darwin’s rheas, vicuñas, vizcachas, and, of course, flamingos.
- A dip in hot springs.
Recommended tour guides for El Salar de Uyuni
While there are many tours and companies to choose from, I highly recommend Quechua Connection.
This company’s guides are fluent in English and were very helpful. The first night’s accommodations with have hot showers (a big plus!), while the second night is spent near the hot springs, where you can enjoy an evening soaking under the Milky Way.
They also offer a visit to a salt factory and end their three-day tour with a hike through a giant volcanic rock valley, which was one of the highlights of our trip.
Another great tour operator is Banjo Tours. While we have experienced many different guides during our Bolivian travels, our best by far was from Banjo. They offer many tour options leaving from and Uyuni, including one from La Paz to Uyuni via lesser-visited Sajama National Park, where you can see Bolivia’s highest peak and visit pre-Incan burial sites before visiting the salt flats.
Top tips for taking a tour to the Bolivian Salt Flats
One thing you can expect from all tours is to spend a substantial amount of time in a car. While the scenery flying past your window will be beautiful, the fact is you will probably sit for hours per day jostling around in a 4×4 vehicle down precarious roads. If you get car sick easily, take medicine and sit in the front seat!
My biggest suggestion, especially if you opt for a private tour, is to be upfront with your guides about exactly what you’re hoping to get out of the tour.
Want some extra time on the salt flats for pictures? Tell them! Don’t care so much about the train graveyard or the Laguna Colorado and want to spend more time in the hot springs? Let them know!
Most guides want you to be happy with your experience; I’ve found that being clear about what we wanted out of our tour was best for everyone.
What to pack for visiting the Salar de Uyuni
Conditions on a tour of the Salar de Uyuni are variable. Hiking and sleeping at 3,600 metres (about 12,000 ft.) above sea level can get pretty chilly, especially at night. If you choose a three-day tour, those will take you up to 4,500 metres (almost 15,000 ft.)! That said, the sun can be really strong at high altitudes, meaning you’ll want to pack plenty of layers.
To be fully prepared for the Bolivian salt flats, you’ll want to pack the following when visiting the Salar de Uyuni:
- Sunscreen and a sun hat to block those rays!
- A beanie, gloves, and a scarf or buff for those cold, windy days.
- Warm clothes for sleeping… especially a pair of good, thick socks!
- Sleeping bag. While the basic accommodations on most tours will provide beds and blankets, I like a little extra warmth when I’m sleeping, and I didn’t regret having my own sleeping bag.
- Flip flops, especially if visiting during the rainy season. You don’t want to walk out into the salty water with a pair of your nicest hiking boots or favorite shoes. The salt is a pain to get off! On that note, you might want capris or pants that easily roll up (read: not skinny jeans) if you visit during rainy season.
- Swimsuit if you choose a multi-day tour and are visiting the hot springs.
- Rain jacket, especially if visiting during rainy season.
- Headlamp! Many of the hostels have generators that shut off at night, and if you’re planning to visit the hot springs at night, you’ll need some light to navigate by.
- You’ll definitely be taking some cool shots! Also, bring fun props for perspective shots.
- Aux cord. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time in a car, most of the drivers will let you plug in your own tunes for the ride.
- Water! While most tour companies will include water with meals, you might want to pack a liter or two for yourself. Nothing cures altitude sickness better than chugging water and staying hydrated!
Where to stay in Uyuni, Bolivia
To be honest, I would suggest not actually staying in Uyuni. You can save yourself time and money by taking over-night buses or early morning flights and jumping straight onto a tour without actually spending the night in the town of Uyuni.
If your schedule doesn’t permit this option, however, there are plenty of hostels in Uyuni that you can visit.
One good option is the Toñito Hotel (Av Ferroviaria 60, double 500 BOB ($72 USD), which offers private rooms with hot showers, heaters in the rooms, and yummy pizza downstairs in the Minuteman Pizza restaurant. It’s also centrally located and easy to walk or get a taxi anywhere in Uyuni. While the hotel offers WIFI, the signal is only good in common areas and doesn’t necessarily reach into the private rooms.
If you don’t mind being outside of town and want to see the Salar de Uyuni at night, stay closer to the salt flats at one of the more expensive, salt hotel options near the village of Colchani. These include the Hotel Palacio de Sal (Orillas Salar de Uyuni, Colchani, double 1,076 BOB ($156 USD)) modern lodgings that are supposedly the first salt hotel in the world, and Hotel de Sal Luna Salada (Orillas Salar de Uyuni, Colchani, double 945 BOB ($137 USD), which even has salt floors!
An unforgettable trip to the Salar de Uyuni
For a traveler visiting South America or Bolivia, visiting the Salar de Uyuni is a must. The natural beauty and uniqueness is something you’ll never forget!
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