The infamous Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) in Bolivia is one of the most popular places to visit in all of South America. And after seeing even one photo, you’ll understand why. So then, once you realize how stunning it is and that you need to book a flight to Bolivia immediately, you might discover (as many travelers do) that there is a bit of mystery shrouding all the details you need for planning your trip. Even as Bolivia’s largest tourist attraction, the infrastructure of Uyuni’s miniature tourism industry and limiteered online information basically won’t lead you much further than show-up-with-your-backpack-and-see-how-it-goes general suggestions. A lovely idea, but for those with a schedule or a need for some concrete information before showing up in a little desert town in Bolivia, we’re here to help. Here’s everything we know on how to get to Salar de Uyuni, which salt flat tours are best, when to visit, and every other backpacker-to-backpacker tip in the book to help you prepare before you’re out there.
1. What exactly is Uyuni?
(Let’s leave no salt block unturned here. We said we’d give you everything and we mean it.)
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, and takes up 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 square miles) in the desert of Potosí, Bolivia. It’s a high plateau that was formed during the uplift of the Andes mountains, and it sits at an altitude of 3656 meters (11,995 feet) above sea level. The salt sitting on top of it is several meters thick, and below it sits 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves. The plateau as a whole includes (in addition to the salt flats) fresh and saltwater lakes, major breeding grounds for multiple species of flamingos and is surrounded by mountains.
Read more: Discover Cusco Town in 5 Days
2. What Is There to See and Do?
What will you see? In general, stretching, infinite and impressive scenery. The salt flats are the most famous, but those staying for several days will see flamingos, multicolored lakes, and a variety of mountains as well. You’ll also get to see some unique (and sparse) man-made additions such as a hotel made of salt, and the “Train Cemetery” (a bunch of abandoned train cars in the middle of the salt). Read below to see which are part of the 1-Day Tours and which require 2 or 3 days to get to.
3. What’s the difference between the 1, 2 and 3 Day Uyuni Tours?
Beyond time and money, you’ll see completely different sights if you do more than 1-Day. The 1-Day tours only visit the main salt flats and a couple destinations in that main area. Many visitors think the longer tours give more time in the same spots, but actually drive much deeper in to see entirely new sights. Quite obviously, you’ll also be spending the night on the salt flats if you stay more than one day, which can be a deal-maker or breaker depending on the traveler. The “hotels” are very bare bones hostels, and the amenities and comfort are equivalent to camping. This is especially important if visiting in the winter as they do not have heating. But if you don’t mind cold showers for a few days, you will have the accomplishment of having slept on the salt flats!
Read below for the exact sights you’ll see to decide which you don’t want to miss!
If you’re coming for the area with the white ground, blue skies, and possibly water-covered area that gives the “mirror-effect” (what you see in most pictures), then this is where 1-Day Tours are spent (as well as the first day of longer tours).
You will stop at:
- Pueblo de Colchani: A tiny town with an artisan’s market at the start of the salt flats.
- Train Cemetery: A bunch of abandoned train cars in the middle of the desert. Potentially every photographer’s dream.
- The Salt Hotel: Very basic, but entirely made of salt. Takes only a few minutes, general feedback is that it isn’t worth to pay extra for the tour inside, just check out the main “lobby”.
- Cactus Island (also known as Isla Pescado or Isla Incahuasi): The island from when the flats used to be a lake. Covered in cacti, exactly 3 llama, and gives a great view from the only elevated point on the Day 1 itinerary. Just have to pay to walk on top, it’s worth it if you want the view from above. This is where every tour stops for lunch, and if not going on top, you should definitely walk around it for new views.
- The Salt Flats: You’ll drive over them all day, but every tour stops at the end for a wonderful photo shoot in the dead center. Ask before about the “toys” they bring (T-Rex and beer bottle are favorites), and bring your favorite drink bottle or similar item to “stand” on!
- Water-Covered area: Those photos of the mirror-like water area aren’t only one time of year like everyone claims. There is one area on the far edge that always has water, but very few tours go there. Ask when booking if you’ll see water. It’s incredible.
2- and 3-Day Tours:
These tours move deeper into the desert on the 2nd and 3rd day, and include scenery far beyond the white salted ground such as volcanoes, colorful lakes, and wildlife. If you’re just coming for the first part and don’t want to spend time or money you can go without the 2nd and 3rd day and “won’t know what you’re missing”. If you’re up for a few nights of roughing it (and by most standards, you will be roughing it), have seen what’s beyond the salt and know how beautiful it looks, or are all about going big, then you won’t be disappointed.
Here are things most tours visit over the 2nd or 3rd days (in addition to the 1-Day sights):
- Thunupa Volcano: A dormant, multicolored-rock volcano.
- Pucara de Ayque: A small town of ruins set amongst sandy hills.
- Cueva Galaxia: A cave with swiss-cheese/outer-space style rocks and petrified cacti.
- Lagunas Cañapa, Hedionda, Chiarkota, Honda & Ramadita: A ton of lakes that are home to multiple varieties of flamingos!
- Géiseres de Sol de Mañana: Giant geysers!
- Salar de Chalvir: A secondary salt flat area upon which you’ll see miniature white dust devils aka white gusts of salt blowing in the wind.
- Termas de Polques: Several hot spring pools.
- Valle de las Damas del Desierto: A part of the desert with large rock formations
- Laguna Verde : Bright turquoise lake in front of the Licancabur Volcano. It looks fake and is definitely a highlight!
- Laguna Colorada: A salt lake with colorful pink and vibrant red hues, home to many flamingos. Also looks fake it’s so impressive.
- Ciudad de Piedra: A town of classic stone structures carved into the red rocks. A miniature version of Petra!
4. Should I Book a Tour in La Paz or Uyuni?
Many travelers ask if they should just go to La Paz and book a tour from there that will visit the salt flats and return them to La Paz, or if they should go directly to Uyuni and book a tour there. Frankly, it’s a matter of what the route of your trip is. If you are coming to Bolivia only for La Paz and Uyuni or are on a tight schedule, you may find it easiest to book in La Paz so you can leave right away and have a set time to return. This may be slightly more costly and you will drive a long way in a tight car, but requires the least amount of brainwork on your end (and less chance of full buses/hostels/things that cause delay when you arrive in Uyuni). Also, if you don’t speak any Spanish this will help you avoid having to book tours, buses and hostels in the tiny town of Uyuni where you may have difficulty getting around in English only.
For those passing through, do not unnecessarily return to La Paz if Uyuni can be on your way to the next destination. Definitely make your own way to Uyuni, book a tour the morning of, and then head to your next destination from there. Buses head out in every direction each evening so you can even leave right after your tour without staying the night (there isn’t anything else to see there).
DIY travelers or true budget backpackers will also prefer to travel to Uyuni on their own (read options below) and book a tour while in Uyuni itself. The options are greater, cheaper, and you have much more flexibility and independence on your journey to and from wherever you’re going.
5. How Do I Get to Salar de Uyuni?
There are a few especially popular routes for backpackers passing through, and can be reached from Peru, Chile, within Bolivia, and Argentina relatively easy. Those coming only to visit the Salt Flats will need to fly into La Paz and go from there.
Getting to Uyuni from Peru:
The easiest way here is to either take the 12 hour bus/1 hour flight from Cusco, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia ($30USD bus/ $70USD flight), and then travel from La Paz to Uyuni (see below) OR travel from Lima, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia on a 24-hour bus or 2 hour flight ($100USD+ bus/ $420USD+ flight) then travel to Uyuni. For the distance, traveling from Cusco is disproportionally cheaper.
Getting to Uyuni from Chile:
Many travelers access Uyuni through the San Pedro de Atacama desert in Chile. If going this way, you can book your Uyuni tour from San Pedro de Atacama and tour both deserts together. This is perfect for anyone already planning to do both, but San Pedro de Atacama is known for being very expensive so this will make your Uyuni experience pricier than if you were booking otherwise (these tours run around $200-300USD for 3 days visiting both deserts).
Budget travelers coming through Chile (or those simply not visiting San Pedro de Atacama) can take the “Frontera del Norte” bus from Calama, Chile to Uyuni, Bolivia. This bus leaves most days at 6am, takes 4 hours and costs $20USD. It is one hour from San Pedro de Atacama, but can be reached by buses from almost all over the country. Make sure to ask wherever you are leaving from when the next bus leaves from Calama to Uyuni as there is no regular schedule. With this option, you may need to stay a night or two in Calama for the next bus if you aren’t able to find the departure days ahead of time.
Getting to Uyuni from Argentina:
If traveling by land, the easiest way to get to Uyuni from Argentina is through Salta and the surrounding area. You can take a bus from anywhere to La Quiaca, Argentina (the border town) cross the border by foot, then take a bus or train from the border town of Villazon, Bolivia to Uyuni.
If doing this, we recommend doing a day tour from Salta to Humahuaca, not returning to Salta and spending the night in Humahuaca. You can take a morning bus from Humahuaca to La Quiaca (departing every 20 minutes or so after 7am). When you arrive in at the bus station in La Quiaca, take a taxi to the border, walk across and you will be in Villazon, Bolivia, and you can walk to the bus terminal (literally, just go straight) or go to the train station and take either directly to Uyuni.
The bus from Villazon to Uyuni takes about 12 hours and costs about $15USD. The train takes 9 hours and costs about $17USD (we recommend booking this a day in advance if you can). The buses are more frequent. *Keep in mind the one-hour time difference when you cross the border!
If not visiting Salta or somewhere in the region, it may be best to fly directly to La Paz and then book a tour from there.
Getting to Uyuni from Within Bolivia:
The majority of transportations options from within Bolivia to Uyuni are through the capital city of La Paz, but you can fly from several other domestic cities, take the train from several, and access Uyuni by bus from just about anywhere in the country.
From La Paz to Uyuni By Bus: Bus travel is the most common, but the standards are some of the lowest in South America. The journey is 12 hours, bumpy, and costs $40USD for the tourist bus. We recommend paying more for the “tourist bus” for a significant increase in comfort.
From La Paz to Uyuni By Plane: 2 Flights go each day, take 50 min and cost about $150USD.
From La Paz to Uyuni Through Oruro, Bolivia: This option can be cheaper, but is also good for those wanting to stop in Oruro for a night or so. Take the bus from La Paz to Oruro (4 hours, $8USD), then take the bus or train from Oruro to Uyuni. The bus is 3.5 hours & $20USD, and the train is $8USD for a “popular” ticket, $15-20USD for 1st class & leaves every Tuesday and Friday at 3:30pm and arrives in Uyuni at 10:30pm. This is the cheapest option.
6. Booking Your Uyuni Tour
If you are booking from La Paz, book through one of the main hostels (Loki, Wild Rover) and you don’t have to search at all.
If you are booking in Uyuni, The general strategy is to arrive in Uyuni, walk around the streets the morning of around 8:30am and book a tour to leave an hour or so later. Walk into several before committing to compare. Some can be booked in advance online, but we don’t recommend that for most because it’s easy to be scammed.
If you look online, you’ll find hardly any “official” information on tour companies. What you will find, is a million and a half scathing reviews on TripAdvisor about the “worst company ever!!!” and each will have a different name. If you’re going for one day, just make sure they will take you the main places listed above, bring lunch and water, and that the price is comparable to the rest and you’ll be fine. If going for 2 or 3 days, definitely Google the company before booking to make sure they aren’t one of the horrible ones that leave you with no blankets or put 7 people in a sedan that drives for 4 hours at a time.
The Best Tour Companies in Uyuni
Red Planet is the official “best” tour company. They’re fun, young, and all the Gringos love them. The cost? Not typical cheap Bolivian prices, but still cheap for most foreigners. They’re generally over 3 times the prices of the others (usually around $100USD for 1-Day). But, you can book ahead (actually you have to), trust them, and for planner travelers, they’re perfect. You’ll meet fun people.
Brisa Tours: This is who we took on a one-day tour and we think is the best tour company in Uyuni. Seriously, we had an awesome experience (and nobody paid us to say that- some guy from Hong Kong recommended them to us and we thank him endlessly). While most of the smaller companies are all the same for 1-day tours, Brisa is one of a tiny handful (like, 3 out of 100 tour companeis) that guarantees you’ll see an area covered by water (aka the highlight and best-kept Uyuni secret), and stays for sunset over the water. They have some guides who speak various Asian languages, so they attract many visitors from those countries. I was traveling alone when I booked and saw everyone else was from South Korea and worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate, but it turned out wonderfully, most people spoke English, and with a view like Brisa shows you, everyone makes good company. You probably won’t be running into all the same people in the La Paz party hostels, and maybe that’s a good thing. This tour cost $18USD and we can’t recommend it highly enough. Seeing the water at sunset will be the highlight of your entire trip and only Brisa can always make it happen.
6. How Much Time Do You Need?
If you’re traveling to Uyuni on your own then booking a tour, take a bus/flight/train from wherever you are to arrive to Uyuni in the evening, take your tour the next day, and then either leave on a night bus/flight/train that same evening (or 2/3 days later if doing a longer tour). You only need to stay the night before your tour in Uyuni, and most return in time for you to travel out the same night as the last day of the tour. There is literally nothing in Uyuni besides tour companies, bus companies and tiny hotels to service the salt flats, so avoid a cushion of time if you don’t need it. Also, most transport out of Uyuni is in the evenings, so if you don’t leave the day of your last tour you may have to wait all the way until the next night to leave (unless flying).
7. When Is the Best Time to Visit?
Some people prefer to visit during the wet season in Uyuni so they can see the giant mirror effect over the entirety of the flats. This is stunning, but sometimes the weather limits travels and even prevents tours from heading out. You can get the best of both worlds by visiting in the dry season but booking with a tour like Brisa that will take you to the area with water, and then you don’t have to worry about getting rained out or the car getting stuck in the slush (which can happen).
The rainy season in Uyuni is from November to March, and the dry season is from May to October. Keep in mind that the dry season is colder.
8. Where to Stay?
There are some tiny hotels/hostels in the town of Uyuni, few of which you’ll find online. Two are on Hostelworld.com, Hostel Piedra Blanca Backpackers ($10USD/night) and Oro Blanco ($18USD/night) so they can be booked ahead. If arriving late at night, you might want to book ahead. We got in around 2am, walked the deserted streets and had to go door-to-door as an Argentinian girl did all of the communication. Without that, it would have been a challenge. If arriving earlier, you can easily scout yourself and there are always (probably cheaper) options.
9. Backpacker-to-Backpacker Tips
Photo Props: Bring your favorite beer bottle/can, animal figurines, action figures or other items to use in your pictures! You can go online for some inspiration.
Tequila: If you’re up for a mid-day tequila shot or two (as everyone should be), bring it along with some limes and take your tequila shot with salt right off of the ground! Bucket list? I think so.
Extra Batteries: For multiple day (or even single-day) photo lovers. You will be taking a million pictures. 2 and 3-Day Tours don’t often get the chance to charge so this will be necessary, but without a full charge you could even run out on the single-day. Make sure you have enough memory cards/free space too!
Layers, Layers, Layers: For those staying overnight, you’ll need it. You will need a sleeping bag in addition to bedding in the “hostels”, ask your tour if they provide or bring your own.
Water: For single and multiple day tours, you’ll need a lot of water and tours hardly remind you (and usually only bring soda for the meals). It’s high altitude and a ton of sun! Bring a jug!
Altitude Sickness Meds or Wristbands: Many people will experience some symptoms at the high altitude, come prepared!
Now, go- ENJOY! Add to the wanderlust-inducing photos circulating the Internet and see the landscapes that dreams are made of (seriously, it looks like a dream).
Have any specific questions or other tips to share? Please, go wild in the comment section below!
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Read more about Bolivia:
Getting to Know The Peaceful “Isla del Sol” in #Copacabana Bolivia http://t.co/D4NAxrgkNG #Bolivia #ttot #Backpacking pic.twitter.com/z7JBUTFiuF — TheBorderlessProject (@TheBorderlessPr) July 28, 2015