The custom office on the Chile-Bolivia border is miserable. It adorned itself with a few shacks pretending to be a town and calling itself Ollagüe. Coming by road from Calama, we passed through the Alto Loa National Reserve and thought we would never see civilisation again. Maybe we were right. Outside of Ollagüe, what used to be an asphalt road turns into sand and mud on the Bolivian side. Here we are, in the poorest country in South America, on our way to one of its jewels…
Facts about the salar | What the tour is like | Best time to see the salt flats
What to wear | How many days in Uyuni | Tips to choose your tour
Description of our 3-day Uyuni tour:
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3
How to get to Uyuni | Where to go next
There’s no beating around the bush. The Salar de Uyuni (Spanish for Uyuni salt flats) is one of those landscapes of South America you simply have to tour. It’s impressive, it’s breathtaking, but it’s also physically demanding.
The 3-day tour not only showcases the unique salt desert, either with mirror or white salt, but also several colourful lakes adorned with flamingos, a flat empty landscape as long as the eyes can see, a volcano background, an intense cold, and that feeling of being so small and lost in the beauties of nature.
Whether to go might be the only straightforward decision about it. In this post, we’ll shed some light about how to get there, when to go, what tour to book and what to consider.
Salar de Uyuni facts
- biggest salt flats in the world with over 10,582 km² (4,086 square miles)
- culminates at 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level
- there’s an estimated 11 billion tons of salt and can be 10 metres (32.80 ft) thick at the centre; less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually
- in the rain season, it becomes the largest natural mirror in the world
- it’s not completely flat: there are a few small islands, the main one is Incahuasi Island
- 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, it was part of a giant lake
- it contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves and the government has an eye on that
- NASA uses Salar de Uyuni to figure out the positioning of their satellites
- there are 80 species of birds (visiting and migrating) at Salar de Uyuni, including three species of flamingos
Salar de Uyuni – What is the salt flats tour like?
As far as we know, ALL companies leaving from Uyuni do the exact same route. And they also do it at the exact same time. So be prepared to see a lot of cars on the Salar, but substantially less in the other landscapes.
Having said that, note that the route changes according to the season.
What are the different Salar de Uyuni salt flats tours?
- 1-day tour from Uyuni: train cemetery + salt flats
- 2-day tour from Uyuni: train cemetery + salt flats + several lakes
- 3-day tour from Uyuni: train cemetery + salt flats + several lakes + geysers & hot pools + desert
- 4-day tour from Tupiza (Bolivia)
- 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile): crosses the same landscape as the tour from Uyuni
- 4-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile): crosses the same landscape as the tour from Uyuni
Here’s a detailed report of the 4-day tour from Tupiza on TheDiscoveriesOf.
At the time of our visit, the price for a tour from San Pedro de Atacama was higher than the combined price of a regular bus from San Pedro to Uyuni + the 3-day loop tour from Uyuni. On the other hand, you don’t waste time travelling and reduce the hassle of border-crossing.
🔦 As a reference:
In Feb 2019 we booked our 3-day tour for 700 Bolivianos (+156 Bolivianos entry to the national park and the hot pools). That was about the cheapest on the market. The cheapest 1-day tour without any meals would cost 150; with meals included 200; and the 2-day tour 500 Bolivianos.
Uyuni might ring a bell to motor sport fans, as the Dakar Rally passes here since 2014.
When is the best time to visit?
The Uyuni salt flats have the particularity of offering two different landscapes according to the season. Very different but equally beautiful!
We were there in the rain season, when a thin layer of water covers the immensity and creates that mirror image that has become so famous. If you’re unlucky though, it might rain while you’re there, darkening the sky and spoiling your overall experience. It also gets bloody cold!
In the dry season, the salt ground is showing and really gives the impression of a white desert. The sensation of being surrounded by 360 degrees of nothingness can be thrilling.
High season is May, June and July.
We don’t think you should go according to which Instagram photo you’ve loved and want to replicate. But do go for what attracts you the most. Here’s a summary to help you plan better the timing of your visit.
The best times to visit Uyuni salt flats:
- January – March: wet season, this is the time for the mirror effect.
However, the Fish Island (Isla Incahuasi) which is part of the Uyuni salt flat tours in the dry season, will most likely be closed.
- March – April: usually a layer of rain remains but the island re-opens. Depending on the weather in that particular year, it might be the best time.
- June – September: dry season, but also the coldest. Make sure you pack a lot of layers.
- November – December: the warmest months (but at such a high altitude, it never gets hot). Rain may start falling in November.
How to get to Salar de Uyuni
There are frequent direct buses from the cities of La Paz, Oruro, Sucre, Tarija, Potosí, Tupiza (Bolivia); Calama (Chile); Salta, Jujuy (Argentina).
There are also direct flights from La Paz. But for such a short distance, a flight isn’t justifiable.
Our favourite website to check routes is Rome2Rio.
How many days do you need in Uyuni?
The “bus station” in Uyuni is the corner of two main streets. When we arrived in a late afternoon of January, it was already dark, still cold and no more raining.
When we stepped down the bus, the whole group of passengers got assaulted by a squadron of loud women. We would soon get used to it; it would be a recurring feature during our 4 months around Bolivia and Peru.
Honestly, back then we only wanted to see the salt flats and goodbye. That’s what we were there for. So a 1-day tour would have been enough.
Then we thought: what are we in South America for? To see vibrant life and beautiful landscapes and be mesmerised. What we’d see on the 2nd and the 3rd day of our Uyuni salt flats tour would do just that.
But what about the price difference? A 1-day tour with meals included costs 200 BOB; a 3-day tour costs 700 BOB, including all meals and 2 nights (or 3 if you haggle well). That’s a 65 €uro difference – minus the 2 hotel nights you’d have to pay somewhere else. It’s an investment, but who knows when we’ll ever return?
Another advantage of longer tours: whereas the salt flats tend to be very busy, you usually spend the two following days with no more than 1 or 2 other cars. Most travellers see the Salar and die. Or just leave.
Choose your Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats tour
If you’re familiar with Green Mochila, you know that we’re hardcore advocates of self-guided tours. In the case of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, an organised tour is simply the only recommended way to see them.
We’re talking about more than 10,000 square km of nothingness with no road, no path nor sign whatsoever. A desert. Renting a 4×4 and going without a guide is possible, but it’s simply not a good idea.
What to consider when you book a Salar de Uyuni tour
We strongly advise against booking a tour online in advance! First, because it’s unnecessary. Second, because it’s cheaper on the spot, especially if you manage to haggle the price. Third, because if you get to Uyuni by land and if the weather is bad, the roads might be in a bad state and you lose a day. And therefore you lose your tour.
Your safest plan is to arrive one day before to Uyuni to have time to ask several companies and compare prices and services. If you play your cards right, the company you buy from will include your 1st night in town, even though it’s not part of the tour. That’s what happened to us.
Learn to haggle with Anna’s infallible technique!
There have been stories of accidents on Salar de Uyuni tours. You want to make sure the company you choose doesn’t overlook safety measures and the general state of the car. That’s the #1 reason you shouldn’t go for the cheapest price.
Most Uyuni salt flats tours don’t include a guide, and certainly not in English. They will tell you that the driver will serve as a guide: that is not true. If you want to know about the landscapes you see and the history of the place, you must pay extra.
Our driver for the basic tour chewed coca leaves and wasn’t exactly loquacious. He answered our questions with basic info before plunging back into “Andean silence”. Basic tour = basic info.
Because meals are provided, make sure you indicate any special diet or intolerance you might have. If you’re vegan, we advise you remind them precisely what it means.
To sum up!
Keep something in mind: tour agencies will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t ask them if the weather forecast is good: check it for yourself. Don’t ask them if the car is in a good state: demand to see it. It’s good practice to check online reviews of the different companies beforehand, but you might not have the occasion (or the WiFi); follow your gut feeling and don’t go if you don’t feel comfortable.
One thing for sure: expect to spend a lot of time sitting in a bumpy car. If you tend to get seasick, take medicine and ask to sit in front.
Let’s go! The tour itself
After discussing 40 minutes with the woman who hooked us up from the bus, we got our night in town for free. We hadn’t been in a real hotel room since the beginning of this trip and it felt a bit strange at first. A jumping-on-beds kind of feeling. We fully indulged with a real meal in a real restaurant and got to know Bolivian cuisine and Bolivian wine.
On the morning after, we started our 3-day salt flats tour from Uyuni and that’s the one we strongly recommend.
On the first day, we visited a train cemetery, which is right at the end of town. There’s an old station and all the trains that used to work for the nearby mines rot in the desert. It’s a surreal place with a strong UrbEx feeling!
We then went to the village of Colchani, which is some kind of a tourist trap. There’s little local or authentic about it; it’s one street sided with shops and stalls selling the typical Bolivian craft in all possible variations. You can also buy artwork made of salt. Note that the prices aren’t excessive compared to the rest of Bolivia. We had lunch there and it’s also where we would come back later to spend the night.
After lunch, we headed over to the (first!) highlight of the tour, the Uyuni salt flats. The amount of cars and fellow visitors is overwhelming. But you have enough time to walk away from the crowd and get that sensation of immensity which is the main feature.
Everybody’s favourite game is to play with the perspective and create some funky photos. Get some props in Uyuni before leaving; it can be anything: an empty can, a bottle, a pair of shoes, a toy…
Unfortunately, the Fish Island is closed during the rain season so we couldn’t visit it.
Then, the tour drove again to what seemed to be the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, where an old salt hotel now sells coffee, coca tea and access to the most rudimentary toilets on earth. They call it “salt museum” but they’re just boasting.
Another drive brought us to another part of the Salar, from where we saw the sunset. It’s a moment of real magic! Watching the colours of the sun collapsing onto the salt desert makes you think you’ve never seen a sunset before. You’ll enjoy that all the more if you wear a thick jumper!
We went back to Colchani to have dinner and spent the night in a hotel made of salt. It’s not the fancy one everybody speaks about but the experience is definitely fantastic!
After a pit stop in Uyuni to load with food and fuel, we drove to San Cristobal, where we visited a local market place and saw the outside of a beautiful church. I’m not really sure why the tours stop there, but they do. We were only two cars left, 12 tourists and 2 drivers – so the landscapes would be ours!
After a lunch break at Alota, we left the path and carried on off-road for most of the remaining time. In this region of Sur Lipez, the landscape changes every 30 minute to an hour of driving, going from surreal to insane. Most of the following places don’t appear on any map.
We stopped at a lake near the snow capped peak of the Volcan Charaguay. When we got out of the car, it was gently snowing at that altitude but there were flamingos. Probably some kind of mutant breed of tough Andean flamingos. In fact, that’s probably their scientific name.
We then drove on to Valle de Rocas, a scenery of bizarre rock formations that looks as if the wind blew the shape. Which it probably did, by the way. Some of the shapes are iconic and bear a name; an eagle, an mushroom, or I don’t know which other brand of Pokemon. But it’s much funnier to imagine your own shapes. We had some time to wander off and climb on the rocks.
A peaceful evening
At the end of another long drive, the day ends on the shore of Laguna Colorada, the well-named coloured lake. To watch the sun set on the surreal colour of that lake was simply magic. It’s incredibly peaceful, but at the same time so remote that it made me feel slightly uneasy.
The lake is part of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Nature Reserve. We knew we needed to pay an entrance fee of 150 Bolivianos upon arrival to spend the night inside. Good news: no need to camp, there’s a house. Bad news: it’s incredibly cold. There are real beds and big blankets so you won’t be freezing during the night, but you’ll probably freeze before. A substantial dinner was served by our deadpan driver, including a full bottle of bad wine. Kept me warm.
The last day starts very early, in order to catch the geysers in the best possible morning light. Yes, the geysers. Unfortunately for us, we arrived there 30 minutes after scheduled time, as we helped a broken car on the way. See, those things happen. Nevertheless, the bubbling and spitting hot pools were impressive enough. As opposed to Atacama, there are no barriers or walking paths – everyone approaches the geysers at their own risk.
We drove to Termas de Polques for a splash in a completely natural thermal pool in the middle of nowhere. There are two pools and much talk about which one is the hottest. Enjoy the stunning view from the pool. You need to pay the entrance of 5 Bolivianos only if you use the pool, and there are changing rooms. There is also a shop here, in this remotest of places.
The next stop was one of the icons of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour. In a desert that looks pretty much like a desert stands a rock formation in the shape of a tree. Hence its name of “Arbol de Piedra“. The other rocks around are not bad either, you’ll have some time to observe them.
The rest of the tour went in a blur, as a constant drizzle curtained the various landscapes, soaking our clothes and letting the chilly air sting us to the bones. It’s a part where the driver can improvise, according to the weather, the time left, and the passengers’ preferences.
We passed by several lakes with stunning colours and tough flamingos. For the record, I’ll drop their names here. Not the flamingos’; the lakes’ names: Laguna Ramaditas, Laguna Honda, Laguna Chiarcota, Laguna Hedionda, and Laguna Cañapa. There were also more deserts with bizarre rocks, and the silhouette of volcano Ollagüe in the distance.
Do you like lakes with stunning colours? Visit Huaraz in Peru.
The way back
By then, we were freezing, our legs and bums sore from the 4×4, and several of us had altitude sickness; nausea, stomachache, headache and short breath. Homemade coca tea and chewing coca leaves helps but the taste is pretty awful.
The end of this Salar de Uyuni tour felt like endless driving. After another pit stop at San Cristobal again, the driver brought us back to Uyuni. Planning to leave for Potosí in the morning, Anna and I looked for a cheap accommodation for the night.
Our honest recommendation is that when it’s raining in Uyuni, it’s better to take the 1-day salt flats tour only. As much as the landscapes are beautiful, you’re not going to enjoy them as you should. But if the weather is looking good, we heartily recommend the 3-day tour!
What should I wear on the Uyuni Salt Flats tour
It’s not funny to pack for Bolivia, as the altiplano offers both strong sun and very cold temperatures. The main recommendation is therefore to bring lots of layers that you can easily take on and off. It’s always very windy in that region, and it can rain too.
Because of the sun, a hat is highly recommended and sunglasses are downright obligatory in the dry season. The reflection of the sun is blinding.
You will walk on rough landscapes, especially a salt extension that is corrosive to some shoes; so strong walking shoes are a must. We walked barefoot on the salt flats, which was a cool experience and definitely something to add to a CV.
If you haven’t brought enough jumpers, worry not. You remember we’ve told you that on the first day we went to Colchani, which has a craft market? Although it seems awfully touristy, the prices are not more expensive than anywhere else in Bolivia – in some respects even cheaper. You’ll find your stuff there!
To sum up, everything you might need on your Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour:
- layers of clothes
- hiking shoes
- toilet paper
- photo props
- sun protections
- bathing suit (for the hot pools)
- extra cash (for Nature Reserve + hot pools + any souvenir or extra)
- water (esp. if you don’t want the Coca Cola they serve all the time)
- coca leaves or any medicine against altitude/car sickness
There’s really nothing to Uyuni. It’s a pimple on the face of the desert; an altiplano hub where 4×4 march in and out like ants to fill up with fuel and passengers.
The town is prepared for mass tourism: every building is either a hotel, a restaurant or a tour agency.
It’s the Andean culture, where people are not particularly friendly, and certainly not outgoing. Drive only 8 hours to Sucre and the difference is shocking.
The roads are in terrible condition. Apart from the main road there’s no asphalt so the dirt streets turn into mud four months a year. In that season, the rain creates huge pools that cars need to cross very slowly, lest they fall.
But as a first Bolivian stop, Uyuni offers an introduction to the great things you can experience in the country. Super cheap and tasty street food, with widely available vegetarian options; market everywhere and every day with a very informal street life; indigenous women (called cholitas) wearing many layers of colourful skirts (called polleras).
Read more: Our favourite foods and drinks in Bolivia
Where to go next?
After you come back safe and sound from your Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour, you can either rest one night in Uyuni before heading off the next day (like we did), or take a night bus on the very same evening (like our four Chilean colleagues did).
Honestly I can’t imagine spending a night on a bus after 3 days roaming the desert in a 4×4. But I guess it depends mainly on your timetable, and also on how far you’re travelling next.
If you’re northbound, the most obvious choices are La Paz (8 hour by bus) or Potosí (4 hours by bus). Southwards, there is San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) or the beautiful villages of the Jujuy province (Argentina). East is Iquique (Chile).
Feel free to read our articles about these destinations for inspiration:
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