Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, located in Bolivia. Photographers flock here to capture the unique landscape. It is often visited as part of a 3 or 4 day tour of South West Bolivia, described below.
Salar de Uyuni Background
Salar de Uyuni comprises over 12,000 sq km in the Potosi region. The salt is over 10 meters thick in the center. In the dry season, the salt planes are a completely flat expanse of dry salt, but in the wet season, it is covered with a thin sheet of water that is still drivable.
The standard tour heads south toward the southwest corner of Bolivia, by many fluorescent-colored lakes that are created from a collection of different minerals from runoff from the surrounding mountains.
This article outlines the "standard" tour. The tour is conducted in 4x4 vehicles (usually Toyota Landcruisers) with 6 or 7 people, with the driver often times cooking. Most 3- and 4- day tours have the same itinerary for the first 2 1/2 days, a day on the salt plains, then heading south to the southwest corner of Bolivia, and then splitting off from there. The specific sites that are seen can be dependent on the tour, but group input can define which sites are visited and how much time will be spent at each.
Accommodation is usually provided in basic refuges and the weather can be very cold, but it is well worth it for the amazing scenery. Avoid tours that offer a night in one of the salt hotels - they are illegal as, not being part of the water grid, they pollute the environment.
Flamingoes at Laguna Hedionda
What to Bring
Flashlight (torch) - the lights go out when the generator runs dry.
Coins and small bills - The bathrooms aren't free.
Sunglasses - the salt flats are blinding.
Camera, extra battery and loads of memory cards - There are no better pictures than here.
Extra water - The tour usually provides an inadequate supply. An extra 2-liter bottle per day.
Sunblock and hat - there is no atmosphere to block this sun's rays up here.
Sleeping bag - You can rent one with the tour. Down is best, and check to see that the zipper works.
Warm clothes - Layered is best.
Hot water bottle - The nights are freezing and you will be so happy to have it.
Flip-flops - The restroom facilities are shared.
Extra snacks, especially fruit and protein - The food is adequate in quantity but tends to be heavy on starches.
The main starting point of tours to the Salar de Uyuni is Uyuni.
Uyuni - See Uyuni for more specifics. The options include rail from Avaroa on the Chilean border (unreliable departure times), rail from Oruro, Bolivia, bus (including a tourist bus) from Oruro, Potosi, or La Paz, Bolivia, and flying from La Paz.
San Pedro de Atacama. The itineraries from here are virtually identical to those from Uyuni, only reversed, and about 60% more expensive.
Finding an Agency
When choosing a tour operator it is important to check with other travelers to understand the type of experience they have had and the vehicles, drivers, and food they had on their trip. Trips will arrive in all of the departure cities coming in the opposite direction and this is a good opportunity to ask other travelers their impressions. Common complaints include vehicles in extremely poor repair, a lack of emergency supplies, intoxicated drivers and limited food and water.
Uyuni - There are dozens of tour agents offering this trip. Most are situated around the main square, where every other shop is a tourist agency. It is also advisable to find a group of people who are going on the tour who share your interests, and/or language and work with their agency. Minuteman Pizza in the evenings, or the main square is a great place to meet such people. See Uyuni for a complete list.
Tupiza - You can also set off from Tupiza and end in Uyuni or vice versa.
Other Tour Options
Ending on the Chilean Border - Another alternative is to do the three day tour and be dropped at the Chilean border before taking at connection to San Pedro de Atacama, or do the entire tour from there.
From San Pedro de Atacama - There is also the opportunity to do this tour starting in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and ending in Uyuni on the third day or returning to San Pedro the following day. The advantage is that you get to see the Salar on the final morning, getting to see the sunrise over the Salar. There are several tour operators along the main street in San Pedro. However, you have to take attention booking with tour operators in Chile, since all the tours in Uyuni (Bolivia) have to be guided by Bolivian tour-guides, Chilean tour guides are not authorized to conduct tours in the Uyuni salt flat.
Choosing a Tour Package
There are several options to visit the Uyuni salt flat. Starting your trip from La Paz, you will take the bus to Oruro and afterwards, board the train to Uyuni. After a pleasant trip for around 7 hours, you will arrive in Uyuni at night. You can book in a hotel in Uyuni or in one of the hotels built in salt blocks located near the salt flat.
The next day, you will start your journey towards the Uyuni Salt Flat visiting Colchani, a small town where you can buy handicrafts made in salt. From this point you will see unimaginable and spectacular views of the largest salt desert in the world, with an approximate area of 12,000 km2, the Salar de Uyuni! You will begin the trip watching the water bubbling on its surface in the so-called “the eyes of water”, and also the inhabitants of the place in their work of extracting salt for marketing. Next you can continue to Incahuasi Island, or Fish Island, located in the heart of the Salar, which is characterized by the presence of giant cacti. You can walk around the island, enjoying a spectacular view of the Salt Flat and appreciate the great white intertwined with the Andean sky, this is the best place to photograph the Salt Flat. Later, you can continue the journey continue heading south west toward the colored lagoons (Red, Blue, White, Yellow and Green), located in the Parque Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. These sites are occupied by volcanoes, and offer wonderful and surreal views. On some tours, you can visit places such as the Cave of the Galaxies and the Devil's Cave. The lagoons are so-named due to the different tones that characterize them and are due to the presence of algae, the chemical composition of the water, the movement of the wind or to the specific time of the day. Recently, modern hotels were built in this region, allowing a comfortable stay, avoiding the basic accommodations cited elsewhere. At your return to Uyuni, you can visit the little town of San Cristóbal, the Train Graveyard and admire the sunset on the Salt Flat, one of the most magnificent you will see in your life!
First Day - The World's Largest Salt Flat
Isla de Pescados
On the first day you will visit the salt flats. In the dry season this will be a hallucinogenic white landscape. In the rain it is mostly submerged and will show a perfect reflection of the sky.
Uyuni Plaza Arce (3669m, 20.463 S, 66.823 W) - Most trips start here next to the train station at 10:30am, although hotel pickup is usually available.
Train Graveyard (3669m, 20.479 S, 66.834 W) - Usually the first thing of the tour, but some operators prefer to finish the tour with it. A place with a lot of wrecked old steam locomotives.
Colchani, Bloques de Sal (3653m, 20.301 S, 66.938 W) - a village 7 kilometers north of Uyuni that survives off of the processing of salt. Salt souvenirs are available, a salt museum that has carvings of animals created with salt (they make you pay the fee upon exit), some examples of furniture and home-building techniques using salt. Bathrooms available for 1B.
Salt-Mining Area (3653m, 20.321 S, 66.994 W) - an area where salt is dug from the plane into piles weighing a ton each, and left to dry in the sun before transport to a refinery then to your table.
Salt Hotels (3653m, 20.331 S, 67.047 W)- Several hotels made completely out of salt. It is necessary to purchase a candy-bar to go inside.
Isla de los Pescados, or Isla Incawasi (3653m, 20.243 S, 67.625 W) - The name originates from the fish-like appearance of the island's reflection in the wet season. In November 2011 there is a fee of 30B to visit this island of fossilized coral covered in 1000-year-old cacti in the middle of the Salar. These cacti grow at a rate of 1cm per year, so you can easily calculate their age. You may see a Viscacha or two here, also. Most tour groups eat lunch on the western "shore" of this island. Bathrooms available for 1B.
Accommodation can be found at San Juan (3660m, 20.983 S, 67.767 W), though for a real treat try to get the agency to use to accommodation closer to the Salar: you will then be able to get up before dawn and reach the flats by 4x4 to see the most spectacular sunrise of your life. The more basic "salt hotels" may have showers for 10B. and a camera recharge station.
Second Day - Heading South Past Colorful Lakes to Laguna Colorada
Laguna Hedionda (4186m, 21.568 S, 68.05 W) - a lagoon full of flamingos and a popular spot for lunch. Bathrooms available for 1B. Often you will have lunch at the outdoor picnic shelters here.
Viscacha Area - A short stop at a rocky outcropping reveals a colony of Viscachas. The tour guides feed them carrots to train them to come out for food.
Arbol de Piedra (4412m) - a stone tree that has been carved out of the howling, sandy winds.
Laguna Colorada (4278m, 22.2 S, 67.8 W) - a lake coloured red by the algae that live in it. Also you will see lots of flamingos. A 30Bs (Bolivian citizen) or 150Bs (foreigner) fee to enter the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa is required to go any further.
Accommodation - Laguna Colorada area has many basic accommodations in adobe shacks without heating. Beds and blankets are provided. There is electricity for a few hours, but usually no station to recharge batteries. Outside Temperature can be below -20°C at night in July.
Third Morning - Geysers and Hot Springs down to Laguna Verde and Back
Laguna Verde and Licancabur Volcano
It will begin at an ungodly hour (5am) without breakfast to visit some of the following:
Solar de Manaña geyser basin (4850m) - a collection of bubbling sulfur pools and a geyser, normally visited just as the sun is rising. There are no railings here, the ground can be slippery and cave in, and that water looks hot.
Termas de Polques hot springs (4400m, 22.536 S, 67.649 W) - adjacent to Salar de Chalviri - bring something to swim in if you want to enjoy the hot springs. A popular spot for Breakfast. Primitive bathrooms available for 3B.
Laguna Verde (4400m, 22.795 S, 67.84 W) - (coloured green by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and other heavy metals) with a perfect reflection of Vulcán Lincacabur (5960m).
Lunch - Laguna Colorada is a popular place to eat lunch. Restrooms may or may not be provided.
Third Afternoon - Eastward Toward Tupiza
If you opt for the four day tour to Tupiza, then you will go off the beaten track, and visit some small communities. You will see the previous and some of the following:
Laguna Celeste - A clear-blue lake colored by magnesium and manganese.
Laguna Amarilla - A yellow sulfur lake, some old cave paintings nearby.
Ruinas de San Antonio - an abandoned 16th century mining town where prospectors used slave labour. Depending on who you talk to the town was abandoned because either, there was a slave rebellion or, men started to go blind / missing. Regardless an attempt in the 70s to repopulate the town failed and people now live in a town of the same name that is close by but not overlooked by the ominous Volcano Uturuncu (6020m).
Third Afternoon - Northward Toward Uyuni
Salar de Chalviri
The road back to Uyuni is very bumpy. You will stop in various small communities on the way.
Valles de Rocas - many strange valleys of rocks popping up out of the altiplano. The guide will point out patterns in the rocks that resemble familiar objects.
Accommodation - Tours stay at various small towns en route to their final destination. Heating and showers are dependent upon where the driver decides to stop. The small town of Alota is relatively popular with tours.
Fourth Day - ending in Tupiza
tour will be a long ride through beautiful landscape. The last attraction before arriving in Tupiza is:
Sillar (21.44 S, 65.8 W) - which are giant columns of clay formed by erosion.
Fourth Day - ending in Uyuni
San Cristobal (21.095 S, 67.21 W) - a town with a 350-year-old church containing a silver altar.
Train Graveyard (20.479 S, 66.834 W) - a collection of many old trains 3km southwest of Uyuni.
A shy Viscacha
Be cautious due to drunk drivers. Every year there are some accidents on the Salt Desert, with drivers from the various companies drinking more than is healthy. Do not risk your life by traveling with a drunk driver.
Some advise to bring emergency supplies (including up to several extra days of food and water) in case the truck breaks down in a remote place, but unless you are on a custom tour there will likely be another truck along in a few minutes.
Altitude sickness is a real possibility here. If you are arriving directly from the coast, you may need up to a couple days to acclimatize. Dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches are common symptoms, but extended bouts of nausea and vomiting are not unheard of amongst those that have rushed their ascent. The locals swear by chewing coca leaves to help, and although they do relieve the symptoms, they taste terrible and may cause you to fail a drug test. Anyone not already fully acclimatized is advised to pick up some Acetazolamide from the pharmacy in Uyuni before departure.
You can also drink Coca Leaf Tea. Everyone from the Pope to Queen Sofia of Spain drinks it when visiting Bolivia. If you add a little sugar, it is even tasty!
In order to avoid Altitude sickness, a gradual adaptation to the altitude is advisable, visiting initially Bolivian flat located at 500 masl Santa Cruz de la Sierra, then moving to the valley Cochabamba, located at 2,500 masl, and only then making the trip to Salar de Uyuni.
Warning about particular tour companies.
On Saturday December 24, 2011, Oasis Tours (also known as Oasis Odyssey Tours, website located at http://www.oasistours-bo.com/) was involved in a serious accident due to negligent driving. The driver was driving the vehicle approximately 100 km/hr on a wet dirt / mud road from San Cristobal to Uyuni. The vehicle lost traction in the rear, causing the rear end to fish tail, and the vehicle to travel towards the shoulder / ditch. The vehicle impacted the shoulder / ditch and rolled over at least twice, and landed upside down. One passenger suffered a serious head injury, bleeding profusely all over the car and the ground as they exited from the car, requiring immediate emergency medical attention. Another passenger suffered a head injury requiring medical attention a couple hours later. Other passengers incurred various scrapes and bruises. Passengers not requiring immediate medical attention made their way back to Uyuni to make contact with the tour company. The tour company actively refused all attempts to gather information about insurance policies. The tour company actively refused all attempts to gather contact information about a passenger that went to the hospital. Once police were involved, they continued to actively refuse that they had this information until one passenger found the information book on one of their tables, and the police forced them to make a copy of the information. The tour company actively refused to offer any remediation, including reimbursing the passengers for the additional monies they paid to travel from the accident back to Uyuni. The tour company actively tried to insist that they and the driver were not negligent. Most other vehicles on the same road traveled no more than 30 km/hr. Many traveled even less than 20 km/hr. And at 20 km/hr, loss of traction was still experienced periodically. Be aware of booking with this tour company specifically. As well as be aware of booking with another company, yet still being placed with this tour company (this is a common, reasonable practice to ensure vehicles don´t go out almost empty). Look at the name placard on the vehicle you are assigned. As well, be aware of your driver´s (with any tour company) method of driving. If it looks like they are driving negligently, ask them to change their method of driving.
Also we advice not to book in Dali Tours operator. It's located on avenida Ferrovaria on side of train station. Web-site www.expedicionesdali.com (not working). We ordered a custom tour for a big price and have only simple standard tour. Instead of double room we got two beds in ten bed dorm. Instead of custom interesting road we have simple fast road, driver cut the corners every time he can. No sunsets, no even small sidetrips - nothing. The woman in agency will sell you everything at the start, but you can't even find her after your trip. So all we can do, is to write it here to advice follow travelers.
See Uyuni or Tupiza for transportation options from there.
This is a usable itinerary. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!