- This article is an itinerary.
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 10,000km² in the Potosi region. The salt is over 10 meters thick in the centre. In the dry season, the salt plains 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-coloured 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.
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. If doing the 3 day tour you will usually be able to recharge batteries on the first evening (24h electricity) and a bit on the second evening (2h electricity with a generator).
- Extra water - Very important!! The tour usually provides an inadequate supply. An extra 2L bottle per day.
- Sunblock and hat - At 3.5km above sea level there is significantly less atmosphere to absorb the sun's ultraviolet radiation.
- Sleeping bag - You can rent one with the tour. Down is best, and check to see that the zipper works. This is mainly needed in the winter time. Outside of winter this was not needed.
- Warm clothes - Layered is best.
- Flip-flops - The restroom facilities are shared.
- Towel - None are available during the tour.
- Extra snacks, especially fruit and protein - The food is adequate in quantity but tends to be heavy on starches.
- Lip Balm - Sun, wind and dry air will crack them up.
Satellite phones and oxygen tanks are extremely important for emergencies.
The main starting point of tours to the Salar de Uyuni is Uyuni.
For budget travellers, there is also the option to just catch the local bus to Colchani (leaves from the street with all the bus company offices) for BOB10. Ask the driver/ayudante to let you off at the salt flats, and you can hike around for free to get a sense of the place. It takes about two hours to reach an old salt hotel.
- Uyuni 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.
- Tupiza Going up to the salt flats from the south of Bolivia offers a tour which includes seeing more unique lakes and rock formations for a similar price. The tours end in Uyuni and transport to Chile is also possible.
- San Pedro de Atacama The itineraries from here are virtually identical to those from Uyuni, only reversed, and about 50% more expensive.
Finding an Agency
- The tours are quite standardized: mostly same timings, same visits, etc. All companies will try to explain you that they are special, offering better food, safer cars, more experienced drivers or whatever they can to convince you...but actually many are the same with just a handful (probably 5 or 6 companies) offering better quality and more reliable service. The standard price for most companies is similar (700Bs for the 3 day tour. Might be negotiated down to 670 or 650Bs. Around 170Bs for a 1 day tour), except if you go for a private tour or one of the higher priced options offering the more reliable services where a 3 day tour will be in the 190 to 220usd$ range.
- When choosing a tour operator it is important to check with other travellers to understand the type of experience they have had and the vehicles, drivers, and food they had on their trip.It is also important to bare in mind that just because one person had a good time with one company it doesnt mean you will have the same experience as a lot can depend on the driver / guide you have on your tour, or even just luck with breakdowns or weather. Trips will arrive in all of the departure cities coming in the opposite direction and this is a good opportunity to ask other travellers their impressions. Common complaints include vehicles in extremely poor repair, a lack of emergency supplies, intoxicated drivers and limited food and water.Booking on the day in Uyuni increases the risk of you ending up with a bad car or driver as the better companies and drivers have already allocated the tours and better vehicles to those that booked in advance. For the most popular and reliable companies it is worth booking in advance as ones such as Red Planet , Quechua Connection etc will often be full in advance.
- 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. Ripley Tours agency can organize a decent 1 day tour (BOB130).
For private high quality Tours which include staying at the Tayka Salt Hotels, Use of Satelite Phone and high quality 4WDs Ruta Verde Tours and Nicks Adventures Bolivia are excellent companies for this.
- Tupiza - You can also set off from Tupiza and end in Uyuni or vice versa. Agencies here tend to offer 4 day tours whereas Uyuni Agencies prefer to offer 3 day options.
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 a connection to San Pedro de Atacama, or do the entire tour from there. No attractions are missed by leaving the tour at the Chilean border before it heads back to Uyuni. You will usually pay 50Bs extra for this option. Your tour company should arrange a transfer on the Chilean side to San Pedro de Atacama where you will undertake immigration and customs.
- 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. Tours from San Pedro are more expensive than those from Uyuni (around 50% more).
Isla del Pescado in Uyuni
First Day - The World's Largest Salt Flat
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 Incahuasi (3653m, 20.243 S, 67.625 W) - The name originates from the fish-like appearance of the island's reflection in the wet season. There is a fee of BOB30 to visit this island of fossilized coral covered in 1000-year-old cacti in the middle of the Salar. These cacti (the highest of them being 9-10 m) 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 BOB1.
- 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 colourful 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 BOB1. 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. You may be able to talk the host into firing up the heater for hot water (15B pp) but the showers are located outside the lodge and require stalking through the icy night.
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) 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 6B.
- 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). Note that very often you won't actually see the green of this laguna... The green color only appears when it's windy, which is often not the vase in the early morning when tours visit the laguna.
Next will be a long drive back to Uyuni, or you can also branch off here to San Pedro de Atacama. If going to San Pedro the bus usually leaves around 9.30am. Bolivian immigration office available at the border, charging Bs15 for the service, but this charge is likely unofficial or a scam, so if you stand your ground or demand a receipt you might not have to pay.
- Laguna Blanca - A white lake filled with Borax.
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 coloured by magnesium and manganese.
- Laguna Amarilla - A yellow sulphur 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
The road back to Uyuni is very bumpy. It usually takes 7h from the Laguna Verde. 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.
Andean Flamingos Laguna Colorada
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 travelling 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, 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 can be even better!
In order to avoid Altitude sickness, a gradual adaptation to the altitude is advisable, visiting initially Bolivian flat located at 500m Santa Cruz de la Sierra, then moving to the valley Cochabamba, located at 2,500m, and only then making the trip to Salar de Uyuni. If you even wish to do a 3 or 4 day-tour, keep in mind that you go up to 5000m at the highest point and sleep on 4200m. This is a serious risk for your health if you are not acclimatized. Officially recommended altitude to climb per day is only 300m! Therefore you should not start in Tupiza (3000m), but from Uyuni (3700m). Stay there some days before doing the tour. German embassy in La Paz already installed a room to cool down dead bodies who died from altitude sickness!
Warning about particular tour companies.
- On 24 Dec 2011, Oasis Tours (also known as Oasis Odyssey Tours) 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 or 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 travelled no more than 30 km/h. Many travelled even less than 20km/h. And at 20 km/h, loss of traction was still experienced periodically. Be aware of booking with this tour company specifically or with another company that places pasangers 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. Also 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 beware of Dali Tours. It's located on avenida Ferrovaria, on the train station's side. Web-site www.expedicionesdali.com (not working). We ordered a custom tour for a big price and only did a simple, standard tour. Instead of double room we got two beds in a ten bed dorm. Instead of a custom interesting road, we used a simple, fast road. The driver cut corners every time he could. No sunsets, no (even small) sidetrips - nothing. The woman in the agency will sell you everything at the start, but you can't even find her after your trip.
See Uyuni or Tupiza for transportation options from there.
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