An Expert Guide to Visiting El Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

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!

The Salar de Uyuni turns into the world's biggest mirror during the rainy season.

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.

Alternatively, you can take a tour from Tupiza, a town located some 200 kilometres south of Uyuni. Tours departing from Tupiza take a different route to those leaving from Uyuni; because fewer tourists choose to start their salt flats tours from here, you can guarantee you’ll see fewer other tourists during most of your trip. This is also because you’re taking a route northwest (whereas those from Uyuni are taking a loop west).

A final alternative for visiting the Bolivian salt flats is from San Pedro de Atacama, a town across the border in Chile. Tours are generally marginally more expensive (everything is in Chile compared with Bolivia!) but standards of tour operators are often better and it saves you having to take the long and uncomfortable bus across the border from Calama (Chile) to Uyuni.

GETTING TO THE SALAR DE UYUNI BY BUS

Buses from La Paz to Uyuni

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.

The Bolivian salt flats in the rainy season, from December through March.
Two of the 4×4 jeeps used by the tour companies to get you onto the Salar de Uyuni. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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.

Buses to Tupiza

If you want to take a tour starting in Tupiza, it’s a four-hour bus journey from Uyuni, with buses leaving a couple of times each day from the bus terminal in the latter. Expect to pay around $30 BOB  ($6 USD).

Alternatively, if you’re coming from Argentina, you can get a bus north from Villazon. It’s a journey just shy of three hours and should cost around 15 BOB ($2.7 USD) and a handful of companies run this route. For vaguely up-to-date bus timetables, check out this website.

Buses to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)

San Pedro de Atacama is the most visited town in northern Chile. However, to get here from southern Chile, departures are more frequent to nearby Calama. Buses to here from the Chilean capital, Santiago, cost between $25,000 CLP and $48,000 CLP ($36 USD to $70 USD) and take 22 hours. However, flights are often the same price and significantly more time efficient. Further information about this is located below.

From the bus terminal in Calama, buses leave hourly for San Pedro de Atacama; Tur Bus has the most frequent departures. The journey costs $3,000 CLP ($4 USD).

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 32-120 BOB ($5-17 USD).

This train connects Oruro with Tupiza (5.5 hours after Uyuni; 56-239 BOB ($8-$35 USD) and Villazon (3 hours after Uyuni) further down the line.

Trains leave four times weekly:

  • The more expensive (and more comfortable) Expreso Del Sur departs Oruro on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2.30pm; it departs from Villazon on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 3.30pm for the return journey.
  • The cheaper Wara Wara del Sur departs Oruro at 7pm on Wednesdays and Sundays; the return journey leaves Villazon at 3.30pm Mondays and Thursdays.

Prices and (probably!) up-to-date prices and timetables can be found on this website.

GETTING TO THE SALAR DE UYUNI BY PLANE

Flights from La Paz to Uyuni

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).

Flights to Calama (Chile)

If taking a tour of the salt flights from San Pedro de Atacama, the most efficient means of getting to this town is by flying into Calama, a city situated 100 kilometres northwest.

Aeropuerto Internacional El Loa (CJC) receives around a dozen flights from Santiago with carriers LATAM (expensive), Sky Airline (low cost) and Jet Smart (super low cost). If you book at least a few weeks in advance, you can secure flights for as little as $33,000 CLP ($48 USD) – although with Sky Airline and Jet Smart, you are required to pay for cabin baggage and hold luggage in addition to the quoted fee. Flights take around two hours 10 minutes.

LATAM has also just announced daily direct flights (2.5 hours) from Lima to Calama, costing from $81,000 CLP ($122 USD).

From Calama, you can take a transfer directly to San Pedro de Atacama ( $12,000 CLP ($17 USD) $20,000 CLP ($28 USD) return) with TRANSVIP,  Transfer Andino or Transfer Pampa Expedition. Transfers are timed to pick up passengers from the arrivals hall just after flights land.

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.

The Bolivian salt flats in rainy season from December to March.
The world’s largest mirror? What the Bolivian salt flats look like from December to March. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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:                      

SALAR DE UYUNI TOURS FROM UYUNI

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.

The pink Laguna Colorada; one of the highlights of Salar de Uyuni tours.
The pink-tinged Laguna Colorada: one of the main highlights of a Salar de Uyuni tour. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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!

The train graveyard, Uyuni Bolivia.
Don’t try this at home! The train graveyard just outside of Uyuni. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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.

SALAR DE UYUNI TOURS FROM TUPIZA

Another alternative is a four-day tour from Tupiza. These include all of the destinations listed above but in the opposite order. The extra day sees you touring some of the country’s most remote scenery, where a series of deserted mining towns, volcanic peaks and deserted altiplano plains filled with native wildlife are the highlights.

Your final day at the Salar de Uyuni also starts at sunset, meaning you get the absolute best views of this grand natural site – and get to appreciate it before the hordes of vehicles from Uyuni arrive!

Whereas tours from Uyuni all take the same route and mean that you can expect to be in a procession of other 4WD vehicles packed with tourists and who all get out at the same spots at the exact same time, as there are only two tour agencies departing from Tupiza, you’ll likely only see a handful of other cars during your trip.

What’s more, tour agencies in Tupiza have a reputation for being far more responsible, with vehicles kept in better conditions and generally a high-standard of guides being employed.

This reputation also extends to safety; drink-driving can be a real issue on the Salar, so it’s essential to book with a company that is reliable and takes the safety of their passengers seriously.

SALAR DE UYUNI TOURS FROM SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA (CHILE)

If you’re in Chile and want to pop across the the salt flats, a tour from San Pedro de Atacama makes the most logistical sense. Three- or four-day tours depart San Pedro de Atacama and stop at the most popular sights along the route: Laguna Verde, Laguna Colorada, El Salar de Uyuni and the Termas de Polques 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.

Rock formations in the Dali Desert or Dali Valley, visited as part of a Salar de Uyuni tour, Bolivia.
The weird rock formations in the Dali Desert or Dali Valley, another highlight of a tour of the Bolivia salt flats. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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. They can also drop you in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile for an additional cost of around $10 USD.

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.

Three-day tours start from around 1250 BOB ($180 USD).

RECOMMENDED TOUR GUIDES FROM TUPIZA

Steph (the founder and editor of Worldly Adventurer) saw the salt flats via a tour from Tupiza with Tupiza Tours. La Torre are also another highly recommended operator based here. Tour guides should speak English; be sure to confirm this when you book.

Because there are fewer tourists starting from here, you may need to wait a day or two for a complete group of tourists to form (you need at least four in your group before you can depart). Tours are a little more expensive than those from Uyuni, starting from around $195 USD per person. You can arrange to drive back to Tupiza or instead stop in Uyuni; both companies also can terminate the tour across the border in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

RECOMMENDED TOUR GUIDES FROM SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

From San Pedro de Atacama, the most recommendable agencies include Chilean company Cruz Andina Travel and the Bolivian company Estrella del Sur Expeditions.

You can either end in Uyuni (from $125,000 CLP ($180 USD)) or back in San Pedro de Atacama ($150,000 CLP ($215 USD)).

Both agencies can also organize private tours for a much higher price.

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!

Perspective shots taken in the rainy season on the Salar de Uyuni.
Having fun with perspective on the Salar de Uyuni. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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.

Flamingo on lake near the Bolivian salt flats.
One of the thousands of flamingoes that you’ll like see on a Bolivian salt flats tours. Photo by Andrew Ketchum.

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!

WHERE TO STAY IN SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, CHILE

On the north east side of San Pedro, Ckuri Atacama (Los Laureles 170, $48,000 CLP ($78 USD) double) has really beautifully-furnished bedrooms with shower rooms, large double bed and a small dining area with your own fridge and plates and cutlery for you to serve yourself breakfast (it’s not included in the price). The owners are wonderful and know plenty about the area making them a great first port of call for information about tours or dining recommendations!

For those on a smaller budget, La Casa de Matilde (Avenida Pedro de Valdivia, $13,000 CLP ($21 USD) dorm, $55,000 CLP ($89 USD) two-bedroom mini apartment) is really homely and has comfortable dorms (all single beds and no bunks). The two-bed mini apartment is great for groups or families as it has a kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms.

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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