If you’ve seen the epic photos taken on the endless white horizon that is Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, then the salt flat is probably on your bucket list.
That’s how it appeared on ours.
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, an 11,000-square-kilometer landscape of glistening, white salt. The surreal landscape is like nothing you’ve ever seen before; a colorless ocean that seems to have no ending or beginning.
Bolivia was on the list of countries Guil and I wanted to visit in South America, so we quickly set our sights on the Salar de Uyuni tour.
So I wrote this very long, 1,800-word post meant to answer all of your questions about the Bolivia salt flats tour based on our own experience.
How To Get To The Salar de Uyuni
The salt flat sits near the Bolivian city of Uyuni, where several tour agencies offer 1- to 3-day tours depending on how adventurous of a traveler you are.
Guil and I knew from the get-go that we wanted to do a 3-day tour. This way we’d explore more of Bolivia than just the salt flat.
From what I’ve read, tours leave from Uyuni and Tupiza in Bolivia, as well as San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. Our original plan was to grab a tour in Uyuni, but a canceled flight changed our backpacking route a bit.
Instead, we began our journey in San Pedro.
Several agencies offer the tour across all three cities, so it won’t be difficult to find one that fits your schedule. There’s no need to book ahead of time.
First Step: Choose Your Starting Point
We ended up in San Pedro de Atacama by “accident” after a spur-of-the-moment change of plans. But we’re so glad we did!
The small town in the middle of the desert is overrun by backpackers, giving it a real laidback vibe. There are a number of desert activities you could do there before leaving on the salt flat tour.
Tons of tour operators offer the Salar de Uyuni tour in San Pedro, and we had enough time to do some thorough research before settling on a company.
If you choose to start in San Pedro you’ll cross the Chile-Bolivia border with your tour group. I’ve heard this is one of the main reasons people choose to start their tour in Chile rather than Bolivia. The border-crossing process was seamless and seemed quite informal when we went. There was an initial passport screening in San Pedro and an official crossing at the border 40 minutes later.
*Make sure to hold onto the immigration paper you’re given when you first entered Chile.
The other options are to snag a tour in Uyuni or Tupiza. While we’ve never visited Tupiza, our tour did end in Uyuni. The rundown town is probably not worth much of your travel time. You probably won’t want to spend more than a night there.
Second Step: Choose A Tour Company
So I was determined to choose the right company to spend three days In The Middle Of Nowhere, Bolivia, with. I spent hours reading awful reviews online about drunk tour guides and starving passengers, which made the Salar de Uyuni tour sound more like a horror movie than an epic trip.
Guil and I probably sat with about five different agencies in San Pedro, and they all basically told us the same thing. All companies virtually offer the same itinerary, the same transportation, the same type of accommodation, etc.
The tour prices were also about the same.
However, we did learn that only Bolivian companies are certified to operate the tour. This means if you book a tour with a Chilean agency in San Pedro, they will hand you over to a third-party company in Bolivia.
You will be picked up in a van in San Pedro and driven to the Bolivian border. There you will be handed off to a Bolivian company whose 4×4 vehicle you will be traveling in.
This is where complications can occur. Due to miscommunication between the Chilean agency and their Bolivian partner, there have been situations where there weren’t enough vehicles for passengers or drivers simply did not show up.
Upon learning this we decided we wanted to book directly with a Bolivian company. For those starting the tour in Bolivia, you won’t have this issue.
After reading a few great reviews about a particular driver named Christopher with White & Green International Travel on TripAdvisor, we decided to book with them. Guil and I realized that the quality of our driver would basically determine the quality of our tour. So we requested Chris before sealing the deal.
We made sure to ask the company owner if he had ever had problems with drunk drivers, and he seemed to answer honestly, saying he’s had to fire drivers in the past but never due to alcohol.
How Much Will This Cost Me?
We had two tour options to choose from: A three-day tour that ended in Uyuni or a four-day trip that brought us back to San Pedro. We chose to end our tour in Uyuni because we’d continue on to La Paz from there.
It cost us 110,000 Chilean pesos, or $180 each (a bit less than the four-day option). We paid in cash because most companies charge more if you pay a with a credit card.
Our tour price was 10,000 Chilean pesos above average but we accepted this price due to the positive reviews we had read.
We were told to bring an extra 150 Bolivianos, or $22 each, to pay for park entrances as well as anything extra we may need along the way.
What was included? Two nights in a hostel, transportation, and breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Will I Freeze Or Sweat To Death?
Possibly both. Guil and I went in January (summer time in South America) yet we faced sub-zero temperatures one night. We even witnessed a quick bout of !snow! at the end of our first day.
Yet it warmed up significantly during the day.
The tour takes place at a high altitude so expect cool temperatures at night and dry, desert heat once the sun comes out.
Rainy season in Bolivia is from December to March, so that’s when you have the best chance of catching the so-called “mirror effect.” That’s when a sheet of water covers the entire salt flat creating a giant reflection of the sky.
While the salar was wet when we went (the salt felt more like wet snow), we didn’t witness mirror effect.
We were told it actually snows along the route during winter, so prepare accordingly.
What Should I Bring?
Here are a few wardrobe tips.
Dress in layers. Wear hiking shoes or comfortable enough walking shoes that you don’t mind getting extremely dirty. Always have a rain jacket or wind breaker with you.
Your backpack will be strapped onto the top of the car all day, so bring whatever you need with you in the car. You’ll be able to access your bag in the evenings when you arrive at the hostel.
These are the essentials I kept in my day pack:
-Roll of toilet paper
-Laptop (I wanted to have it near me at all times for safety reasons.)
Most companies recommend you bring 6 gallons of water each. Guil and I brought 6 gallons for the both of us and purchased more water on the last day.
How High Is Too High?
Let’s talk altitude.
The altitude of our tour ranged from 3,500 to nearly 5,000 meters (11,400 to 16,400 feet). That’s pretty high for someone who’s used to living below sea level in Miami.
We spent a few days in San Pedro at 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) to become acclimated. We were advised to drink coca tea, eat small meals, avoid red meat and liquor, and drink plenty of water. I took a few paracetamols during the tour to avoid bad headaches.
All in all, we didn’t suffer any severe side effects from the altitude change.
What Is The Itinerary?
The itinerary of each tour depends on your starting point. We began ours in San Pedro, and this is what our three days in the desert looked like:
Day One —
We were picked up at our hostel at 7 a.m. and took a quick drive to the Bolivian border. There we had breakfast, got our passports stamped and were transferred to a 4×4.
The first stop on our tour was the Laguna Blanca followed by the Laguna Verde; two beautiful lagoons surrounded by mountains.
Then we stopped at the Salvador Dalí Desert, also known as Dalí Valley, where we had more time to take photos. The landscape here looks like a painting!
After that we drove to a thermal bath in the middle of the desert where, yes, it was warm enough to take a dip. We had lunch there before heading to the “Geiser Sol de la Manana,” an area marked by intense volcanic activity. Full of steaming pools of boiling mud, the landscape is said to be more similar to mars’ terrain than earth’s.
That is the highest altitude you’ll reach on the tour (close to 5,000 meters or 16,400 feet).
Then we rode over to our final stop, the Laguna Colorada. The pink-colored lagoon is home to lots of flamingos.
That night we slept in a hostel in a small, seemingly abandoned village.
Day Two —
We had breakfast at the hostel before heading to the nearby Valley of the Rocks, where we visited several rock formations that mirrored real-life objects: a World Cup trophy, a camel and a city made of hardened magma.
Then we headed to the breathtakingly pretty Laguna Negra, which is home to dozens of llamas.
After we drove to a viewpoint of a deep canyon that made us feel like we were at the Grand Canyon!
We ate lunch in another small village located within a picturesque field home to even more llamas. After lunch we drove through a few more villages learning about their origins and customs.
While we weren’t supposed to enter the salar until day three, our driver took us there to watch the sunset. That night we slept in a hostel next to the salt flat. Normally we’d stay in a salt hotel on the second night but due to heavy rain the hotel was inaccessible.
Day Three —
An early start! How early? 4:30 a.m. to be exact. But it’s worth it. On the third day we watched the sunrise from the middle of the Uyuni salt flat.
We spent the entire morning taking photos and simply hanging out at one of the most unique places on earth.
Usually this is when we’d visit an island in the middle of the salt flat, but due to the rain, this part of the tour was not possible.
Hours of photos later, we returned to Uyuni for a traditional meal: llama and quinoa. Yes, llama.
For us, the tour ended here. The rest of our group however would spend another night in the desert before returning to San Pedro. (They opted for the four-day tour.)