Situated eight hours south of La Paz, the Uyuni Salt Flats, also known as Salar de Uyuni, is the largest salt flat (and mirror!) in the entire world, stretching over 4000 miles and containing over 50% of the planets lithium reserves. As well as endless amounts of salt, Uyuni offers sights that will make your jaw drop on multiple occasions: blue lagoons and colourful lakes, random islands of cactus (Cactus Island), a train cemetery, electrifying night skies littered with twinkling stars, bizarre rock formations (Arbol de Piedra) flocks of electric pink flamingos, roaming llamas, natural geysers, volcanoes, rolling hills, deserts and SO much more. You can experience this wonder in one day or my advice would be to do a three day tour, where you will sleep beneath the stars and really submerge yourself in this magical world, exploring all it has to offer.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Uyuni is at 12,000 ft above sea level, take altitude sickness precautions – see below.
Salar de Uyuni is accessible from either Bolivia, with an overnight bus from La Paz, or you can leave from Sucre, Tupiza, or Uyuni itself. You can also explore the Salt Flats from Chile via the San Pedro de Atacama desert.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: SHOP AROUND before you decide upon your tour agency. Most tour agencies in La Paz will suggest booking your transport (buses) to Uyuni for you. DO NOT DO THIS. They increase your price for the tour by 3x for this. Just head to the main bus terminal in La Paz and buy your ticket yourself. The bus terminal (Terminal de Buses) is a striking yellow building, you can’t miss it, located in Plaza Antofagasta, a 20 minute walk from where most of the hostels are / backpackers stay. If you are worried about walking, you can take a taxi for 4 BOL (€0.50 / $0.50) which will take five minutes, maybe ten with the traffic. Make sure you agree a price before getting into the taxi.
From La Paz: There are three options for buses to Uyuni.
**For safety reasons I would suggest going ONLY with Todo Turismo as the others do not have good safety records.
In total the journey is 8 hours and you can only do it via night buses. Buses leave the main terminal in La Paz at 8pm, arriving in Uyuni at 4am-5am and cost 90 BOL (€12 / $13) for a return ticket, or 45 BOL (€6 / $6.50) for a single (you will also have to pay 2BOL for the terminal fee).
Go Travel and Talk Top Tips:
- These buses can get VERY busy. I would suggest booking your ticket ahead of time, especially if you would like a full cama (full reclining seat). Just walk down to the bus station a day or two ahead of when you want to travel. You will arrive in Uyuni VERY early but don’t worry, there will be plenty of café owners and touts to greet you off the bus and take you to a little café, supplying you with heaters, coffee and breakfast! Packs lots of layers, it is COLD in Uyuni! And especially at that time of the morning.
- The bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni is uncomfortable and the Todo Turismo buses stop frequently throughout the night to pick up passengers from the side of the road. When this happens all of the lights will go on and loud music will start playing. Take some earplugs and an eye mask! If that makes you feel unsafe, just mentally prepare yourself for a long night as there is no other option…!
If you are traveling from south to north, please be aware there are no direct buses from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni and it can be a logistical nightmare with multiple changes. I would strongly recommend doing the Uyuni Salt flats tour for three days, in which you can start from the Chilean border and San Pedro de Atacama and finish the tour on day three in Uyuni. See below for details.
Uyuni is a tiny town which is all walkable. No need to take taxis. It is literally just a jumping off point for the Salt Flats tour – if you can help it, don’t stay the night.
What Uyuni Salt Flats tour should I go for?
There are many variations of the Salt Flat tours and you can choose one to suit your needs and requirements. You can choose a shared tour (I did this) which works out relatively cheap, has set itineraries, only comes with a Spanish speaking guide and are shared with a group of strangers which I loved. Or you can opt for a private tour which are tailored to your needs, come with a much comfier vehicle, include English speaking guides and the accommodation is a lot nicer (hotels with private rooms and heating), but they come at a higher price (often in excess of 1500 BOL; €200 / $215).
You can see the Salt Flats in one day or book a two, three, four or five day tour. I highly recommend the three day which is enough time to see all the sights and not too much time out of your itinerary. If you choose to do the tour in one day it will start at 9am finish at 5-6pm, so you will have enough time for onward travel, such as getting the night bus to La Paz. Night buses leave from the only bus station in Uyuni at 8pm. If you are tight on time, it is definitely worth experiencing the Uyuni Salt flats, even if it proves for a long day – but if you have the time and money, 100% do the three day tour – it will blow your mind.
**Starting in San Pedro de Atacama ~ Tours from this direction can be a little more expensive but it is a good way to go from Chile to Bolivia. The itinerary is the same as above but in reverse, with your final day being spent at the Salt Flats and Train Cemetery, before being dropped off in Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama if you wanted.
When to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats?
From December to April you will see the insane phenomenon of the ‘mirror effect’ across the Salar de Uyuni. This is during the rainy season and as the salt becomes wet, it creates a huge mirror. It is an incredible thing to witness but be careful, excessive rain can be dangerous and in some cases, tours will be cancelled. Daytime temperatures range between 16-28 degrees.
During the dry season which runs from May to November, the temperatures drop considerably to as low as -15 degrees at night (day time temperatures remain the same as the wet seasons), but it means you are able to explore much more of the Salar de Uyuni compared to the rainy season, such as the Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island) which is closed off during rainy season. It is up to you which type of the Uyuni Salt flats you want to see, but be aware prices rise dramatically during the summer months of June, July and August.
How much does the Uyuni Salt Flats Tour cost?
Tour prices will vary depending on where you leave from, how long you go for and whether you book a private tour or a shared one. It also varies according to group size, the reputation of the company, the length of the tour, accommodations quality and vehicle standards.
Whatever you decide to go for, do not leave booking a tour to the last minute and do NOT book online as it will be more expensive. Book with a reputable company, either in Uyuni or La Paz. If you are coming from La Paz, there is an overwhelming amount of tour operators in the tourist district/historical centre. Head to the roads of Sant Cruz or Murillo where you will find markets, cafes and plenty of tour operators.
The cost can vary, from 700 BOL to well over 1000 BOL. The tour I did, which was three days and paying for the buses to and from La Paz-Uyuni separately, came in at 810 BOL (€104 / $117; my return bus ticket from La Paz - Uyuni cost 90 BOL, €12 / $13). Make sure you ask the right questions when you are booking your tour and make sure you check the following:
- How many people do they put into the 4x4 jeep for the tour? Some fit up to seven people but it should be no more than six for comfort and then the driver/guide.
- Does the jeep come with a safety/first aid kit.
- Has the jeep been safety checked – you are spending over six hours in the jeep each day, travelling across rough terrain. Make sure it is safe and recently serviced. There are A LOT of breakdowns on the Uyuni Salt Flats so just prepare yourself that this could happen to you.
- Is there an English-speaking guide included?
- Is a sleeping bag included?
- Check what sights are included in your tour – don’t miss: train cemetery, pink flamingos, the lagoons (Laguna Colorada), natural geysers, weird rock formations, Cactus Island and the salt hotel. You may also want to see the Coquesa mummy caves.
- Food – veggie/vegan options?
- Will the driver/guide help you with your perfect salt flat perspective picture?
On the first day, you will leave Uyuni around 9-10am, so if you have taken the night bus from La Paz you have plenty of time to get breakfast and stock up on supplies before you depart. You will meet your group and driver and head off towards the Uyuni Salt Flats (NOTE: You can leave your big backpack at the office and take a small one with you – no need to bring everything. See packing list below).
Your first stop is the Train Cemetery. A tourist hotspot to say the least and busy with lots of tour groups but quite fun. You will then jump straight back in the Jeep and head to Colchani before arriving at the famous Salt Hotel. You will have lunch here, which is included in the tour price. You will then pass through miles and miles of salt before seeing islands covered in cacti and taking some perspective pictures.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Bring some props (Pringle pots, souvenirs from La Paz, coke bottles, forks, plates, dinosaurs!) Ask your guide to help you take the perfect group shot and be creative, you are only there once! After this, it is time to watch the sunset and it is beautiful!
You will then head to a hostel/guest house and if you are doing a group/slightly cheaper tour you will be sharing with multiple other groups. On our first night, however, there was only about ten of us and we shared bedrooms of two, best nights sleep I had had in a long time. Dinner is included and make sure you step outside and check out the night sky ~ because of limited pollution, the sky and stars are crystal clear. It will take your breath away. Breakfast is served at 6am in the morning and then it is back in the jeep.
The second day of the Uyuni Salt Flats tour is where you will discover lagoons, hot springs, thousands of bright pink flamingos, bizarre rock formations, volcanos and magical desert landscapes.
Leaving the salt flats behind, you will move into the Siloli desert, climbing higher in altitude so keep those cocoa leaves to hand. In the afternoon you will drive across the Inca Pass, a canyon-like passage where you will see Viscachas and Zoros (Rabbit and fox like animals). Once here, you will then be in the beautiful Eduardo Avaroa Andean Faun National Reserve.The reserve is a protected area that reaches over 5,400m, as high as Everest Base camp and one of the highest points on your trip . Today you will see Laguna Colorada, a stunning crimson coloured lake (due to the algae) dotted with bright pink flamingos.
That night you will stay in a very basic hostel with limited hot water. You will most likely be in a dormitory with all your jeep friends. Don’t forget to head outside before bed, to marvel at the stunning night sky lit up by the stars.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: It gets VERY cold at night. Make sure you bring lots of warm layers, hat, scarf, gloves. And just before bed, fill a water bottle with hot water and put it in your sleeping bag so it is nice and toasty before you get in.
You are up SUPER early, 3.30am, because this morning you are off to see some natural geysers. Take your sleeping bag in the jeep with you, bring along a hat, scarf and gloves and some snacks ~ you won’t be eating breakfast for a few hours yet! As the sun begins to rise, you will then move on and reach the hot springs, where you can chill out in the steamy thermal waters. The two small pools do get very crowed as every jeep congregates here at the final stop on the Uyuni Salt Flat tour.
You will then either head back to Uyuni or you can go on to San Pedro de Atacama, depending on where you want to be dropped off. This is a long day! If you are heading back to Uyuni but need to drop others off at the Chilean border, you will be in the car for 12-15 hours. My advice ~ bring a travel pillow, music, a book and lots of snacks/water.
If you are coming from La Paz or Cusco in Peru you should be fine with the altitude in Uyuni (12,000 feet above sea level), but remember you are in a car driving across bumpy roads for the next three days ~ I have heard some horror stories involving projectile vomiting. Drink plenty of water, chew coca leaves, drink coca tea and take Soroche tablets as an anti-sickness preventative. Give yourself a few days to acclimatise before you set off on the tour and take it slow!
Cash is King:
But there are three ATMs in Uyuni. Don’t rely on them though as they have a tendency not to work or run out of money!
Prepare and enjoy the digital detox: There is no Wi-Fi on the tour.
Take snacks & plenty of water:
Take snacks and water. It is always good to have food and drink to hand when spending a long time in transit.
Know what is included in your tour:
This is really important as some tour companies can mislead you. Ask questions like:
- Is a sleeping bag included?
- How many people will be in the jeep?
- What sites will we see?
- What is the safety history of the vehicle?
- Does the guide speak English / Spanish?
- Is there vegetarian food options?
- Battery pack for those all important photos
- Layers including hat, scarf, socks and gloves!
- Sunscreen / sunglasses / hat
- Bathing suit and towel for hot springs
- Altitude / anti sickness aid: Coca leaves, paracetomol and Soroche tablets
- Snacks / water
- Lip Balm
- Toilet paper / baby wipes
- Props for the perspective photos
- Torch - head torch if you can for when you are getting up super early and in the evenings.
- Travel pillow and sleeping bag if not included
- Toiletries: toothpaste/toothbrush, soap, shampoo.
- Book / headphones / pack of cards