If you ask me to name just one place on earth that impressed me most, without a second thought, I would say Salar de Uyuni. Well, at least, among all those places that I have visited myself. This extraordinary nature’s paradise is one of those rare sights that will look in real life exactly like the mind-blowing landscapes from National Geographic.
Hidden among the highlands of the Atacama Desert, Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Even today, this natural marvel has preserved its pristine beauty and looks completely untouched by modern civilization. It is Bolivia’s number one destination for travelers and a must-see on your South American tour. The vast expanses of the flats that seem to have no bounds will surely take your breath away and capture your imagination.
Geographic Location of Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni, or the Uyuni Salt Flats, is located in the South-Western part of the Bolivian Altiplano region not far from the Chilean border. The Altiplano is a high plateau flanking the Atacama desert and set amidst the soaring peaks of the Andes mountains. Thanks to a unique combination of different geographical factors, this region has out of this world landscapes and a rich variety of flora and fauna.
The Salar itself covers a total area of 10,582 km². Situated at a dizzy elevation of 3656 m above sea level, it is not only the largest but also one of the highest salt pans in the world. Noted for the exceptional flatness of its surface that stretches for hundreds of kilometers without end, the Salar is also used by scientists to calibrate the altimeters of Earth observation satellites.
The Origin of Salar de Uyuni
Some 40 000 years ago, Salar de Uyuni was part of a huge prehistoric salt lake Minchin that formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains. Around 13 000 to 11 000 years ago, most of its water evaporated, leaving two smaller lakes, Poopo and Uru Uru, and a thick crust of salt around them. The latter eventually became a vast salt desert.
Incidentally, the brine that lies beneath the salt crust of the Salar contains the world’s largest reserves of lithium (estimated to be at 50% to 70%) as well as other important minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and borax. Luckily for the preservation of the local ecosystem, the Bolivian government has been reluctant to allow international corporations to develop lithium extraction on-site. Thus far, it has only built its own small pilot plant. Due to this cautious policy, we are still able to enjoy the intact beauty of the salt flats. For how long? You never know. The environmentally sustainable project might eventually buckle under economic pressure.
As a testimony to its marine origin, a lot of small coral islands are scattered around the Salar nowadays. Among them, Incahuasi, or Incawasi, and Fish Island are best known and most visited. These islets consist of the deposits of fossils and algae, overgrown with cacti, which look bizarre on the snow-like surface of the salt desert.
During the rainy season, the Titicaca Lake overflows into the smaller Poopo and Uru Uru Lakes. They, in turn, flood the salts flats, creating a thin layer of water on top of the crust and, as a result, the famous mirror-like effect.
How to Get to Salar de Uyuni
The closest Bolivian town where you can embark on the tour of the Salt Flats is Uyuni.
You can also get to the Salar from Tupiza, a small town located in the South East, close to the Argentinian border.
Alternatively, you can visit Salar de Uyuni from the neighboring countries of Chile (departures from San Pedro de Atacama) or Argentina (departures from Salta).
Getting to Uyuni
To get to Uyuni, you can take a direct bus from La Paz. The journey takes about 8-9 hours. Ticket prices range from 8 to 30 USD and depend on the service quality. Different transport companies offer different levels of comfort, from basic public buses to tourist class with air-conditioning, meals, and lie-flat seats for overnight rides. You can either book your tickets in advance on TicketsBolivia or buy them directly at the La Paz Bus Station (Terminal de Buses). There are regular departures for Uyuni every hour or so. So it should not be a problem to find a suitable bus on the same day.
If you do not want to spend so much time on the bus, you can take a plane to Uyuni from La Paz airport. The flight lasts for about an hour and costs approximately 100 USD one way.
If you are already traveling inside Bolivia, you can also get to Uyuni by bus from any other major city or town, e.g., Sucre, Oruro, Cochabamba, Tarija, Santa Cruz. Look up the tickets on TicketsBolivia or buy them directly at the local bus station.
Getting to San Pedro de Atacama
As I have mentioned earlier, the second most popular option is to go on the tour of the Salt Flats from San Pedro de Atacama, a small touristic town in the North of Chile. Here, the tour prices will be definitely higher than in Uyuni as Chile is a more expensive country. However, it is also an opportunity to discover one more country, particularly if you want to visit other Chilean regions, e.g., Patagonia or the Central Coast.
You can take a 2-hour flight from Santiago to the nearest El Loa Airport in Calama, Northen Chile, and then get a shuttle bus from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama. This is exactly what we did because our South American itinerary had a starting point in Santiago and a departure point in Lima, Peru.
Like us, you can spend a few days in San Pedro exploring the stunning Atacama Desert on the Chilean side and, after that, take a tour to Salar de Uyuni while, at the same time, crossing the border into Bolivia. Yet, you will find later that most landscapes in Northern Chile look very similar to the Bolivian Altiplano.
Visiting Salar de Uyuni on Your Own
While it is possible to rent a 4x4 jeep and drive to the Salar de Uyuni yourself, most people prefer not to take risks and, instead, go with a reputable travel company. Why? Because you will find yourself in complete wilderness, away from all civilization, without proper roads or traffic signs. At times, the terrain gets so bumpy and rugged that even the most reliable cross-country vehicle at the hands of an experienced local driver breaks down now and then. That is why I would not recommend you going on your own unless you are a very skilled car mechanic and an expert at off-road navigation.
However, if you are a Dakar racer, then cruising through the infinite salt desert is just for you. Bolivia hosted Dakar rallies from 2014 to 2018.
How to Choose Your Salar de Uyuni Tour
As for organized tours, most travel companies offer very similar itineraries for 1, 2, or 3-day trips.
If you have little time, you can opt for a 1-day visit to Salar de Uyuni. This means that you will only see the Salt Flats themselves and, perhaps, the train cemetery in Colchani. There will be simply no time for anything else.
However, in the Bolivian Altiplano, there is much more to see than just the Salt Flats.
A 2-day tour will take you to a few more Andean jewels in addition to the Salar: the Rock Valley, the Stone Tree, and several beautiful lagoons with flamingos, located in the proximity of the Salt Flats.
I would strongly recommend you going on a 3- or 4-day Salar de Uyuni trip if you have time. A few extra days will allow you to visit the most stunning natural park on earth: the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve with its Martian-like geyser valley, enchanting hot springs, and the most picturesque Lagoons: Red, White, and Green. Trust me! You cannot miss out on such unique masterpieces created by Her Majesty Nature herself! I still have very vivid images of all these heavenly places in my mind, and they are unlikely to fade any time soon.
For more information about the sites that you can visit during your 3- or 4-day Uyuni Salt Flats tour please view the next article Salar de Uyuni Tour: Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve (Part II).
You can pre-book your tour before your arrival to Uyuni if you feel safer that way. A lot of travel agencies offer their tour packages as described above online. For example, Banjo Tours and Estrella del Sur enjoy a good reputation. You can also research other local tour operators on TripAdvisor to check what reviews they have got. It would not hurt talking to several companies to compare their itineraries and pricing. Most 3- or 4-day tours cost around 150 – 200 USD per person for a place in a 4WD jeep with 6 people. You can also ask the agencies to organize a private tour if you do not mind paying an extra price.
As for us, we used Cordillera Traveller because of the good reviews that I had seen. They operate both from Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama. On the whole, their service was fine even though their drivers/guides were only Spanish-speaking. However, we realized that we had to pay more for an English-speaking guide and stuck with the Spanish one. The only drawback was, mostly, due to the weather factor. We were visiting Bolivia during the rainy season, and part of the Salar was heavily flooded after rainfalls. As a result, we could not visit the coral islands or spend a night at the salt hotel in the middle of the salt desert, as originally promised.
You can also choose your tour operator on your arrival to Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama. Lots of travel agencies have offices in the center of these small touristic towns. You can simply walk in, ask about available tours and bargain for discounts. Most likely, you will get a better price for a tour that departs on the same day or tomorrow than through an online pre-booking.
When to Visit Salar de Uyuni
The Salar is beautiful no matter when you visit it. Spectacular views are guaranteed throughout the whole year. However, what you will see depends on the season.
If you want to capture the world’s largest mirror, you should visit the Salar during the rainy season that lasts from December to March. At this time of the year, the surface of the flats is covered with a thin layer of water that reflects everything around and creates a mirror-like effect. The earth and the sky seem to blend into each other on the horizon, and it becomes impossible to tell where one ends, and the other begins. The cloud reflections under your feet create an impression as if you were floating in the sky or, literally, walking on air. It is very exhilarating.
However, during this period, there is also a great risk of bigger flooding that can render the Salar impassable for vehicles. This is what happened to us when our excursion was diverted to a different route because half of the desert was inundated.
If you come during the dry season that lasts from April to November, all of the Salar will look like one endless snow-like crust covered in a web of crackles. At this time of the year, you will not be able to observe the mirror-like effect. Yet, it is also a perfect time for capturing the famous perspective images that are now all the rage on social media. The tour guides always keep a dinosaur or two at hand to help you make a sensational photo.
If you want to see both seasons, then you should visit the Salar in late March or at the end of November when the salt desert remains partially dry, with some parts covered in water.
How to Prepare for Your Salar de Uyuni Tour
Here are a few more pieces of advice to help you prepare for your trip to Salar de Uyuni.
First of all, beware of the high altitude and altitude sickness that it may cause.
The elevation of the Salar de Uyuni tour varies between 3650 m (the Salt Flats) and 5000 m (Geyser Valley) above sea level. This means that people, who are not used to living high in the mountains, may experience the symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen insufficiency, such as headaches, fatigue, dizziness, short breath, upset stomach, and nose bleeding. Even though most tourists go through the entire trip without showing any serious signs of sickness, some people might feel extremely bad and, consequently, fail to enjoy the otherwise fantastic tour.
The best way to avoid the effects of altitude sickness is to let your body gradually adjust to the high elevation. Before touring the Flats, spend a few days in La Paz, Sucre, San Pedro de Atacama, Uyuni, or any other town located above 2000 m without physically overstraining yourself. You will ride in the car for most of the Salar de Uyuni tour. However, when you have an opportunity to walk by yourself, avoid moving too fast, running, or jumping as you might get dizzy or short of breath very quickly. Just in case, carry with you some medicine to help fight a headache, e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, or soroche pills that you can buy at the local pharmacy before the trip. Chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea also alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness.
To prevent dehydration that is caused by high altitude, local travel agencies advise taking at least 6 l of potable water per person in addition to the drinks they provide themselves during the tour. Also, avoid drinking alcohol or eating heavy food such as fat meat, etc..
Clothes to Wear During Salar de Uyuni Trip
Prepare layers of clothes to put on as the weather in the Andes changes drastically throughout the day. It may be warm and sunny in the afternoon but get freezing cold in the evening. During the winter period from June to August, temperatures may drop below 0 C at night.
Thus, a T-shirt as the 1st layer, a long-sleeved shirt or a fleece jacket as the 2nd layer, and a warm waterproof jacket as the 3d layer, along with long trousers, a beany, and a pair of comfortable sneakers are must-haves on this trip.
Flipflops might come in handy during the rainy season as walking in the salty brine of the Salar can destroy your shoes. On the other hand, walking barefoot on the pointed lumps of salt can be quite unpleasant and even painful. It is also more practical to wear trousers that you can roll up to avoid soaking them in water.
I would strongly recommend putting on sunscreen with at least 50 SPF and sunglasses because, at this altitude, the sun is merciless even when the temperatures are low.
If you are keen on making really good high-resolution photos of the local fauna, I would advise using a camera with good long-range zoom lenses. All the wild animals and birds in the area are protected, and you are not allowed to approach them. If, for example, you want to take a close-up picture of a pretty flamingo, your phone will not be of much help.
Living Conditions During Salar de Uyuni Tour
Last but not least, you need to take into account an almost complete lack of civilization on the route. Do not expect much in terms of comfort and be ready for rather Spartan living conditions. You will have no electricity (bring along your portable charger), no Wi-Fi, and no hot water for the most part of your Salar de Uyuni tour.
If you book a private tour, you will probably be able to get an upgrade in terms of accommodation. However, bear in mind that the majority of the hotels in the area offer only poorly furnished rooms with shared bathrooms. Since it can get very cold at night, you might want to bring along your own sleeping bag or thermal underwear. The hotels provide very basic bedding.
Obviously, there will be no shopping opportunities along the route as you will ride through a protected natural reserve zone. You should get everything you need for yourself during the trip before going on the tour.
In terms of food, travel agencies usually provide you with free meals throughout the entire trip. They are included in the cost of the tour. Of course, these meals are pretty basic as well. Nonetheless, I found them quite nourishing, and you can always get a second helping if you want. However, if you need some extra snacks between the meals, buy them yourself before the tour.
Despite all the inconveniences mentioned above, do not let yourself be turned away from visiting some of the most amazing and unique natural wonders of the world! For a few days, the magic of the place will carry you away into a parallel universe. The thrills of an extraordinary adventure among the surreal landscapes will make up in full for the short-term austerity and lack of comfort.