Salar de Uyuni Tour – complete travel guide

Salar de Uyuni Tour – complete travel guide


Salar de Uyuni Tour – Choose the best one!

The Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia is one of the most extraordinary places we have ever been. Salar de Uyuni is the location where travelers in South America take those awesome perspective and reflective photos, go and check out #uyuni on Instagram! This was one of our highlights traveling through South America for a year. With so many unique and exceptional sites this is a photographers dream. Exploring the biggest salt flats in world we saw colored lagoons, pink flamingos, awesome geysers, swam in hot springs and more on this amazing trip. Very difficult to do independent, a 3 day tour is the most popular way to explore the biggest salt flats in the world. A journey across the Uyuni Salt desert is an amazing way to cross from Bolivia to Chile. In this entry I will tell you about different tours, prices, sites and tips, all you need to know to have an awesome time exploring the world’s most remarkable salt dessert.

Our 4×4 on a 3 day tour exploring Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni Facts

These spectacular salt flats are the largest in the world spreading over 10,582 square kilometers (4,085 square miles). Salar de Uyuni is located at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level! Yes that is high enough to get altitude sickness if you arrive without acclimatizing. The Bolivian Salt Flats were formed about 40 000 years ago when a giant prehistoric lake tried up. The salt layer left behind in the center  is over 10 meters thick in the center and it is estimated to be filled with 10 billion tons of salt!

How to Visit Salar de Uyuni

The most common way to explore El Salar de Uyuni is by taking a 4×4 tour from the town Uyuni, a small isolated tourist town located in Potosi, Bolivia, this is how we did it.

You can also do tours to Salar de Uyuni from Tupiza, Sucre or La Paz

Sucre and La Paz are located far from Salar de Uyuni and is a long drive, but it is possible and fairly easy to arrive by night bus, walk around and find a tour when the agencies start to open and directly kick off exploring the salt flats. Tupiza is in the south of Bolivia, this tour also explores some different formations and the price is said to be similar, these tours usually end in Uyuni.

The Uyuni Salt Desert can also be visited by basically the same tour in reverse starting in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and is the only way to get from San Pedro de Atacama to Bolivia.

salar-de-uyuni-red-lake
Spectacular landscapes driving around Salar de Uyuni.

Getting to Uyuni from Sucre

We arrived in Uyuni from Sucre by night bus. There are 2 buses doing the trip during the day via Potosi. The direct night bus takes 9 hours arriving at about 5 am. Our bus arrived a bit eary at about 4am, it was freezing cold when we got off the bus and we were a bit worried thinking, ‘ What the hell are we going to do in this cold until something opens?’

Luckily there are some coffee shops open that early! we had coffee, breakfast and wifi and some touters even came in that early to sell tours to us. 

Getting to Uyuni from La Paz

From La Paz you can get to Uyuni buy plane, train or bus. There is a night bus going from La Paz arriving at Uyuni at about 5am, the night bus takes about 11 hours. 

From La Paz you can get Uyuni with a bus train combination, first take a bus to Oruro (3h 15 min) followed by taking a train to Uyuni, 7 more hours, it is a 20 minute walk to the train station.  You can also fly from La Paz to the small airport in Uyuni, Airline Amazonas and Boliviano de Aviacion are the main airlines offering these flights. The flights  take about an hour and is obviously much quicker and more comfortable than the bus. Flight prices range from $100 to $200.

We were taking some fun photos in the dry salt desert.
We were taking some fun photos in the dry salt desert, yip Alya is tiny and look at the awesome patterns on the salt pans.

Best Time to Visit Salar de Uyuni

The best time to visit Salar de Uyuni depends on you would like to see most during the trip, the vast expanses of the white salt pans or the incredible water mirror surfaces? July to October the climate is fantastic and is probably the most pleasant weather for the experience.  

The dry season from June until November – Massive completely flat dry salt plains, the beautiful white pans with intricate patterns created by dry salt. Great time of the year to take those cool photos playing with perspective with all sorts of  toys and other props.  You will also not get stuck in the mud and will be assured of visiting the ‘islands’ (outcrops of cacti), caves and volcanoes. 

uyuni-reflection-photo
Perfect mirror reflection taken at Uyuni in the rainy season. (thank you for the photo Otsuka!)

Uyuni receives less than 130 mm (5 inches) of rain per year, the highest rainfall is between December and April. The water dams up on the salt pan and by February or March forms a massive ankle deep puddle resulting in a reflective surface that is still drivable. The mirror effect is not there all year and to see them the best season is March and April. Breakdowns happen anytime of the year, but getting stuck in the mud only when there is mud. 

Options for Salar de Uyuni Tours

The most popular way to visit the Salar de Uyuni is by taking a 4×4 tour across the salt flats. The only way to do the trip through the salt flats independent is by bicycle, motorbike or by renting a Jeep. To Explore the salt flats you have the choice of a one day or three day tour.

Full Day Tour of the Salt Flats, start and finish in Uyuni on same day

The one day tour is the cheapest way to visit Salar de Uyuni. Tours start and finish in Uyuni, most tours run from 10am to 5pm so it is possible to arrive in Uyuni by bus, take a one day tour and depart again by bus on the same day.

Typical tours visit the train cemetery,  followed by a stop in the small town Colchani. This is the only salt making facility on Salar de Uyuni, the pyramid shaped mounds you sometimes see on photos is salt scraped into piles to be transported to the salt factory in Colchani for processing. Support the locals here by buying a scarf or some other memorabilia.  You will spend the rest of the day exploring the salt flats visit the salt hotels, and some islands such as ‘Fish Island’, these are salt mounds isolated covered in cacti and have plenty of opportunities to take awesome photos on the salt flats! Tours should include lunch. A big highlight is stopping on the salt flats to take photos playing with perspective and cool props and toys.

fish island uyuni
Campbell walking around on ‘the fish island’.

Three Day Tour of Salar de Uyuni

A 3 day excursion is the most popular way to explore the Salt Flats and is what we did. On the 3 day tours you only spend one day on the real salt flats, the rest of the time exploring desert-like landscape, it is unique, varied and simply spectacular!

Day 1 – exactly the same as the one day tour we just stayed on the Salt Flats in a Salt Hotel where the one day tour turns around and goes back to Uyuni. It was awesome everything was made out of salt, even the bed! Dinner was excellent, we even had some wine! (pack your own if you want a couple of glasses). It was chilly during the night. Shower was available (not made out of salt), we gave it a skip since we didn’t feel dirty after a whole day of sitting and it cost about 2 bucks each.

Taking some photos at the train cemetery.
Taking some photos of Alya at the train cemetery.

Day 2 – We started early there is a lot of driving on this interesting day. Stopped at Gruta De Las Galaxaxias a small cave filled with petrified algae; several amazing Andian lagoons of different colors red, green and blue with many flamingos in some of them. Unreal to find flamingos at this altitude in a salt desert! Arbol de Piedra (the rock tree) in the wild and wonderful Siloli desert. You enter Eduardo Avaroa National Park, entrance fee not included, bring enough cash and your passport with you.

Day 3 – We did not go back to Uyuni on the third day, but continued to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, half of our group went back to Uyuni. We all went to the “Sol de Mañana” geysers, lookout to view steamy volcanoes, Dali desert, swimming in the Aguas Thermales (Hot spring), Laguna Verde (the green lake). The group going back to Uyuni spent most of the day Uyuni town, we transferred to a different Jeep and continued to San Pedro de Atacama where we arrived at 13:00.

dali-desert stingy nomads
The Dali desert looks like a landscape painted by the famous artist even though he was never here.

Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour

We booked our tour the morning when we arrived in Uyuni, many travelers do it this way and this is the cheapest way to do it. You arrive at about 5am and people try to sell tours to you from early morning, we started walking around in the town to find a tour at about 7am. All the tours visit similar sites with small differences in itineraries, food and accommodation. Few tours have guides that speak good English, these tours might be a bit more pricey, good time to practice your Spanish while exploring the salt flats! I have heard stories about drunk drivers and terrible vehicles. We went into one or 2 agencies asking prices and quickly found an agency we liked with some like minded travelers asking similar questions. If you want to go with a specific company book before hand, read TripAdvisor reviews. We had a very nice group and a fun guide (no English). This tour has good reviews on Get Your Guide Uyuni Tour, it done through Joker Expeditions with a mixed bag of reviews on TripAdvisor (some companies have very bad reviews). You can get tours in Uyuni starting from about $180. 

Most tours give you the option to return to Uyuni, Bolivia or head straight to San Pedro Atacama, Chile, if you choose a tour ending in Chile check if the bus to San Pedro is included otherwise you will have to buy a bus ticket after going through immigration. 

shoe photo uyuni
We had a really fun group and our guide also had some fun ideas, all of us on our shoe laces!

Best Tour Companies for Salar de Uyuni tour in Uyuni

Some companies with good reviews  worth looking up:

  • Quechua Connections
  • Red Planet
  • Salty Desert Adventours

Bring extra cash

The following costs are not included by most tours

  • Fish Island entrance fee: 30 BOB ($4.50)
  • Eduardo Avaroa National Park 150 BOB ($22)
  • Hot Springs entrance: 6 BOB ($1)
  • Shower 15 ($3)
  • Bring some extra cash for water, snax etc.

Some cool sites on the Uyuni Salt Desert tour

The Train Cemetery

Uyuni’s beautiful train graveyard, the Cementerio de Trenes (Train Cemetery) is an open-air museum of rusted remains of trains from the 19th century. A railroad was built here to connect the local mines, La Paz and the seaports of Chile. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed when minerals were depleted. In a different climate the trains would have been in a much better condition a hundred years after being abandoned, but in Uyuni salt significantly accelerates corrosion making the trains look like they could be centuries old. You can climb on the wrecks making for great photos.The train cemetery is included in almost all salt flat tours. To visit it without the crowds get there by taxi for 10 BOB (US$1.50) in the early morning or late afternoon from Uyuni. For photo ideas check out the hastag #traincemetery on Instagram

Stingy Nomads playing around on a swing in Uyuni's train graveyard.
Stingy Nomads playing around on a swing in Uyuni’s train graveyard.

Fish Island

Isla del Pescado (“Island of the Fish”) also known as Isla Incahuasi is a hilly and rocky outcrop of land in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. It is called Fish Island because some say it looks like a fish when viewed from far away.

Salar de Uyuni Hotel made of Salt

The salt hotels of Bolivia were created by constructing entire hotels everything from the beds to the walls and floors are from salt blocks. On the first night on a tour exploring Salar de Uyuni most tours stay at a salt hotel, there are several of these hotel near Uyuni.

The most iconic of these salt hotels in Bolivia is the Palacio de Sal, located just outside Colchani, you won’t stay here on a budget tour! This luxury hotel was built from one million blocks of compressed salt grains it is interesting that employees have to repeatedly shave down the salt walls to keep the place looking sculpted and fresh. The hotel even has a spa, swimming pool, on-site restaurant and even a salty golf course!

Salar de Uyuni Sunset

Sunset and sunrise is spectacular on the salt flats and a great photo opportunity Only the first day of most 3 day tours are spent on the salt flats, confirm with your tour company that you will be spending a couple of hours on the salt flats and will have the opportunity to see sun set and sunrise. 

Galaxia Caves (Gruta De Las Galaxaxias)

Interesting caves to explore on the southern shore of the Salar de Uyuni, fossilised algae, stromalites and marine deposits dating from when the Salar was covered by the huge prehistoric Lakes Minchin and Tauca. Looks like an underwater landscape.

Colored Andian Lagoons

Salar de Uyuni is famous for the world’s biggest salt flats and the spectacular colored lakes, different colors due to the minerals and algae they host. 

Laguna Blanca, the white lake
Laguna Blanca, the white lake

Laguna Hedionda at 4186m above sea levels is a popular spot for lunch with many flamingos.

Laguna Colorada (4278m) – also a popular spot with many flamingos is colored red by algae in the lake.

Laguna Verde (4400m) the green color of this lagoon can be seen when the wind blows, it is colored by Arsenic, Lead, Copper and more heavy metals, when there is no wind you see the reflection of Volcán Lincacabur (5960m). 

Laguna Blanca – this lake is colored white by the presence of borax.

The Red Lake
The Red Lake

Arbol de Piedra (the rock tree)

The Rock Tree (Árbol de Piedra) in the Siloli Desert desert is a tree-like rock formation with a thin stem and big rock branches formed by strong winds carrying sand that erodes the soft sandstone. Cool photo spot! Checkout #arbolpiedra

Sol de Mañana geysers

Amazing place with loads of geothermal activity. This geyser and collection of bubbling sulfur pools is usually visited at sun rise, located at 4850m above sea level with bubbling mud pots the geysers hase a very strong acrid smell of sulfur. Be careful when taking photos, you can get as close as you want there are no barriers between you and the openings. Keep in mind the steaming bubbling mud can erupt at anytime.

Steaming thermal vents
Steaming thermal vents at Sol de Manana Geysers

Salvador Dali desert

The surreal Salvador Dali desert with barren landscapes feel like you are driving on another planet, some more excellent photo opportunities. Dalí himself never visited the area, the colors and shapes resemble many of his paintings. Checkout #dalidesert on Insta

Aguas Thermales

The Polques Hot springs visited by 3 tours to Salar de Uyuni were formed as a result of volcanic activity from the nearby Polques Volcano.While hotsprings can be boiling, Polques remains around a comfortable 29°C, awesome in contrast to the chilly weather outside the pool that can be as cold as -5°C. Hovering in the pool looking at lakes, volcanoes and flamingos is an unreal experience! If you stay with an operator that overnights at the hot springs you can bath without the crowds at night while doing stargazing!

thermal-baths
Our group chilling in the hot springs.

Animals on the Salar de Uyuni

Despite the extreme conditions, some animals do live at these altitudes and extreme environment. Three of the world’s six species of flamingos can be seen here, together with 77 other bird species! Some interesting mammals found in the salt desert include Puma, the Andean fox, Viscacha (similar to rabbits), and Vicuña (deer).

Salar de Uyuni Photography 

The two most well known photos are the perspective photos and the reflective photos.

1. Perspective Photo on Salar de Uyuni

Best Time to Go: Anytime is good but the rainy season December to March. Salar de Uyuni is very flat and one uniform color, so you can play with perspective and optical illusions the lack of horizon causes. Be creative and by moving objects and people varying distances from the photographer make them seem different sizes from reality e.g. someone standing on top of a wine bottle or being attacked by a toy dinosaur. #salaruyuni on instagram have plenty of examples

2 Reflection photos on Salar de Uyuni

During the rainy season (November to March) the water accumulates on the surface of the Salar de Uyuni and creates a giant mirror that perfectly reflects the sky. Amazing photos where the reflection is so perfect you can not see what is up and what is down on the picture. Night reflective photos showing the milky way above and below are truly spectacular! Confirm with your operator you will have the opportunity to take these reflective photos at night. 

Things to pack for Uyuni tour

  • Sunglasses
  • Hat/cap
  • Sun block
  • Chocolates, sweets, snax
  • wine
  • Warm clothes
  • Gloves
  • Scarf
  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • Waterproof jacket for the rain (depending on the season)

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