If there is only one thing you do in Bolivia, make it a visit to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth. But how do you even visit the Salar de Uyuni? The salt flat is in one of the most remote and high-altitude deserts on earth, with altitudes reaching 5000 meters thanks to the towering Andes Mountains range. Being in such an inhospitable environment, Salar de Uyuni requires advanced planning to ensure your visit is safe and that you get to see everything you wanted. This guide covers everything you need to know to plan your own trip to Bolivia’s famous salt flats.
Getting to Salar de Uyuni
The easiest and safest way to visit the Salar de Uyuni is by a guided tour. Most trips are 3-4 days long and start in either the city of Uyuni itself, or in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. If you’re short on time, you can also visit the Salar via day trip from Uyuni, but you’ll miss out on some of the scenery surrounding the region further afield.
We took one of the many guided tour options, and that is what this guide will focus on since this is where we have expertise. In general, any tour you book will include your transportation, lodging, and meals. You may or may not have an English speaking guide/driver. Unless you book a private tour, expect to share your vehicle with up to 7 other people (depending on vehicle size). Whether your vehicle is private or not, you will likely travel in a caravan with others for safety reasons.
I would only recommend self-driving this region if you are very experienced in off-road driving, have a 4×4 vehicle you trust, and have some outback camping skills. Even then, I would encourage you to support the local tourism community by at least hiring a guide or self-driving in a caravan alongside a tour. You’ll need to pack plenty of water and food, carry enough gasoline for your entire trip, and a GPS. There are areas with no roads and absolutely no places to stop for gas, food, snacks, etc. It’s important if you decide to do this trip without an experienced guide that you are fully prepared.
Start and end in Uyuni, Bolivia
This is the most popular route and thus the one where you will find the most options with regards to tour company and duration. In general, I recommend booking Bolivia tours via Find Local Trips, which ensures more of your money goes directly to the local tour operators.
Day trips start around $60 while overnight trips range from $125 to $210 for 2 nights.
Start and end in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Note that you will need to cross the border into Bolivia and then back into Chile on this trip, so make sure you research visa and entry/re-entry requirements for the nationality on your passport. Also be sure to carry enough cash in the appropriate currencies for any fees. You will not have the opportunity to access an ATM and credit cards are not accepted.
Day trips are not an option given the distance. Overnight trips for 2 nights and 3 days start around $200.
Start in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and end in Uyuni, Bolivia
This is the option we took, and is the best choice for those overlanding across South America or who plan to explore more of Bolivia afterwards versus returning to Chile.
You’ll need to plan for the border crossing from Chile to Bolivia on the first day of the tour. Make sure you know the visa requirements and any fees associated with entry for the nationality on your passport.
Cordillera Traveller’s 3 day, 2 night option starts around $200.
Almost all guided tours will use a 4×4 Jeep or similar vehicle. Unless you are on a private tour, expect every available seat to be occupied. Additionally, the roads you will traverse are very rough, meaning it’s an unavoidably bumpy ride at times. I mention all of this to say that it will not be a comfortable ride.
The most important consideration when choosing your tour company is their vehicle maintenance safety standards. Read reviews before booking your trip to gauge how people assess the safety of the driving and vehicles.
Your accommodations each night will be in a small homestay-style lodge, possibly dorm-style. The rooms are generally comfortable, but bare. Don’t expect the internet or even 24-hour electricity. Showers, if available, will most likely be cold. However, they provide plenty of wool blankets to stay warm at night!
All tours include breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and most include an afternoon tea as well. The food is always hot and tasty, even if basic. Expect legumes and potatoes, but not much meat. Pack some snacks for during the day between meals, but you will be pretty well fed on the tour. Take advantage of the coca tea, which will help with altitude adjustment and energy.
Speaking of the altitude, it’s important to plan ahead for potential altitude sickness. In general, most people are likely to experience some degree of fatigue, headache, dizziness, or shortness of breath when reaching higher-than-usual altitudes. You’ll get up to 5000 meters while traveling through the desert around Salar de Uyuni. Most people will have moderate to severe altitude sickness at this height.
How to plan ahead for altitude sickness
- Drink a lot of water
- Bring a bottle of menthol or peppermint essential oil. This can be useful for inhaling or rubbing on your temples to improve headaches or facilitate breathing
- Talk to your doctor to get altitude sickness medication, which can help you adjust more quickly
- Spend some time at altitude either in San Pedro de Atacama or Uyuni/La Paz where you can rest up and acclimatize before your adventure.
Best Time to Visit Salar de Uyuni
There is really no bad time to visit the Salar de Uyuni. Whether you go during the wet season or the dry season is a matter of preference, as both seasons have unique offerings.
Salar de Uyuni Dry Season – April to October
- Expect clear skies and sunny dies.
- Warm days, but nighttime temperatures below freezing.
- Excellent stargazing.
- Everywhere in Salar de Uyuni is accessible, including the Isla Incahuasi. Isla Inchuasi is the top of an ancient volcano that sat under a huge prehistoric lake 40,000 years ago. It is now home to giant cacti and one of the most popular attractions in the Salar de Uyuni.
- Low risk of the vehicle getting stuck in muddy terrain or having to navigate around inaccessible roads.
Salar de Uyuni Wet Season – November to March
- The highlight of visiting Salar de Uyuni during the rainy season is without doubt the unique inch-deep lake that sits atop the salt flats as a result of the rain. This turns the salt flats into the “world’s largest mirror.” It is one of the most spectacular scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
- Even though it’s the rainy season, sun is still common every day.
- Days and nights are slightly warmer than the dry season.
- Some places may be inaccessible due to the flooding, Isla Incahuasi.
What to Pack for Salar de Uyuni
- Layers for warm days and cold nights (long underwear, sweaters, etc.)
- Rain jacket
- Scarf, hat, gloves
- Waterproof boots if wet season
- Wool socks
- Refillable water bottle
Highlights of Salar de Uyuni
Laguna Blanca gets its white color from the high concentration of minerals in the water. Most of the lakes and lagoons in this arid area are very salty, and the diversity of minerals makes them all kinds of colors.
The “Green Lagoon” is separated from Laguna Blanca by only a thin isthmus, yet the mineral composition is unique enough to make this lake a pale green color. It sits at the base of two volcanoes: snow-capped Licancabur on the border with Chile, and Juriques. This makes it wildly picturesque.
Salvador Dali Desert
The “Salvador Dali Desert” is so-called because of the surrealistic formations wind erosion has created in the desert rocks.
Natural Hot Springs
Most tours will stop at natural hot springs where you have the opportunity to dip into the water. If you don’t have the interest or the spare cash to swim, the surrounding landscape and hot water lake are much more interesting in my opinion. The bacteria and algae in the water create swirls of red and green sludge interspersed with thin paths of salty ground. The array of naturally occurring colors is fascinating!
Sol de Manana Geyser
Sitting at 5000 meters, the Sol de Manana geyser is one of the highest altitude stops on the Salar de Uyuni tours. The ground is full of steamy vents, bubbling mud pots, and geysers. It’s a completely wild area, with no infrastructure like boardwalks or trails that you find in other geothermal places in the world like Yellowstone in the US or Rotorua in New Zealand. Accidents can and do happen, often resulting in death when people aren’t looking where they are stepping wild taking pictures or selfies. Our guide told us about one visitor the week prior who had fallen into the water and couldn’t get out so she boiled to death. I couldn’t find anything online to confirm this story, so it could be rumor, but still. Yikes.
Laguna Colorada is the last of the colorful lagoons. This one is red than to all of the krill in the water, which attracts flamingos to the lake. Flamingos eat krill and this is what makes them pink! Of all the lakes we visited on this tour, this one was my favorite. The vibrant crimson color contrasting with the white of the borax created a surreal foreground for the mountains beyond. Getting to see hundreds of beautiful thriving flamingos certainly didn’t hurt either!
Siloli Desert at 4,550 meters (allegedly the highest and driest in the world) features a set of rock formations as a result of wind erosion. We had fun exploring the area and taking photos with the unique shapes.
Laguna Honda has light blue water set amidst the surrounding volcanoes.
Laguna Chiarcota has a lunch area and an overlook where you can watch flamingos in the lake.
Laguna Cañapa is another scenic lake near the town of Culpina K, where some tours stop and stay for the night.
Sunrise on the Salt Flat
If you are able to see sunrise or sunset on the Salar de Uyuni, especially in wet season, do it. We had an amazing sunrise and couldn’t quite tell the ground from the sky due to the reflection in the water.
The effect only becomes more and more dramatic as the first light of day begins to appear. Once the sun began to rise, you will see two suns – one in the sky, and one in the reflection.
Most tours will stop at the original hotel made out of salt to warm up after sunrise and have breakfast. Today there is also a museum and a mound of salt covered in flags from visitors’ countries. This spot is a great photo op.
Just outside of the city of Uyuni is a so-called “train cemetery”. In this unique place, dozens of retired train cars sit exposed for people to explore and take photos. Many tours stop here at the end of the trip (if you are ending in Uyuni). There is no entrance fee, though, so if you are staying in Uyuni a few days, you can arrange a visit on your own to explore.
Will you be planning a visit to Uyuni? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email to get in touch!