Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia.  Salar de Uyuni is located in the southwest corner of Bolivia.  It is the world’s largest salt flat in the world at over 4,000 square miles.  And it is at a high altitude, at 11,995 feet (3,656 meters).  The Salar was formed eons ago, when water from nearby mountains drained into this high plateau forming a giant lake.  Over the years, the Andean sun beat down, evaporating the lake.  What remained was a thick crust of salt.

The result was a vast expense of whiteness that is exceedingly flat.  There is a deviation of less than three feet across the entire flat.  The flat also contains upwards of 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, e.g.,the battery in your iPhone.

Salar de Uyuni is of immense and unique beauty with its infinite pure horizon.  Salar de Uyuni is a must-see.

There is a cottage industry of driving tourists into the Salar as well as other adjacent majestic natural wonders.  I will share with you a typical three day trip into the Salar; what you will see and what you need to know.

What Will You See

Day One

Train Graveyard

Just minutes outside of the town, Uyuni, is the train graveyard.  The town was a distribution hub for the mining industry for cargo heading to the Pacific Ocean.  The trains started to run in the 19th century, but came to a halt in the 1940s when the mining industry collapsed.  Today, rusting hulks of iron and steel remain motionless.

This is ultimate selfie time where you have the opportunity to climb over the trains like a child on a jungle gym.  This is interesting and cool visit, but unfortunately, the tour companies poorly organize that all trucks full with tourists arrive at the same time.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Colchanis

Colchani is a small village on the outskirts of the Salar.  The main street, is a dirt street populated with shops selling local goods and trinkets for tourists.  I felt this was a waste of time, since my focus was seeing the Salar, not shopping.  Thankfully, it was a brief stop of about 30 minutes.        

Salar de Uyuni

Anticipation and excitement.  We proceeded to the Salar for a brief stop.  We poured out of the truck with cameras cocked and loaded.  The white expanse drifted into the horizon.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Lunch

Next stop was the Salt Hotel for lunch.  And as the name implies, the hotel was constructed out of salt, including salt floors, tables and chairs.  I dined on a fresh tomato and avocado salad with bread.  Feel free to use the bathroom when visiting.  A salt-constructed monument in honor of the Dakar Rally stood outside of the hotel.  The Dakar Rally that was a motor rally that previously took place in West Africa but now takes place in South America.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Lunch time

Salar de Uyuni

After lunch, we had more time to spend in the Salar.  Our time was more relaxed and extensive on our second visit.  The crunchy salt ground had formed geometric patterns which merged into the blue sky.  And just as you see on the web, this is the ultimate setting to take photos with using the horizon to create photos with perspective.  This is the time to break out your toy dinosaur.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Isla Incawasi

A former island in a lake that long ago disappeared, Isla Incawasi is now a rocky outcrop that juts out of the Salar.  The Isla is 61 acres of giant, thousand year old cacti mixed with rocks and shrubs.  We had an opportunity to climb and explore the island for about an hour.

Altitude: 3,653 meters – 11,984 feet

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Sunset

Before heading to the hotel, we made one more stop in the Salar to watch the sun dip down.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Hotel

We bedded down in a salt hotel in the small town of San Juan.  It was dark and cold and unpleasant.  We gathered in the dining room for an unappetizing meal.  This was the type of night where you slept with all of your clothes on, tucked into a sleeping bag, underneath a blanket.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Day Two

Cañapa and Chiarcota y Laguna Ramaditas

Flamingos, flamingos, and more flamingos.  Some stunning stops in the morning of lagoons filled with flamingos.  An unbelievable setting of blue lagoons with white salt accents, soaring mountains, and azure skies.  You will witness thousands of pink flamingoes in these lagoons.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Hedionda Lagoon

Another fantastic lagoon overflowing with flamingoes.  After strolling around the edges of lagoon and admiring the wildlife, we dined al fresco next to the car.  The sun warmed us as we ate.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Siloli Desert

A series of rock formations that protrude out of the desert.  Beautiful, but not as stunning as the other visits of the day.

Altitude: 4,412 meters – 14, 475 feet

Laguna Colorada

Another magical stop, overlooking a massive lagoon filled with flamingoes.  The lagoon is a magenta-red color formed by the algae residing in it.  You will also stop at the Ranger’s office to pay the fee to enter the Reserva Eduardo Abaroa National Park.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Hotel

We arrived at the hotel before night fall.  And I enjoyed this hotel significantly more than the night before.  While still bone-chilling at night, it was more comfortable.  The family that owned this hotel were very friendly.

Day Three

Geisers

Not a fun morning, leaving at 5:30 am.  The sky sparkled with stars as I headed out to the car in the clear, cold night.  We were heading to an area where geysers spat out steam clouds as the sun rose.

Altitude: 4850 meters – 15,912 feet

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Natural Hot Springs

A quick stop for those who want to warm up by taking a bath in the hot springs.  Would be a great option except for the fact that you are exposed to the elements when walking to the bath.  I skipped this activity.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Bolivia – Chile Border

The tour ends as you are dropped off at the border.  The formalities are straight forward.  You will get your exit stamp at the Bolivian facility.  Then you will board a waiting mini-bus, which will then bring you to the Chilean Immigration.  In less than two hours, you will be dropped off in San Pedro Atacama, the base for exploring the Atacama Desert.  The other option is to head back to Uyuni to end your tour.

What You Need To Know

The town of Uyuni is the launching point for tours into the Salar.  Uyuni is a small town with a couple of streets filled uninspiring restaurants, cafes, shops, and tour agencies.

How to get to Uyuni

There are direct daily flights from La Paz to Uyuni.  The flights are under an hour and under $100 for one way.  The other option is the overnight bus, approximately ten hours, and costing $15-25.

Tour Companies

Tripadvisor lists 40 companies which provide tours to the Salar.  To say the least, it can be a bit overwhelming.  Too many options.    There are many iterations of the tours into the Salar, but one of the most popular options is the three day/two night tour that ends in San Pedro Atacama, Chile.  So at some level these tours are a generic commodity since the itineraries are the same.

I spoke to four different agencies.  There are some challenges in the selection process.  Some of the agents speak no or poor English.  Also, there are many extra fees and add-ons, and many agents don’t seem to be able to proficiently articulate the fees.  It would be great if the agents simply listed all the potential fees on a piece of paper, but maybe this is part of their strategy to confuse the buyer.

I ended up choosing Esmeralda Tours.  The agent I spoke with was the most competent and comprehensive in explaining the fees.  Remember to bring cash since they don’t take credit cards.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Timing

Tours for the Salar, typically leave at 10:30am.  The tour times are coordinated with the arrival of the overnight buses and morning flights.  I opted to come in the day before my tour to get prepared and to choose a tour agency.  If you opt to end the tour in San Pedro Atacama, Chile, you will get there around 1 pm.  And if you head back to Uyuni, you will return around 6 pm.

The Hotel

We stayed in two hotels.  The first was a salt hotel.  Very basic and somewhat unenjoyable.  Most rooms are multi-bed without bath/shower.  You can pay extra to get a private room and private bath.  It was freezing at night and the food was quite poor.  Electricity was turned off around 10-11pm.  You could pay extra money to take a hot shower.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

The dining room

The hotel on the second night was better.  More comfortable, better food with a great staff.  Again, freezing at night and electricity turned off.  Again, some of the rooms are shared with public bathroom.  You can pay more for private rooms.

Remember neither hotels have wifi.

The Car

Most likely you will be driven in a Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4.  The seating arrangement is in three rows with 2-3-2 people in each row.  That means there is a driver and six customers.  There is not a lot of leg room and it get a little uncomfortable depending on how big everyone is.  But for a couple of days there is no issue.  All of your bigger bags and supplies will be strapped to the roof.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

The Guide 

This is the luck of the draw.  We had a competent and safe driver Carlos who had a penchant of chewing coca leaves non-stop.  There are many articles on the web of unsafe and drunk drivers and even the occasional death on Salar tours.  So use your best judgment and choose a reputable agency.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

My guide Carlos

Spanish v. English Driver

Most drivers are solely Spanish speakers.  For an upcharge, you could hire an English speaker.  I rolled the die and gambled that some of the other travelers would be bilingual.  I lucked out with four “translators” who were able to help during the trip.  The driver provides only limited information about the sights, so you will not be missing much if you can’t speak Spanish.

Seasons

Remember the season are the opposite compared to the northern hemisphere.  Many opt to visit in March and April during the height of the rainy season.  This gives you the best opportunity to see the Salar in all its glory with the mirror-like surfaces.  I went in August during the dry season.  The weather was dry and sunny during the day, but brutally chilly at night, with temperatures dipping well below freezing.

Altitude

As I noted above, you will be traveling at very high altitudes.  As high as 15,000 feet at times.  At these altitudes the air is very thin resulting in difficulty of breathing or causing nausea for some.  There are a number of precautions you should take to avoid these effects.

Internet

I got very sporadic internet on my mobile with a local SIM card.  The hotels did not have wifi.  Consider yourself off the grid during your trip.

Charge Your Batteries

Try and get your batteries charged as much as possible.  Electricity and sockets are limited at the hotels. You will get several hours of electricity at the hotel before the generator is shut down.

Sleeping Bag

You will be given the option to rent a sleeping bag.  I would highly recommend you spend the extra money (at least in the winter).  It was freezing.

Clothing

Not to beat a dead horse, but yes it is very cold at night in winter.  Gloves, hats, winter jackets, and even thermal underwear are all great suggestions.  And of course, layers are the best option, since it will warm up during the day.  Hiking boots (especially during the rainy season) are better than sneakers. And bring sun glasses, the sun is extra strong at these higher altitudes.  If you plan in jumping in the hot spring, bring your bathing suit.

Food And Water

You will be provided with meals during the trip, of varying quality.  A couple of good ones, and a couple I would have rather skipped.  I informed the agency I was a vegetarian since I was not overly confident in the quality of the meats they were using.  So, I stocked up on snacks in the town of Uyuni the day of the trip.  Also, I brought several liters of water to stay hydrated during the trip.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Dinner at the first hotel

Sundries

Consider bringing sunblock, again the sun is strong at the higher altitude.  Bring a flashlight since the electricity is turned off at the hotel.  Bring a towel if you are brave enough to shower.  Bring some toilet paper if you think you will be outside when you get a call to nature.  And would be quite logical to have that be accompanied by hand sanitizer.  If you plan on skipping showers you can bring baby wipes to clean off.

Toys

You have seen all the photos of the amazing perspective photos on the web.  Consider bringing toys and props to make some cool photos.  Our driver, Carlos, was well prepared with a couple of dinosaurs that he provided to make our photos.

Drone

I brought my DJI Mavic and was able to fly the drone in the Salar during my trip without any issues.  I did not see anyone else flying during my trip.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Cost

Here is a breakdown of my costs for the trip.  One US Dollar approximately 6.9 Bolíviano

Flight

A one way flight from La Paz to Uyuni was $106 on Amazonas Airlines.  It was 45 minutes and arrived at 8 am.

Hotel

I opted to spend a night in Uyuni before the tour started the next day.  I stayed at Le Ciel d’Uyuni for $56.  A rather uninspiring hotel but only one street over from the main street of restaurants and agencies.

The Tour

I opted for Esmeralda Tours who I would recommend.

The base price per person was 800 Bolíviano ($115).  Based upon your skill, this can be a little lower or a bit higher.  For 200-300 more Bolíviano, you can upgrade to an English speaking guide.

Hotels are included in the base price, but I opted for a private room and bathroom.  The extra cost for the first night was 80 Bolíviano per person, and for the second night was 120 Bolíviano per person.  If you take a private room, the hotel will provide a towel.  Otherwise you need to bring your own towel.  Also, if you do not have a private room, you need to pay 10 Bolíviano for a hot shower.

If you are going in winter, I would recommend you get a sleeping bag, which is 50 Bolíviano.

The fee to use the toilet at lunch is around 5 Bolíviano.

There are two parks where you need to pay an entry fee.  Isla Incawasi charges 30 Isla Incawasi and the Reserva Eduardo Abaroa National Park is 150 Bolíviano.

The bus from the Bolivian border to San Pedro Atacama was 50 Bolíviano.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Entering Chile

To exit Bolivia, you need to pay the Bolivian agent 15 Bolíviano.

My guide did a very good job, I gave him a tip of 140 Bolíviano.

So that is the wrap up, if you have any feedback or updates, please write a comment.

If you like this story, check out what Cholita wrestling is in La Paz.

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni BoliviaUltimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Ultimate Guide Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

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