A Complete Guide to Visiting the Salt Flats in Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni a.k.a the Salt Flats of Bolivia a.k.a the largest mirror in the world are a natural phenomenon that often features on people’s bucket lists. It’s located within a magical and vast terrain in south west Bolivia surrounded by equally impressive landscapes full of multicoloured lakes and mountains not unlike the surface of the moon in our imaginations. It’s not just about the salt flats here, not at all. The geysers, hot springs (don’t think about the cold, just dive in), clear starry skies at night and hotels made completely of salt all feature on this incredible journey full of beautiful postcard pictures you’ll remember for ever. Here’s my guide to making sure you get the most out of the experience, including pictures, what it’s like, how to get there, how to book a tour and when to visit.

What it’s like

The journey is like no other I’ve taken on in my life. It’s rough, isolated and totally surreal. You’ll get to know your tour group very well indeed, try and pick entertaining companions! You’ll sleep in salt hotels that are entirely constructed from salt. The air is bitter here, but what a unique experience! Your food will be provided, don’t expect gourmet, especially if you’re vegetarian. It’s very, very windy. Hold on to the door when you open it, or it will fly off… You’ll see impossibly beautiful lakes and flamingoes, and bubbling geysers that provide hot water for some other worldly thermal baths. The rest is better explained in pictures, but really they can’t capture just how magically stunning this wild landscape is, but we certainly tried!

Playing with perspective on Salar de Uyuni, bring props if you can!
Playing with perspective on Salar de Uyuni, bring props if you can!
One of the few glimpses of wildlife in this part of the world
One of the few glimpses of wildlife in this part of the world
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The bubbling geysers near the Chilean border
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Laguna Colorada
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A lucky picture at Laguna Colorada
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One of many beautiful lakes you’ll see on the tour where flamingos like to hang out.

How to get there

They are usually visited on a 4×4 tour that starts in Uyuni or Tupiza in Bolivia, or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. All of these destinations are far away from international airports (that would be La Paz in Bolivia or Santiago in Chile) so this is usually part of a bigger trip that takes in the other fascinating parts of the respective countries, or both countries if you’re on a longer trip.

You’ll spend up to 4 days in a jeep with complete strangers tackling some of the toughest terrain this continent has to offer, wondering how on earth the driver knows his way with no signposts or discernible landmarks. I was truly in awe of our 24 year old guide Hugo, who got us safely to our destination and gave us a ride to remember whilst listening to cheesy dance music on repeat for 3 days straight.

Where to start and finish

You can do the journey from A to B starting in either Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama or you can do a loop.  It should be noted that if you do a loop, the last day of your trip is the long journey back from whence you came. If you’re on a trip through South America this is an important fact to be aware of, as many simply do the loop even though their aim is to head south. If you’re intention is to visit Argentina after Bolivia, It’s easier and far more enjoyable to start in Uyuni, finish in San Pedro de Atacama, enjoy the desert for a day or two and jump on a bus across to Salta, Argentina. Uyuni is a strange and desolate town not worth spending any time in, other than to organise your tour. Accommodation is expensive and low quality. San Pedro on the other hand is definitely worth spending some time in, it’s a vibrant town with great weather and plenty of activities to do from cycling the lunar valley (highly recommended) to star gazing with one of the best telescopes on earth, and even climbing one of the many volcanoes on the horizon.

If you start in Tupiza you must do a loop or take a private, more expensive tour. People choose this location to start in if they want a less frequented route that visits the sights of the desert at different times to the other tours, but it’s roughly double the price. We didn’t find crowds to be much of a problem anywhere other than the first day on the salt flats where it’s chock a block full of cars. Luckily it’s massive so you’ll get your desired pictures, no problem 🙂 There’s also more to do in this town than in Uyuni and more beautiful, but you’re sure to see the most beautiful things on any of the tours, regardless of the starting point. Mostly it depends on your wallet and your route as to which destination you should choose.

How to book a tour

You do not need to book in advance. Tours leave every day, and there are hundreds of agencies to choose from. Judging by rumours and reviews on Trip Advisor this adventure can either be the highlight or the ultimate near death experience of your entire trip so don’t rush into any decisions. If you can, book with a full car of people you know, I can’t stress enough what a severe impact to your sanity sharing a car for 3 days with crazy people will do to you.

We booked our tour with Cordillera Travel, a reputable company recommended by the Lonely Planet and several people on Trip Advisor. We paid 850 BOB (about £85) for a 3 day 2 night trip finishing in Chile with a Spanish guide. if you choose this company you have to haggle down from 950, but you didn’t hear that from me… Another good company if you prefer an English tour is Red Planet Expeditions. In hindsight I would have liked an English guide because I’m really interested in the geology and geography of the region. If you’re not that bothered you don’t need to pay the extra 300 or so that an English guide costs.

Also be aware that there seems to be a lot of issues with drink drivers on these tours, mostly with the smaller less official looking companies. This isn’t a rumour, we heard first hand stories of people stuck in cars with aggressive alcoholic drivers with no choice but to sit and pray they didn’t have an accident. I have no idea why this industry is so corrupt in this way, no one really does, just be careful and go with a company you trust.

When to visit

If you’re looking for the best time of year to go here people usually decide based on whether they want to see the salt flats as a huge reflective mirror which is around March or April in the rainy season, or if they want the best all round weather conditions which is between July and October. We visited in October, the days were bright and sunny, it was incredibly cold at night. I’m certainly going back another time to view the largest mirror in the world.

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