This post is in partnership with Andes Salt Expeditions. I received a discounted rate my Salar de Uyuni tour in exchange for our honest review, but all opinions are my own!
Things that are actually “out of this world”: outer space, astronauts when they’re at work, and maybe aliens. But after our tour through Salar de Uyuni, I’d argue that the Bolivian desert deserves an honorable mention.
The Salar de Uyuni is like an unstated ice rink, thousands of miles wide. Its surface crunches in like tepid, partially melted ice. Hotels made entirely of salt appear to be hovering above the surface like a foreign vessel. Venture deeper into the desert and you’ll find giant cactuses sprouting from inhospitable islands. Pink flamingos feast and wade through crimson lakes framed by a volcanic backdrop and blue skies. Lava bubbles from deep beneath the earth. And as farfetched as it may seem, you’ll feel like you’re actually watching the sunrise from the moon.
Of course, there is a very scientific explanation to all of it; algae, tectonic plates, wind, and time can create tremendous things when they work together. But the real magic of a Salar de Uyuni tour is feeling unsure of everything. Perhaps even like you’re on another planet.
Looking to explore one of the strangest things to do in Bolivia and perhaps on earth? Here’s everything you need to know to pick your Salar de Uyuni tour, plus what it’s like to travel with Andes Salt Expeditions.
HOW TO PICK A SALAR DE UYUNI TOUR
Salar de Uyuni is an expanse of salt flats nearly 11,000 km². To really experience the vastness of the Salar de Uyuni, you’re best to take a 4×4 tour. But there are almost 100 operators in Uyuni, so how do you pick the best Salt Flats tour? Here are some things you might want to consider.
Reputation: Operator reputation is incredibly important for this trip. It’s a lucrative gig so lots of low-cost operators run tours with thin margins, and this can carry through to everything from the safety of your vehicle to your guide’s pay. Leading the pack for local operators are Andes Salt Expeditions, Red Planet Expeditions, Quechua Connection 4WD, and Salty Desert Aventours. As much as I hate to say it, be sure to check reviews on TripAdvisor if you’re booking a tour that hasn’t been referred by someone!
Itinerary: How many days do you want to travel? What sights are your priority? Most Salar de Uyuni tours range from one to three days (though there are a few four-day itineraries, too). Briefly, one-day tours visit the train Cemetery, the Salar de Uyuni, and Isla Incahuasi and return to Uyuni the same day so you’ll need to take care of your own dinner and hotel. Three-day tours have the same first day, but you’ll travel much further into the desert. Three-day tours visit highlights like Laguna Colorada, the Dali Desert, and the Sol de Mañana geysers. You can take a look at the full itinerary below!
In my experience, the three-day tour is the only way to go. The first day on the salt flats was a bit hectic (though super beautiful!) and I really enjoyed the subsequent days with fewer crowds.
Dates: When do you want to start and finish your trip? Most Salar de Uyuni tour operators offer daily departures, so dates aren’t a big factor. That said, if you’re tight on time, this should come into play in planning your trip!
Cost: How much do you want to spend? Would you rather have your budget go towards a longer itinerary or nicer board? You’re probably wondering how much a Salar de Uyuni tour will cost. A one-day tour can be as cheap as $20 while a multi-day tour can cost anywhere between $90-$500. Simple three-day Salar de Uyuni tours will cost between $100-$150 and that should include transport, meals, and all the sights on the trip (excluding the national park fee + Isla Incahuasi). Most tours will also exclude the park entrance fee to Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve $21 and Isla Incahuasi $5. I also recommend budgeting to tip your guide between $3-4/day.
All operators offer nearly identical itineraries, but if you want nicer accommodation or the assurance of an international tour operator, expect to pay upwards of $180.
Safety: Does their fleet seem well maintained? Can the operator answer the question when you ask them? Well-maintained vehicles and good drivers are pretty important for this trip. Flat tires and other car trouble is inevitable when you’re driving through salty sludge. Ask the operator about their vehicles and read reviews so you don’t get stuck in the middle of anywhere, ok?
Guide / Driver: Do you want a guide who speaks perfect English or is that not so important to you? Guides on the Salt Flats tours wear all the hats. Most companies will offer tours in English or Spanish, though the level of English varies by operator. Some guides are very involved in the tour, while others hardly get out of the car.
WHY I CHOSE ANDES SALT EXPEDITIONS
I ended up booking with Andes Salt Expeditions for a few reasons: their reviews, their pricing, and their guides.
Andes Salt Expedition was competitively priced without taking a hit to their reviews. Their tours are simple with basic accommodations and food, but this never cut into the experience. A Salar de Uyuni tour with Andes Salt Expeditions cost about $100 + $21 park entrance when I traveled with them in 2017.
They prioritize car maintenance and driver certifications. Many of the guides are certified mechanics and the ones that aren’t have been fixing Toyota’s so long that they may as well be. This is corroborated both on their website and with dozens of reviews from people who avoided a crisis on the salt flats because their driver knew how to fix their car.
Their guides are some of the best. My guide was the locally famous Vladimir (and thank god, because dude get a lot of reviews!). After a few stops, it became apparent that a lot of other Salar de Uyuni tour guides just drive and hide out in the car. Vladmir went above and beyond to give us information while other guides seemed to avoid it. He drove safely and was super pleasant to hang out with.
SALAR DE UYUNI TOUR ITINERARY (WITH ANDES SALT EXPEDITIONS)
Most tour operator run the same itinerary, but some will make extra effort to get you off the usual circuit. Here’s the general itinerary for a 3-day/2-night Uyuni tour based on what I did with Andes Salt Expeditions.
Day 1 | The Salty Day: After a 10:30 am start, day 1 includes the train cemetery and the Salar de Uyuni. You’ll take lunch at a retired salt hotel, and check out the well-photographed Dakar monument and international flags fluttering against the wind. Venture on to see the surreal cactus on Isla Incahuasi, an island suspended on the Salar, before watching the sunset over the flats. Stay the night in a basic salt hotel.
Day 2 | The Lake Day: The adventures on day 2 start around 6:30 as you leave the salt flats into the deeper desert. You’ll get an early view of Volcan Ollague, a semi-active volcano, before traveling onward to the lakes. There are 5 lakes, but the lakes of interest are Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Edionda, and Laguna Colorada. Each is defined by it’s feeding flamingos, unique color, and epic volcanic surrounds. After lunch, you’ll get a view of Desert Siloli, which we’d say is a far easier alternative to hiking up Rainbow Mountain in Peru. You’ll also see Arbol de Piedra – a stone structure that has been worn into a tree with time. Arrive at the simple refugio early with plenty of time to walk or relax before dinner.
Day 3 | The Thermal Day: Day 3 begins at the ungodly 4:30 am to ensure you get to the Sol de Mañana in time to watch the sunrise. Through the steam, you can smell sulfur and observe slowly bubbling lava too close for comfort. You’ll travel then to the agues thermals for a dip in the naturally heated pool and see the Dali Desert and Laguna Verde before being transferred onto San Pedro de Atacama or returning back to Uyuni.
VISITING SALAR DE UYUNI
What’s the Best Time to Visit the Salar de Uyuni?
Salar de Uyuni tours are available all year, with some months being more pleasant than others. While it is the coldest time of year in Bolivia, April – October is also the sunniest and the most popular time to visit. November – March is the rainy season in Bolivia. Traveling during this time will give you the most moderate weather and the best chance to see the Salar as a giant mirror.
How to Get to Uyuni or Tupiza
The majority of Salar de Uyuni tours begin in Uyuni, but some depart from Tupiza. You can easily travel to Uyuni by bus from La Paz, Potosi, or Sucre. Though more infrequent, you can also take a train.
Uyuni is a walkable town and it’s easy to get around. Tupiza can also be reached by bus, though departures are less frequent and tour companies are few and far between. All Salar de Uyuni tours should include transport to the salt flats.
Traveling onto Chile? It’s only about 2 hours from the final stop on salt flat tours to San Pedro de Atacama. Most operators will allow you to book your bus to San Pedro as an add-on (Bs. 50) to your salt flats tour.
Where to Stay in Uyuni
Uyuni is a somewhat-grim jumping off point for Salar de Uyuni tours, with most places to stay being decent at best. That said, here are some of the better hotels and hostels in Uyuni.
Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel | Piedra Blanca is a newer hostel in town that gets consistently good reviews for their friendly staff and clean facilities. There are even legends of hot showers! Doubles from $44.
Hotel Jardines de Uyuni | Hotel Jardines de Uyuni is a hotel in the center of town that uses wooden floors, warm colored paint, and local textiles to give the rooms a sense of style that many hotels in town lack. This is a good option if you want something comfortable without heading far outside of Uyuni to one of the remote, luxury salt hotels. Doubles from $112.
Palacio de Sal | While it is no longer the only, Palacio de Sal is the world’s first salt hotel – a hotel made entirely of salt. The hotel is an hour outside of Uyuni next to the salt flats, making it an eerie and beautiful place to stay before your Salt Flats Tour. Read more or double rooms from $219.
Wanna book a Salar de Uyuni tour with Andes Salt Expeditions?
Phone: (591) 72414748