Guide to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Guide to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni:

Salar de Uyuni is one of those hard-to-get-to places that every traveler dreams of checking  off his or her bucket list. (Check that one off my bucket list!).

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Why go to Salar de Uyuni?

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, covering 4,633 sq. miles. It was part of a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which eventually dried up. What remains was Salar de Uyuni, one of South America’s most awe-inspiring spectacles.

Cost?

Costs depend on where you start: Uyuni, Tapiza, or San Pedro de Atacama.

(We started in Uyuni where we were met by dozens of locals making offers for $200 a person. There are plenty of tour operators in Uyuni. Shop around for the best bargain. I am a good negotiator and I was able to get a bargain for $100 per person for the three-day tour, with a Spanish-speaking guide).

What does the tour include?

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  • Local Guide- Local guides are provided. Many are bi-lingual.
  • Food– Food, water, and coffee are all provided.
  • Accommodation– Accommodation is provided for each night you stay. The accommodations are basic; some don’t have access to running water. Anticipate that you’re going to have to deal with not showering for a few days.
  • Transportation– All transport and petrol is included in the price.

What is NOT included:

  • Alcohol: Yes, it is available, but it is not included in the price.
  • Entrance fee to stay the night in the national park: One of the nights we stayed at a national park; however, we had to pay the entrance fee to stay here. (Not that it broke the bank, but still, have some Bolivianos on hand to be able to pay).
  • Tip: While not necessary, it’s always nice to leave the tour guide a tip at the end of the voyage as a gesture of appreciation for dealing with your stench for three days.

How do I get there?

There are several ways to get to Salar de Uyuni; you can start in Uyuni, Bolivia OR Tupiza, Chile OR San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

Here are the pros and cons of each:

 Uyuni: (Fly to La Paz and take the sleeper bus to Uyuni)

  • Cheaper–  Most tours out of Uyuni are cheaper because they have less miles to travel
  • Itinerary–  Tours based out of Uyuni visit the Salt Flats the first day, then continue on to the rest of the tour before returning back to Uyuni or ending at the border of Chile
  • Number of people in the tour– Each tour had about 8 people, so the 4×4 can be a bit cramped.
  • Roundtrip? You have two options at the end of your trip: 1) return to Uyuni 2) get dropped off at the border of Chile (ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which is a better option)
  • Various Itineraryies: You have several options with regards to how many days you want to spend on your tour; I highly recommend doing at least the three day tour to really do it justice. ONE day is just a glimpse of the beautiful scenery.

Tupiza, Chile:

  • Most expensive– It is more expensive to go from Tupiza, mainly because the drive is further and covers more ground. However, you also get to see more.
  • Itinerary– The salt flats are visited on the last day of the tour, which is good if you want to save the best for last
  • Number of people in the tour-Fewer people on board; more room to breathe in the 4×4

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile:

  • Atacama Desert? (anyone??) This journey begins in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. Kill two birds with one stone by knocking off two bucket list items in ONE trip. IF visiting the driest desert in the world is your thing? (To each his own)
  • Lack of English-speaking guides: There are few English-speaking guides. If you choose to go this route, make sure you have at least some at least some basic Spanish.
  • Middle -Ranged Cost: Slightly more expensive than the tours taking off from Uyuni

Itinerary:

Uyuni, Bolivia: (3 days)

  • Day 1: Arrive by bus at 8 am. Negotiate a deal for a tour. Get breakfast at a local shop. Leave Uyuni around 10 am in the morning. The first stop on your tour is a “train cemetary.”  Visit the own of Colchani and see how salt is made. Drive onto the Salar de Uyuni at Tunupa Salt Flat. Visit a salt hotel that houses a small museum with sculptures made out of – you guessed it… salt! Eat lunch and take more photos at Salar to Isla del Pescado. Sleep in a salt hotel.
  • Day 2: Wake up early. See lots of landscapes — volcanoes, rock formations..etc. Eat lunch by a lake…see more landscapes and pink flamingos! Stay the night at a national park.
  • Day 3: Wake early. See the Chipillos, stop off at the geyser and take a into a geothermal hot spring. Dropped off at the border of chile around mid-day (or you can return to Uyuni with the tour guide)

Tupiza, Chile: (4 days)

  • Day 1: Leave Tupiza around 10 a.m., visit Palala, Sillar, Awanapampa, Cerillos and San Pablo, spending the night at the town of San Antonio.
  • Day 2: Wake-up, visit Sol de mañana, Quetena, Laguna Kollpa, Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon), Desierto Dali, Geyser and Licancabur Volcano spending the night at Huayllajara.
  • Day 3: On the third day visit Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), Arbol, Lagunas Siloli, Cañapa, Honda, San Juan, Chaiviri and Chuvica (a salt hotel).
  • Day 4: Drive across the salar visiting Incahuasi, Hotel de Sal, Ojos de sal – ending the tour in the town of Uyuni.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: (3 days)

  • Day 1: Leave San Pedro de Atacama around 10 a.m., drive to Eduardo Avaroa National Park. Drive through the park seeing flamingos, enjoying lakes and hot springs.
  • Day 2: Arrive at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, sleeping in a salt hotel at night.
  • Day 3: Wake up to view sunrise on the salar, take amazing photos, continue travel through the salar to Uyuni.

 What do I pack?

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You’ll be venturing at a high altitude (nearly 16,000 feet/5,000 meters above sea level) during the course of your journey, so regardless what time of year you go, gloves and a jacket are necessary.

Also, what you should pack depends on when you’ll be traveling:

Winter: (June to September) *Seasons are opposite of ours in the Northern Hemisphere*

If you’re visiting during the winter months, bring lots of warm clothes (jackets, gloves, hats and scarves). Most of your accommodations won’t have a hot shower (if there is an operating shower at all),  and don’t have the infrastructure of centralized heating. Layering is key to staying warm.

Rainy Season:  If traveling during rainy season (November-February), come prepared with a rain jacket or poncho.

 What I wish I had known:

  • Altitude sickness is a common occurrence at high altitudes. Sorochi Pills (altitude sickness pills) help to alleviate the symptoms (dizziness, headache, shortness of breath). Pick these up before leaving to go to Uyuni because there are few options to pick up meds BEFORE going. (We bought ours in La Paz, Bolivia prior to our VERY LONG bus ride). Nothing is worse than enduring 12 hours a day in a 4×4 with nausea and the worst headache of your life.
  • Salar de Uyuni is located at a VERY high in altitude. So, temperatures drop below freezing. Bring lots of warm clothes! I wore two shirts, two  jackets, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, gloves, a chullo (hat), and I was still cold! It is better to have more clothes to wear than be freezing and miserable.
  • Few places are equipped with showers (much less, water) on your tour. Bring wet wipes to get “just clean” feeling.
  • Bathrooms are not available for most of the journey.  Wet wipes are also handy for dealing with (*ahem*) this issue.

Have you been to Salar de Uyuni?

How did you get there? Do you have any tips? Keep me “posted.”