This article has been updated on March 6, 2021
This post is kind of a report from the 3-day Uyuni Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama that I’ve taken in 2019. It should therefore offer some insights into what you can expect from those tours, how much do they cost and which tour to pick. In case you were seeking more information about Uyuni Salt Flats, such as how to get there; when is the best time to visit; other options to explore the area as well as some general info about this incredible place, including the local legend about the origins of Uyuni Salt Flats, please click here.
Which agency to pick?
From my little research, conducted both online as well as in-person in the location, most mid-range priced tours, including the bit more expensive ones, were rather indifferent when it comes to standards as well as itineraries. As I’ve mentioned above, I have further confirmed this conclusion later when comparing our experience with few other visitors who have taken somewhat more expensive tours with different agents.
Please note that I am talking about shared tours only. If you have a budget strong enough to book a private tour, that would take your experience to a different level. But because private tours are in a different budget league that sometimes even brings private chefs and guides into an occasion, I’ll stick to the economic reality of shared tours only. FYI, there are also helicopter trips on the menu, in case you were interested in the very top league budget activities 😉
So back to the shared tours them 😉 It appears that the major differences between the individual shared tours appear are determined by the language abilities of the drivers who also function as guides. The bilingual tours were obviously more expensive. Well, to be honest, there were also some minor differences, when it comes to the itinerary as well as level of accommodation during the first night of the tour, which took place in one of the southern Altiplano plateau villages but as I’ve said, those weren’t of any decisive significance.
The second nights of the 3-day tours were mostly booked in more luxurious hotels made of salt blocks right next to the Salt Flats, where the possible differences in standards and services were even smaller. When it comes to the meals, most tours were also comparable. Some really yummy and some just OK but there was always more food than we could eat. The vehicles were all well maintained, I guess it’s a must-do, taking the natural conditions into consideration. Again, this is a conclusion from the shared knowledge of more midrange tours, not just mine.
Overall, I wouldn’t bother that much about which agency to pick if I were you. Tourism is an important source of income for the locals and they have learned that making a quick buck at the expense of losing a reputation is not worth it in the long run. BTW, don’t book it online in advance as you’d overpay the whole thing.
Once you’re in the area, ask around the agencies. Ask all specific questions you might have about itinerary, accommodation, vehicles, or whatever might concern you (this article could give you some hints about what to ask about) and check the agency reviews online (I mean real reviews, not the fake stuff or the frustration-venting) before you’ll purchase the tour.
You might be thinking to head to Bolivia first and book the tour there. It’s true that the tours are generally cheaper when purchased in Bolivia (on average an equivalent of €90 for a 3-day tour) as opposed to an equivalent of €160 from Chilean San Pedro de Atacama. However, if you consider the expenses of getting to Bolivia and staying there for a night, it nearly levels the price so if you already are in San Pedro, you might just as well take the tour from here.
Before knowing any of the above, I’ve decided to opt for a mid-ranged priced 3 days/2 nights tour with one of the numerous agencies from Uyuni, which I’ve booked with an agent in my hostel in San Pedro de Atacama. Just so you know, there were also even differences in prices people paid for the very same tour even among my group, which could have been the (rather significant) cut for the tour-selling agent.
As far as I know, tours are all-inclusive, meaning that accommodation and meals were included. I only had to pay the National park entry (150,-BOB/€19.50) and a small fee for an optional dip in a thermal swimming pool, plus for the 6l of water, I was told to take with me. Please note that prices might fluctuate, depending on the season. Expect to pay more in the high season from June to September.
Uyuni Salt Flats 3 day tour from San Pedro de Atacama
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into "want to go", once you arrive to the destination, it could make things easier for you to orientate yourself in the area, not to mention the (sometimes) helpful and informative reviews or the fact that it might also help you to determine your itinerary ;)
DAY 1: Lagunas Vedionda, Hende and Colorada, Geiser Sol de la Mañana, Desierto Salvador Dalí and Termas de Polques
Early morning we were picked up from our hotels and driven to the border. We have entered Bolivia at Hito Cajon at 4600 meters above sea level about two hours later. Right after the immigration process on the Bolivian side, followed by a gorgeous breakfast, we have entered this insane land full of lakes, volcanoes, flamingos, llamas, foxes and amazing colours. There was a lot of breathtaking moments, some literally as they are caused by the lack of oxygen and some by the looks of the landscape that surrounded us.
We have seen Vulcan Licancabur from both sides, then we have visited Lagoons Verde and Hedionda, stopped at Salvador Dalí Desert, after which we are blessed with an opportunity to take a dip at 3800m above sea level at Termas de Polques, which was followed by a lunch break in a restaurant right by the thermal pools. After an amazing meal, we headed to check out the Geiser Sol de la Mañana at crazy 4990 metres above sea level. The last attraction we’ve visited before heading to the hotel was, as the name suggests very colourful Laguna Colorada.
The scenery never failed to surprise us as it kept changing. The only problem was to deal with the altitude as the lack of oxygen was rather annoyingly persistent in getting attention, especially during the short walks, regardless of whether you’re fit or not. Some of the world’s top athletes can talk about it as well. For example, Bolivians are still talking about their glorious 6:1 victory against the stars-packed Argentinian national football team in 2009.
Anyway. I’ve learned that taking numerous deep breaths to catch up with the oxygen works for me. But then there are individual symptoms of altitude sickness, such as fatigue, headaches and so on. Both of our 4WDs also apparently had a bottle of oxygen each, in case of emergencies. The local solution is chewing on coca leaves. Everyone in Bolivia is chewing hojas de coca. The higher you get, the more blown the cheeks of the locals look from the number of leaves they’re sucking on.
The day ended in an Altiplano village Villamar Mallcu with a wee bit mediocre but still eatable dinner and a bit modest but clean and well-maintained accommodation. I’ve enjoyed the whole day a lot. The crew was nice and we kind of became friends over the shared experience of enjoying the landscapes. Everything was perfect until I’ve fallen asleep in the room I had to share with a young Chilean-Bolivian couple.
It proved that even sleeping itself wasn’t ideal when it comes to oxygen. I kept waking up in panic from dreams in which I was drowning, which proved to be more than just a dream. Basically, my “automatic” night breathing is rather shallow so I was literally not getting enough oxygen in my system. Again, when I woke up each time, few conscious deep breaths sorted it out temporarily but then I fell asleep again and so it went in circles.
I must have woken up panicking dozens of times that night. Uh, trust me, I won’t remember it as the best night of my life. In my dreams, just before they’ve turned into drowning/panicking mode, I vaguely remember how I’ve come up with a very clever redesign of the meaning of the “pulling something out the thin air”expression. Obviously, I can’t remember it and it keeps bothering me until now 🙂
DAY 2: Valles de Rocas, Anaconda Canyon
We woke up early in Villamar Mallcu where its 3000 inhabitants live their happy but also what feels like rather hard lives at 4010 metres above sea level. On the other hand, it looks like tourism is serving the community well. I mean that this little village appeared like under a massive redevelopment as I could see a building site or some sort of extension being built almost everywhere I looked. As I’ve mentioned above, the facilities were rather modest but also clean and comfy. Furthermore, the locals were very friendly and hospitable.
If you are guessing that more riding through epic landscapes was what followed the breakfast, you are spot on 😉 Villamar Mallcu is surrounded by some pretty rock formations, which was to become a theme for the whole day: various rock formations in an area conveniently called Valles de Rocas, which they’ve also called Italia Perdida, but my limited Spanish and lack of sleep didn’t let me understand what’s difference between the two names. Anyway. There was a lot of rock formations. Right until lunchtime.
After a yummy lunch in a local restaurant, we went for a short walk to Laguna Negra to enjoy the change of scenery and chill for a while by the lagoon in amazing green surroundings (and more rock formations). The day peaked with an incredible Anaconda Canyon in Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. So we have ended the day each with about a thousand photos of various rock formations in a luxurious hotel that’s all built of salt bricks. We were all pretty tired from a long day so after dinner, which btw didn’t really match the luxurious vibe of the hotel, everyone pretty much headed straight to bed.
This time we’ve all had en suite private rooms in a place that was was a massive step up, if compared to the first night but was exactly what we were told upon purchasing the tour. Not to forget, there was one more highlight of the day ahead of me: thanks to my smoking habit, which I went to feed outside of the hotel, I was lucky to get a massive bonus of witnessing an insane sunset at 4000m above the sea level. Above and behind me, there was a storm while in a distance one could see the colours of sunset.
DAY 3: Salar de Uyuni and Isla Incahuasi
Compared to the night before, I’ve had far fewer drowning nightmares but I could not enjoy my very improved sleeping in a comfortable bed all the way, this time for different reasons: we had to get up at 3:45 in order to catch the sunrise. We all hoped to get to the relatively nearby Salt Flats as soon as possible to capture the Milky Way with an epic reflection off the water surface. However, there was too much water in the area and the drivers have hesitated to drive through it for quite a while.
Apparently, while the rainy season brings the photographic advantages as the water creates a salt lake but at the same time, there’s a high risk of not being able to attend to some places if the water levels are too high. In the end, our drivers decided to go for it. We were a bit late for Milky Way as the night already started giving way to the sun, nevertheless, it was still a very magical experience.
After over an hour of enjoying the sunrise and “walking on water” (see the featured image), we moved on. The change of scenery was clear. Our Uyuni Salt Flats tour finally brought us to the actual Salar de Uyuni. I had no idea how big the thing was really. Except for few high peaks on the horizon, all you could see was a flat white surface and the skies above…
At that point, I had no clue that the whole day was about to turn into a mother of all photoshoot sessions. We drove towards Isla Incahuasi, home to 7 people, some cats, goats and a lot of cactuses. A lot of cactuses. For a small fee of 30,-BOB to enter the island, which was like an Instagram cactus hashtag paradise 🙂 Any random shot could be sold as a postcard here.
After everyone made at least 1000 pictures of cactuses and a nice little trek to the top of the island, we had eaten a yummy lunch prepared by our driver and moved on further into the salt flat. It was a rather strange place. I kept thinking I’m walking on a frozen lake in my shorts only while the skies played along.
The photoshoot was about to climax. Various props were brought up by the driver, everyone went picture-making mad. I still had a bit of the cliché photos embracing in me at this point so I’ve used it to fight the Godzilla after a little persuasion of the driver. We then moved to a little souvenir shop with a restaurant, before heading to the last stop of the tour, which was a train cemetery.
Few practical advices
- I’d say that the best thing is to book the tour together with some friends or at least someone you’ve met in your hostel;
- If you are a taller person – make sure to stress that upon purchasing your tour so you are not squeezed in 4×4 for 3 days;
- If you can, try not sitting at the back of the vehicle as you’ll be bumping up and down all the time;
- Bring some warm clothes – it can get rather chilly in the mornings at that altitude;
- Take your flip flops with you. You’ll find them useful in the hotels + the walking on the salty water would destroy your shoes;
- Be prepared that the water you’ll be standing in to take your epic sunrise picture at 5:45 am at 3800m is bloody freezing 🙂 But don’t worry, it’s still quite a cool feeling to do it. I even went in barefooted 😉
- Don’t drink the night before you go up. A hangover at 4000m could be a form of torture;
- If you are a factual kind of person, do your reading before the trip. The drivers are usually very nice and friendly lads but they are not trained as tour guides. The information they sometimes share with you is – let’s say – not always exactly accurate and backed up with scientific data;
- Please note that Bolivia requires a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate to enter the country;
- Forgive me for stating the obvious but don’t forget to check your entry requirements into Bolivia so you don’t get a nasty surprise at the border…
Sort of conclusion
IMHO, this Uyuni Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama was 100% worth it and I would recommend it to any nature lover. It’s definitely up there among the best ever nature adventures I’ve ever had. To be honest, I should have taken a longer tour, when I thought about the whole experience later. The only downside is that I have overestimated my Spanish as well as my adjustment to the altitude a bit but both of these little missteps are my fault.
FYI, as I said in the opening paragraph of this piece, in case you have wanted to find out more practical information about Uyuni Salt Flats, such as other options to explore the area, how to get there, when is the best time to visit and so on, as well as some general information about Uyuni Salt Flats, including the local legend about the creation of the largest salt flats in the world, please click here.
Other popular destinations near by
Another popular and nearly equally incredible destination in the area is Desierto de Atacama, the driest non-polar desert in the world that comes with many mind-blowing attractions, plus the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama also comes with a certain charm, if you manage to ignore the usual and rather predatory tourism scam that all popular travellers’ hotspots come with. Read more about Atacama Desert here, in case you were interested.
Except for the Atacama Desert, the northern Chilean region Antofagasta has plenty of attractions for a wide variety of activities. Whether you want to spend some time on the local beaches, climb the second highest peak outside Asia Nevado Ojos del Salado (6 893m), check out some of the region’s deserts of National Parks, there’s a lot to explore in this diverse province. For more details, please see Wikivoyage‘s page here, in case you were interested.
Sucre and La Paz
If you are in the region, do not miss out on visiting Lake Titicaca, an important historical place for the Incas. In their religion, the Solar deity is believed to have been born here. From the traveller’s perspective it the largest lake in South America and 18th in the world and there’s plenty to see. Read more here, in case you were interested.
Salta and Jujuy Provinces
You can also head south from Uyuni, hit the stunning Humahuaca Valley and explore the beautiful provinces of Jujuy and Salta in Northern Argentina. You’d get rewarded by more surreal nature, vibrant colours, excellent trekking options and Argentinian hospitality. More details about those two provinces could be found here.