This post should offer some practical and useful information for the people that are contemplating visiting Uyuni Salt Flats. In case you’ve wanted to get a better picture about things such as how to pick the right tour for you, how much would it cost you or even about the ancient legend about the creation of Uyuni Salt Flats, you might be reading the right post. Before we get on the travel-related stuff, let’s talk about some facts about this incredible place.
Few basic facts about Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats, AKA Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Its 10 582km2 (4 086 sq miles) area is located in the southwestern corner of Bolivia at an elevation of 3 656 meters above sea level. As the name suggests, the area is covered by a few meters of salt crust with an estimated total of 11 billion tons of salt, out of which around 25 000 tonnes are mined here annually.
The crust covers a pool of brine that is exceptionally rich in lithium, which is widely used across a variety of products, ranging from medicine as a mood stabiliser, up to industrial use such as including heat-resistant glass or ceramics, batteries and so on. The reason why I’m talking about lithium so much is simple: in Uyuni Salt Flats, you’ll be walking on about 50% to 70% of the world’s known reserves and that’s a rather significant amount, right?
Formation of the Salt Flats
Believe it or not, Salar de Uyuni used to be part of Lake Titicaca, which is over 500 km north of here. Well, more precisely, it was a part of an ancient Lake Ballivián, which is the Pleistocene Epoch predecessor of the current lakes Titicaca and Poopó. As Lake Ballivián drained, it formed two smaller lakes: Titicaca and Minchin.
While Titicaca survived to play a major role in the region, Lake Minchin followed the draining fate of Lake Ballivián, leaving behind two salt desert flats (the larger being Salar de Uyuni) and two lakes. One of the lakes is Lake Poopó, which still has an impact on Salar de Uyuni because as Titicaca overflows during the rainy season, it fills up lake Poopó, which eventually floods the salt flats, creating the popular “mirror effect” tourists love to photograph.
Today, Salar de Uyuni attracts approximately 60 000 tourists annually, which helps the local residents to improve their otherwise hard lives in high-altitudes. A number of hotels have been built in the area, many of which are almost entirely made of salt blocks, while the previously rather neglected city of Uyuni and the surrounding villages are also enjoying small but visible improvements of the whole area.
The Tunupa legend
The local legend has however different idea about the salt flats origins. Apparently, a very very long time ago, the Altiplano volcanoes were able to walk as well as talk. However, except Tunupa, all other volcanos were male. They have all appeared like a liberal and open-minded bunch until Tunupa became pregnant and gave birth to a small volcano. The thing is that due to the previously stated gender imbalance and open-minded nature of the volcanoes, the father was unknown.
The volcanoes’ open-mindedness was gone in the blink of an eye and a massive fight to claim the fatherhood kicked off. Bizarrely and in the rather cruel volcano-misogynistic way, they have settled the fight by taking the baby volcano away from his mother and hiding him nearby in Colchani. And that’s was most probably the last drop for the gods, who had enough of this mess.
In a rather hardcore exemplary act of punishment, they took away the volcanoes abilities to move and talk. Tunupa was therefore forever unable to find her baby and all the wannabe fathers got also stuck. The poor mother volcano was sentenced to eternal grief. Her giant tears mixed with her mother’s milk she was still producing spilt over, which has created the Salt Flats.
Your options how to explore the area
OK. Let’s move on to the travel-related topics. You have few options for how to explore this incredible region. The most common and economical option is to book a shared tour, which could be bilingual (more expensive) or in Spanish only. Your other option is to book one of the expensive private tours that could be apparently personalised and are generally more posh, like with private chefs, extra tourist guides and so on.
Well, you can also visit the area in your own vehicle. But think about the fact that you’d be driving in rather extreme conditions on bad unpaved roads/tracks with no road signs (and many tracks), at altitudes nearing 4000 metres through the deserts, in the water that’s salty, which btw doesn’t work that well with cars.
So unless you are a skilled off-road driver and have your own very reliable vehicle, you will be most likely dependent on tours. Given the rather extreme conditions you’d face up there, I’d also say that it’s a much safer decision after all the local drivers know the area well as well as what they are doing.
Length of tours
Most Uyuni Salt Flats tours vary from one to four days. I personally recommend picking a multiple-day tour, because, except the actual Salt Flats, it would provide you with an opportunity to explore the equally incredible nature of the southern Altiplano plateau, which is filled with volcanoes, high altitude lakes, deserts, hot springs, geysers and other natural wonders.
You can enter the salt flats from Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama or pick a tour in Bolivia’s towns of Uyuni or Tupiza. The entry points will determine your itinerary, while their routes and services remain pretty similar. Also, depending on your plans, you can start the tour in one place and end in another. Generally, count on one full day in salt flats themselves and the remaining days in the surrounding areas.
Most multiple day tours will include all the major highlights of the area, such as Salar de Uyuni itself, Salvador Dalí Desert, Volcan Lincacabur, Valles de Rocas, Termas de Polques, Geiser Sol de la Mañana, lagunas Hedionda, Colorada, Verde and more. Obviously, the longer the tour, the more you’ll see, which is something I fully recommend 😉
What to expect from your tour?
So how do you know which agency and/or tour to pick? Well, like in most other cases, it depends on your budget and the time available. When it comes to shared tours, the standards, as well as itineraries, are rather similar. Generally, expect hopping on board of a well-maintained 4WD in which you’ll do a lot of driving and a little walking in truly amazing and surreal landscapes. The standards provided are quite high, considering the conditions.
Except for the luxurious hotels in the actual Salt Flats, the majority of accommodation options in the region are mostly more modest but if you think about it, this is not a destination that could be called super-attractive for the luxurious segment of tourists. Besides, all facilities are well maintained and accompanied by the genuine hospitality of the locals. In other words, you’ll feel cared for.
I personally opted for a mid-ranged priced 3-day tour, which proved to be nearly identical to some of the more expensive tours, at least according to other visitors, with whom we’ve compared our individual experiences. To be honest, there were also differences in what people paid for the same tour even among my group as we all bought it in different tour-selling agencies. A report from the actual 3 days/2 nights tour I’ve taken from San Pedro de Atacama could be found in this post, in case you were interested.
Salar de Uyuni tours are obviously cheaper when purchased directly in Bolivia (think about an equivalent of €90 for a 3-day tour) as opposed to about €160 from Chilean San Pedro de Atacama. But then, if you consider the expenses of getting to Bolivia from San Pedro and staying there for a night, it nearly levels the price so…
As for any other expenses you might have, please note that those shared tours are inclusive of accommodation and meals. 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 the 6l of water and snacks, 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.
If you think about it, you’ve driven around the whole day, fed, cared for, all for €30-50 per day. It is very cheap, considering that you’d splash €70 for a one day Death Road bike tour nearby La Paz. And that’s not to mention the expenses these people have with their vehicles, were due to the salt-caused corrosion. For instance, the car tyres last no more than 6 months, and the whole expensive vehicle wears off much faster than if it was used in normal conditions.
Well, from a traveller’s perspective, this isn’t exactly a party destination, is it? The area is dominated by two major factors. Firstly, people come here mainly for nature and secondly, there are natural conditions, such as high altitude. Neither of these two factors works that well with excessive partying. You can however still enjoy glimpses of social life in local travel hubs, such as Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama. The latter even looks like a party town at first sight, but it has a bit of a prohibition going on and after-hours, you’d need to head out of town for an “illegal party”.
Culture-wise, expect to see some local and travelling musicians on the streets and in bars, especially in San Pedro. In Uyuni, you can see many locals as well as some travellers socializing in the centre, around Plaza Principal Aniceto Arce. In spite of being nearly 10 times bigger than San Pedro (pop 30k), Uyuni is a little more limited in this sense but then again, it’s not much of a city to hang around for long. In case you were curious, see what it has to offer when it comes to live music.
Overall, from the traveller’s perspective, I guess that most social life in the whole wider area from the traveller’s perspective concentrates around hotels and mainly hostels. As I’ve mentioned above, I would not recommend going crazy when it comes to partying. I mean that there are much better and more suitable places to party in South America, plus suffering a hangover at such altitudes is a hardcore experience. Not to mention that you’d be suffering in a dormitory 😉
Crime-wise, the whole area is very safe, except for some tourism-related scam that is unfortunately not an exceptional phenomenon in San Pedro de Atacama. The biggest dangers might be however coming from the potential irresponsible behaviour of the visitors and/or underestimating mother nature. Let’s remember that we’re in rather an inhospitable region in very high altitudes, which could surprise you with some extreme weather conditions.
It is recommended to adjust to the altitude before attempting any trekking in the area. Even for taking tours. The symptoms are individual and could get sometimes rather serious, regardless of how fit you are. Furthermore, make sure that you have the proper gear. It could get rather cold up here, while the population density is rather low and infrastructure can be exactly called overdeveloped so getting help is not as simple as what you might be used to.
How to get there
Both, Uyuni as well as San Pedro de Atacama are served by regional airports (Joya Andina Airport, respectively El Loa Airport in Calama, which is 98km away from San Pedro) that you can reach from larger cities in their respective countries. You could also enter the Altiplano plateau from its south end by getting up Humahuaca Valley from Argentina, which is served by airports in the cities of Salta and Jujuy.
When it comes to roads and other means of transport, these three spots are connected by roads that are in considerably good conditions, given the natural conditions. It is however worth remembering that you’d be also driving in a high altitude area so be careful out there. It is also wise to make sure that your vehicle won’t struggle with such altitude because you don’t really want to get stuck up there.
When to visit
In order to experience the “mirror effect”, the best time to visit Salar de Uyuni is during the rainy season (December to April). However, the higher volumes of rain in December and January can prevent you from entering certain areas of Salt Flats, sometimes there are even tour cancellations. For instance, we have almost not entered the area where all those sunrise “mirror effect” pictures are normally taken because the water was too deep.
The dry season (May to November) brings the temperatures down but because the surface is dryer and more solid, travellers can drive to places that aren’t accessible in the rainy season. As I’ve mentioned above, the high season is from June to September, which apparently brings the rates up.
The region is very popular with tourists and that is well reflected in the growing tourism infrastructure in the whole area. In other words, there is a wide variety of options in the whole region. Make sure to check multiple booking platforms as they often compete with each other.
As I’ve mentioned above, Uyuni is not exactly a pearl of the region. If you can, try staying in San Pedro. Even Tupiza is nicer. BTW, nearby Tupiza, there’s a small town called San Vicente and some claim that this is where Butch Cassidy was killed 😉
Sort of epilogue
Uyuni Salt Flats is definitely one of the most amazing and surreal places I have ever visited. If you are a nature lover, I fully recommend checking this incredible place out. If I could change something about my own experience, I would have mainly opted for 4 days/3 nights tour instead of the 3-day/2-night one I’ve taken. I would also pay more attention to how my body adapts to high altitudes.
If you are into this kind of adventure, I’d personally recommend taking your time and exploring also the neighbouring regions of Atacama Desert in Chile as well as Jujuy and Salta provinces in Argentina. Read about those a bit more below. I’d say that you should be able to check the absolute highlights of the whole region in 2 weeks if you were efficient. I guarantee you that you’d be rewarded with exceptional memories you’ll never forget 😉
Useful links and curiosities
- Uyuni Salt Flats 3 days tour from San Pedro Atacama: a report from a mid-range-priced 3 days/2 nights tour
- Salar de Uyuni website: info, how to get there, things to do, tours, what to pack, photos, etc…
- San Pedro de Atacama‘s website: accommodation, packages, tours, excursions, etc…
- Uyuni Airport information with schedules, info and so on…
- San Pedro de Atacama (Calama) Airport information, with routes, flights and so on…
- Lake Ballivián: Wiki’s page about an ancient lake
- Lithium: Wiki’s page about Lithium, in case you wanted to find out what you’re walking on 🙂
Few practical advices
- Do not book your tour online as it appeared much more expensive that way to me;
- If you can, book your shared tour together with friends not to end up sharing a car with three fresh couples from Chile, like a friend of mine. I mean they were apparently very nice and friendly – let’s just say that my friend felt rather lonely…
- If you are a taller person – make sure to stress that upon purchasing your tour to get the seat with more leg space;
- If you can affect it, try avoiding sitting at the very back of the car as you’d be bouncing a lot…
- Bring water, some protein snacks and warm clothes – it can get rather chilly in the mornings at that altitude. And take your flip flops with you. You’ll find them very useful in the hotels + the walking on the water would destroy your shoes so the flip flops come handy there as well;
- Be prepared that water into which you will need to step into to take your own epic sunrise mirror effect picture is not warm at 5:45 am at 3800 metres above sea level;
- Also – don’t drink the night before you go up – suffering from 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 primary drivers, not tour guides. The information they sometimes share with you is not always 100% accurate and backed up with scientific facts;
- Please note that Bolivia requires a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate to enter the country.
Other popular destinations near by
Consider visiting the neighbouring Desierto de Atacama, in fact, you can take a tour from Uyuni that will take you there. We’re talking about 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.
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.
Sucre and La Paz
Sucre and La Paz, the two capitals of Bolivia. Are they worth visiting? And why there are two capitals in the country? Read more details about those two cities here, in case you were interested.
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 (Sun God or Sun Goddess) is believed to have been born here. From the traveller’s perspective, it is the largest lake in South America and the 18th in the world and there’s plenty to see. Read more here, in case you were interested.