Taking a tour of the Bolivian salt flats is one of the most iconic backpacker adventures out there, and the top thing to do in Bolivia.
You’ll strap into a 4×4 jeep with your bags, three days of supplies, and a squad of new friends to take on this epic road trip. It’ll take you across the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, through the Bolivian desert, and over 5,000+ meter Andean peaks. You’ll witness multi-colored lagoons, landscapes that look like they are from Mars, geysers that gush steam into the early morning air, and of course the famous salt flats themselves.
Will this be the greatest travel adventure of your life?
But, to make the most of it, be sure to follow these 10 simple tips for totally crushing your journey through the Bolivian salt flats.
And, while you’re at it, be sure to check out my crazy-thorough guide to Uyuni salt flat tours. It’s free and it has every detail you need to make the most out of your trip!
The Bolivian salt flats are in one of the most remote parts of the planet. So build in some extra time in case things go wrong.
Planes get cancelled.
Buses run late.
Tour companies shut down business at the last minute.
And inclement weather delays tours.
If you’re really unlikely like I was, you might even find yourself trapped in the desert by a blockade of protesters! (You can read that story here by the way).
So just build in some extra time and be prepared to go with the flow. If you do, you’re in for the ride of a lifetime!
You’ve seen the photos by now. Giants eating smaller people. Groups of tiny humans suddenly popping out of a Pringles can. Huge plastic dinosaurs attacking backpackers (or is it tiny plastic dinosaurs attacking miniature backpackers?).
The confusing perspectives of the Uyuni salt flats make for something of a photographic playground.
And while most drivers will have a couple plastic dinosaurs on hand, to really crush it on Instagram it’s suggested to bring a few props along with you. Action figures? Toy cars? A miniaturized set from Game of Thrones? The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination….
The Bolivian desert is one of the greatest places in the world to view the Milky Way. The skies are often clear, and the lack of light pollution means you can see the stars like almost nowhere else. In fact, in nearby Chile, some of the world’s biggest telescopes are positioned to take advantage of similar conditions.
There’s just one, tiny problem:
There’s not a lot of time on your typical tour of the Bolivian salt flats to actually star gaze.
Both nights on a typical Uyuni tour are spent in hostels where, though you’ll be able to see the stars, you’ll still be subject to a bit too much light pollution. A better solution is to get to Uyuni a night early and book a separate stargazing excursion that will take you deep into the darkness where you can really take in this natural wonder properly. If you’re a true photographer, the photo possibilities are just ridiculous.
Expect some crazy temperature swings on your Bolivian salt flats adventure.
It might be blazing hot in the middle of the afternoon, and bone-chilling freezing at night.
The best way to pack for a trip through the Bolivian salt flats is to pack layers. Lot and lots of layers. (Here’s a detailed list of what I pack to travel the world if it helps).
The Bolivian salt flat tours take place just down the road from the Atacama Desert — the driest place on the entire planet Earth!
What does that mean for you?
Expect it to be sunny and dry.
Really, really dry.
Even if your lips don’t normally chap, they will here. Same goes for your skin. Both will thank you if you’re prepared with some lip balm and lotion.
Pretty much every Bolivian salt flats tour company is going to provide you with some water and your meals on your road trip.
But do you know what happens to people who go on long road trips?
They get the munchies.
And while there are a handful of very basic vendors along the way, it’s best to bring along those special snacks of yours to keep from getting hangry. Tim Tams anyone?
It’s really hard to hate a travel destination. Most places have some redeeming quality, after all.
It’s a boring desert town that has little to offer in terms of attractions other than some broken down trains (or am I just bitter because of the whole ordeal of being stuck in the town during a blockade?).
You’ll probably have no choice but to swing through Uyuni, as it’s the only waypoint on the way to the salt flats. But don’t spend any more time here than you must!
One of the coolest hotels I ever stayed at was the Luna de Salada hotel on the outskirts of the salt flats.
Almost everything in the hotel, from the walls to the floors to the furniture, is made out of salt!
And while this hotel is out of the price range for most backpackers, there’s some good news:
Many Uyuni tour providers will house you in a (much more basic) salt hostel the first night of the tour! Not every provider has this option, so be sure to check!
The final day of most Uyuni salt flats tours concludes with a visit to some natural thermal springs set against an Andean mountain backdrop.
But a select few providers actually allow you to stay near the hot springs on your final night. The accommodation is quite basic, but it will allow you to take a dip in while staring up at the Milky Way!
The standard Bolivian salt flats tour is 3 days and 2 nights, starting and ending in Uyuni, Bolivia. But do you want to know a dirty secret?
The majority of that last day is just driving. And, on top of that, it’s mostly through scenery you’ve already seen. All for the 7 hour return trip to Uyuni (which, as I mentioned above, isn’t a place worth loitering in).
You can cut that extra trip out by making plans to get dropped off around lunch on the third day at the Chilean border, where buses will take you on the short drive into the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. San Pedro is a really awesome destination in its own right and a popular stop on the South American backpacking circuit.
Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime?
Great. But here’s a couple things you should do first:
That’s it! If you have any questions about how to maximize your Bolivian salt flat adventure, just drop me a line in the comments!
Oh, and if you’re on Pinterest, you can pin this post for later here:
Nate Hake has traveled to 65+ countries across six continents around the world and blogs about his travels at TravelLemming.com. He is from Denver, Colorado, and recently concluded a six month stint living in Mexico.