Do you want to take a ride on one of the most epic road-trips in the world: Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni tour of the salt flats?
Perfect. I knew you looked awesome.
But, before you can get strapped in for the adventure of a lifetime, there’s a few things you need to consider to help plan your Bolivian salt flats tour. So to help you out, here’s what I’m going to quickly cover in this Ultimate Guide to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni Tours:
There is a TON of information in this guide, so feel free to use this Table of Contents to jump around.
And, if you have any questions, not covered here, please do let me know in the comments. I’m happy to help if I can!
I’ve been to over 65 countries across 6 continents. And while I’ve done some incredible things, touring Bolivia’s salt flats remains one of my most epic travel experiences of all time.
I say this despite the fact that I first spent several days trapped by protesters who shut down the entire town, blockading any tours from leaving by throwing rocks at jeeps! At one point I debated going back to La Paz, but I’m glad I pushed through as it was one not only one of the best things to do in Bolivia, but one of the most incredible travel experiences in the world!
Why is the Salar de Uyuni tour so awesome?
Well, imagine you and several new friends packed into a 4WD, music blasting while you blaze across open salt plains, stopping along the way to take incredible photos in the endless salt flats, to view stunning mountaintops, and to take in multi-colored lakes filled with thousands of flamingos. You’ll spend your nights relaxing in hot springs and staying in hostels made of salt!
It’s the adventure of a lifetime.
Don’t believe me?
I thought so. So let’s get straight to the nitty gritty of how to plan your adventure through the Bolivian salt flats.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Bolivian salt flat tours:
You’ll spend only one day (usually the first) on the salt flats.
That’s right. Though most tours are multi-day affairs, the majority of the time you won’t actually be on the salt flats.
Well, though the Salar de Uyuni itself is awesome, there are a TON of other genuinely incredible sites included on the typical tour through the Bolivian salt flats. Arguably some of them are even more breathtaking than the salt flats themselves!
Most of the typical 3D/2N tours follow roughly the same itinerary, though there are some variations depending on the provider.
Here’s roughly what you can expected to see (I’ve put an “*” in front of what I consider to be the “can’t-miss” highlights):
There are hundreds of operators that will sell you a tour of the Bolivian salt flats. The list is a moving target, as many operators close down and re-brand all the time. Why?
Well, Salar de Uyuni tours are a big business in Uyuni, and not the best regulated one at that. So just about anyone with a jeep can try to sell salt flat tours.
That means you need to exercising some judgment when choosing a provider. You want an agency who is going to follow through (or even just actually be around when you show up in Bolivia!), and has respect for your comfort and your safety.
Safety – It’s sad but true:
People die in accidents on the Bolivian salt flats all the time.
There are numerous reports online of unsafe driving and drunk driving (reports are more common around holidays). Some vehicles don’t even have seat-belts available!
So when selecting a provider, carefully consider any reports of safety issues as well as your own risk tolerance. Though most Bolivian salt flat tours end without a hitch, you don’t want to bet your life on it.
Comfort – You get what you pay for. Some cut-rate tour operators have been known to jam more people into a jeep than can fit (ask for 5 or fewer plus the driver). And the meal and guide quality improves with the more established agencies.
With that said, the truth is that most of the 4WDs I saw on the salt flats looked more or less the same. And everyone mostly stays in the same (tried, crammed) places. And all of the attractions are of course the same. So I’m not so sure there is ALL that much difference in quality level.
Guide vs. Driver/Guide – Some operators provide a separate English-speaking guide (and sometimes a cook if part of a larger caravan), while others low-cost operators will send you only with a driver who will act as your guide (but is likely to only speak Spanish).
Length – Touring the full Salar de Uyuni circuit usually takes 3 days / 2 nights as described above, although many tour providers also offer 4 day / 3 night options that take in a few more sites (especially when starting in Chile).
I did the standard 3D/2N tour and found that it hit all the highlights (and tired me out by the end of it!).
While it is possible to visit the Salar de Uyuni as part of a day trip from Uyuni, I highly recommend going on one the multi-day trips that take in all that this part of Bolivia has to offer. After all, you came all this way – don’t you want the full experience?
Accommodation – The truth is that most of the tour providers share the same very basic accommodation options along the route. Many will have you stay the first night in one of the various “salt hostels” at the far edge of the flats (not to be confused with the fancy “salt hotels” closer to Uyuni like Luna de Salada).
The second night is usually spent at one of the various hostels purpose-made for tour groups and sprinkled around Eduardo Avaroa National Park. Note that a handful of select providers allow you to stay walking distance from the hot springs, which is appealing for some because it means that you can spend the evening soaking in the springs and gazing up at the stars!
Be aware that most providers other than the very-high end ones will expect you to share a room, sometimes with large groups, so if that’s a problem for you be sure to inquire in advance. But most of the people on the salt flat tours are backpackers used to these situations, and I personally think it’s part of the fun!
Starting in Chile or Tupiza – Most Salar de Uyuni tours start in Uyuni, Bolivia and follow the rough itinerary I outlined above. But an increasing number of tour providers are offering tours that start in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or from Tupiza, Bolivia (a longer tour that may make sense if you’re coming overland from Argentina).
The San Pedro option may be especially convenient if you are backpacking South America from south to north and want to continue on into Bolivia from Chile. But note that tour prices in San Pedro are typically more expensive than if you took the same tour starting in Uyuni.
The list of operators providing Salar de Uyuni tours is constantly shifting as new cut-rate shops open and close all the time. Plus, as mentioned above, many operators have a poor track record of safety. Moreover, many lack a real internet presence, and even those that have one were slow in responding to my emails. All of which means that trying to book a tour of the salt flats independently ahead of time can be a maddening exercise!
Many hostels in La Paz, San Pedro, Uyuni, or even Cusco can help you with booking ahead of time, though they may not be clear about what agency they use.
Here’s a running list of some of the more reputable tour agencies that offer salt flat tours from Uyuni:
Quechua Connections – (WhatsApp+(591) 72440413) – One of the more responsive agencies and one with solid reviews. I had originally planned to take my tour with them before the unexpected strike shut the town of Uyuni down. Ultimately I had to find another bootleg provider, but Quechua was professional in assisting me and my friends through the trying ordeal.
Red Planet Expeditions – (+(591) 72403896) – Probably the most popular agency among the backpacker crowd, and the one with the largest fleet.
Banjo Tours – (WhatsApp +591-67165394) – A Uyuni tour operator that gets pretty solid reviews for their service and communication. They also have one of the best websites out there.
There are a ton of other operators in Uyuni town and, if you’re comfortable winging it, you’re probably going to be just fine booking a last minute tour in person.
With that said, no matter what you do, you need to have some flexibility in your schedule! You could end up trapped in Uyuni by a blockade like I was!
It depends on the operator and whether you are booking online or in Uyuni town. Most online quotes I received were between $150 and $195USD per person in total for the full 3D/2N tour.
But some of the established operators listed above may charge a bit more. The cut-rate operator I ultimately had to take to escape the protests only charged 800 Bolivianos ($115 USD) as I recall. And, if you’re willing to bargain for your own operator in Uyuni, I’ve seen reports of people finding fours for as little as $100 per person.
For all tours, the price should include your transportation, food, and lodging. It will likely not include admission to Isla Incahuasi (~30 Bolivanos) and Eduardo Avaroa National Park (150 Bolivianos). If you are leaving Bolivia for Chile at the end of the tour, be sure to check if you’re subject to Bolivia’s departure tax. You’ll also want to bring some cash to tip your guide/driver/cook at the end.
Other than that, and maybe a drink or snack from a vendor along the way, there’s not a lot else you’ll need to spend for this awesome tour.
Yes, you should tip your driver, guide, and cook (if you have one).
Most tour providers are used to vegetarians, but be sure to communicate any dietary restrictions in advance. I’m a vegetarian, and in practice this meant I just ate what everyone else ate minus the meat. So get ready for a lot of rice and beans!
Packing snacks and extra food is highly suggested.
You can visit the salt flats all year. But during the rainy season (December – March), conditions may be wetter and there are more safety concerns. On the other hand, that’s the best time to get those iconic photos of the reflection off the pools of water on the salt flats!
I suggest getting to Uyuni a night early and booking a separate stargazing excursion.
The first night of the tour you’ll have technically exited the salt flats already and, though some drivers may be willing to take you back out, the best way to guarantee a proper star watching experience is to do it separately from the Salar de Uyuni tours.
You can shell out the money for a quick flight, or settle in for a long bus ride (many are overnight and arrive in time for you to go straight out on your tour). For more details see here.
Technically yes, but unless you’re a real pro at off-roading, you’re going to need to go with a tour company. You wouldn’t want to find yourself stuck in the middle of the Bolivian desert after all! So if you’re thinking of going solo through the salt flats, be darn sure you’ve done a lot of homework!
I hope you enjoy your Bolivian salt flats tour as much as I did! It’s definitely an item that belongs on your bucket list.
If you want more, you can check out my post on 19 awesome photos of the Bolivian salt flats. Or read about how I got trapped in Uyuni by protesters and almost didn’t make the tour!
I’d love to hear any questions you have — or even just how your Salar de Uyuni adventure went — in the comments! And if you still need help with your travel planning, or just want to meet a community of hundreds of like-minded travelers, we’d love to have you join us over at the Travel Lemming Community Facebook Group!
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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, recently concluded a six month stint living in Mexico, and is now currently traveling in Thailand.