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:
- Why you should be totally pumped about going on this amazing trip
- What you will see on your Salar de Uyuni tour
- How to select a provider (including some suggested providers and contact info)
- FAQs and tips for maximizing your Bolivian salt flats adventure
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!
Table of Content
- 1 Why the Salar de Uyuni Tour Should be On You Bucket List
- 2 What You’ll See on a Salar de Uyuni Tour
- 3 How to Find a Bolivian Salt Flat Tour Provider
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions About Tours of Salar de Uyuni
- 4.1 How much does a Salar de Uyuni tour cost?
- 4.2 What is included in the tours?
- 4.3 What should I pack for a Salar de Uyuni tour?
- 4.4 Are tips expected for the Bolivian drivers and guides?
- 4.5 What if I have dietary restrictions?
- 4.6 What is the best time of the year to tour the Bolivian salt flats?
- 4.7 What about viewing stars on Bolivia’s salt flats?
- 4.8 How do you get from La Paz to Uyuni?
- 4.9 Can’t I just do the Salar de Uyuni tour independently?
Why the Salar de Uyuni Tour Should be On You Bucket List
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.
What You’ll See on a Salar de Uyuni Tour
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):
Typical Day 1 of Bolivian Salt Flat Tours
- Train cemetery – Most tours start with a visit to a graveyard for abandoned trains just outside Uyuni town.
- Colchani – A small town on the edge of the salt flats. Some tours stop here to see a salt processing plant (my opinion = #meh).
- Ojos de Sal – An area where the salt is gathered in mounds that, in the right conditions, are very photogenic. They frankly looked a little lame when I was there, but I’ve seen some photos during the rains where they look incredible.
- *The Salar de Uyuni – This is it! The main attraction is — surprisingly — front-loaded on most tours, so you’ll most of the first day driving around the Bolivian salt flats and pulling over for photos. Be sure to get all your shots in while you can!
- Isla Incahuasi – An “island” in the middle of the salt flats with a small hill covered in cacti. It’s a short hike to the top (you’ll have to pay a small non-included fee).
- Pia Pia Island Cave – A second island with a decent-looking cave and a giant cactus.
- Overnight on the edge of the salt flats – Many tours, but not all, stay in budget hotels/hostels made of salt bricks, which is a unique experience for your bucket list.
Typical Day 2 of Bolivian Salt Flat Tours
- Chiguana Desert – You’ll wake up early to visit to a number of dormant volcanoes (and one semi-active one!).
- *Lagoons – You’ll visit the first of a number of unique high-elevation lagoons, several of which have flamingos.
- Siloli Desert – This part of the tour is a staggering 4,500+ meters above sea level!
- “Rock Tree” – In the middle of the desert, you’ll stop for some photos of this uniquely shaped rock.
- Eduardo Avaroa National Park – A national park filled with lagoons and stunning scenery. Have your passport ready for inspection.
- *Laguna Colorado – The first site within the park, and one of the most impressive on the tour. This pink-colored lagoon is filled with tons of flamingos!
- Overnight stay – Some tour operators stop in the national park for the night, while a couple will spend it closer to the hot springs. Almost all require shared basic hostel rooms for this night.
Typical Day 3 of Bolivian Salt Flat Tours
- *Geysers – Your salt flat tour will end with a bang as these amazing geysers get really active when the dawn light hits them!
- Hot springs – You’ll be rewarded for waking up early (we had to get up at 4 AM!) by spending the hours after dawn at bathing in some hot springs (really more like “warm” springs to be totally honest).
- Green Lake (“Laguna Verde”) – Another uniquely colored lagoon.
- Drop off at Chile border or looooong back ride to Uyuni – If you’re heading on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you’ll get dropped off at a mountain checkpoint and catch a bus into San Pedro for visa processing on the Chilean side. If you’re planning to head back to Uyuni, settle in for a long 7 hour drive (with a few breaks and stops along the way, of course).
How to Find a Bolivian Salt Flat Tour Provider
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.
Considerations When Selecting a Salar de Uyuni Tour Provider
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.
List of Salar de Uyuni Tour Providers
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!
Frequently Asked Questions About Tours of Salar de Uyuni
How much does a Salar de Uyuni tour cost?
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.
What is included in the tours?
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.
What should I pack for a Salar de Uyuni tour?
- Layers, layers, layers! It can get freezing at night and blazing hot during the day.
- Extra water – Most operators provide some but I wouldn’t just rely on them.
- Snacks – Again, you’ll be provided food, but snacks are always a good idea.
- A bathing suit and towel – for the hot springs.
- Sunblock, sunglasses, lip balm, and lotion – You’ll thank me. It’s really, really, really sunny and dry!
- Props for photos! – The drivers will have the classic plastic dinosaurs, but if you want anything else for your salt flat photo op be sure to pack it in.
Are tips expected for the Bolivian drivers and guides?
Yes, you should tip your driver, guide, and cook (if you have one).
What if I have dietary restrictions?
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.
What is the best time of the year to tour the Bolivian salt flats?
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!
What about viewing stars on Bolivia’s 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.
How do you get from La Paz to Uyuni?
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.
Can’t I just do the Salar de Uyuni tour independently?
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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