Planning Your Visit To The Uyuni Salt Flats

Aug 10, 2015


So you’re thinking about doing the tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats. First and foremost, stop thinking about it and do it! It’s not a question as to whether you should do it or not, the real question is how should you do it? Below I’ll cover the tour options, general expectations of the trip, what you’ll need to bring with you, and finally choosing a tour agency. So if the Salar de Uyuni isn’t yet on your list of things to do, get it on your list ASAP!

Tour Options

Salt_Flats_Day1_-3.jpgFirst, there are six different options for doing your tour all depending on where you’re coming from and what your onward plans are. If you’re starting in Bolivia, you can choose between doing a 1-, 2-, 3-, or 4-day trip. If you’re starting in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you can choose between the 3-day or 4-day trip.

Starting in Bolivia

Starting in Bolivia, you will have the option to book your tour in almost any major city within the country: La Paz, Sucre, Potosí, and in Uyuni itself to name a few. Many people concern themselves with booking far enough in advance. In general this is not necessary from Bolivia. If you know your itinerary and it is fairly set, then you can book it wherever you’d like and the prices should be around the same price. But for many, booking a few days in advance will be fine as well from either Uyuni or from whatever city you’ll be in right before. The 1-day tour simply takes you from Uyuni into the Salt Flats for the day, providing photo opportunities and the like. The 2-day tour takes you a little further in with a night spent at one of the salt hotels and again ends back in Uyuni. The 3-day tour from Uyuni is the one that will depend on your plans after the tour. If you are planning to head onward into Chile then your 3rd day will drop you in SPA. If you are planning on staying in Bolivia, then your 3rd day will bring you back to Uyuni. Mind you, there is not much to do in Uyuni, so plan on getting into town and getting right to work shopping for the tour that best suits you.


Starting in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Choosing between the 3-day tour and the 4-day tour really depends on what your plans are after visiting the Salt Flats. If your itinerary requires that you head back into Chile right away, then the 4-day tour from SPA will be the best option for you. It covers all of the same sites as the 3-day tour, with the 4th day primarily being a travel day back to SPA, Chile. If you plan on continuing on through Bolivia, then the 3-day tour is for you and it will end in the town of Uyuni. You can easily book your tour right in SPA. No need for advanced purchasing unless you’re on an extremely tight schedule and don’t have the time to shop around town.


General Expectations

Your tour length, starting point and ending point will obviously dictate the exact expectations of your tour. We started in SPA and ended in Uyuni, Bolivia doing the 3-day tour. So as a part of our tour, we had to cross the border from Chile into Bolivia. This is a simple crossing, but it is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. A few small mud buildings are what stand between you and entering Bolivia. Exiting Chile actually happens just outside of SPA; be sure to get your stamp here because there are no agents after this and it’s about a 45-minute drive to the Bolivian border control. There was no exit tax for us when we left and because we’re from the USA, we had to pay a reciprocity fee of $60 USD pp.

Day 1:

Crossing the border into Bolivia – Depending on the time of year, be sure to dress Salt_Flats_Day1_-1.jpg
warmly. We had to stand outside for about an hour between our wait to get our passports stamped and to eat breakfast and the temperature outside was hovering right around freezing. And let’s not even talk about the little bit of wind that whipped around us from time to time. This was towards the end of May, so it was approaching winter.

Sights to see – Throughout the day we stopped at several lakes to take pictures and to enjoy the scenery. Our guide explained to us quite a bit about the lakes, how they were formed and other useful information. We also made a stop at a thermal bath, which was right beside one of the lakes, making for a lovely backdrop. I believe we had to pay 6 bs to use the changing room and the baths themselves may have been included. Later on in the day we also stopped to see some geysers, which were quite active and very interesting to see. Steaming, gurgling, and wafting the scent of sulfur everywhere, it was a fun stop. We ended our day at a double lake, both filled with flamingos for a sunset over the mountains.

Click to view more Day 1 photos

Take noteAltitude sickness could be an issue for some on this trip. There is no way to determine who will get it or who won’t, as no amount of physical fitness will keep it away. In general, it is advised to spend a few days relaxing at altitude to get your body used to the elevation. In my own experience, I had been at a relatively high altitude in SPA for several days and figured it would be more than enough. However, I did suffer from mild altitude sickness. I was very tired on the first day, I had slight headaches throughout the day, I felt dizzy at times – especially around the geysers, and by the end of the day my cheeks had taken on a purple flush. I attribute that to the extreme cold in the morning, the hot water of the thermal bath, and the lack of oxygen in the air. I was back to normal by the next day, while still suffering at times from the same slight headaches. Drink lots of water, coca tea, and chew on coca leaves if you have any with you.

Day 2:

Sights to see – The second day started with our group wandering around the site of an ancient volcano that over time had been weathered down to nothing but some odd looking rock formations, most notably the Piedra de Arbol or Rock Tree, all amongst a sea of sand. This site was like an adult-sized playground. Rocks as much as 30 feet (10m) high with perfect hand holds, allowed even the most novice of climbers to make it to the top for the perfect photo opp. Continuing our day we enjoyed more beautiful lakes and even got to have a picnic lunch beside one of them. The second half of the day is when the really cool things began to present themselves. This is when we finally entered the salt flats. And this is when words and pictures start to lose their value and fall completely short of seeing it with your own eyes. Imagine if you will, a completely flat and purely white surface extending for miles on either side of you butting up to what appear to be small mountains. Small until you realize that the horizon is playing tricks with your eyes and you simply can’t see where they actually meet up with the salt flat. And that’s just to either side of you. Looking ahead, you can’t even see where it leads you. For hundreds of miles, this salty surface extends ahead, appearing to melt into the sky on the horizon. And in the middle of this huge expanse lies an old railway line still in use to this day, though far less frequently than in the past. And along the sides of the hills and mountains that line this huge expanse sit ancient coral reef formations, thousands, if not millions of years old. And that’s when it really begins to sink in, that millions of years ago you would be sitting far below the surface in a massive sea. Mind blown.

Within this great expanse of snow-white salt sit hundreds of little “islands,” which are volcanic in nature and covered in coral. These were the coral reefs of this ancient sea. Our last stop before calling it a night was in an old town, which dated back to pre-Inca. Outside of town sits a necropolis, which was the final resting place for both the nobility and the common people of this ancient civilization. The most interesting part about this necropolis is that it was built within the old coral and volcanic formations.

We ended our night in an actual salt hotel. Everything from the walls, to the floor, to the tables, to the beds are made of blocks of salt. We licked it. We know. It is as cool as it sounds. Hope you like salt!

Because football (soccer to you Americans) is such a national sport in Bolivia, our guides took us out onto the salt flat after dark to A) do some start gazing and B) play some late-night salt flat football. The stargazing was pretty great out there. There is obviously no light pollution and the horizon is low enough that you can see a huge amount of sky. The late night football I could do without. The tough part about this outing was that it was below freezing outside so our extremities froze pretty quickly! Otherwise, it was a fun night.

Click to view more Day 2 photos

Take note
– Nights get to be pretty cold, freezing cold in fact, during the late-fall and winter months. Many of the hostels do not have heat so staying warm inside your sleeping bag can be a challenge. Bring clothing to keep yourself warm at night and in the early mornings of the trip.

Day 3:

Sights to see – Today is the big day. The official Salt Flats day. We got up well before sunrise to make it to one of the bigger “islands” to watch sunrise. The views from the top were worth having to get up at 4am. Imagine looking out for miles in any direction and seeing nothing but that snow-white salt. If you’re from anywhere where it snows, your head will tell you that you are seeing a beautiful snow covered field. It’s stunning. After taking in the beautiful sunrise, breakfast was ready back down by the Jeep. To keep us all warm and to keep things interesting, all of the guides get together with the guests for a fun game of “Bolivia vs. the world” salt flats football. While we didn’t join in, it was quite fun to watch. How many times can you say you played or saw people play football in the middle of a gigantic salt flat? Very few times I imagine.

This was also when we had some time to practice our salt flats photography. Perspective photography is what the Salt Flats is all about and now is your time to figure out your props and what you’d like to do with them. Practice, practice, practice! That way when you get to the spot where you take the real photos, you can be more productive with your time. The photo spot is quite literally in the middle of nowhere in the salt flats. Of course you will see other groups out in the distance, and you’ll pass several on your way, but where you stop will allow you to get some really great shots with nothing to get in the way of the view.

After getting your iconic salt flat perspective photos you’ll check out an original salt hotel no longer in use before arriving at a market full of vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs and alpaca goods. Most groups will also have lunch here before heading into Uyuni to complete the tour with the Train Cemetery; a graveyard of train engines and box cars, destroyed to different degrees. It’s, interesting; nothing spectacular but most tours include it, so why not.

Click to view more Day 3 photos

Take note – Unless you’re a skilled photographer, perspective photography is not the easiest form of photography. First, in doing research, see if you can find a tour agency that has guides who will help with the photography. They do tour after tour and get lots of practice with what things work in terms of props and poses, and they often have lots of practice in taking these photos. Second, if you’re taking your own photos, have lots and lots of patience with each other and don’t set your expectations too high. Remember that you’re not a professional and neither are your friends and group mates! If somehow you’re able to get your hands on a tripod, I imagine it would come in very handy, although it’s not very practical to carry around while traveling. I know that while taking our photos, I kept saying that I wished I had one. Third, look around on the Internet for ideas on props and poses. It’s better to come prepared with what you’d like to do rather than showing up and not making the most of your time. There are plenty of fun and creative ideas out there; it’s up to you to make it happen!

Extra Tips:

• When visiting during late-fall, winter, and early spring, pack accordingly. You’ll want warm clothes and maybe even gloves, hat, and a scarf.
• Do plenty of research when selecting your operator. Ask about meals, hostels, the language(s) the guides speak, and if they can help with photography.
• Bring enough toilet paper to last you three days. Even if it means bringing two or three rolls.
• Bring plenty of water and snacks. You’ll be fed well at mealtime and there will be hot water for tea and coffee, but not always cold drinking water and you may want something small to hold you over between meals.
• Study photos of what others have done on the salt flats for ideas of your own.
• Bring some good props. Spoons, bottles, cooking pots, and toy animals/dinosaurs are always a good place to start.
• A good prop is at least 6 inches tall/long, otherwise you’ll be too small in the distance and your photos won’t come out very well.
• Take the front seat of the Jeep as often as possible.
• Bring something to share with your group and make friends with them quickly.
• Bring music in case you have a cool driver (guide) that will let you play something of your choosing.
• Pack lotion and sunscreen in your day bag, especially for after the thermal bath. Remember to put your bathing suit and towel in said day bag. In fact, whatever you’ll need each day should be in your day bag. Everything else gets tied down on the roof and you will not see it until you arrive at your hostel each night.
• Bring coca leaves and aspirin in case you start to get altitude sickness.

Keep in mind; everything outlined in the general expectations is what we experienced on our tour from Chile, through the Salt Flats, and ending in Uyuni, Bolivia. We chose to go with Lithium Aventura and had an excellent time. Our guide only spoke Spanish, which we were able to handle with our somewhat limited understanding of the language. I certainly think that he did his absolute best at explaining things knowing that none of us were fluent in Spanish and I’m sure that he would have also been more conversational. He may have also been good with photography but the language barrier made it a bit difficult to express it. Overall, I think he did a good job. With that said, just about every company has good and bad reviews; try and talk to people who have done it and get their opinion on the company that they went with and what they liked and disliked about it. I find that those reviews are better than the ones you find on TripAdvisor or anything like that.

I truly hope that you put the Salt Flats on your list of places to see ASAP and that when you do make the trip, you have an amazing time. It will be one of the most breathtaking things you will see in your life and something that you tell your friends and family for years to come.

Roam on!




Written by Jen Hays
Jen is a marketer with a passion for the digital world and an insatiable desire to travel and explore all that the physical world has to offer; marrying the two to share her experiences with and inspire all who join her along the way.

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Category: Activities

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