Exploring Salar de Uyuni: the good, the bad and the ugly

Uyuni. If you are planning a trip to South America or simply love travelling, you probably have heard this name before. This small town on the west part of Bolivia is world wide famous for its the salt flats that have its name, the biggest in the world, spreading over more than 10.000 square km (4.000 square miles). For many travellers, it is a bucket list item and a top attraction to visit during their trip to South America. But behind the dream and the attractive pictures the reality can sometimes make you frown or get you scared.
 In this article, I am talking about what you should know before getting on a Salar de Uyuni tour.


Salar de Uyuni: a place where everything can happen!

The great

Going on tour to explore the Salar will blow your mind away. First, because the tour actually covers much more than the Salar de Uyuni ( at least for the tours longer than a day). For A 3 days you will go through some of the most surrealistic landscapes of the planet. You will be immersed in a variety of environments with ranges of colors going from white, to blue, green, grey and red! There is a good reason why the Dakar rally pass there every year to get a good dose of fantastic images.

First you will go through the desert of salt itself, like a white blanket stretching over kilometres as far as sight can reach. The place is a photographer’s favourite as flats allow for some fun perspective tricks creating hilarious shots  (see some great cliches here). It is also make sunrise and sunset time there really special… (more on that later).

The second part of the tours will bring you from red lakes with hundreds of flamingo flying above, to active volcanos and steaming geysers! On some part you will feel like you are racing through Tatoine (in Star Wars) while you would not be surprised to see Frankeinsten raising from the boiling geysers.

The Wow factor is extremely high on this trip, like a concentrate of some of the most amazing things you can see on Earth.

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The bad

A few things though will make you frown.

It’s busy out there. You, the immensity, the emptiness… and 30 other jeeps, all going on the same itinerary! Salar de Uyuni as nothing exclusive. As often unfortunately in South America, it looks like most operators just copy each other, afraid to position their business a bit differently. After talking to 3 or 4 agencies, you should be ready to do the sales pitch with them!

Let’s talk about comfort…Accommodation is really basic and there is no hot shower available (or for an extra fee). You have to pay to access the toilets during the tour and they are obviously not spending the money on cleaning products….For when you are on the move, be ready for a bumpy ride! No need to say that the tracks are not in perfect shape -again, there is a reason why they do rallyes there, and why you are in a jeep- and while the ride over the Salar is appreciable, you may have the impression to be in a shaker the 2 other days. Not the best for those with back problems or motion sickness.

and health. Add to this that the road starts already at 3600m of altitude, climbs on the second day up to  5000m (16,000 feet) with a night spent at 4200m. Travellers that are not properly acclimatise will suffer from stomach problems, headaches and difficulty to sleep.

Is it too much? While the tour is incredible, it might feel a bit overwhelming at times. At the end of the 3 days, i had the impression that the only thing we were doing was driving from one photo stop to the next. It was true to a large extend, the distance to cover is huge and I didn’t really feel like I really had the time to soak up the different environments. After getting used to travel slow on this trip, the shock was huge!

The ugly


Talking about the dirty bits of the Salar de Uyuni tours

This is starting even before you get on the jeep. Most of people who would approach you are just reseller, they get a commission to put you in a jeep.The resellers care little about the quality of the tours and the jeep drivers too! In our experience we waited 45min after the time agreed to leave. We were first assigned one jeep and then had to move to a second one. On day 3, more than 50% of jeeps missed the sunrise over the geysers on day 3 – we did, with more than 20min-, and in most cases it was not due to the tourists!

I kept the worst for last. If some tours get the backpackers angry, some really play with lives. Alcoholism is a plague among drivers, especially the Uyuni ones. Some drive drunk, ours was almost falling asleep… Accident happen often, and unfortunately a few deadly ones happened a few years back.

So… should you just not go? Of course not!

Tips for your exploration of Salar de Uyuni

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Choosing your itinerary

Plan at least 3 days if you want to see the geysers and the lagunas, I just can’t imagine how it would have been if we would have squeezed everything in 2!

You can start the tour either from Uyuni or by the south, from Tupiza. Agencies leaving from tupiza have in general the reputation to be more reliable. On the other hand, by starting in Uyuni you can make your way towards San Pedro de Atacama on the otehr side of teh Chilean border. If you plan to visit this area anyway, it will take you just a couple of hours more at the end of your tour instead of sitting for a long day of travel on the way back where the tours don’t do any stop (no highlights).

Be aware that during the rainy season (February -April) the Salar might be inaccessible and the tours might go through a different route.

Booking a tour

As most of the time in South America, you get what you pay for. I have already talk about this issues on my article dedicated How much should you pay for your trek to Machu Picchu and the observations are valid for the Uyuni salar too.

Tours start as cheap as $125 dollars for 3 days to $500-600 or even more for a custom tour. You can be budget conscious but don’t be too chip. Be aware that the most premium agencies who have a good reputation are usually booked for a week in advance.

If you have the possibility, create a group of 6 travellers in advance. You can be lucky, and we were. But if you aren´t and get stuck with 4 idiots the trip can easily turn into a nightmare.

On the road

Make the best out of your time: don´t hesitate to ask the driver to slow down. On the first day, we insisted to wait for the sunset over the salar. The next morning we put our alarm clocks early to witness the sunrise over the desert. These 2 magic moments were the little plus that made us happy about the trip overall.

What to bring

  • It in freezing cold at night in the salar, temperature can go down to -5C in summer to -20C in winter. Year around bring warm clothes, a hat, gloves and additional socks for the night. A scarf can be useful with some much dust around.
  • Don’t forget the swimsuit. I didn’t think I will swim in the “hot spring” but eventually it was fun, especially after being so frozen!
  • Bring some cash. Entering the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa (south part) is only possible after paying a 150 Bolivianos fee.
  • Bring the baby wipes – showers are limited and is you can get one it will probably be cold.
  • Pack spare batteries, most of places it is not possible to charge anything.


The final word

Smile. Security must goes first of course. But for the smaller details try to  smile and enjoy the ride. You will probably never come back to that place and you don’t want to remember you just felt grumpy during the all time. Focus on the bright side – mother nature is at her best in this part of Bolivia!


Making the best of the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)!

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