The Uyuni Salt Flats are high on most traveller’s bucket lists. The vast expanse of bright white salt creates the perfect back-drop for perspective optical illusions and if you visit at the right time of year, can also create a gorgeous reflective surface. I’ve never been anywhere else like it and it was certainly one of the highlights of my three months in South America.
RELATED: Read my entire three month itinerary for South America here!
The easiest way to access the Uyuni Salt Flats is by taking an organised tour. You could hire a car and attempt to drive yourself, but I’d put money on you getting hideously lost (while getting lost can be fun, in this instance, getting lost in such a vast open space with no facilities probably isn’t worth the ‘adventure’).
There are two tour options available to you:
1. Rock up in the town of Uyuni (which can be accessed by bus or plane) and take day/evening tours into the salt flats. This is definitely a great option if you are travelling on a strict budget and want to control exactly what you see/do.
2. Take a multi day tour from either Uyuni or San Pedro De Atacama (in Northern Chile), usually ending in the other destination. Contrary to popular belief, the multi-day tours don’t spend multiple days in the Salt Flats, instead they take you through some incredible Bolivian countryside too.
RELATED: If you fancy combining San Pedro De Atacama with a trip to the Uyuni Salt Flats, read my ultimate guide to Atacama here!
Before booking my tour, I had heard horror stories from other travellers about the unreliable nature of many of the tour operators. From tales of getting horrendously lost, drunk drivers and unacknowledged bookings, it’s safe to say that I was cautious when choosing my tour guide!
After much deliberation, review reading and discussion with other travellers, a group of us decided to book the 3 day / 2 night tour with Cordillera Traveller from San Pedro De Atacama.
Cordillera Traveller is one of the more expensive tour companies available — the 3 day / 2 night tour costs 195 USD for lodging, meals and a Spanish speaking guide. Prices are more expensive if you choose to book a private tour.
While I am generally a budget traveller, this is definitely an instance of ‘you get what you pay for’ and I am very happy that I opted for the more expensive option! Cordillera Traveller were professional from start to finish – from the helpful agent in their San Pedro Office, to our incredible guide (Omar).
The one thing that you should be aware of when booking with Cordillera Traveller is that barely any of their guides speak English (English speaking guides are hard to come by on the Uyuni Salt Flats, but a few do exist). Luckily for me (who’s Spanish speaking skills only reach the extent of ‘hola’, ‘por favour’ and ‘gracias’), a young German girl was in my car who spoke fluent Spanish and English and could translate for the rest of us.
RELATED: This isn’t the first time that I opted for the more expensive option to ensure a better experience, find out how much I spent during my 3 months in South America here!
I’ll start by saying that an overnight tour through the salt flats is not for you if you aren’t used to ‘roughing it’. If you’re expecting 5 star accommodation and caviar for dinner, maybe think again. The hotels used generally do not have showers and you will have to share a room with your fellow travellers. However, what this tour lacks in luxury, it makes up for in an abundance of gorgeous landscapes.
If that word of warning doesn’t scare you (it shouldn’t), here’s what you need to pack:
We all hopped into a mini bus at around 8am and departed San Pedro De Atacama, heading towards the Bolivian border.
While the tour guides sorted out the legal process of crossing the border, we were served breakfast (ham and cheese sandwiches) and it was the first time I experienced any side-effects of being at high altitude (the Chile/Bolivia border is at 4,500m altitude after all)! I found it really hard to swallow the food but luckily this was the only time I felt any side-affects of altitude, so the rest of the trip went smoothly!
Once we had crossed over the border, we were split into four 4×4 cars with 5 passengers in each car. Alongside our brilliant guide (Omar), I was teamed up with a lovely German couple (Helena and Mika) and two Dutch friends (Roxy and Joeri) – by the end of the three days, we were the best of friends and even developed a love for Bolivian music we could sing along to (which sounds cute until you realise that only Helena could speak Spanish…). At each hotel and lunch point, the 4 cars owned by Cordillera Traveller would meet up, so the social aspect was brilliant!
Almost immediately, we passed through some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen. From vast lagoons to towering mountains and even some steaming hot springs (that I wasn’t brave enough to enter as it was so cold outside).
We also managed to see some small geysirs (which was exciting given my trip to the geysirs in San Pedro De Atacama went so horrifically wrong)!
Although, of course the most exciting part of day one was seeing wild llamas for the first time! I think the whole car squealed with excitement. It’s safe to say that by the end of my 3 months in South America, I’d seen enough llamas and alpacas to last me a lifetime, but most of them were pets/kept in semi-captive conditions. Seeing animals roaming free in the wild is always much more rewarding!
Our final sightseeing spot of the day was the Red Lagoon which is home to more than 30,000 flamingos. One thing that I learnt was that flamingos shit a lot. And I mean A LOT. From this day forward, my hiking shoes have always had a slight green tinge to them…
We ended the day by heading to our hotel for dinner and card games. The hotel was very basic but comfortable enough. The five of us shared a large room and were given plenty of blankets to keep warm throughout the night – a few of us also hired heavy duty sleeping bags from the hotel owners. I was actually ended up being too warm!
Day two on the road was very similar itinerary wise (i.e. driving to incredible landscapes, getting out at a few stops to explore) – although the terrain on day two was much more rocky than day one.
One of the most impressive landscapes on day two was the “stone tree” and the surrounding rock formations. We even managed to spot a few of the native Bolivian fox and rabbit species (which were obviously very cute).
My favourite thing about day two was learning about the Bolivian way of life in more detail. Omar told us lots of stories about his life, his family and Bolivian people generally (helpfully translated by Helena) which put our privilege as travellers into perspective.
Omar told us that young boys in the Uyuni area are fantastic footballers given that they train at high altitudes and therefore have incredible lung capacities. However, Bolivia struggles to gather the funds to properly form a team for the World Cup. When I win the lottery (when, not if), I will go back and help fund the Bolivian football teams!
We also passed huge quinoa fields (which are far more beautiful than you would expect). Quinoa has always been a staple within Bolivian people’s diets, especially in these rural areas where quinoa and llama/alpaca are sometimes the only foods they can get hold of. However, the Western world’s current obsession with quinoa means that it is becoming too expensive for many rural Bolivian families. To put it into perspective, McDonalds failed to become a profitable business within Bolivia (there are currently no McDonalds stores in the country) and economic issues are cited as the main reason for the failure given that many families could not afford ~$3 for a meal. Bolivian people also allegedly showed a lack of interest in purchasing from a large corporation, preferring to opt for local, family run businesses. The former president Evo Morales once said: “[McDonald’s is] not interested in the health of human beings, only in earnings and corporate profits.”
Usually, the second night of Cordillera Traveller‘s tour is spent in the famous Salt Hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel was suffering flooding during the time of our trip, so we had to stay in a guesthouse outside of the salt flats.
RELATED: Read more about Bolivian family businesses, particularly how the Cholita’s run them in this post about how to spend your time in Bolvia’s amazing capital city, La Paz.
And finally the day had arrived… we were going to the Uyuni Salt Flats! Our tour guides gave us two options (either to have a very early start to try and catch the sunrise over the salt flats or to have a lay-in and hope for better weather later in the day). Our car opted for the latter and we were very glad of our choice! We passed the early cars on their way back and the sun had barely risen by that point.
As we were visiting the salt flats during the rainy season, the journey into the main centre of the salt flats was VERY wet. The water levels were very deceiving at times and our car ended up getting stuck in a ditch (see the last photo above)… Despite Omar’s best efforts, the car wasn’t going to budge based on engine power alone (queue the rest of us being very dramatic, saying that our lives were flashing before our eyes). I was stuck in the very back seat of the car (looking after the food, obviously), but everyone else was able to climb out of the windows and jumped into the water-filled ditch to try and push the car. The water came up to their hips at some points and was freezing cold – absolute heroes! The added adventure only added to our excitement and the singing was at a higher volume than ever before!
RELATED: This isn’t the only dangerous adventure story I have from Bolivia, find out what happened when a guy in my tour group fell off the edge of a cliff while cycling Death Road here!
We stopped at the salt hotel that we weren’t able to stay at the night before; this was our first proper look at the main salt flats and we were all completely blown away. This is also where you’ll find the plot with lots of flags! We drove further into the salt flats and spent most of the day taking photos!
The day ended with a quick stop at the train cemetery which was very interesting to see before heading to the town of Uyuni where our tour ends. The rest of my group stayed in the Cordillera Traveller‘s office waiting for a bus to Sucre while Omar kindly dropped me off at my hotel – I booked a stay at Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel which was brand new, very clean and great for one night before my flight to La Paz the next day!
I ended the day by getting dinner with some fellow travellers from the hostel and trying llama meat for the first time!
These three days were truly incredible. Partly due to the amazing landscapes and sights but also partly due to the fantastic people that I met along the way – if you’re considering visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats, I highly recommend it.
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