There are highlights galore when planning a trip to South America. Machu Picchu, the Amazon River and jungle, Iguazu Falls, Patagonia, the Galapagos, all are great places to add to a big multi-stop trip. The Salar de Uyuni (also known as the Bolivian Salt Flats) should also be added here.
A Salt Flats tour is surely to be a highlight of any trip to South America, but choosing the right way to see it will have a massive impact on your experience.
When we were planning our round the world trip, Bolivia was a country that we were intrigued by but weren’t totally convinced by. We had heard wonderful things about the beauty of the country itself, but we had also heard negative statements about the difficulty of transportation and the general challenges of getting around in such a poor and developing country. Add in the high visa costs relative to most other countries in South America, and we weren’t sold on making Bolivia a must-see destination during our time on the continent.
We eventually decided to travel overland from Peru to Bolivia and spent almost a month there, and boy are we glad we did. While highlights abound from our time in this diverse and amazingly beautiful country, it was our trip to the Salt Flats that really put Bolivia near the top of our favorite countries list.
As with visiting many of the world’s great wonders, there are plenty of options for traveling to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. The thing that many travelers assume is that because of the name of the tour itself, you have to begin in the city of Uyuni and most of the time is spent visiting the salt flats themselves. Both of those assumptions are wrong. While most travelers do actually begin and end their tour in Uyuni, it’s not the only option, and while you obviously visit the actual salt flats, most tours are at least 3-4 days long and only spend one of those days visiting the salt flats themselves.
There are several options for tours when going to the Bolivian salt flats. You can arrive in La Paz and purchase a tour there. You can travel to Uyuni on your own and book a tour from there. You can also travel all the way down to the southern part of the country and book a tour from Tupiza. Each have their pros and cons, but let me offer a few tips and some advice based on our experience:
- Booking a tour from Uyuni will be cheaper. You travel fewer miles, so prices are usually lower than if you book in La Paz or Tupiza.
- There will be more companies offering tours from Uyuni. Since it’s the more popular place to begin your tour, it goes without saying that there are more tour companies in Uyuni than in Tupiza. Having more options is usually a good thing, but in a country like Bolivia, that may not be the case. There are a lot of shady tour operators out there, and it’s easy to get snowed by the lower prices that some companies offer.
- Most tours leaving from Uyuni pack 6 travelers, a guide, and a cook in the car. Combine that with all the food, water, and gear for 8 people, and it can become quite crowded.
- Most tours leaving from Tupiza are more expensive because they have to travel longer and often only put 4 travelers in each jeep. Two less people really makes a difference in price but does the same for comfort.
- Keep in mind most salt flat tours are 3-4 days long, and you’ll spend up to 10-12 hours in a jeep of some sort each day. More people = less space = more discomfort.
- Verify that your guide speaks English and at what level. We were told our guide could speak conversational English. My definition of conversational must differ from theirs because our guide could barely speak any English.
- Tours leaving from Uyuni visit the salt flats on the first day before moving on to the rest of the tour. Tours leaving from Tupiza visit the salt flats last.
- While the salt flats themselves are certainly the highlight, the other 2-3 days are also amazing and will be just as memorable.
All tour operators are obviously different, and remember that the price should be lower if you go from Uyuni instead of Tupiza. Also keep in mind that in Bolivia nearly everything is negotiable. If you have time, are flexible, and come during the slower times of the year, you have negotiating power and might be able to find a deal. We visited the salt flats late in 2008 and paid $175US/person for our four day tour that we booked with our hotel in Tupiza, La Torre Tours. We only had 4 travelers in our group, along with a guide and cook. The price included the tour, all meals, and all accommodations (rustic). Tips and any alcohol you may drink along the way are not included in the above price. We were extremely comfortable the entire time, while all the jeeps we saw that originated in Uyuni seemed cramped and crowded. As of 2016, there are 3-day, 2-night tours available from around $190. There are also day tours available from Uyuni for around $50.
There’s no doubt that a trip to the Salar de Uyuni will be an amazing experience. But don’t just go to Uyuni and book the first tour that you come across. You’ve got many different options for visiting the salt flats, and it pays to do your research. No matter what you decide, you will be exploring one of the most amazing, unique, and diverse places on Earth.
Adam Seper is a veteran RTW traveler and AirTreks Personal Travel Consultant.