How to get to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (and the worst flight ever)

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Exploring the magnificent, seemingly endless Uyuni salt flats is an unforgettable experience…and unfortunately, the same can usually be said for the journey to get there.

Salar de Uyuni (as it’s known in Spanish) is located in the Andes in southwest Bolivia, and the remnant of a prehistoric lake that dried up and created the world’s largest salt flat. The sun reflects off the brilliant white salt, and the vast landscape is only dotted by the odd cacti-covered island which makes for incredible perspective photos.

Being such a remote location it’s not the easiest to get to, and it doesn’t help that there are hardly any paved roads and the few transport options that exist aren’t exactly reliable. Here’s how to get to Salar de Uyuni…and why you’ll want to pay close attention if you book a flight.

The La Paz to Uyuni bus

While this might be one of the cheapest options with tickets starting as low as $9, it can end up costing you a lot of sleep and aggravation. The La Paz to Uyuni bus is scheduled to take about nine hours–that is, if all goes according to plan which typically isn’t the case around these parts.

Since the trip takes so long, it’s an overnight bus ride which leaves from La Paz sometime between 7 and 10 p.m., and you can book tickets through a few different tour companies or on public transportation. Uyuni is also at the intersection of several major highways, so it’s possible to get to the town from Bolivian cities other than La Paz by booking through Tickets Bolivia. Just don’t expect to get too much sleep, which you can read more about in this post by Jodi from Legal Nomads about her disastrous experience.

How to get to Uyuni by train

The city of Oruro is about halfway between La Paz and Sucre, and from there it’s possible to get to Uyuni by train. The ride takes about seven hours through the scenic Bolivian highlands, and costs around $25. Be sure to double-check departure dates, as this route doesn’t run every day. 

How to get to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

A train in Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni tours

The final option for getting to Salar de Uyuni is to join an organized, multi-day tour. Depending on your budget, time and which package you choose, you can enjoy experiences like sleeping in a salt hotel or deluxe campervan, heading to the colourful lagoons in the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, or Laguna Colorada to see flocks of flamingos.

How to get to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Campervans in the Uyuni Salt Flats

Laguna Roja in Bolivia

Laguna Roja

Here are some options for booking an Uyuni salt flats tour:

 

 

La Paz to Uyuni flights

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for…why you need to pay attention if you’re booking a La Paz to Uyuni flight.

In theory, this is the easiest, quickest option to get to the salt flats since there are usually about three direct flights per day on either Boliviano de Aviacion (BoA) or Amaszonas, which take less than an hour and cost around $100. If you luck out and get a seat on a normal plane, you’re winning. If not…well, here’s what happened to me.

The Amaszonas plane pulled onto the runway after an unexplained 90-minute day, and 18–yes, only 18–of us excitedly handed over our boarding passes and walked across the tarmac. I didn’t think much of it when one girl stopped to take a photo of the rusty, decrepit looking, potentially Soviet-era jet, but as soon as I got inside I realized we were in trouble.

You could not stand up inside.

Passengers crouch as they make their way down the aisle.

Passengers crouch as they make their way down the aisle.

The nine rows only had one seat on each side of the plane, and three across the back (we got the back three). Everyone was giggling as they crouched down in the aisle and slinked towards their seats, plopping their carry-ons into the aisle. There were obviously no overhead bins, bathroom, flight attendant or drink service. No matter, it was only a one hour flight, right?

WRONG.

And hence began the worst flight of my entire life.

The turbulence began immediately, and I was hoping it was just because we were ascending. No, no, my friends. It lasted the Entire. Hour. I know turbulence doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but imagine being tossed around, your stomach dropping like you’re on a roller coaster, wedged into a tiny seat with no air, for one hour. It only took 10 minutes of this for me to start feeling awfully queasy, and begin eying the barf bag tucked into the seat in front of me. After 15 minutes…I had to use it.

Yup, for the first time ever, I lost my lunch on an airplane. Then lost it again. And again. By now, the Germans in front were passing their barf bags back to my partner, who was doing his best to comfort me as he tried to control his own retching stomach. Oh, and did I mention that I actually missed the bag at one point, and ended up getting you-know-what all over my jeans, arms, hair and shirt? Of course, there was nothing around to clean it up with.

Grossed out yet? Great, there’s more! Between rounds of vomit, I glanced up to see the men in the four rows in front of me all fanning their wives with airline booklets, trying to keep the hot flashes at bay as we all got sicker and sicker. I don’t know what it was about us gals, but we were dyin’ in there! Finally, after what I can confidently say was the longest hour of my life, we landed. Oh sweet, sweet tarmac we made it. I have to admit, at one point I didn’t even care if our crappy old plane crashed: I just wanted it to be over.

How to get to Salar de Uyuni

The kicker is that after limping into the teeny airport on shaky legs, passing other passengers who were basically curled up on the floor trying to fathom what we’d all just been through, I made my way to the bathroom to clean up. And what did I find there? Umm, nothing. Yup, no soap, no toilet paper, no hand towels, nothing. Bolivia is pretty awesome sometimes.

Thankfully, we caught a break on the way back to La Paz a couple days later, because there were about 50 passengers meaning we got a large plane and a smooth, easy flight.

My advice? If you want to go to Salar de Uyuni and find out you’re due to get on the tiny plane…maybe take the long bus ride instead.

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21 Responses

  1. Oh dear!! That sounds likes a truly horrendous experience. You poor things! Don’t think we could get on a plane so small…. Thanks for the tip – we’ll be sure to take the slow road to keep our lunch down.

  2. TheTravelHack says:

    Oh you poor thing, this sounds absolutely horrific.
    I totally feel your pain as I always get travel sick (although I’ve never been on a plane that sounds this bad!)
    I think from now on I’ll always carry wet wipes, just in case!

  3. Oh no Monica, you get travel sick all the time? I’m a big believer on having Gravol on hand now, but wet wipes sound like a great idea too! Wise Monkeys, I’ve heard the buses in Bolivia aren’t the greatest depending on the route, so if you do choose to do that make sure you don’t sit in the back, as that’s where it’s the bumpiest!

  4. Tom & Kelly says:

    You should try the bus journey! I think that route is traumatic whichever way you tackle it haha

  5. That sounds horrible! I’ve been trying to decided whether to fly to Uyuni or take the bus. I was worried about the overnight bus ride being too uncomfortable for me, but this post helped me make up my mind- bus it is!

  6. Naga says:

    Hi Tamara, Thank you for your post. I was about to book this flight as I wanted over night rest before the salt flat tour. I was not decided for long whether to take the overnight bus or the flight. Perhaps the bus is way better provided there are no roadblocks and reach well in time to go for the tour. I am really sorry for what you had to endure during the longest hour of your life. Hope you never get through that situation again.

    • Thanks Naga! As I mentioned, the flight is fine if you’re lucky enough to get booked on one of the newer, larger, normal planes like we did on the way back. Hopefully there’s a way to see what your options are first, so you don’t end up on the same horrible flight I did!

  7. Abel says:

    I am thinking about taking this flight on my trip to the Salt Flats. I will risk the air sickness as I a limited time and can’t afford to spend 10 hours on a bus. My question is in regard to the Baggage Policy on the plane you flew on, does the plane have check-in baggage allowance? Or do you do only have space for carry-on or backpacks? Thanks.

  8. A fellow Bolivian says:

    Hi, as a Bolivian I am shocked that you didn’t expect this. Since I know most tourists just by the wind in La Paz, can foresee this. Since the turbulence is because of the great winds that La Paz, (You know the city with a big altitude??), has. Plus all the states in Bolivia have a great altitude… Anyways.
    Also, I just read your article about Copacana. And Honey! There are so many great things to do in the small town! I have seen tourists have a hella time of their lives over there. I believe that you just got lazy with your research prior to your trip and shy to ask people around. Like you mentioned, you went to the restaurant with most tourists. Why didn’t you ask them? There is a club in Copacabana. Then don’t forget about the calvary? Plus there is always fortune tellers around the town and the little market. Did you at least visit the church? DO you the Virgin Mary is surrounded by real gold? Next time you go somewhere in South America, research things to do prior to your trip. And a tip. Why not try the food from the town instead of getting the typical “Desayuno Americano” of eggs and bread. Anyways, got finals to study for… or else I would have written a long asf essay.

  9. paul says:

    “newer, larger, normal planes” – no, it was turbulence.

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