Bolivia is considered a ‘last frontier’ of sorts, being a mostly undeveloped nation that flies under the radar. This is actually a great thing for travellers who do make the trip, as they’re treated to a treasure trove of untapped experiences, including the breathtaking, unforgettable Uyuni salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is one of the driest places on earth—but that’s not what makes it remarkable. Instead, it’s the stark landscape that pits a vibrant blue skyline against the sparkling white earth, made entirely of salt.
To tour the area you’ll have to enlist the services of a guide for an excursion that lasts anywhere from one to three days. It’s only necessary to book a one day tour if you just want to see Salar de Uyuni, but if you extend your trip you’ll get to venture out to see volcanoes, a red lake and flamingos. You can also continue onward to Chile this way, so it’s a great option for backpackers who plan to travel beyond Bolivia. Keep in mind that the Bolivian wilderness is by no means comfortable, so expect freezing temperatures in camp at night and no shower facilities. Also make sure the price of your tour includes sleeping bag rental!
Most tour companies use 4x4s that fit about six passengers, meaning you’ll likely spend your day in the company of a small group. There have been many concerns raised about a lack of safety, including guides who don’t speak English or who drive drunk, so choose your company wisely. We booked our excursion through Red Planet Expedition which was highly recommended online, and they did not disappoint. Honestly, our guide was THE BEST GUIDE we have EVER HAD ANYWHERE. No, I did not get paid a cent to say that! A one day tour should cost around 350 BS ($50) and takes about seven hours, starting from the dusty town of Uyuni.
Your first stop on the itinerary will be to the train cemetery, which is actually quite interesting and makes for great photos. Back in the 1800s, the British sent some trains over to Bolivia and even built a railway, in hopes of transporting minerals to the coast. However, the trains did not have enough power to make it over the towering Andes, and would crash back down and derail. Eventually, the whole idea was scrapped and the cars were left to corrode wherever it was they ended up. Thus, the train cemetery was born.
Visitors are allowed to walk through the site as they please, and climb inside the trains, on top, under…whatever suits your fancy. Expect to spend about 20 minutes there, before heading off to the next stop: Colchani.
The town of Colchani is where all of the salt mining that the area is famous for happens—but other than that, there isn’t much to see. About 80 families live in the area, which consists of dozens of tiny houses and one forlorn strip of shops set up to try and sell souvenirs to the visitors who pass through every day. As with any tourist trap, your guide will make you hang out here much longer than necessary.
The first order of business is to see first-hand how the mining process actually works. You’ll see the large piles of untreated salt piled up in yards, then tuck into a tiny home and watch how it’s processed. It all starts with a trip through a furnace-like machine to remove impurities, then is scooped into tiny bags and sealed with a blow torch. It’s pretty shocking to learn that a big bag of salt only sells for about $5—which explains the poverty you’ll see in this part of Bolivia.
After the quick demo, it’s time for lunch, and if you book with Red Planet you are in for a treat. We got a delicious meal of chicken, fresh tomatoes and homemade bread, finished off with the World’s Best Apple Pie (according to my husband). You’ll also want to use the public washroom before heading off into the salt flats (which don’t have any such facilities until you hit Fish Island). Be warned though: it’s one of those bathrooms where you need to scoop water from a bin outside to flush…so bring hand sanitizer!!
The Salt Flats
Now for the fun part, the reason you’ve travelled so far: the salt flats! The first glimpse is breathtaking, with miles and miles of dazzling white salt stretching out in front of you, with a bright blue sky being the only contrast. At the entrance, you’ll see mounds of salt that look like little pyramids dotting the landscape. Feel free to climb up or jump off of them for pictures—but keep in mind the spongy surface is hard to land on! The sensation on your feet is similar to anyone who has ever walked on hard snow during a chilly day, and makes the same crunching sound.
There are a few sulphur pools as well, which are said to have healing properties (similar to the Dead Sea) and you can expect to see at least one person lounging around with their feet in the water. Stick one finger in, then watch as it quickly crusts over—bizarre!
A quick drive in the 4×4 will bring you to total isolation. All you’ll see for miles is bright blue sky which offsets the blindingly white hexagon formations of salt—perfect for those famous perspective photos.
Make sure to bring props (or line up a guide who has fun ones, like little dinosaurs) and get creative! Our driver was fantastic, and has clearly done this once or twice, bringing special mats to lay down on so he could get comfy while he turned the landscape into a mini photo shoot for our group. If you aren’t as lucky and have to set up the photos yourself, the key is to get whoever is taking the photos to lay flat on the ground, then set everyone else up from there. There are all sorts of crazy poses you can do: eating someone off of a spoon, making someone look tiny beside you, standing on someone’s shoulder, being chased by a dinosaur…the possibilities are endless! All it takes is a couple of props and a lot of imagination to return with some pretty memorable photos.
Pro tip: Wear bright colours to really stand out in photos. Also, don’t forget your sunglasses, as it is CRAZY bright out there.
The last stop on your tour will likely be an hour-long jaunt to Fish Island, which is frankly pretty incredible. It’s basically a mountain right in the middle of the otherwise desolate flats, covered in large boulders and cacti. There are even signs of life here, with the odd llama making an appearance.
It costs 30 BS admission (about $4) to tour the island, which is payable at the entrance, and there is also a washroom (yay!) on site. From there, visitors are welcome to explore the area at their leisure, and it takes about 45 minutes to walk up and around the whole area. This is a shutterbug’s heaven, and there are tons of secluded spots where you can enjoy the incredible view of the surrounding flats. It can actually get quite hot here—I mean, it is a desert after all—so make sure to slop on some sunscreen before you head out on your hike.
When you’re all wrapped up at Fish Island, it’s time to head back to reality with one last drive across the flats towards Uyuni.
Currency: Bolivianos (BOB), but U.S. dollars are also accepted in some places. Credit cards may not be, so make sure you have cash on hand!
Getting there: All I have to say about this one is…good luck. Your choices are either an hours-long bus ride—not including delays—down a bumpy highway full of hairpin turns, or to fly into Uyuni from La Paz. In case you missed it, check out my article ‘La Paz to Uyuni: The worst flight ever’ for a full rundown of the experience I’d like to forget!
Getting around: The town of Uyuni is tiny so you’ll be able to walk around easily if that’s where you’ve based yourself. However, getting in and out can pose a problem. If you arrive via plane, there will likely only be a few taxis to be waiting outside—meaning you won’t be in a great negotiating position. Expect to pay around 250 BS ($35) each direction.
Where to stay: There are a few cheap hostels in the town of Uyuni that are full of backpackers, but keep in mind there is virtually nothing else to do. A good alternative if you can afford it is to stay in one of the salt hotels near the flats—I mean, when else would you get a chance to stay in a hotel made of SALT?!
When to go: Anytime between April and November is safe, and you can expect mild weather. December to March is the rainy season, which is the perfect time to go if you want to see those incredible reflections that make it look like you’re walking on water. However, there is a danger your vehicle could get stuck or your tour cancelled altogether due to washed out roads.
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