One has not seen the best of Bolivia until one has seen Salar de Uyuni. I get all floaty and dreamy-eyed when I think about it.
I might even go so far as to say Salar de Uyuni (aka the Uyuni Salt Flats) is the best thing I’ve experienced in South America so far.
Granted, I’ve yet to see Machu Picchu or the Amazon (that’s happening over the next few days, eeeee!), but I do have Rio Carnival and Iguazu Falls under my belt, and they were ridonkulously fantabulous. (I know, I know, I owe you so many more stories and photos from the last couple months – trust me they’re coming.)
But the Uyuni Salt Flats…*sigh*…I could re-live the memories over and over again and never tire of them. Even though those memories happen to involve my first bout of altitude sickness (holy crap, it was awful) and a bit of tummy trouble, I still have a huge crush on the salt flats – glazed eyes, chin in my hands, legs swinging under the table, cartoon hearts floating over my head.
When I say “salt flats,” however, I mean much more than salt flats. A tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats is a 4-day, 4-wheel drive adventure and approximately 1,200 kilometers of ever-changing landscapes, ancient ruins, starry nights, colorful lagoons, geysers, rock formations, remote villages, a thermal pool, and wildlife that make you go, “Eeee!” Ok, maybe it was just me, but really – how freaking cute are LLAMAS?!
Wait, what? You don’t think llamas are cute? Well then, how about BABY llamas?
Oh yes, that happened. Baby llama kisses. Eeeeeee!
Ok, lots to tell you but if you’re not interested, you can scroll down and let the pictures do the talkin’.
Tour Options for Salar de Uyuni / The Uyuni Salt Flats
Remember, my silly self is traveling without a guide book, so my information comes mostly from other travelers and my personal experiences. Here’s what I could gather for what the options are for doing the 3- or 4-day trips to the Uyuni Salt Flats.
- You can start and end the tour in the town of Uyuni itself (the cheapest option, approximately 650 Bolivianos / just under $100 USD). My take on this option is it’s the most affordable, but that you miss out on at least a day and a half’s worth of incredible landscapes and remote villages because you’re looping back to where you started, whereas the other two options cover more ground.
- You can start in San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), head northeast to cross the Bolivian border, and end in Uyuni, or vice versa (I have no idea what this option costs). I only met a small number of people who did this route, and they seemed really happy with it.
- You can start in Tupiza, head northwest and end in Uyuni, or vice versa (approximately 1,300 Bolivianos / around $200 USD). I’m biased towards this option because it’s the one I did and I’m googly-eyed over it.
All tours include transportation, accommodations, and three freshly cooked meals a day (although it’s more like 2.5; breakfast is pretty skimpy). When all is said and done, you’ll see mind-blowing scenery no matter which route you choose, and it’s an incredible value whichever way you slice it.
I can personally vouch for only the third option. Since I had arrived in Bolivia from the Argentinean border and am traveling northbound, it made sense to do my tour to Uyuni beginning in Tupiza. (FYI, I had a helluva time crossing the border into Bolivia, thanks to a petulant border officer who TWICE denied me a visa for absurdly trivial reasons. Tell ya bout that another time).
I went with a well-known and well-established company called Tupiza Tours – not for any other reason than the fact that their office was closest to my hostel and I was too lazy to shop around.
I was generally pleased with Tupiza Tours. The Nissan Patrol we drove around in was in good condition, never broke down. My driver was sober the entire time and drove safely. These might seem like “duh” qualities for a tour, but vehicles and drivers are apparently a problem with other companies, as deaths and injuries on the salt flats have occurred in the past.
Tupiza Tours has over 50 drivers who serve as tour guides, and although only one speaks English, they can provide one of three other English-speaking tour guides they have on staff, for an additional 150 Bolivianos per person. Having an extra body in the jeep made it a bit cramped for the four days, but I had a lovely guide named Argota (also known as Janet, for some reason) and she was great! Always smiling, had a great energy about her, and could answer even the most obscure questions about the things we saw.
In addition to her English-speaking tour guide responsibilities, Argota served as our personal cook. Some meals were better than others, but all were satisfying. The highlights were llama steaks, homemade vegetable soup, and pique a lo macho (a traditional Bolivian dish). Snacks of fruit, cookies, yogurt and lollipops were also provided throughout the trip.
Lots of people will tell you that the group you end up with can make or break your experience on Salar de Uyuni. On the one hand, there is some truth to this because you’re stuck in a vehicle with them for four days; on the other hand, the sights are so mind-blowing, I honestly believe you can have a great time no matter who you’re with. My group consisted of seven people: Argota the tour guide, our driver Carmelo, two guys from Australia, two girls from France, and little old me. We didn’t become one big happy family as is usually the case when I’m in a small group, but we got along fine.
In my opinion, what stood out about my particular tour was that our first night’s accommodation was not in a hostel, but in the home of a local family in a tiny mountain village. You know me – I love the local cultural experiences, so this for me was a huge bonus! There may very well be other companies that offer this, but I’ve talked with a lot of travelers who did other tours, and none of them stayed with local families (scroll down for photos and a video of the adorable children who delighted me on this trip).
I know there are lots of options for visiting Salar de Uyuni – and after experiencing it myself and talking with many other travelers who’ve done it as well, I can say with confidence that I’d recommend Tupiza Tours.
I’ve heard Valle Hermoso is excellent too.
Know Before You Go
It’s Freaking Cold
Days were sunny but chilly, and nights were especially cold. We were warned that the temperature on our second night would be zero degrees Celsius inside! Otherwise, the nights were between 2° to 4° Celsius. Brrrrrrrrrr.
I didn’t own a warm jacket back home in LA, let alone pack one in my backpack for this trip. But I certainly needed one if I was to survive the frigid nights of the salt flats tour. Before we left Tupiza, the Aussie guys and I found a shop and each bought a warm sweater/jacket, stocking caps and gloves. My only requirement: mine had to have llamas. I ended up with a white hooded zip-up sweater with blue llamas on it. Score!
Remember to Bring
- Clothes with llamas on them. Duh. (Ok, well at least something warm.)
- A flashlight – some places have no electricity, and that sucks for whoever has to use the bathroom at night and doesn’t have a torch.
- Toilet paper – lots of places in South America don’t provide this luxury, so it’s wise to always have some on hand.
- Camera charger – there’ll be opportunities, albeit limited, to charge your cameras.
- A swimsuit – there’s a thermal pool in the middle of nowhere, and when it’s biting cold outside, you’ll no doubt wanna jump in!
- A large bottle of water – your tour will provide some, but it’s important to have more just in case, so that you keep hydrated. Read on to find out why.
Acclimatize, Acclimatize, Acclimatize!
As I mentioned before, I had my first experience with altitude sickness while on the salt flats tour. Before the tour, I had spent only 24 hours in Tupiza – about 3,000 meters high – and it was not enough time to acclimatize to the low oxygen levels as the jeep took us to higher altitudes.
My first night on the tour, we slept in the home of that village family I mentioned earlier, which was 4,200 meters above sea level. I woke up in the middle of the night with a horrendous pain in my head and behind my eyes. I’ve never had a headache in my life, but I’m pretty sure this was an extreme headache by anyone’s standards. I kind of wanted to die.
They say that altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate between young or old, fit or fat. You either get it or you don’t. And I apparently get it. Yikes! I hope to never feel that kind of pain again. Fortunately, my case of altitude sickness was limited to awful headaches, and did not involve vomiting or anything more serious.
Not sure if there’s any truth to this, but I’ve been told that Asians are particularly prone to altitude sickness.
It might not’ve helped my case that just a few hours earlier, I had insisted on climbing one of the hills surrounding the village we were staying in. We had about an hour to kill before dinner, and I really wanted to climb something. I hadn’t even considered the whole altitude thing, and just started climbing the hill like it was no big deal.
Not even 10 minutes up the hill, I was struggling to breathe. I thought, “Seriously, Thy? You are way more fit than this!” My stubborn self continued climbing (the altitude must’ve messed with my judgment too, sheesh). I was huffing and puffing my way up, determined to make it to the top when one of the Frenchies I was climbing with handed me some coca leaves. Coca leaves come from the same plants from which cocaine is made. You put them inside your mouth like chewing tobacco and masticate away. They taste awful but they give you a boost in energy and help with altitude sickness.
The good news is, I made it up to the top without dying, and got to enjoy the beautiful view shown in the photo above.
Hydrating is very important, and my not doing so likely played a role in my altitude sickness as well. Thing is – and many other female travelers will agree with me – when you’re on a journey that offers few opportunities to use the bathroom, you instinctively avoid drinking water. Remember that time I left India, and thought I was gonna die? Yeah, same deal.
Anyway, my headache from hell returned the following day when we reached the geysers. As fascinated as I was with the volcanic activity around me, I could not avoid the extreme pounding in my head. We were at 5,000 meters at this point and my body made sure I knew it. I suffered excruciating headaches on and off for about five hours, and thought I was gonna pass out. That evening, Carmelo the driver gave me some sort of medication, and Argota the guide brewed me a pot of coca tea (mate de coca). Again, that would be made of leaves from which cocaine is made. I drank the entire teapot and within an hour, I was fine. The headache never returned.
I do believe there are some pills you can take to prevent altitude sickness, much like Dramamine does for motion sickness. In any case, it helps to spend some time at higher altitudes and acclimatizing before going on the tour.
Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding area are a photographer’s paradise. Even an amateur with a crappy point and shoot (ahem, that would be me) can take a great photo. The landscapes are strikingly beautiful as they change every few kilometers. And the massive open space of the salt flats – which are the largest in the world at around 12,000 square kilometers – allow for some really creative shots.
During wet season, the salt flats have a thin layer of water on them, allowing for neat reflection photos (remember the beautiful salt flats I showed you from Kampot, Cambodia?). The Uyuni Salt Flats were mostly dry when I was there last month (March), but as you’ll see below, we did get to stop in one watery section to catch the sunrise and its reflection, and experiment with one mirrored pose.
I took no less than 800 photos those four days, and there’s a good chance that zero of them are original. Thousands of people who’ve done the tour have many of the exact same photos, but I’m showing you mine anyway!
Below you’ll find a collection of photos of San Antonio De Lipez, Polulos, Geisers Sol de Mañana, quinoa fields, llamas, flamingos, and several lagoons of different colors due to the minerals in them: Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Honda, Laguna Colorada, and more. And of course, the salt flats themselves.
The adorable kids of San Antonio de Lipez
As some of you may know, I am DYING to have kids. So I’m completely overjoyed when I’m around any of them.
At first, I was a bit put off by the kids of San Antonio de Lipez (population 200), as they often insist on you giving them money if you photograph them. The kids shown here didn’t, so I thought maybe they liked me. But no, they were turning over rocks in search of worms so they could frighten me with them! Ohhh kids. Gotta love em.
Later that night, my group and I were all tucked into our beds when there was a knock at the door. Some kids came in, asking, “Musica? Musica?” Exhausted, but up for some entertainment, we had a good laugh as the kids banged on drums, aimlessly strummed guitars and blew into flutes without purpose. Not exactly a soothing nighttime lullaby, but it would have to do! I got such a kick out of their performance, I couldn’t help crawling out of bed to get a photo with them, and giving them a few Bolivianos.
The Salt Flats: Sunrise and Beyond
Sitting in the hands of my Aussie boys (inspired by 2 Backpackers)
Attempting to make a circle (inspired by – but not executed nearly as well as – Jackie)
How many gringos does it take to get the perfect jumping photo? Hmm, apparently five is not enough. I had to post these bloopers because they make me LOL. In the end, we never did get a shot of all five of us in the air!
On the last night, we stayed at a hostel made entirely out of salt. Even the beds, tables and chairs were made of salt!
Ohhhh, Salar de Uyuni, how you wow me. I heart you.
Many thanks to Alan and Jeremy for enduring my constant pestering for photos – they probably still have nightmares of me wrapped up in my llama sweater jacket, poking them on the shoulder, batting my eyelashes, asking if they could please take a photo of me. Thanks guys!
Anyway. Can you see why I’m dreamy-eyed over Salar de Uyuni? In fact, I’m pretty dreamy-eyed over Bolivia as a whole. Almost everything I’ve experienced here has touched me in some way. Of the 30+ countries I’ve traveled through in my life, Bolivia has easily become one of my favorites. Top 3 for sure, and Salar de Uyuni has a lot to do with that.