If you’ve come across the surreal photos taken on the endless white horizon that is Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, then the Uyuni Salt Flat is probably on your bucket list.
That’s how it appeared on mine.
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, 11,000 square kilometers of glistening white salt. The otherworldly landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen before; a colorless horizon that appears to have no ending or beginning.
I knew I couldn’t I miss this destination while backpacking through South America. In January 2018, I embarked on a three-day Salar de Uyuni tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, and it was one of the most unforgettable travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Below, find my comprehensive guide to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia based on my own experience, including how to get there, the best time to go and what to bring. This is everything you can expect from the Salar de Uyuni tour from San Pedro de Atacama.
| READ MORE: The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in South America
How To Get To Salar de Uyuni
The Uyuni Salt Flat sits near the Bolivian city of Uyuni, from which several agencies offer one- to three-day tours. My boyfriend Guil and I knew from the get-go that we wanted to do a three-day tour to experience more of Bolivia’s countryside in addition of the salt flat.
These tours typically leave from Uyuni or Tupiza in Bolivia, as well as San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. Our original plan was to hop on a tour in Uyuni, but a canceled flight changed our travel plans and we ended up in Chile instead.
We began our journey in San Pedro de Atacama.
Starting The Salar de Uyuni Tour From San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Several agencies offer the same tour across all three cities, so it’s not difficult to find one that fits your schedule. There’s really no need to book it ahead of time; you can book the tour after shopping around for the best agency once you’ve arrived at your starting point.
I actually ended up in San Pedro de Atacama “by accident” after a spur-of-the-moment change of plans, but I’m so glad I did. The small, sand-colored village sits in the middle of the Chilean desert, is teeming with adventure-seeking backpackers and has a real laidback vibe. San Pedro offers a number of outdoor activities that kept me busy before leaving on the salt flat tour, such as watching the sunrise from active geysers, visiting local mountain villages and hiking the area’s moon-like landscape.
The most popular tour offered in San Pedro de Atacama is the Uyuni Salt Falt tour. A variety of agencies offer the same tour, making it difficult to choose one. I thoroughly researched each tour company before settling on the one I felt most comfortable with. Considering we’d be spending the next three days completely off the grid in the middle of the Bolivian desert, I wanted to make sure we were in good hands.
Why Start in San Pedro de Atacama?
If you begin your tour in San Pedro like us, you’ll cross the Chile-Bolivia border with your tour group. I’ve heard this is one of the main reasons people choose to start their tour in Chile rather than Bolivia, as the border-crossing process is seamless and quite informal when you’re with the larger group. For us, there was an initial passport screening before we left San Pedro and an official crossing at the border 40 minutes later.
*Make sure to hold onto the immigration form you were given when you first entered Chile.
The other options are to start your tour from Uyuni or Tupiza. While I didn’t visited Tupiza, my tour did end in Uyuni, and the town is pretty rundown. I’d say it’s probably not worth much of your time, and I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a night there.
How To Choose The Best Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator?
I was extra careful when choosing a tour company because I had spent hours reading awful reviews online about drunk tour guides and starving passengers — which made the Salar de Uyuni tour sound more like a horror movie than a grand adventure.
Guil and I probably sat with about five different agencies in San Pedro, and they all basically told us the same thing. All companies offer similar itineraries, transportation and accommodation. The tour prices are also all about the same.
I did learn, however, that only Bolivian companies are certified to operate the tour. This means that if you booked a tour with a Chilean agency in San Pedro, that agency will hand you over to a third-party Bolivian company once you cross the border to Bolivia.
I wasn’t comfortable with this idea because I wanted to see and get to know the tour operator I would actually be traveling with.
Also, I learned that sometimes the miscommunication between the Chilean agency and their Bolivian partner can lead to chaos, like drivers simply not showing up and leaving passengers stranded. Because of this, I decided to book directly with a Bolivian company. (For those starting the tour in Bolivia, you obviously won’t run into this issue.)
After reading a few great Trip Advisor reviews about a particular driver named Christopher with White & Green International Travel, we decided to book with them. Guil and I realized that the quality of our driver would basically determine the quality of our tour, so we requested Christopher before sealing the deal.
I made sure to ask the company owner if he had ever had problems with drunk drivers, and he seemed to have answered honestly, saying he’s had to fire drivers in the past but never due to alcohol. That helped me feel more at ease.
How Much Does The Salar de Uyuni Tour Cost?
There were two tour options to choose from: A three-day trip that ended in Uyuni or a four-day tour that brought us back to San Pedro. I chose to end the tour in Uyuni so I could continue on to La Paz from there.
A three-day, two-night tour starting in San Pedro de Atacama and ending in Uyuni cost me 110,000 Chilean pesos, or $180, a bit less than the four-day option. I paid in cash to avoid the credit card fees that most companies were charging.
The tour price was actually 10,000 Chilean pesos above the average price at the time, but I was OK with that considering the positive reviews I had read about the company.
The tour operator did ask us to bring an extra 150 Bolivianos ($22) on the trip to cover entrance fees as well as any other supplies we may need along the way.
Best Time To Visit Salar de Uyuni
The best time to visit Salar de Uyuni depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
Bolivia’s rainy season runs from December to April, and that’s when you have the best chance of seeing the salt flat’s so-called “mirror effect.” The rain leaves a thin film of water across the salt flat, creating an awing mirror effect with the sky reflecting off the white ground.
I experienced everything from rain to sunshine to snow during the three-day trip. It was January, summer time in South America, yet one night I experienced sub-zero temperatures and even witnessed flurries of snow falling while driving through the mountains.
During the day, the climate was warm and sunny, with a thirst-inducing dry desert heat, but since the tour takes place at such high altitudes, cooler air rolled in at night. We were told it actually snows along the route during winter, so prepare accordingly.
While the salt flat was wet when we were there, we unfortunately did not witness the mirror effect.
What to Pack for the Uyuni Salt Flat
Here are a few wardrobe tips for the Uyuni Salt Flat tour: Dress in layers, wear hiking shoes or comfortable walking shoes that you don’t mind getting extremely dirty, and always have a rain jacket or wind breaker with you.
Your backpack will be strapped onto the top of the car all day, so bring whatever you need with you in the car. You’ll only be able to access your bag in the evenings when you arrive at the hostel.
I kept the following essentials in my day pack at all times:
- Roll of toilet paper
- Baby wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand lotion
- Paracetamol/Tylenol for headaches brought on by altitude sickness
- Rain jacket
- Comfortable shoes
- Laptop (I wanted to have it near me at all times for safety reasons.)
- Extra water
Most companies recommend you bring 6 gallons of water each. Guil and I brought 6 gallons for the both of us and purchased more water on the last day of the tour.
Salar de Uyuni Altitude
The tour takes place at an altitude ranging from 3,500 to nearly 5,000 meters (11,400 to 16,400 feet). That’s pretty high for someone like me, who was used to living below sea level in Miami.
Guil and I spent a few days in San Pedro at 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) to allow our bodies to acclimatize to the higher altitude. We were advised to drink coca tea, eat small meals, avoid red meat and liquor, and drink plenty of water. I also took a few paracetamols during the tour to ward off bad headaches.
Overall, neither of us suffered any severe side effects from the altitude change, but I felt a lot more comfortable taking the precautions I did.
Salar de Uyuni Tour Itinerary
The itinerary of each Salar de Uyuni tour depends on your starting point. I began mine in San Pedro, and this is what my three days in the desert looked like.
I was picked up at my hostel at 7 a.m., and we were off to the Bolivian border. There we had breakfast, got our passports stamped and were transferred to the 4×4 vehicle we’d be spending the next few days in, with four other people. In total, there were seven of us, including the driver.
The first stop on our tour was the Laguna Blanca followed by the Laguna Verde; two beautiful lagoons surrounded by mountains.
Then we stopped at the Salvador Dalí Desert, also known as Dalí Valley, where we had more time to take photos. The landscape here looked like a painting.
After that we drove to a thermal bath in the middle of the desert, at which point we encountered other tour groups for the first time. Everyone changed into their bathing suits to take a dip in the warm natural pools.
We had lunch at a restaurant on site; each tour group is responsible for its own food, meaning our driver either carries the food in our Jeep or buys it along the way, and then our meals are cooked by locals at the small villages we stop at.
After a plentiful lunch, we headed to the Geiser Sol de la Manana, an area marked by intense volcanic activity. Here we walked among craters bubbling with boiling-hot mud, a landscape that is said to be similar to Mars.
This was the highest altitude we reached on the tour, close to 5,000 meters or 16,400 feet. We then drove over to our final stop of the day, the Laguna Colorada, a pink-colored lagoon home to hundreds of flamingos.
That night our group slept in a shared room in a hostel located within a small, seemingly abandoned village.
We woke up bright and early to breakfast at the hostel before heading to the nearby Valley of the Rocks, where several rock formations mirrored real-life objects like a World Cup trophy, a camel and a city made of hardened magma.
Then we headed to the breathtakingly beautiful Laguna Negra; take a look at it below.
After we drove to a viewpoint of a deep canyon that is said to be reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.
Next was lunch, this time in another small village located within a picturesque field home to dozens of grazing llamas. After lunch, we drove through a few more villages, learning about their culture and customs.
While we weren’t supposed to enter the salt flat until day three, our driver took us there to watch the sunset. That night we slept in a pretty shoddy hostel next to the salt flat. Normally, the second night would be spent in a salt hotel — a building made of pure salt from the salt flat — but due to heavy rain, the hotel was inaccessible.
Our wake-up call was at 4:30 a.m. on the third day, early enough to catch the sunrise from the middle of the Uyuni Salt Flat.
We spent the entire morning taking photos and simply hanging out at one of the most unique places on earth. Breakfast was served in a large domed building in the middle of the salar, and several other tour groups joined.
On this day, tour groups traditionally visit an island in the middle of the salt flat, but due to it being rainy season, we couldn’t access the island.
Hours of photos later, we returned to Uyuni for one last meal: llama and quinoa.
For me, the tour ended here. The rest of our group however would spend another night in the desert before returning to San Pedro de Atacama, as they opted for the four-day round-trip tour. But for Guil and I, it was time to head off to our next adventure in La Paz.
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