Salar de Uyuni: Traversing the Salt Flats of Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni: Traversing the Salt Flats of Bolivia

When planning trips to places we really want to visit, I’ve learned to build in buffers and create backup plans in case things go wrong. A good example of this was our 2014 trip to Easter Island. When one of our bags didn’t show up during a connection in Santiago, we almost missed our flight to Easter Island—and because there’s only one flight on that route every day, that would likely have meant missing our only opportunity to get there during our week in South America. Although everything turned out just fine for us, that incident scared me into adding contingency plans to every trip I organize.

Bolivia Salt Flats
Puddle stompin’ in the Salar de Uyuni

Although I truly learned my lesson, I broke all of my own rules when I planned a daytrip from La Paz to Uyuni and its famous salt flats. The itinerary itself isn’t complicated; we booked a morning flight that landed at 9 AM, plenty of time for an 11 AM tour, and we booked an 8:30 PM return flight that would depart two full hours after our return to the tour office. Of course, if anything went off course—delayed flights, broken down vehicles, etc.—our day would be ruined. With the limited amount of time we had to spend, though, we had to take the risk and hope everything would work exactly on schedule.

La Paz traffic can be unpredictable, so we ordered a taxi through our hotel for pickup three hours before our flight was scheduled to depart. Surprisingly, traffic was very light between our downtown hotel and the airport, so we were at the airport in no time and were waiting at the gate 90 minutes early. The first leg of our trip was mercifully uneventful. We boarded on time and departed earlier than scheduled, so we landed even earlier than planned. That’s also where my worrying for the day stopped. We figured that if our flight was delayed or cancelled on the way home, we could stay at a hostel and hop on the first flight in the morning. The most important part of our trip was seeing the salt flats, and getting to Uyuni meant we were guaranteed to see them.

We took a taxi 10 minutes to downtown and were dropped off in front of our tour office. Since we were so early, we decided to spend some time exploring Uyuni before we checked in for our tour. Walking through downtown took all of 15 minutes; Uyuni is without a doubt a tourist town built up to support the backpackers who arrive for the one, two, and three day tours that sustain the locals. The streets are lined with tourist agencies, hostels, a handful of restaurants, statues, artwork and souvenir shops. I broke down and bought a knit hat that I may never wear again when I found a green and black one for 25 Bolivianos, which was immediately reduced to 20 Bolivianos when I didn’t immediately reach for my wallet. That’s about 1.50 USD, so it wasn’t much of a splurge. At this point it was 9:30 AM, so we walked back to the tour agency to check in.

The streets of Uyuni, Bolivia
The streets of Uyuni, Bolivia

We booked our tour through Viator (a website we have relied on for as many years as we have been traveling), and the assigned tour provider was Red Planet Expeditions. Red Planet receives great reviews on TripAdvisor, so we were caught completely off guard when the woman at the reception desk took a look at her client list and said she didn’t have record of our reservation. I handed her the voucher I had printed from the Viator website, and she read it thoroughly before shaking her head.

“This is probably for another company,” she told me.

“It clearly says Red Planet Expeditions with your address,” I told her, pointing to that information on the voucher.

“Sometimes third parties get confused and put the wrong company,” she said, shrugging.

“This voucher has our names, today’s date, and your company information on it,” I insisted. “We have a prepaid reservation for the one day tour.” The woman nodded.

“Yes, but we won’t accommodate you. We would have to get another driver, and it’s not worth it to us to just take two people in a car,” she told me.

At this point, I was furious. In all of our contingency planning, I had not come up with an alternative if the tour company refused to honor our reservation. I was also incredibly angry over her choice of words. It wouldn’t be worth it to serve us? We were paying customers! The woman reminded us again that there was nothing she planned to do to help us, and because we didn’t have a wifi connection to use to call Viator to make things right, Adam and I found ourselves standing outside on the curb with no tour. So we started walking.

Three doors down from Red Planet, a tour operator greeted us as we stormed past. “Do you need a tour today?” he called after us. I turned around.

“We need a one day tour that will have us back in time to catch a flight to La Paz at 8:30 tonight,” I told him. With a warm smile, he motioned for us to follow him into his office.

That meeting ended up being the lucky break we needed. The man we spoke with owned Brisa Tours, and within five minutes, we were booked on a one-day tour that departed at 10:30 with a promise that we would be dropped off right at the airport by 7:00 PM. The tour provided lunch and would take us everywhere we wanted to go—even a stop to watch the sun set over the salt flats, which Red Planet did not offer—for 160 Bolivianos (23 USD) per person. Considering that we had spent 70 USD per person on the Red Planet tour, this seemed like an incredible deal. As we learned, that price point is much more in line with what you should pay for a day trip.

We loved Brisa Tours. Our driver, Vernio, was funny and a safe driver who cooked us lunch and shuttled us all through the salt flats in search of perfect pictures. Here’s how we spent our day in Uyuni:

Train Graveyard

The Train Graveyard
The Train Graveyard

Uyuni has a very interesting history that is tied into Bolivia’s attempts at establishing a national railway. In the late 1800s, the British sponsored the development of a rail system that would, in theory, strengthen Bolivia and help it to develop. However, Bolivians found the trains to be intrusive and constantly tried to sabotage the rail system, so trains were primarily used to support only the burgeoning mining industry. By the 1940s, mining collapsed as supplies were depleted, so the trains were abandoned.

Today, visitors to Uyuni can spend time at the train graveyard, where rusted trains sit dormant. In addition to taking photos, many people take the opportunity to climb the trains and pose on them. Because every tour to the Uyuni salt flats includes the train graveyard as their first stop, it’s very crowded and can be tough to get great pictures (or even find a place to climb that hasn’t been claimed by another tourist!), so we took some cool shots of the ghost train tracks and some of the trains before we were ready to go. Our stop was 30 minutes, and we really didn’t need more than 15 minutes to see what we wanted to see.

Salt Hotel

Our second stop was mostly for lunch, although Adam and I panicked and tried to take some quick photos before we sat down to eat. We had a chance to see the flags that fly outside of the hotel (representing the nationalities of visitors to Uyuni, although the United States’ flag is not among them). Lunch was very tasty; we had pan-fried chicken, rice, salad, and fruit, which was really satisfying after a morning fueled by a granola bar and pure adrenaline. We didn’t explore much of the hotel because it was overrun by tourists, but we enjoyed the stop nonetheless.

Salar de Uyuni: The Salt Flats of Bolivia

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

There’s really just one great reason to visit Uyuni, and that would be the salt flats.

We drove for close to an hour away from the salt hotel into a world defined by a blinding while landscape contrasting against a brilliant blue sky. After what felt like an eternity driving around, our guide stopped suddenly and had us get out of the 4×4.

For the next hour we posed for all of the classic pictures we had admired on Instagram before our trip. We were attacked by a dinosaur, and then we got the chance to fight back (well, I did; Adam’s “jump” was… not the best). We held up an enormous water bottle, and we laid down to form a giant star (and by the way- laying down on salt is not the most comfortable thing to do!). We jumped (well, again, I jumped; Adam didn’t always get off the ground at the moment the picture was taken). We also got incredible shots of the landscape itself.

There are salt flats all around the world, but there is a reason 60,000 people make a point to visit Uyuni each year to see the largest salt flats in the world. The experience was exactly what we were hoping it would be.

Isla Incahuasi

An island of cactus in a sea of salt
An island of cactus in a sea of salt

Did you know cactuses grow in salt flats? That wasn’t a fact I was aware of before our day in Uyuni started, but our fourth stop of the day was Isla Incahuasi, which is a cactus island in the middle of nowhere.

For 30 Bolivianos you can buy a ticket and hike around, but we skipped that and just walked around the perimeter of the island itself. There are beautiful vantage points for photos, and there were way fewer people on our route, which gave us more time to admire the “island” away from the crowds.

We spent about two hours at Isla Incahuasi, which was twice as much time as we needed. It’s a very unique spot, but an hour would have been plenty of time to get some photos and soak in the scene.

Sunset on the Uyuni Salt Flats

Our final stop of the day was back on the salt flats, this time in a slightly flooded area where we were given rubber boots so we wouldn’t get totally wet while we splashed around.

Sunset over Salar de Uyuni
Sunset over Salar de Uyuni

Looking out while the sun was still up we could see amazing reflections of the sky in the water on the ground. We took some more fun pictures with the sunset as our backdrop, and then we watched as the sun dipped below the horizon. Given how wet the salt flats were, it looked like we were watching the sun set over the ocean instead of over a landlocked country.

After changing out of our rain boots and climbing back into the 4×4, our guide took us to the airport, and just 30 minutes after standing on the salt flats watching the sky turn from orange to pink to dark blue we checked in for our flight to La Paz.

Just as our morning started with a quick cab ride and a smooth flight, our day ended the same way. After less than an hour in the air, we were in a cab headed for our hotel.

Visiting Uyuni in such a short timeframe makes for a long day, but it’s also the day we’ll remember best from our time in Bolivia.

Tips For Visiting Salar de Uyuni

If you’re planning to tour the Uyuni salt flats, here are a few things to keep in mind:

YOUR GUIDE PROBABLY WON’T SPEAK ENGLISH
We had initially decided to book a tour in advance to be sure we got an English-speaking guide, and in the end we didn’t have one on our tour—and we didn’t need one. There’s not much to say about the salt flats, honestly, and we didn’t feel like we missed out on anything because our Spanish wasn’t strong enough to understand everything our guide told us. For the most part, drivers are not the same thing as tour guides on these trips, so set your expectations accordingly. Also, tours with English-speaking guides can be much more expensive, so if you can get by without English for a day you’ll save some money and have more options when it comes to selecting a tour.

DON’T BOOK IN ADVANCE
Uyuni is absolutely loaded with tour companies, and just about every company offers the exact same itinerary. While we would recommend arriving a day or so before you want to tour to ensure you book with a reputable company, it’s entirely possible to just walk into a tour office without a reservation and walk out five minutes later with a tour departing on the same day. Trust us: we did it.

DON’T PAY TOO MUCH
If you have the time, check out a few companies to get a sense of how much they are charging for the itinerary they offer. A good price will be under 200 Bolivianos for a day tour; we paid quite a bit less than that and didn’t negotiate at all.

INTERVIEW YOUR COMPANY- AND YOUR DRIVER
Along with watching your wallet, spend some time getting to know the companies who offer tours. Research them if you can (some are undoubtedly more reputable than others). If possible, see if you can talk with the driver for your tour. There are lots of horror stories about tours led by drunk drivers, and while most companies have curbed that behavior drivers who drink on the job still exist. Don’t put yourself in an unsafe situation just to save a few dollars.

SUNSCREEN AND WATER ARE ESSENTIAL
Make sure to buy a couple of bottles of water before your tour begins. There aren’t many stops where you can buy water, and spending a day at 12,000 feet surrounded by salt will dehydrate you more than you might think. Along with water, don’t forget to pack some sunscreen as well. Even if it’s not hot outside, the combination of sunshine and its reflection off the salt can lead to some pretty terrible sunburns. Reapplication is important, too! I remembered to put sunscreen on the morning we left, but I didn’t reapply during the day. That led to a minor burn that I could have avoided (although I was in better shape than others we saw on the salt flats- some people looked a bit like tomatoes out there!).

DON’T BOOK WITH RED PLANET
Really, we don’t often warn against companies, but this one was just terrible. TripAdvisor has a few reviews that read a lot like the experience we had (missing reservations, rude service, etc.), so don’t waste your time on this company when the entire town is full of companies who will treat you like the valued customer you are.

If Uyuni isn’t on your bucket list, it should be! If you still need some convincing, here are a few more photos from one of our favorite days on the road.

 
 
Salar de Uyuni: Traversing the Salt Flats of Bolivia

 

* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a day tour with Brisa Tours, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Brisa Tours based on our own travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.

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