One of the best things we did in Bolivia was go on a three day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats and the surrounding area. This is possibly one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bolivia and I’m guessing thousands of people make the trip each year – it certainly seemed busy when we went, and we were there in the low season.
If you’re not sure about visiting, just check out our short video above and it’ll soon convince you!
So what can you expect?
Aside from unexpected unfortunate events, such as Dave being ill while we did the tour, hopefully this post will help you to get a good understanding of what the tour’s like before you buy the tickets for the adventure.
Don’t buy your tickets until you get to Uyuni
We took an overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, which took around 12 hours. It was a pretty awful ride, as most of the road is actually a dirt track (!) and is flooded in some parts.
Some people book their tour before leaving La Paz, and we were encouraged to do so too. But I’d advise against it. The cheapest place to get your tickets is in Uyuni so wait until you get there.
When we arrived, we checked into a cheap hostel and rested for awhile. Once we’d recovered from our overnight journey, we went walking around the town and asked at numerous tour companies what was the best price they’d give us for a three day tour.
The prices varied between 650 bolivinos (US$91) to 1,200 bolivianos (US$168).
As you can see, it’s worth hunting around because the prices vary so drastically. We ended up going with the cheapest tour – 650 bolivanos with Andes Tours – which we knew would come with no frills attached, but it was worth the savings for us.
The price included all our accommodation, meals and transport.
Day one – Train cemetery and Uyuni salt flats
We left the tourism agency at around 10:30am to start the tour. This is around the time all the tours leave because they wait until all the overnight buses get in in case they want to join the tour too.
Make sure there’s only going to be six of you, plus your guide, in your 4X4. Otherwise it’ll be way too cramped. We had six people and the guide and it was a tight enough fit as it was.
But, as I mentioned, it’s worth resting for a night in Uyuni before starting the tour otherwise you’ll be knackered.
We were taken to the train cemetery, located about 20 minutes outside of Uyuni and had about half an hour to wander around and take some photos.
Then we were driven about an hour or so to the salt flats. This was one of the highlights of the tour – and you can see why people do the one day tour if they don’t have enough time, just to see the salt flats.
They are HUGE and you certainly won’t be able to see one end from the other. Make sure you wear lots and lots of sunscreen and a hat because the reflections of the brilliantly bright salt makes the sun bounce all over your body.
Check out my photo essay of the salt flats for more images.
We had lunch here in the salt flats inside the Salt Hotel. I was disappointed to find that there was basically no vegetarian option for my food (unless I wanted just steamed vegetables for lunch). I’d indicated I was a vegetarian when I signed up for the tour too – I guess it was just one of the problems with paying for such a cheap tour.
You have to pay 3 bolivianos at the Salt Hotel to use the disgusting toilets if you need to go. Remember to bring hand sanitiser – you’ll need it on this trip.
Normally if it’s not the rainy season, your tour will take you to Isla Incahuasi, also called Isla Pescado, where you can see cacti. Unfortunately during the rainy season (between November – April) the road is impassable.
You’ll then be taken to basic accommodation to spend the night. Dave and I shared a twin room which, although basic, was clean and had a TV. A shower was available but it was 10 bolivianos. It may be gross but no one in our tour showered for the entire three days!
Day two – Volcanoes, Rock Valley, Laguanas and Laguna Colorada
Our guide didn’t tell us what time we needed to wake up in the morning and as a result we overslept and ended up leaving at around 8:45am rather than 8am.
At this point I’d realised that our guide wasn’t actually a guide but just a driver. He didn’t tell us anything unless other people in our group asked us what things were specifically.
He didn’t speak any English so we couldn’t communicate. I guess another minus against our cheapo deal.
This day was filled with a lot of driving but a lot of fun. The landscape was breathtaking and changed dramatically from large volcanoes, farming paddocks growing quinoa to the rocky valley.
We stopped numerous times to take photos of llamas crossing the road, mountains in the distance and to pose on oddly-shaped rocks.
We also passed lots of different lagoons that had flamingoes walking delicately across them. We were lucky to see them as they’re only there for part of the year, arriving in November.
The last lagoon we visited was by far the best though.
You have to pay 150 bolivianos (US$21) per person to enter this nature reserve – no tours will include this so make sure you’re aware of the extra cost.
It’s worth it though. It was blowing a gale but our group still walked right down to the shore of the lake to watch the flamingoes dance.
That night we slept in even more basic accommodation – all six of us shared a room.
It was in a tiny town right near the pink lagoon and because it’s in a sort of desert-like landscape, it gets extremely cold at night.
Make sure you bring very warm clothing.
This accommodation also didn’t have electricity after 9pm. So it’s handy to bring a torch in case you need to get up in the middle of the night and use the toilet. We didn’t have one but luckily our group had a few between them.
There was a shower available at this place for 10 bolivianos again.
Day three – Geysers and hot springs
This morning we rose extremely early – at 4am. Although knackered (might have something to do with the wine we drank the night before – we were given one bottle with dinner and bought a few more from the little shop at the hostel) it was worth it.
We watched the magnificent sun rise over the mountains, casting pink light over the lagoons. We were driven to an area that has active geysers that spurt boiling water out of the ground.
Although not as large as the ones in Yellowstone, they were still great to visit and it felt like we were walking across the moon in the light of the dawn.
But it was FREEZING cold at this time of the day.
Which led me to my favourite part of the tour… we were taken to hot springs. Stripping off and squealing about how cold it was was part of the fun as we entered perfectly hot water.
We spent a good half an hour soaking with the mountains all around us.
Make sure you get up on time this day, because the hot springs get really busy and you want to get there early to beat the crowds.
We met some people in La Paz who’d paid twice as much as we did for their tour but the advantage that came with that is that they slept at the hot springs and were able to spend the entire evening relaxing in the pools before the crowds came the next day.
I’m not sure whether it was worth the extra US$100 but it would’ve been pretty good.
We then ate breakfast (cold pancakes, cereal and yoghurt) in the dining hall at the hot springs before driving to the border of Bolivia and Chile to drop off two girls in our group.
We drove through a wide desert landscape that had sandy mountains in the distance. It’s said Salvador Dalí used this as inspiration for many of his paintings.
After dropping the girls off, it was about a four hour drive back to Uyuni. We stopped for lunch and to take a few more photos at other rocky formations along the way.
The people make the tour
What we quickly learned on the tour was that the people really made it. If we’d have been stuck with boring or un-fun people the tour would’ve been a drag.
Thankfully our group – consisting of two guys from the Netherlands and two girls from Columbia – were a lot of fun.
We shared a lot of laughs and made sure to swap email addresses at the end of the tour. We’re still all in touch via Facebook.
So, even though our ‘guide’ was a bit of a drag, and the food was average, we had a marvellous time. Unfortunately you can’t always pick your group, but if you’re travelling with four or more people you could always ask to do a tour with just your friends. Bargain and try and get a discount when that many of you book together!
Make sure you bring:
– Warm clothing
– Camera with extra batteries (if possible)
– Hiking shoes / sneakers
– Flip flops
– Extra snacks for between meals
– 2 litres of water per person
– Toilet paper and hand sanatiser
Make sure you leave behind:
– Good clothes
– Laptops – you won’t get a chance to use it and there’s no wifi!
– Makeup – no need for it on this tour!
Try not to take too much stuff – there’s not much room in the 4X4. You can usually leave your other bags at the travel agency – that’s what we did and it was safe for the three days.