Exploring the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia on a budget
The Salar de Uyuni is one of the most surreal and otherworldly landscapes I have ever walked through – an endless expanse of blinding white nothingness. It is the largest salt flat in the world and it can even be seen from space. It was formed after a prehistoric saltwater lake evaporated, leaving a salt crust several meters thick.
Exploring this amazing empty white landscape is an incredible experience and a must-do while you are travelling in South America. The typical three-day 4×4 tours of the region will also take to other impressive natural attractions in the surrounding desert, including geysers, natural hot springs, rock formations and coloured lakes that are home to flocks of pink flamingos.
In this post, I will offer tips for planning your trip to the Salar de Uyuni, so that you can make the most of your travel budget while enjoying this amazing landscape.
Which starting point should you choose?
There are three different starting points to choose from when you are booking your tour of the salt flats. We chose to depart from Uyuni, but you might choose Tupiza or San Pedro de Atacama – depending on your travel plans and the direction you are heading.
So what are the three potential starting points for the tour?
This is a small dusty settlement in Bolivia and is by far the most popular starting point. The village consists of not much more than a cluster of hotels, restaurants and tour companies.
When you book your tour in Uyuni, you will have many options to choose from – which drives down the price. However, make sure that you read reviews – because some tour companies have been known to offer poor quality experiences with unsafe vehicles and unhelpful guides.
When you book your tour in Uyuni, you will have the option to either make a loop to return to Uyuni, or end your tour in San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile.
Another option is to take the tour from Tupiza, which is a small town in Bolivia near the border of Argentina. The tours from Tupiza are 4 or 5 days long, rather than 3 – which means that you will see a few extra sites along the way.
The tours in Tupiza are always more expensive than the tours that start in Uyuni. However, this is because you will enjoy another day of travel and extra sites, as well as because the standard of safety is much safer.
San Pedro de Atacama
The other option is to start your tour in San Pedro de Atacama and essentially complete the reverse of the Uyuni option. This is the least common way to explore the region, but if you are traveling in Chile and making your way north to Bolivia it makes the most sense.
Because there is less demand the prices are a little higher, but they are still reasonable.
Of course, as I have only done the tour starting in Uyuni, Bolivia and ending up in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile – all of the following advice will be based on my experience with that particular option.
There is no Need to book in advance
You might be thinking that you should book your Salar de Uyuni tour in advance, as this is how things work in some destinations. However, when it comes to the salt flats in Uyuni – there is no need to book anything online and you will actually save money by booking your tour when you arrive.
When I was booking our tour, I spoke to a few of the tourist agents in Potosi. They all quoted me rates of around 900 Bolivianos (US$130) for a 3-day, two-night tour. Then, one tourist agent confessed to me that I should wait to get to Uyuni to book my tour, because the travel agents would charge a commission that would bring up the price. Sure enough, when I arrived in Uyuni I was able to get the very same tour for 750 Bolivianos (US$108).
However, what you should do in advance is stock up on things you might need such as bottled water, snacks, lip balm, soap, sunscreen or any other essentials.
There will be one stop during the tour at a small store – where prices are extremely high. Make sure you bring sunscreen, as it is very easy to get burned on the blinding white salt flats. Don’t forget to sunscreen underneath your chin, because the sunlight reflects upwards. Also, lip balm is essential in the dry desert winds.
What does the Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour include?
Our tour included all food and transportation for the three days and two nights. It did not include the 30 Boliviano (US$4) entrance fee to Incahausi Island and the 150 Boliviano (US$21) entrance fee to the Eduardo Avaroa National Park.
We also brought some of our own snacks along with us and some bottled water.
It is important to note that, regardless of price, all of the tours will usually visit the same attractions within the Salar. The main difference is the English level of the guide and perhaps the newness and comfort of the vehicle.
Tips for saving money
Here are some tips that might save you some money on your Salar de Uyuni tour:
- Don’t go with the first tour company that you walk into. You should take the time to shop around and compare the different companies to find out who offers the best value.
- Don’t be afraid to haggle for a cheaper rate. One of the girls on our tour got a cheaper rate than we did, just because she asked nicely. It’s always worth a try!
- If you are traveling as a couple, try to find another couple and book your tour together. With more people, you will have increased bargaining power and are more likely to get a cheaper rate.
- If you don’t mind sleeping in one large room with some of the other people on your tour, this can make the trip a little cheaper.
- On the first night of the tour we had the option of a warm shower, but we had to pay for it. If you want to save money, have a nice long shower at your hotel right before you set off, then keep yourself fresh with wet-wipes (it’s only two days after all).
Should you choose the Spanish or English tour?
Tours with English-speaking guides usually cost more – around 1200 Bolivianos (US$170) compared to 750/800 Bolivianos (US$115). We chose to save money and take the tour in Spanish. Our Spanish is not fluent but we understand a very basic vocabulary.
However, we decided that the historical background was not the most important thing about the salt flats – it’s the truly amazing natural beauty of the scenery that is the most interesting.
I would recommend saving money and taking the Spanish tour, then reading about the history of the Salar online so that you understand what you are looking at.
However, make sure that you bring along some cash as a tip for your guide. They do everything from cooking meals to unloading and loading the jeep, so a tip will be appreciated.
What time of year to go?
It is possible to visit the salt flats all year long. However, if you visit during the warmer and wetter months between November and March, you will find the flats flooded with a layer of rain.
This is what creates the appearance that you are walking on an enormous mirror, which can look amazing in photos.
Visiting between April and October means that the salt flats will be dry and the skies will be blue, which is perfect for those goofy perspective photos.
For the very best combination of prices and weather, it is best to visit the salt flats in October. The temperatures will not be as cold as in the winter.
Don’t miss the amazing Salar de Uyuni!
Visiting the Salar de Uyuni has been one of the most memorable travel experiences that I have had during my time in South America. It is certainly worth the price of the tour and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Keep these tips in mind to find the best deal and enjoy exploring this bizarre and otherworldly landscape.
All photos by Kelly Dunning except Uyuni Town by Miguel Navaza on Flicr
By Kelly Dunning
Kelly Dunning is a freelance travel writer and digital nomad. She and her partner Lee have been travelling the world for the last 3 years while running Global-Goose.com – a source of information and inspiration for fellow travellers.