The Uyuni Salt Flats is one of the few Instagram famous attractions that 100% live up to the hype. The sunset and sunrise over this 12,000 square kilometer marvel is no doubt the most beautiful thing I saw in 8 months of backpacking around South America. The tour is a lot more than just the salt flats, which is where you will only spend one day. You’ll see the beautiful landscapes of the region which include geysers, lagoons, snow-capped peaks, thermal baths, deserts, and rock formations. And yes, there are plenty of llamas.
Which Tour Should I Join?
The biggest decision to make is whether to start from Uyuni or Tupiza. The typical 4×4 tour starts in Uyuni and lasts 3 days. The biggest cons to this tour are that you see the salt flats on the first day and you don’t see the sunrise there. If you’re concerned about altitude sickness, it’s better to start in Uyuni. Then, you’ll only max out at 3,700 meters on day one, whereas the tours from Tupiza reach 4,800 meters on the first day.
The alternative 4-day tour starting from Tupiza sees the same sights as the 3-day tour while also taking a day to explore the rugged desert landscape around Tupiza. I’d say the extra day this tour offers is the least memorable of the four, but it certainly wasn’t disappointing. The biggest plus to starting in Tupiza is that you save the best for last by spending the final day at the salt flats. There are fewer tour companies in Tupiza, but I had a very good experience with Tupiza Tours.
Important Tips for the Uyuni Salt Flats Tour
1. Reputable tour agencies don’t offer tours during the Christmas and New Year period
Many companies shut down during this time because of the increased risk of drivers getting drunk during the holidays and endangering the roads. Drunk driving is a problem in Bolivia.
2. Be prepared to spend lots of time on the road
The days that you are not at the salt flats involve lots of driving. You will spend 5-6 hours in the 4×4 with 30-minute stops at points of interest.
3. Look for agencies that offer Tour groups of 4-5 people
The 4x4s fit 6 people comfortably (5 tourists + a guide) and any more would be a tight squeeze. Given the amount of time you’ll spend in the 4×4, it’s worth paying a bit extra to have some comfort.
4. Bring a few pairs of warm socks
Watching the sunrise at the salt flats is spectacular but also freezing cold. Temperatures are below freezing and the water doesn’t turn to ice because of the salt content. You stand in ankle-high water with rain boots that keep you dry but not warm. After 30 minutes, our whole group was in the 4×4 with our boots off and rubbing our feet to warm them up.
5. Sunglasses, chapstick, and toilet paper are essential
Sunglasses are the most important because the reflection of the salt flats can damage your eyes. If you don’t have chapstick or vaseline in the desert, you will get painfully chapped lips. Lastly, there is no toilet paper provided at the accommodation.
6. Accommodation is very basic
Everyone stays in a shared dorm and because of the water shortage, you’ll be lucky to get a shower (we had none in 3 nights). At some accommodations, we only had electricity for a few hours. The one thing you will have is plenty of blankets to keep warm.
7. The best time to visit is December to March
The rainy summer months are the best time to visit the salt flats to see the mirror effect. Whereas, the drier months are better for taking perspective pictures. Sadly, the best time to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats is the worst time to be in the rest of Bolivia. I went in April and there were small parts of the flats with enough water to get the mirror effect, but it wasn’t the full experience.
8. Be careful getting out of the thermal baths
Spending 30 minutes in thermal baths at 4,800 meters will make you dizzy, especially if you indulge in a beer. Take your time getting out because the last thing you want is to fall and smack your head 2 hours away from the nearest medical care.
9. Tip your guide well
The guides work very hard. They cook all the meals, clean, load luggage into the 4×4, and take awesome photographs for you. Especially after the pandemic when many of the guides struggled to find any form of work for 18 months, make sure to take care of them.
Where to Next
Bolivia is an authentic and diverse country with strong indigenous culture and a whole lot more to see than just the Uyuni Salt Flats. Read up on nearby destinations!
Potosí (4 hours by bus) – Take a tour inside an active mine that once produced 60% of the world’s silver.
Sucre (8 hours) – A UNESCO city with beautiful white architecture, fascinating museums, and an unmissable folklore dance show.
La Paz (9 hours) – This unique and chaotic city has lively markets, cable cars, and adventure activities.
Jujuy, Argentina (10 hours via Villazón) – Stunning high elevation desert landscapes with multi-colored mountains and more salt flats.