Bolivia Travel Guide
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Salar de Uyuni 101: How to Visit the Largest Salt Flat in the World

PHOTO: sunsinger / Shuttesrtock

A journey to the stark-white-salted surface of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni stands out as one of the most unique travel experiences in the world.

Formed by prehistoric lakes tens of thousands of years ago, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni spans a massive 4,086 square miles across the altiplano at a breathless 11,995 feet above sea level.  Practically devoid of any sign of life, only a few hearty souls call this harsh landscape home. A thick layer of abrasive salt crust forms the iconic hexagonal pattern stamped across the terrain, serving as an extraction site for salt and the world’s largest reserves of lithium. The remarkably flat surface draws visitors from across the world to experience the surreal landscape in person. Among the most extreme landscapes in South America, a trip to the Salar de Uyuni makes for an otherworldly travel experience.

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Where Is It Located?

The Salar de Uyuni is located near the town of Uyuni, Bolivia. Not far from the meeting points of the Chilean border, it’s an easy jaunt from nearby San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Many travelers choose to visit the Salar de Uyuni either before or after a visit to the Atacama Desert in Chile, due to its proximity.

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How Do You Get There?

There are several options to get to the Salar de Uyuni. If you’re flying into La Paz, you can take the overnight bus or hop on one of several daily flights directly to Uyuni. From Oruru, the same night bus stops here, or you have the option of taking the train. Keep in mind that there are no daily departures and it takes longer on the train, but is safer and more comfortable. Bus options from other major cities in Bolivia are also possible.

There are also bus options coming from nearby border towns in Argentina and Chile, just note that these are less comfortable and travel over unpaved, bumpy roads. Lastly, tours coming from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile can transfer you to the border where you can pick up your Salar de Uyuni tour.

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PHOTO: Aldo Lammel (CC BY-NC 2.0) / Flickr
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What Are the Entry Requirements for Bolivia?

US citizens are required to obtain a tourist visa from any Bolivian Consulate prior to arriving in the country. The visa costs $160 and is valid for 10 years from the date of issue with a cumulative length of stay of 90 days per year. Additionally, a yellow fever vaccine certificate is also required.

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When Is the Best Season to Visit?

This depends on the sort of experience you want! The salt flats have dry (April-October) and wet (November to mid-April) seasons. There are benefits to visiting during both, though a trip during the dry season guarantees seeing attractions like Isla Incahuasi, the neighboring Salar de Coipasa, and more diverse photography options, based on the tour you choose.

The appeal of going in the wet season is to experience the magical mirror-like effect caused by the flooded surface. The wet surface, however, means that the roads are not navigable, and during the wettest months of December and January, some tours may be canceled. June through August is the high season and so rates may rise accordingly.

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PHOTO: Benedikt Juerges / Shutterstock
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What Is the Best Way to Experience the Salt Flats?

There are a few ways to experience the salt flats. The two most popular tours start in Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Though you can book last-minute tours, it is advisable to book in advance in order to secure the most reliable cars and drivers. The cars are not always well-maintained and last-minute bookings can mean that you might be stuck with the beater car. Do your homework, as companies have been shut down due to drunk drivers or breakdowns, leaving tourists stranded for hours.

You can also book a private tour if you prefer. Recommended tour operators include Salty Desert Adventours, Quechua Connection, and Red Planet Expedition. Hokada Mountain is recommended for the one-day tour.

Alternatively, if you’re traveling with your own vehicle or cycle touring, you can take as much time as you like to see the salt flats and neighboring villages.

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PHOTO: Hotel del Sal
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Are There any Hotels or Restaurants There?

The closest city is Uyuni, which has plenty of restaurants and accommodation options. Small villages along the route offer basic accommodations and a few food options. There are several salt hotels in villages that border the salt flat, like the Luna Salada or the Hotel de Sal, for a unique hotel experience.

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PHOTO: Pavel Svoboda Photography / Shutterstock
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Can I Stay Overnight on the Salt Flats?

It is possible to stay overnight directly on the salt flats, however, tour operators book accommodations, so the only real way to spend the night is if you are traveling in your own 4X4 vehicle or bicycle touring across the salt flats. The temperatures are far colder on the salty surface itself, so prepare for a chilly night! Be sure to aim for a spot away from any tire tracks.

INSIDER TIPIf you provide your own transportation across the salt flats, bring more water and food than you think you’ll need. Options are limited and the progress can be slow going in the lands connecting the salt flats.

 

Book a Hotel

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PHOTO: Endless Traveller / Shutterstock
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What is the Weather Like?

Winter in the altiplano, or highlands, is sunny and very dry with cold temperatures and constant wind. Temperatures can drop from 32 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, especially during the night and early morning. The summer months, particularly December through March, bring the wet season, with a daily average temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

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PHOTO: Radka Tesarova / Shuttesrtock
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How Long Does a Visit Take?

Most tours are essentially the same and offer trips ranging from one day to four nights. Highlights include visits to the colorful lakes to see pink flamingos and geysers, as well as soaking in hot springs. You can opt to return to Uyuni or transfer to San Pedro de Atacama at the Chilean border. The tour will likely include food, but it’s a good idea to bring your own snacks for any delays or if you have dietary restrictions.

Day trips are certainly possible and if you are short on time and/or on a budget, it might be the right choice for you. Most tours leave in the morning and return at sunset, visiting the same attractions as other tours on Day 1.

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PHOTO: RPBaiao / Shuttesrtock
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What Else is There to See in the Area?

On the outskirts of Uyuni, the train cemetery is a unique attraction. The graveyard contains rusted and graffitied trains left over from a project from the 20th century that was never completed. In the town of Colchani, you can visit the Salt Hotel museum and purchase handcrafted souvenirs made from salt.

On your tour, you’ll visit Isla Incahuasi, an island in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni containing giant cacti and a visitor center. You can hike to the top and take in the expansive view of the salt flat from high.

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PHOTO: Evgeny Subbotsky / Shuttesrtock
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What Do I Need to Bring With Me During My Visit?

Sun protection is a must given the high altitude and reflection off the white surface. Be sure to pack sunglasses, a hat, sunblock, and chapstick. Little water is available on the Salar de Uyuni, so bring plenty along, as tour operators are known to not supply sufficient amounts.

Pack extra batteries or portable chargers for your electronic equipment. Charging options are not always available and the cold temperatures will drain your batteries. Dress in layers; plann for cold winter temperatures in the morning and evening.

Accommodations are basic and often lack heat, so bringing along a warm sleeping bag is recommended. The tours usually do not include entry fees to places like Isla Incahuasi, national parks, or the hot springs, so bring along some cash, as there are no banks along the way.

INSIDER TIPSleep with your batteries in your sleeping bag to keep them warm during the night.

 

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Do I Need to Hire a Guide?

Unless you are providing your own mode of transportation (i.e. a bicycle for touring or your own 4X4 vehicle), you’ll need to join a tour to truly experience the salt flats. You can also take a taxi as close to the salt flats as you like, but the visit won’t be nearly as enchanting with such a short excursion.

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PHOTO: Henner Damke / Shutterstock
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Do People or Animals Actually Live There?

There are a few border villages and an island on the neighboring Salar de Coipasa where people live. Life is difficult given the isolation and inhospitable growing conditions. Potatoes, rice, and bread are the main dietary staples and there is no running water is most villages (including bathrooms). Aside from an Andean fox, a rodent called viscacha, and the pink flamingos that return to breed on the Salar de Uyuni each November, there are no other animals that live on the salt flats.

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PHOTO: Fabio Lamanna / Shutterstock
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Will I Get Altitude Sickness?

Quite possibly. At nearly 12,000 feet, you will most certainly feel the altitude and may experience symptoms of sickness. These include nausea, headache, insomnia, and lack of breath, among others. The effects are greatly minimized by gradually increasing altitude slowly over a few days. With Bolivia’s capital city La Paz located at the same altitude, gradual acclimatization proves a bit more difficult. Take a few days to rest and get your body used to the height. Drink plenty of water and coca tea( available just about everywhere), avoid alcohol and eat light healthy foods. Try to get as much rest and drink plenty of water prior to arrival.

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PHOTO: Dmitry Burlakov / Shutterstock
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How Do I Take a Perspective Photo?

Some of the most iconic images from the Salar de Uyuni are perspective shots. The endless horizon is a perfect setting for creating fun distortion photographs. These shots are a bit tricky and it can take several attempts to get perfect. Take a look online before heading to the salt flats to get ideas for your photo. Common props include hiking boots, spoons, toy dragons, and water bottles.

Find a location where there are no other distractions, like mountains, people, or cars in the background. Set the prop in the foreground, close to the lens and then have the second object (usually the person) stand back in the distance in the same line as the prop. Make sure your camera is on the same level, or as close to it as possible, as your prop. Take several shots and make slight adjustments with the camera to find the right set up.