Tours in the Uyuni area are designed around visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats (el Salar de Uyuni) and the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. Most travelers to the area first discover the Salt Flats through epic photos that either depict the sky reflected on the ground, or fun photos that manipulate the perspective created by the seemingly endless flats. While the Salt Flats are the clear highlight of Uyuni tours, many visitors do not realize that they will also see high altitude lagoons, bizarre and stunning rock formations, and wildlife, including alpacas and groups of hundreds of flamingos! Following is more information about the different components of Uyuni tours, and useful information to help you plan and prepare for your trip!
At 4,085 square miles (10,582 square km) and 11,995 feet (3,656 meters) above sea level, the Uyuni Salt Flats are the largest and highest salt flats in the world. The flats were once a prehistoric salt lake that covered a large portion of southwest Bolivia. After it dried, it left a large layer of salt crust, which is still up to 33 feet (10 meters) deep. The area is currently still a frontier destination for tourists, as it lacks the infrastructure enjoyed by other natural wonders in South America (such as Machu Picchu or Iguassu Falls). That said, the area’s popularity has increased dramatically in recent years and it seems destined to become one of the top destinations in all of Latin America. Additionally, the Salt Flats purportedly sit atop the biggest reserve of lithium in the world, which will likely soon become a target for extraction. So if you are interested in seeing the Salt Flats someday, we would encourage you to visit sooner rather than later!
There are actually two “best” times to visit the Uyuni area, depending on your preference. It is warmest between from October through January and very likely to be hot and super dry during the day, and chilly at night. This makes the overall travel experience more pleasant and easier to predict than other parts of the year. That said, many people travel to the area hoping to see the famous “mirror effect” (where the sky is reflected on the ground), which is most likely to happen during the rainy months of January, February, and March (most likely in February). The downside of these months is that many areas will be inaccessible due to flooding, which can drastically alter the usual Uyuni tours itineraries. From April through September, it is likely to be quite cold at night, and between May and August, there is higher chance of snow (which can also affect accessibility).
There are not four strict seasons in the Bolivian Altiplano, more like wet and dry season, and large fluctuations in average temperature. The following breakdown is helpful for planning a trip:
Almost all Uyuni tours use 4×4 trucks, often Jeeps or Lexuses. You will spend much of the tour driving through desert or on the salt flats themselves, which means the ride can be bumpy and dusty. If you are concerned about comfort during the tour, we recommend you book a private tour, as you will have more space in the vehicle. Most tours have 6 passengers and 1 driver/guide, or 5 passengers, a guide, and a driver.
Besides the Uyuni Salt Flats, Eduardo Avaroa National Park is the other highlight of Uyuni tours. The Park is home to geysers, volcanoes, natural hot springs, and three endemic species of flamingos, which feed in lagoons that range in color from red to blue to green. In the desert near the salt flats, there are also ancient cave paintings, bizarre rock formations, and long canyons. Most travelers also enjoy their visit to the Train Cemetery (Cementerio de Trenes) just outside of Uyuni city, and Isla Incahuasi – an island covered in giant cacti in the middle of the salt flats. Another popular part of Uyuni tours is staying in hostels/hotels made entirely of salt!
Most Uyuni tours include lodging, meals, transport, and a guide or a driver/guide. Tours generally pick travelers up and drop them off at their hotels in San Pedro or Uyuni. There are group tours and private tours. During group tours, the basic package includes shared lodging (more on that below) and a Spanish-speaking driver/guide. Travelers can pay extra for an English-speaking guide on group tours and for private lodging (which just means having a private double room in the same hostel as the rest of the group). Private tours generally include an English-speaking guide and private rooms.
The infrastructure around the Uyuni Salt Flats is extremely limited, as it is a lightly populated area in the middle of a desert in a developing country. This means that amenities such as electricity and hot water are inconsistent, and almost none of the hostels and hotels have wifi. There are essentially two levels of lodging around the Uyuni salt flats – very basic, and pretty nice. Most tours stay in very basic lodging, in community-run hostels that have mostly shared rooms and a few private double rooms. The shared rooms have 3-6 beds in them, depending on the property/room, and share a bathroom with other rooms (like most hostels). The private rooms in the hostel are the same level of quality, but generally have a double bed and a private bathroom.
There are a few nicer hotels around the salt flats that are 3-4 star quality. They have all private rooms, nicer beds, better food, and are much more likely to have working electricity and hot water throughout the year. Because there are so few of these options, however, these hotels are significantly more expensive than the hostels. They are also generally not on the the normal tour route, which means usually you will have to book a private tour in order to stay in these properties.
Most Uyuni tours will travel to well above 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet) above sea level, so it critical to hydrate before and during the tour. We recommend not drinking any alcohol just before or during the trip, as it accelerates dehydration. Altitude has various unpleasant effects, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and drowsiness. It will also be more difficult to breath at altitude, but you will not be doing any major physical activity as part of the tour, so it should be manageable. If it is too much, tell your driver and they will take you to a lower elevation (which will mean the end of the tour, but relief from the symptoms of altitude sickness). The best way to prepare for the altitude is to spend a few days before the tour at high altitude (around 10,000 feet/3,000 meters will be more manageable and help you adjust to the higher altitudes you will experience on the tour). You should not take any Uyuni tour if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, are pregnant, or are a child younger than 4 years old.