Dan and I visited Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats in April and of course, we really wanted to experience the very best of the salt flats as efficiently as possible. We, however, did not want to do a multi night Salt Flats tour, which is common, as we heard from many sources that those tours were a bit backpack-ery, and that was just not what we were looking for… We ended up taking a full day tour of the Salt Flats from Uyuni and a separate star gazing night tour the following day. This articles details our Uyuni tours, which itinerary I understand is the same for most similarly priced companies.
For those unfamiliar, seeing Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is a wild experience. Located at over 12,000 feet above sea level, the salt flats span 4,000 square miles, going all the way from Uyuni town to the Chilean border. The salt flats are so large, you can see it from the sky, apparently even outer space. The salt flats look like a huge area covered in snow or sand, but it’s actually all salt. Yes, like the salt you put on food. Tourists come here from all over to experience the salt flats and see its unique landscape.
FIRST STOP ON MOST TOURS: UYUNI TRAIN CEMETERY
The first stop on most Uyuni Salt Flats day tours is in the small town of Uyuni to see the odd tourist attraction, the “Train Cemetery.” The Train Cemetery is a collection of old, rusty train cars, most of which are British made from the early 20th century. Why are these trains parked here permanently to rot you may ask? This part of Bolivia used to be a big mining hot spot and foreign trains and tracks were brought in to move the mined goods. The area apparently never quite took off as expected and the mining industry fell off a lot (although mining is still important in the area). These train cars were just left outside Uyuni to rot away. Today, they make up a weirdly interesting tourist destination that is surprisingly very Instagrammable. The trains look very cool against the bright blue sky and tourists can climb all over the trains (be sure you are up to date on your Teatnus shot!). We spent about 30 minutes at the Train Cemetery. Arrive early to miss the tourist crowds.
A bonus at the Train Cemetery is these cool sculptures by a local Uyuni artist. They reminded me of Transformers. This artist has several other sculptures around the town of Uyuni.
SECOND STOP ON OUR TOUR: BOOTS AND BLANKETS FROM THE TOUR AGENCY
Most tours next stop at an agency in Uyuni to pick up blankets, props for photographs and rain boots (if seasonally appropriate). We also had to pay an additional fee to convert our tour from shared to private due to an error on the agencies’ part…. Annoying but it ended up working out well. We didn’t stop in Uyuni town aside from buying a dinosaur prop from a street vendor and picking up our boots. We did pass the cutest ice cream shop, pictured below. It looked so cute!
THIRD STOP ON MOST UYUNI TOURS: COLCHANI VILLAGE
We next drove out toward the Salt Flats, stopping in the tiny village of Colchani. Home to only around 600 people, Colchani is all things salt. First, its home to an important salt factory producing salt from the Uyuni Salt Flats. Second, the locals make handicrafts with the salt. In Colchani, we learned how the salt is taken from the flats and made into useable products, including table salt and bath salts. We also did a good bit of souvenir shopping, as Colchani has all sorts of tourist souvenirs for very reasonable prices (SO MUCH less than the gift shop at Hotel Palacio de Sal). Tourists can “see” Colchani in about 15 minutes, but we spent around 45 with the shopping. Colchani is also a good place to stock up on water and snacks if you are staying at one of the pricey hotels, like us.
FOURTH STOP: ENTERING THE SALT FLATS
After shopping in Colchani, we finally entered the Salar de Uyuni, aka the salt flats! In entering, our driver simply drove off road and onto the incredibly bright white salt covering the flats. This was kind of wild, but also other worldly, almost like we had left planet Earth. Super cool. We stopped at two popular tourist sites shortly after we entered. First, a giant salt sculpture of Dakar, Bolivia. Dakar is a an off-road vehicle endurance race that was held in Bolivia a couple times in the recent past. It’s currently taking place in Saudi Arabia, but seeing the sculpture was pretty cool.
We also stopped for pictures at the “World Flag Monument,” and I’m not certain if that is the real name. Here, many tourists bring flags from all over the world. The site was pretty interesting to see. It would have been more interesting if we had brought a flag to leave.
We next drove out into the Salar, seeming leaving everything behind. We eventually left all other tour cars and we were really in our driver’s hands to get us in and out of the Salar. It was kind of crazy!
FIFTH STOP: A HOMEMADE LUNCH
We actually drove all the way out to Incahuasi Island and picked a spot for our picnic lunch. Our drive and guide set up the loveliest table and chairs, as well as a homemade lunch prepared by the “boss’s wife.” The set up was super cute and totally photographable:
For lunch, we enjoyed grilled burgers with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, dried lama (skipped this!), cheese, cucumber and tomato salad, quinoa that was amazing, a vegetable medley of potatoes, peas and carrots, yogurt, fresh fruit, and the most amazing llajua, or Bolivian hot sauce!
For drinks, we were offered fresh juice, water, Coke and Uyuni beer. We both opted for a Uyuni beer and it was surprisingly really good! In any case, all tourists to Uyuni should confirm if their tour has food and drink, as they only real place we saw to stop was a little cafe at Incahuasi Island.
SIXTH STOP: THOSE CRAZY PHOTOGRAPHS!!
After lunch we did the thing I was most looking forward to, those crazy photographs that you see in all Uyuni salt flats! Due to the unique landscape, guests in Uyuni can take really cool photos against the salt and blue sky that defy reality. Most tour guides are excellent at these photos, including ours! We brought a few props, including the below llama, and our guide provided a dinosaur that he picked up on the street in Uyuni. Be sure to bring your own props if you are looking for something special.
SEVENTH STOP: INCAHUASI ISLAND
Our next stop was at an oasis in the middle of the Uyuni Salt Flats called Incahuasi Island. Incahuasi is an island filled with Trichocereus cacti in the middle of the salt flats. Guests pay a small fee to enter. Once inside, there are decently clean restrooms and a short hike that goes to the highest point on Incahuasi Island. And honestly, this hike was much harder than expected, largely due to the altitude. The views from the top are stunning, however.
EIGHTH STOP: A SUNSET IN THE SALT FLATS
The last top on our Uyuni Salt Flats tour was to watch the sunset. For this bit of the tour, we first drove to the area of the Uyuni Salt Flats that still had standing water. This enabled us to get a crazy video of the little squares of salt in the Salt Flats (see video below). Once stopped, we put on our borrowed rain boots and our guide set up the most adorable little table with coffee, wine and a plate of meats, cheese, and chips. We watched the sunset from daylight until it was dark, which was so beautiful. We got some fantastic pictures, and drove back to our hotel after the sunset. This was a lovely way to end our Uyuni Salt Flats tour!
THE UYUNI SALT FLATS EVENING TOUR
In addition to our full day in Uyuni, we also did a Private Evening Stargazing Tour, which left our hotel around 8:00 PM and returned around 10:30 PM. On this tour, we again went out into the salt flats in an SUV with a driver and guide. We stopped in the area of Uyuni that still had water on the ground. At this time, we got out to look at the stars, which was pretty stunning, as there is barely any light pollution. We then spent about an hour taking photographs with what I would describe as as glow sticks. These made for incredibly cool pictures, but it was also freezing. We asked to go back after about an hour in, LOL. The company brought wine for us to drink, but it was simply too cold for our taste. Here are some of our pictures. While fun, I’m not sure I would take this tour again.
TIPS FOR VISITING THE SALAR DE UYUNI
- Day trips to the Uyuni Salt Flats, like the tour we took, are quite popular, but you are certainly limited in how much you can see on a day tour. To explore the entirety of the Uyuni Salt Flats, such as the pink flamingos, you need to take a multi-day tour that goes further into the Uyuni Salt Flats.
- The Uyuni Salt Flats have two very distinct seasons: wet ( December – March) and dry (April – November). During the wet season, the Uyuni Salt Flats are warmer and there is water covering almost all of the Uyuni Salt Flats, permitting guests to take the famous photographs with the reflections in the water. The dry season in the Uyuni Slat Flats is colder and has very little rain, but you can still get some really cool photographs, just without the reflection. We tried to split the difference and go at the change of seasons (mid-April), which worked out for us well.
- Bring cash on any Uyuni Slat Flat tours – you’ll need it for shopping, tips and entrance to Incahuasi, etc. To be clear, you need to get this cash prior to your tour!
- Wear so many layers when visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats. We went through four seasons in one day – went from wearing a tank top on Incahuasi Island to three sweaters and a coat at night.
- Bring sunglasses to Uyuni Salt Flats. Dan had to buy some fake ones in Colchani because he forgot his sunnies.
- Restrooms – they do exist in the Uyuni Salt Flats, but some are apparently much nicer than others. Our guide was great about pointing out appropriate ones to visit…
- The Salar de Uyuni is at 12,000 feet above sea level, and most tourists experience some sort of altitude sickness. Plan ahead here. We took prescription Diamox prior to our trip to help with this.
- We had zero cell phone service in the Uyuni Salt Flats, but did at our hotel not far from it. In any case, you will likely be without service for much of your day in the Salt Flats.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun is really, really bright in the Uyuni Salt Flats. We both got more sun than we wanted, and we wore sunscreen.
- For all visits to the Uyuni Salt Flats, you should confirm if you will be in standing water and if so, if you need to bring waterproof shoes or if your tour company provides them. You will be standing in at least an inch of water, possibly more depending on the season.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Joker Expedition Tours: This is the company we used for both a private day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Uyuni Salt Flats private night tour.