If Bolivia is on your travel radar, it is most likely there because of the Salar de Uyuni, in the south of the country. If it isn’t, then you may know it through the amazing/funny/creative pictures you’ve seen of the salt flats. It is absolutely worth a visit to see this amazing place and have the pics to prove it.
There are 10 billion (yes B) tons of salt on the world’s largest salt flat. It used to be a lake, but that’s dried up, leaving a massive salt plain. During the rainy season (Jan-April) it becomes a giant mirror, holding onto the rain water and creating a spectacular backdrop for beautiful photos.
Through our research, we found that Bolivia seemed to be one of the more “challenging” places to travel, and we ended up booking some tours for our week there to save some of the traditional travel snafus you encounter without local knowledge. We used Yampu Tours and it helped tremendously with making sure our short + busy trip to Uyuni (and all the spots in Bolivia) went smoothly! I basically challenged our tour coordinator, Emily, to “pack as much Bolivian fun into one week as humanly possible,” and she delivered.
We took a 3-day tour of the salt flats, which seemed the right amount of time to really get a feel for the place. You can do it in a day, depending on your schedule, but there are a few reasons we decided on some extra time, and I’m glad we did. You can also go longer, but after 3 days you really get the gist of it being a very large, very barren salt plain. Thru trips to Chile would be the only reason to keep on trucking.
Flying to Uyuni, a small town in the southwest of Bolivia, was easy and cheap. It’s an hour flight that costs about $100 from El Alto airport in La Paz on Amaszonas airlines. Flights were frequent and on small regional jets (be prepared to check a bag) into Uyuni’s tiny airport. You can also take an overnight bus from La Paz or Chile if you’re coming from that direction. But if you’re short on time book the flight. Also, be aware that they change the flight times constantly. Recheck with Amaszonas the day prior. Our flights were rescheduled about 2 hours earlier, both going and coming!
We were met by our guide, Victor, who worked for Hidalgo Tours (which, in Uyuni, seems like a very popular choice). We had a guide and a driver, which was helpful, especially when we got a flat tire on day 2—a speedy change and we were on our way!
We stopped in Uyuni to load up or 4WD Toyota and get supplies at the “partner” hotel Jardines de Uyuni, and had a quick walk around the tiny town. The hotel was “fine” for town, but I’m glad we were able to book at the Palacio del Sal, directly on the salt flat. Uyuni is quite a ways out of town and staying there severely impacts how much time you are going to spend on the flats. We stumbled on a few small markets in town, as well as a nice tree-lined street, which we dubbed the Champs d’Elysees de Uyuni.
Our first stop was the Railroad Graveyard museum, which was essentially a bunch of rusted out trains tagged with lots of spray paint. Fun for a few pictures and a little history of the mining communities around the area, but it was a quick stop on the main event.
The drive to the flats was extremely fun. You make your way through Colchani, a town up the road, via the highway filled with llama and vicuna. Colchani is a combination of a tourist town and a place where they process and package the salt scraped from the flats. It’s small, rutted streets are well-traveled, and most tours stop through to see the salt factory and buy some souvenirs.
Once you pass Colchani, the road opens up to the flats and you get your first glimpse of how vast the salt flats are! There are 4 hotels dotted along the border of the flat—the best one is the Hotel Palacio de Sal, the original hotel made of salt. Stay there. The modern design plus the domed rooms are beautiful. Lick the walls (salty!).
The first stop on the salt flat is to see the outskirts, where there are subterranean springs bubbling through the crust. Filled with minerals, the small tide pools are a variety of colors. Then, the main event—you get your first real view of the flats as you’ve seen in the pictures. Depending on the season (we went in the wet season, and despite a massive drought, drove on some wet and mostly dry areas) you’ll have a different experience. In the wet season, the salt is gleaming white, while the dry season, it turns more brown as the winds and sediment collect. I’d recommend booking your trip in Jan/Feb to experience the “mirror” effect and to see the bright white salt. Apply a LOT of sunscreen. And then put more on. I made the mistake of enjoying a warm day with not enough and got a massive burn. That sun is strong at altitude, and the white flats are very reflective.
After a roadside picnic lunch, we made our way to Isla Incahuasi, a small “island” in the middle of the flat, filled with cacti—it’s actually the top of an ancient volcano and the home to Incas back in the day. It was somewhat crowded with tourists, but made for a nice break in the car with a hike around to see the 900 year old cacti.
We drove back and stopped for the obligatory ridiculous photo shoot. It’s important to have a good guide—they’ve seen EVERY fun photo and will give you a bunch of good ideas on what to snap. Victor was the man—he even took out the car floor mats to lay on them on the flats to get the best shots. What dedication.
Day one finished with a return to the hotel to relax a bit, then a trip out to see sunset. We drove out to one of the flooded areas, donned our rain boots, and saw one of the most amazing sunsets of our lives in the mirrored salt flats.
Dinner was a buffet at the hotel, and the Palacio de Sal was well designed and comfortable.
The next morning, we were meeting early for a sunrise tour. We had our choice of sunrise or starlight. We woke up at 4am to see if we could take some of the cool “starry night” photos, but without a proper DSLR camera and tripod, we were just treated to a lovely looking night sky with the Milky Way on full display. Our sunrise tour was quite windy and cold, and didn’t quite have the same spectacular fireworks as the prior night’s sunset. We returned to the hotel for breakfast and a nap before heading out on day two’s adventure.
Day two was a stop in Colchani to see the salt factory, and then a drive across the flats to Ayque, to visit a small community and ancient ruins, as well as get a good look at the mountains, quinoa farms, and llamas grazing. The ancient ruins were amazing—we ended up at a “graveyard” for the community and a crypt, complete with bones and skulls, of the ancient societies who lived on the rocky outcrops of the hills and fought off the Incas, who were stationed on Incahuasi.
Our drive back to the hotel included an unscheduled stop for a flat tire (quickly repaired), and dinner back at the hotel. The next morning was an early departure back to La Paz and a good view of the vastness of the salt flat from the airplane!
Hotel Palacio de Sal is really a great option. Rooms are comfortable and large (although in the warm months, they get HOT) and the variety of food available is good, considering you are literally in the middle of nowhere. The other options on the salt flat look good as well if you can’t get into the Palacio. Don’t stay in Uyuni, it’s far.
- Warm clothes
- Hiking shoes (you don’t need boots, but your shoes will get very salty)
- A lot of sunblock (learn from my mistake)
- Camera and tripod
- Clothes you don’t mind getting really salty
- Cash to tip your guide and driver.