Imagine walking around a flat landscape entirely made up of salt. The sky is blue with a few clouds and beneath you is a sea of the purest white salt, as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Salar de Uyuni, South America, the biggest salt flat on the planet. This place is so out-of-this-world that it was even used as a backdrop in the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. What was once part of a giant prehistoric lake is now an ocean of salt, covering more than 10,000 km2. And during the wet season, a tiny layer of rain water on the salt flat creates the most mesmerising reflections. Of all the natural wonders I’ve seen on my travels so far, the Salar de Uyuni must be the most extraordinary one. It’s an experience that should be on every traveller’s bucket list (I think).
However, because of its isolated location – in the middle of the Andean high plateau at an altitude of 3,600 meters – it’s not an easy to reach destination. In fact, because of the sheer size of the salt flat and the risk of disorientation, the only way to visit it is with a guided tour. But with dozens of tour operators in the area, how do you pick the right one? And what’s the best way to prepare for a trip to this corner of the world? These were some questions I had before visiting the Salar de Uyuni last year. And here’s what I found out:
1. Don’t just visit the salt flat, but do a full 3- or 4-day guided tour of the region
You could of course just take a day trip from Uyuni to the salt flats, but you’ll miss out on a whole lot of other natural beauty! The surrounding area is full of the most incredible natural sights, including snowed mountains, valleys, lagoons, hot springs, geysers and funky rock formations. You can either do a 3-day tour starting in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and ending in Uyuni (like I did), or a 4-day round-trip from Uyuni.
2. Go during the rainy season if you want to witness the most incredible reflections
If you’re lucky and you visit the Salar between December and April you may be able to witness the most incredible reflections. During the rainy season, a tiny layer of water is left on the salt flats, creating breath-taking mirror effects, with the sky and clouds being reflected in the perfectly clear water. However, there’s always a risk that there is no rain OR that excessive rainfall prevents you from accessing parts of the Salar. I went end-March and was fortunate to witness this view at sunrise:
3. It’s almost impossible to pick THE best tour operator
I spent a full day researching tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama. After having visited at least 7 agency offices and read about 100 online reviews I didn’t really feel much wiser. All of them seemed to offer more or less the same experience for a similar price. And for every 5 positive online reviews there was at least 1 negative one of each of them. Once I had finally made up my mind and wanted to go ahead and book my trip for the next day, my number 1 choice was full, number 2 was cancelled and number 3 had closed its office for the day… So, instead I joined a tour that someone in my hostel had told me about. That tour turned out to be amazing, although interestingly my 5 fellow passengers had all booked it through a different agency and paid a different price.
What I learned is that the tours to Uyuni are being organised solely by Bolivian operators, only a few of whom have an office in San Pedro de Atacama. Most agencies in San Pedro have contracts with various Bolivian operators and divide customers among them, depending on where there is still space. Lesson: it doesn’t really matter which agency you book with because a) it’s difficult to predict which tour you will actually end up with, and b) all of them offer a very similar experience anyways.
4. Manage your expectations
There are quite a few horror stories online about the tours to and from Uyuni, with people complaining about sanitary facilities (or lack thereof), guides or the state of their jeep. The key here is managing expectations. If you go on an organised tour to the Salar de Uyuni expecting spacious modern cars, with native English-speaking guides or comfortable hotels with running hot water, you will inevitably end up being disappointed. The fact of the matter is that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and tourism is not yet as well developed as in other parts of the continent, although it’s increasingly becoming a source of income for many locals. Almost all tour guides are local Bolivians who work for tour operators based in Uyuni. Many of them know some English, but it might be that your guide (who is also your driver) only speaks Spanish and Quechua, which is what happened in my case. As a Spanish speaker myself, this was not an issue for me (and we helped translate everything for our English speaking passengers), but if you’re keen on getting an English guide, I’d suggest to emphasise this when you book your tour.
As for comfort and luxury: don’t expect too much of it. It’s likely that you’ll be travelling in an old jeep (ours broke down several times) that will be shared between 6 passengers and a driver, unless you’re happy to pay more. Accommodation is fairly basic – you will be sharing rooms with 4 or more people – although also has its charm. On the first night we slept at a home stay, which was a lovely way of getting an impression of the local way of living. The second night we stayed in one of the many salt hostels that have been built around the Salar and that are entirely made out of salt. Quite an experience! Yes, sanitary facilities along the way are not great (if there are any). Often there’s no running water, but the toilet and shower facilities at the guest accommodations were surprisingly good – they even had hot water on request!
5. Pack well
As you will be travelling in a jam-packed jeep, I wouldn’t suggest taking your XL-sized, wheeled suitcase with you. A backpack, or alternatively a small carry-on suitcase, is probably a better option.
Make sure you bring enough warm clothes because the weather in this part of Bolivia can be treacherous. One moment it can be sunny and warm, and another moment it can be cloudy and cold. Especially the nights can be freezing cold. The best thing is to wear several layers of light clothes so that it’s easy to dress and undress in case the temperature changes. Sunscreen and sunglasses are vital to protect you from the sun.
Other things you might want to bring are protein bars (you’ll get plenty of food during the trip, but it’s always useful to have some extra), enough cash (you’ll pass 1 or 2 villages with shops), wet wipes and hand sanitizer (see above…). Oh, and do bring enough camera batteries and cards with you because the views are so stunning here that you will need them!