Salar de Uyuni and the South Western Circuit

The Salar de Uyuni is without a doubt Bolivia’s premier tourist attraction. Visited by hundreds of tourists from around the world each day, the world famous salt flats are a spectacular sight to behold. This surreal, alienesque landscape features in countless travel blogs, TV shows, documentaries and “top 10 places to visit before you die” listicles.  But the salt flats themselves are only part of the attraction. Visitors would be crazy not to do the full South Western Circuit which visits harsh arid deserts, steamy hot springs, bubbling geysers, colorful flamenco inhabited lagoons, bizarre rock formations, and snow capped volcanoes.

The Salar de Uyuni and SW circuit are part of the Bolivian Altiplano — a vast high plateau that was formed millions of years ago during the uplift of the Andean mountain range. Apart from the Salar and SW circuit, much of the altiplano is bleak and unremarkable, featuring little more than endless windswept grassy plains.

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source: gringoinbolivia

The Salar itself is the remnant of several prehistoric lakes that dried up tens of thousands of years ago. Its thick salty surface creates a blindingly white landscape that stretches over 10,000 square kilometers, making it the largest salt flat in the world. Buried under the salt lies the world’s largest proven lithium reserve. This is in the process of being exploited so get there quickly while the Salar still retains its natural beauty.

Tours from Uyuni

Most people opt to take a tour from the nearby town of Uyuni.  As stated above, the better option is to do the 3D/2N tour which visits a train cemetery, the Salar and the SW circuit. It isn’t necessary to form a group as this is organised by the tour operators so travelers can easily arrive in morning and begin a tour that same day. One day tours just visiting the salt flats are possible for those short on time, but missing out on the full SW circuit would be a real shame.

source: gringoinbolivia

source: gringoinbolivia

There are dozens of companies competing for the tourist dollar and they all offer almost identical itineraries. However, quality can vary greatly so it isn’t always wise to go with the cheapest option. There have been many scathing reports from travelers about poorly maintained vehicles that suffer from lengthy breakdowns as well as drunk or reckless drivers. Red Planet are one of the more reputable companies in Uyuni and tend to get favourable reviews online. Tours depart everyday at 10am and return mid-afternoon on the last day. Prices vary from around US$100 to US$150 per person, depending on the reputation and quality of the operator.

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Lunch break. source: gringoinbolivia

The tour itself is fairly rough. Expect to travel up to 10 hours a day through rugged terrain in a beat-up 4WD while squashed between seven over people. Accommodation is very rustic. You’ll be sleeping in primitive, shack-like building with limited running water and electricity and outside temperatures as low as -20C.  Perhaps worst of all is the altitude. The entire tour is above 3500m and at points reach as high as 5000m. Exposure to this sort of altitude can pose serious health risks so it is absolutely essential to spend a few days acclimatizing beforehand. It’s not exactly a luxurious tour but a little discomfort is a small price to pay to see such unique, stunning, and surreal landscapes.

Tours from Tupiza

Starting the tour in the southern town of Tupiza is a popular alternative. Tours here last 4D/3N and have the option of finishing in Uyuni or back in Tupiza. To be honest, you don’t really see that much more with the extra day. However, a big advantage of beginning in Tupiza is that the town has much better tour operators. Uyuni is full of shady companies while those of Tupiza are consistently reliable.  I went with Tupiza Tours who were excellent. We had a comfortable, modern, and well maintained 4WD, a talkative and knowledgeable guide, and excellent food through the tour. La Torre also have a good reputation.

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The road from Tupiza to the Salar: source: gringoinbolivia

The other advantage of starting in Tupiza is that the itinerary is timed differently to those departing from Uyuni. You still visit all the same great places, but because you are on a different schedule you won’t get swamped by hordes of other 4WD’s. We literally had many of the highlights to ourselves and generally encountered few other people throughout our tour. You also get to visit the Salar at sunrise on the last day which is a photographer’s dream.

The luxury option

If you have some cash to splash, consider staying in the Tayka Hotels. These are a series of beautiful, boutique eco-hotels strategically positioned throughout the circuit. There are three to choose from, each with a different theme; Hotel de Piedra (rock), Hotel de Sal (Salt), and Hotel del Desierto (desert). These hotels provide upmarket tourists with quality private rooms, excellent food, heating, and reliable electricity and water. Prices vary substantially depending on how many people are in your group. The more reputable tour operators mentioned above can organize this option for you.

Getting there

Train:

The best way to travel to the Salar is on Bolivia’s charming railway network. The route travels from Oruro, Uyuni, Atocha, Tupiza, Villazon (on the border with Argentina). Unfortunately there is no train station in La Paz so passengers need to first take a bus to Oruro. Ticket prices vary depending on distance and departure times change frequently. For more information take a look at their official site (Spanish), or even better you can view schedules, prices and even book online at ticketsbolivia.com (English). It’s a good idea to book a week or more in advance in high season as trains can fill up.

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source: gringoinbolivia

By Bus:

Most tourists get to Uyuni by bus from La Paz. All buses leave in the late afternoon or evening (6-9pm) and travel overnight in both directions with a journey time of about 12 hours. The road is only paved about halfway so expect a bumpy ride and potentially lengthy delays in the rainy season. The best bus companies are:

  • Todo Turismo – Semi cama, approx US$30.
  • Panasur – Semi cama, approx US$17.
  • Trans Omar – Semi cama, approx US$18.  Cama, approx $24.

These companies can all be booked from the La Paz or Uyuni bus station and most travel agents. A day or two advance booking is enough as between the three companies you will almost always find a seat. Those on a budget could opt for a local bus which only cost around US$10 but are cold and uncomfortable.

Getting to Uyuni by bus from elsewhere in Bolivia usually requires going via Potosi or Sucre.

  • Uyuni – Potosi: 4 hours
  • Uyuni – Sucre: 9 hours
  • Uyuni – Tupiza: 6 hours

There are various direct options to get to and from Tupiza.  You will need to make a connection if travelling from other cities.

  • Tupiza – Tarija: 9 hours
  • Tupiza – Potosi: 8 hours
  • Tupiza – Villazon: 3 hours
  • Tupiza – Uyuni: 6 hours
  • Tupiza – La Paz: 14 hours
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source: gringoinbolivia

By plane:

It’s possible, although expensive, to fly to Uyuni from La Paz.  Amazonas are the only airline doing this route and usually charge around US$160 one way. See their website for the latest fares and timetable. There is no airport in Tupiza, with the closest being Sucre.

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