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 nothing more than endless windswept grassy plains.
The Salar itself is the remnant of several prehistoric lakes that dried up tens of thousands of years ago. The result is a thick salty surface which creates a blindingly white landscape stretching over 10,000 square kilometers, the largest in the world. Buried underneath the salt lies the world’s largest proven lithium reserve, which is in the process of being exploited so travelers are advised to get there quickly while the area 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 the train cemetery, the Salar and the SW circuit. It isn’t necessary to form a group as this is organised by the tour operators, meaning 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.
There are dozens of companies competing for the tourist dollar, all offering almost identical itineraries. However, quality can vary greatly so it isn’t always wise to go with the cheapest option. For example, there have been numerous scathing reports from travelers about poorly maintained vehicles suffering from lengthy breakdowns as well as drunk or reckless drivers putting lives at risk.
Red Planet are one of the more reputable companies in Uyuni, tending to get favorable reviews online.
Tours depart everyday at 10 a.m. 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.
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 also very rustic. You’ll be sleeping in primitive, shack-like building with limited running water and electricity and outside temperatures as low as -20 C.
But perhaps most testing of all is the altitude. The entire tour is above 3500 m and at points reaches as high as 5000 m. Exposure to this sort of altitude can pose serious health risks, so it is absolutely essential to spend a few days acclimatizing beforehand.
Although this isn’t exactly a luxury tour, a little discomfort is a small price to pay to see such unique and surreal landscapes.
Tours from Tupiza
Starting the tour in the southern town of Tupiza is a popular alternative, which trips 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 considerably more 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.
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 wet 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).
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.
The best way to travel to the Salar is on Bolivia’s charming railway network with a route traveling from Oruro, Uyuni, Atocha, and Tupiza to 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 ticketsbolivia.com (English). It’s a good idea to book a week or more in advance in high season as trains can fill up.
Most tourists get to Uyuni by bus from La Paz. All buses leave in the late afternoon or evening (6-9 p.m.) 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, most local travel agents and ticketsbolivia.com. 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 will be rather 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
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.