Categorized as one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Uyuni salt lake in the south of Bolivia has been for many years an iconic site in South America. Along with the stunning views and colors of the highland terrains, a tour in this area is an unforgettable experience. So, if you are planning to travel to this region, here are the things you should know.
How to get there
Depending where you are coming from, you have different options:
Train from Oruro (recommended): While the train is not a major medium of transportation in Bolivia, there is a train that departs from the city of Oruro to the town of Uyuni 4 times a week. The trip is about 7 hours as the train is quite slow, but the ride is enjoyable and there is a restaurant wagon with full meals and drinks. The difference in price and quality for first class and economy are not that big, but I would recommend first class, as the seats are more comfortable. Unfortunately, the departure times aren’t always convenient and it’s always best to book the tickets within a month in advance. Check the following website for more information about them. FCS Schedule
Buses: While I personally never took the bus to go to Uyuni, it is known that the road is not asphalt or concrete, making it a long bumpy ride. Many backpackers take this option because it can be cheaper but from their comments, normally they regret the choice. Nevertheless, if you want to take the bus, you should have many options to depart from other cities in Bolivia.
Airport: If flying is your choice, Uyuni has an international airport with connections to and from various cities in Bolivia. The two airlines operating are Amaszonas and TAM Transporte Aereo Militar. Check their website for their prices and availability
Stay and tour preparation
Another convenience of taking the train is that hotels and tour companies are aware of the fixed times of arrival and know that many tourists are arriving, so at the exit of the train station you will find some people offering you where to stay and/or a tour of the region. This is important because, some of the trains arrive late at night when almost everything is closed and your choices are limited.
My recommendation is to bargain with one of these travel agencies to give you an offer on a place to stay the day of arrival and the tour of your choice, which usually starts early the following day. Don’t be afraid of asking around and try to lower the price, but from my experience, the prices don’t vary too much between agencies because it is a very touristic town and it is full of agencies that basically work together in some way.
There are a few Salt Hotels in the area, meaning they are made entirely out of salt. They are very nice and can be a bit pricey. If you want to have the experience, it’s better to book in advance or look for offers and because they are at the edge of the salt lake they are not easily accessible from the town and transportation is usually arranged by the hotel. Check out these places Palacio de Sal, Luna Salada and where I stayed once, Cristal Samaña.
Single room 78€ / 99$ – Double 109€ / 138$ – Suite 118€ / 150$
You will definitely find many options but mainly, your decision will be based on the time you have to spend in the region. The two most convenient packages in my opinion are the 1-day-tour or the 3-day-tour. Most agencies will offer similar, if not the same, tours and for almost the same price. All tours are organized in SUV’s for 6 (maybe 7) people that go together to the different sites, and move together in groups.
If you don’t have much time (or in a tight budget) the 1-day-tour is a great option. You are taken to various sites within the region in a 7-hour tour. In general, the tour starts early in the morning (around 8-9am), tourists gather by their agency and meet with their guide and the vehicle. If your group doesn’t fill up one car, don’t be surprised to find other groups joining in. This is where the agencies work together to distribute as evenly as possible the tourists in the cars. Some agencies may offer private tours, if you don’t want to share the car, but this evidently, is more expensive.
In this tour you will see these places but keep in mind that the access to them may depend on other conditions like weather and time. I will not explain them so you can find out over there 😉
At some point around noon, you can arrange with your guide to have your lunch meal. The guide will pull up the SUV and while you spend the time in the middle of the white flat playing around and taking the photos with perspective effect, he will be preparing a simple andean meal consisting of noodles, vegetables and meat (beef or llama), some fruit for dessert and soda beverages.
At the end of the tour you may also visit a traditional salt refinery in the homes of the local people as well as the souvenir shops installed beside them. Afterwards, the guide will take you back to Uyuni town (probably back to the agency where you started) and meet with the booking agent for some feedback exchange and maybe pickup your baggage that you may have left there. Estimated time of return, 6-7pm (18-20hr).
If you have some extra time (and for a bit extra money) you can extend the trip to a complete lifetime experience. You will be going to the southern-most part of Bolivia and passing through landscapes that are indescribable and unimaginable.
The initial setup is the same, meeting by the travel agency and being assigned a vehicle. The first day is also very similar to the 1-day-tour except that you won’t be returning to Uyuni for the first night, but staying at a salt hotel. However, be warned that “hotel” may be giving the wrong impression. These are very simple house structures with many rooms and beds where you will be having some coffee/tea upon arrival and later your dinner, consisting of a bowl of soup and a light dish of rice and chicken. Bathrooms may not meet high sanitary standards, but they do the job and since many other tourists and backpackers end up also here, there may be some scheduling conflict. But don’t worry, everyone is in for the experience and you will be enjoying a night in a house made entirely out of salt… yes, including the furniture!
The following morning, very early, you have breakfast together and off you go. You will be passing and stopping in many places, from little towns to lakes and rock formations. You will be able to see the transformation of the flora and fauna as you ascend slowly from 3000 meters (9800 feet) to 5000 meters (16400 feet) by the end of the trip. The area is known as the Dalí desert due to the similarity of the landscape colors and terrain portrayed in the surreal paintings of Salvador Dalí.
At the end of the second day you will be stopping at the Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) and spending the night in another small house. The next day, you will be getting up very early again to go to the volcanic area with the geysers and the thermal waters where you can finally take a warm bath, if you desire. Afterwards, you drive off to the Green Lake for another beautiful colored lake and then you are on your way back to the town of Uyuni.
You make a few more stops on the way back for taking pictures and having lunch, but usually you are in control of this by telling the guide when and where to stop. You will be arriving back in Uyuni at around 4-5pm (16-17h) completing the amazing adventure of the highlands and continuing in your trip in Bolivia.
Lastly, I cannot finish this guide without giving you a list of recommendations and things you should know and bring with you in this trip.
- Clothing: Good sunglasses and sunscreen are a must, the reflection of the sun on the white surface will definitely blind you and hit hard on your skin. Warm clothes that can be layered for the temperature changes as you go higher up in altitude. A warm jacket is a must. Sometimes clothes get stained when you sit on the salt leaving some spots. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting ruined as well as shoes that may get damaged by the mix of salt and water. An optional swimsuit if you want to try the hot springs.
- Toiletries: Extra toilet paper. It is not always provided and very scarce to find a place where to buy. Hand sanitizer is always good to have handy.
- Medicaments: Traditional coca infusions are taken for altitude sickness but if they are not your cup of tea (pun intended), get some medicament of your choice or at least something for headaches, stomachache and diarrhea.
- Sleeping bag: It will get colder and drier the higher you go and sleeping at night can be impossible. Blankets are usually provided but it may not be enough and bedding hygiene may be dubious.
- Extras: A flashlight. Extra battery pack for your photo devices, although the places where you’ll stay normally have electric plugs. Extra bottles of water, recommended 2 liters. Snacks for the road. Optionally a bottle of wine for the evenings or other alcohol of your choice as it is difficult to find a shop and usually sold by the locals at triple the price. Cash, in Bolivian currency for any purchase of souvenirs and to enter some of the sites.
Now you have all that you need to know about visiting Uyuni and the highlands. I guarantee you this will become an unforgettable adventure and as a Bolivian myself, I am very proud to hear when people tell me this is one of their favorite places they have ever been.
What are you waiting for? Bolivia te espera…