If you would like to venture out on a unique photo experience to add to your travel accomplishments, then you must visit Salar de Uyuni in Southern, (Bolivia). This place has the largest salt flats in the world. If you visit during the dry season, you can do a 3 or 4-day package tour of the area. However, if you go in the rainy season,(December-March) the roads will most likely be too wet for the multi-day tours, but you can get some very cool pictures with a mirror reflection of the surrounding landscape. Over the past few years the desert has been getting less rain, so it may be possible to do a multi-day package tour during the wet season as well.
You can start The Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat tours from three different places, San Pedro de Atacama(Chile), Tupiza(South Eastern Bolivia), or Uyuni(Southern Bolivia). Most backpackers prefer to start their tour from the town of Uyuni rather than the other two places. Uyuni is a more convenient place to start, plus it is cheap due to all of the competition in town. Most things including guided tours are much cheaper in Bolivia than Chile.
I did my tour from Uyuni with a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama(Chile), so that is what I will focus on for this blog post.
HOW TO GET TO THERE
First things first; get to Uyuni! There are a couple of ways to get here from La Paz. The most economical option is by night bus($40USD). It takes approximately 10 hours if the weather conditions are right. Be warned the road is rough so don’t expect a good night sleep. Check with your hostel to find out what the best bus company to travel with is, or go to the central bus station in La Paz and ask at information.
The quickest way is to fly from La Paz(45mins) for approximately $150 USD one way, and as low as $65 USD one way if you book ahead with Amaszonas Airways. You can do a search with Cheapflights.com, Skyscanner.com, Flighthub.com or Amaszonas.com for the best prices.
FIND A GOOD TOUR COMPANY
Before you even get to Uyuni, I would suggest going on TripAdvisor and read some reviews on the different tour companies. This way you will be more familiar with the various tour companies and have a better idea of which ones are good, and which ones are not so good. Word of mouth is always the best way to find a good tour company. If you’re staying at hostels anywhere in South America chances are you will find some fellow backpackers there that have done a Salt Flats tour and can give you some guidance. I must have asked at least 30 different people on my during my travels before I decided on what tour company use. There seemed to be a lot of good ones, and a lot of bad ones too! Some people claimed that their guides went above and beyond, while others complained about their drivers speeding while being intoxicated. So please do your research!
When you get to Uyuni, you will find most of the tour companies on the main street. I would suggest taking a day in Uyuni so you can go and talk to some of the tour operators. Ask lots of questions, and maybe even takes some notes so you can compare the different companies. I found that as a general rule the cheaper tours didn’t have English speaking guides and the more expensive ones did. A 3-4 day trip costs between $100 to $200 USD and usually includes food, guide, hotel/tent, and water. Uyuni is a perfect place to sort out everything for your trip.
Uyuni is a small town that caters to budget tourists, so you will have plenty of food options and a few things to do during the day other than the Salt Flats while you are there. See “What to do in the town of Uyuni” below.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON A 3 OR 4 DAY TOUR
The tours are all very similar. There are many tour companies all going to the same places, so you will not feel alone out in this desert! The tour that I did was a three day two night with Red Earth Expedition. My tour included a transfer to San Pedro Atacama, Chile.(See information below). In total, I paid around $175 USD.
Day 1 of the 3-day excursion we got picked up around 11 a.m. at the tour company’s central office in town, near all the budget hotels. The first stop we made was to the train graveyard; then we went to a little Salt Minors town called Colchani to visit a small salt factory. This city was very touristy but still interesting because they have some buildings made from salt and there are salt sculptures on display that you can take pictures of for a small fee.
The next place we went to was a hotel made from salt where we had lunch; then we drove to the Uyuni Salt Flats to take some creative pictures with the stunning desert skyline in the background. When were finished with taking photos we drove to a nearby village and checked into our hotel for the night.
Day 2 of the tour was jam packed with lots of spectacular photo opportunities! We saw many different colored lagoons of blue, green and even red all home to flamingos busy searching for fish. We also got to see some mud pools in one of the volcano craters.
After a long day of admiring some of the earth’s most spectacular scenery, we retired to our hotel. The hotel used solar energy, and the accommodation was basic dorm style. So head up; the electricity does not come on until the evening, so you will only have a few hours to charge up your electronic devices, and the plugs are limited! I suggest that you bring your recharge pack, and use your electronics sparingly during the tour. Be sure to bring your swimming shorts and jump into the hotel’s hot springs after supper and admire the spectacular view of the stars.
Day 3 we saw more stunning desert scenery, and for me, the tour ended at Green Lake. We took some group photos and said our goodbyes. From here I got my transfer to San Pedro Atacama(See below). The rest of my group headed back to Uyuni.
TRANSFER TO SAN PEDRO ATACAMA, CHILE
If you are planning to go to Chile after Bolivia, then this is a great option and very cheap. For an extra $20 USD you can get a transfer to Chile at the end of your Salt Flats tour instead of going back to Uyuni. My guide took a group of us to another jeep that was going to the Bolivian immigration. Here we waited with all the other gringos that were crossing into Chile that day.
The Immigration office is just a small shack in the middle of nowhere. Once we got our passports stamped, the guide took us to a van on the other side. Once the van was full, it drove us to the Chilean border where we got our entrance stamps. Then the van took us to the town of San Pedro de Atacama. I’m pretty sure we arrived in town around 1 pm on the 3rd day of the tour.
WHAT TO DO IN THE TOWN OF UYUNI
If you stay an extra day, I would recommend doing a sunset tour of the salt flats ($20 USD). All of the 3-4 day tours go to the salt flats on the first day as well, but this will give you a different perspective of it, and it will give you a second chance at getting some excellent photos. Not all tour guides are equal! I made a sunset trip with a guide named Victor from Oasis Tour Company, who was very knowledgeable in photography. He helped my group get some cool pictures! I was so glad that I did this excursion because although the guides on my 4-day tour were impressive, they did not know how to set up the cameras for good photos.
There is a little museum($1 USD) located along one of the main roads called Museo Arqueologíco de Los Andes Meridionales. It does not take very long to see everything in the museum, but the stuff there is all very interesting. The museum has long skulls, fossils, and a few mummies on display.
Visit The Train Graveyard
Although you will most likely visit the train graveyard on your 3-4 day trip, it is nice to go there in the morning before the place gets packed with tour groups. I went early one day, and there were only a few people there, so it was easy to get some good photos. When the tour groups get there, it will be hard to get photos without other people in them.
TIPS FOR THE DESERT
Bring warm clothes, as the desert can get very chilly at night, and bring sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the hot sun during the daytime.
Stuff To Bring For 3-4 Day Tour
Bring a flashlight, snacks for each day, extra bottled water, and a portable battery pack so you can charge your camera.
Keep Your Stuff Clean
Get some garbage bags to put your backpack in so it will stay clean. Unfortunately, everybody’s luggage must go on the roof rack of the SUV, so if you don’t put your stuff in a garbage bag, things will get very dusty.
The highest point in the 3-4 day tours is close to 5000 meters above sea level so that altitude sickness can be a serious problem. People have died in the past from this so it would be wise to give yourself a day or two in Uyuni to climatize if you are coming from the coast. If you plan to stay in La Paz for a few days, then fly to Uyuni that should help. La Paz at over 4000 meters is one of the highest cities in the world. Uyuni is 3700 meters.
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