If you’re visiting the South American country of Bolivia, then the likelihood is that you’ll be keen to experience the world’s largest salt flat and snap those popular perspective-bending photos, perhaps even with the aid of a small toy dinosaur. To help plan your visit to Salar de Uyuni, here’s our guide on how best to travel from the capital, La Paz, where to stay and how to tour the salt flats.
Getting to the Uyuni Salt Flats from La Paz
First thing’s first – you need to get to the salt flats from La Paz. Technically there are three modes of transport to get you from La Paz to Uyuni. If you’ve only got a few days at your disposal or if you’re restricted by travel dates, then only two of these options are viable choices.
Flying from La Paz to Uyuni
The first option is flying. This is by far the quickest, most comfortable (unless you have a fear of flying) and, unsurprisingly, the most expensive option. Airlines Boliviana de Aviacion (BoA) and Amaszonas both operate the route between La Paz and Uyuni with two to three flights daily. A return flight booked directly through the airline websites will set you back around $130 per person. This option also provides an aerial perspective of just how big the Salar de Uyuni really is.
Overnight bus between La Paz and Uyuni
The second option is the overnight bus – perfect for those on a budget, saving a night’s accommodation in the process. The journey takes between 9-10 hours on sealed roads. A number of reputable bus companies ply the route with coaches similar to Western standards – think comfortable reclining seats, foot rests and toilets on board with blankets provided for extra warmth. You also get a hot meal and breakfast snack on arrival. A one way ticket costs $39.50 and can be booked through Kanoo Tours, an official ticketing agency for Todo Turismo. This bus operator caters for international travellers with smart offices at the bus terminals and English-speaking assistants and announcements.
Train between La Paz and Uyuni
The third option is the train. This has the potential to be the most scenic with daytime operating hours on the way to Uyuni but it’s also the most logistically challenging – the train only operates between Oruro and Uyuni (journey time around 7 hours) so you’ll need to take a public bus from La Paz to Oruro (around 4 hours). This makes it the longest travel option. Departures from Oruro only depart on four days of the week – at 14:30 on Tuesday and Friday, and at 19:00 on Wednesday and Saturday. Train tickets to Uyuni can also be booked via Kanoo Tours for $22 though getting a return ticket back to Oruro is not as easy as most companies do not seem to offer the option on their websites. Tickets are best booked in advance so if you’re hell-bent on taking the train, take it to Uyuni and considered other means of transport getting back to La Paz.
Where to stay in Uyuni
The town of Uyuni is well set up for backpackers, which means accommodation options are pretty limited when it comes to the higher end of the scale. Most properties are hostels or basic hotels, and as Uyuni itself has little to recommend it, make the most of the salt flats by staying at a salt hotel. With walls, ceiling and furniture built from blocks of salt harvested from the salt flats themselves, these magnificent hotels merge with nature to create a truly memorable experience. Those looking for a touch of luxury and comfort should consider the Luna Salada or the Palacio de Sal, both offering en suite rooms with heating and hot water – just what you need on those bitingly cold Bolivian nights.
Room rates will not include transfers from Uyuni town and as these hotels are located on the edge of the salt flats, it’s a journey time of half an hour. If you’re arriving at the airport, fixed-price taxis charge 250 Bs (equivalent to $36) one way though it’s possible to book private transfers through the hotels (likely to be upwards of $45 per person) as well as shuttle transfers for less – the trick is to contact the hotel and book in advance.
Touring the Uyuni salt flats
You’re going to want a day tour of the salt flats and there are numerous tour operators in Uyuni offering just that. Tour operators tend to follow the same itinerary with the first stop of the day the Train Cemetery. Here you can see a collection of 19th-century locomotives that have been abandoned and left to rust on the edge of town. The next stop of the day will be the town of Colchani where residents make their living processing salt from the flats. Here you’ll visit a home factory for a brief demonstration and a chance to purchase bags of the white stuff.
Lunch at a Salt Hotel
Some companies will have lunch at Colchani (included in the tour price) in small, local salt hotels before proceeding to the very first salt hotel to be built in Bolivia. Out on the salt flats, this is where the Dakar rally monument also now stands. The original salt hotel was closed down years ago due to high maintenance costs. For those not staying in one, the well-preserved structure and remaining furniture made from salt blocks gives you an excellent idea of what they’re like. Some companies eat here so if this sounds more appealing then let that guide your choice of operator to book with.
Visit Isla Incahuasi
After mostly following each other around all morning, the numerous 4x4s will now part ways and head off into the never-ending expanse of the salt flats to find a spot away from others. Out here you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the horizon while taking wacky images of you fighting toy dinos and holding your travel pals in your hands. The last stop of the day is Incahuasi, a rocky outcrop that was once an island back when the salt flats were a large lake. It is now covered in finger-like cactus plants with trails leading to high vantage points for excellent views. Entry to the island is 30 Bs and generally in addition to the tour price. From here it’s an hour’s drive back to Uyuni though if you ask the driver nicely, he might drop you off at your salt hotel on the way.
Things to consider
As the one-day tours do follow such similar itineraries, you don’t need to put so much effort into researching the best local operator as you would do if you’re considering the longer 3-4 day tours to Chile and the Atacama Desert. The main thing to check is that they offer all of the above on their itineraries with a proper cooked lunch and the services of an English-speaking guide. If you want to book in advance (recommended if you’re on holiday rather than backpacking with plenty of time on your side) then you can book a one-day tour operated by Red Planet Expeditions for $76 per person. Alternatively, contact your salt hotel and see whether they can organise a day tour – the Luna Salada offers a one-day tour for $90 per person. This is actually not bad value for money when you consider the transfer cost to Uyuni where tours depart from, though it doesn’t include the Train Cemetery.