Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in Bolivia. With vast and wild landscapes that are completely unique to the area, we can see why it is on many travelers’ bucket lists. Tours can vary greatly, so there is a lot to consider when looking to book the right Salar de Uyuni tour for you. Here’s a comprehensive guide on things to keep in mind when finding and booking a tour to the salt flats.
When to Visit
The salt flats are a popular destination for travelers year round, and there isn’t a bad time to visit. Chances are, you’ve seen varying pictures of the flats online. When you visit determines whether you will see that endless, dreamy mirror or the otherworldly geometric patterns that stretch for miles.
During the rainy season, which generally spans from November through March, a thin layer of water covers the salt flats, creating the world’s largest mirror. The dry season runs from April through October. During this span of time, the flats dry out, creating unique shapes in the salt. Going during the dry season also allows for access to Isla Incahuasi and Isla del Pescado due to lower water levels.
We went at the beginning of April, which provided sunnier days than the heart of the wet season. It also allowed us to experience the mirror effect, but we didn’t see the unique geometric shapes clearly. There was also still too much water for us to be able to visit Isla Incahuasi and Isla del Pescado.
Starting and Stopping Point
Salar de Uyuni tours can start in varying cities, the most common ones being Uyuni, San Pedro de Atacama, and Tupiza. Tours from Tupiza and San Pedro de Atacama generally last two to four days, stopping at various hot spots along the way and hitting the salt flats on the last day before ending in Uyuni. Starting in Uyuni allows for a little more flexibility. Here, you can do a single day tour or stargazing tour that starts and ends in Uyuni. There are also multi-day trips that start in Uyuni and end in either Uyuni or San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
When booking a Salar de Uyuni tour, it is important to clarify your ending point with your tour operator. We took a multi-day tour and opted to end in San Pedro de Atacama. Transportation was organized ahead of time to take us across the border. However, there were others in our group that opted to backtrack to Uyuni with the guide.
If You Are Crossing a Border:
If you will be crossing from Chile into Bolivia or vice versa, it is imperative to have your documentation in order. If you don’t meet the requirements, you may not be permitted to cross the border. First, know whether you hold a passport that requires you to have a visa to enter the country. For example, we did not need a visa to enter Chile as U.S. citizens, but we needed one to enter Bolivia. We have heard that you can get a Bolivian visa at the border, but the process can be long and slow, so we recommend obtaining one beforehand. Check out our post on getting a Bolivian visa.
While crossing the border, make sure you have your valid passport ready. When you enter the country you start the tour in, you may be given a TAM card. This is a small piece of paper that customs officials stamp when you enter the country. If you were given one, make sure you have it when you need to get your exit stamp. If you don’t have it, you may have to pay a fee. Lastly, make sure you have some cash on hand. You will be required to pay a small fee to both enter and leave Bolivia at this border point.
Finding a Tour Company
Many recommend booking a tour ahead of time online or in La Paz. You may read a lot of negative posts about booking tours in Uyuni that result in scams. We didn’t have a set schedule, so we booked our tour in Uyuni and know others who did the same. Our experience was incredible, and if you go about it the right way, you’ll have a great experience too.
That being said, you should be aware of the scams and issues that could arise regardless of whether you book online or in person. Some of these include drunk tour drivers, overcharging for tours, paying an individual for a tour that doesn’t exist, and more. If you book online, be sure to receive confirmation of your tour date, payment, etc.
It is important to do your research. Look at online reviews and ask around to get an idea of what companies are reputable, what tours should include, and what they generally cost.
We arrived in Uyuni from Potosí and spent the day researching and walking from one tour operator to another. There is quite a large price range between companies, but the cheapest option is not always the best. Ask questions about the vehicles, guides, itinerary, accommodation, etc. Some tours offer different itineraries that go to varying hotspots, so ask the company beforehand if you have a specific plan in mind.
Most tour companies will offer both English and Spanish-speaking tours. Having an English-speaking guide will cost more. The company we went with charged $50 (USD) more per person for an English-speaking guide. We speak Spanish, so we went with the Spanish-speaking guide. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to save the money, it’s feasible to go on a Spanish-speaking tour. Note that if nobody speaks your language on the tour, you may not receive as much information along the way.
Private tours will also cost more, though you can organize your itinerary to your needs and desires more so than a group tour.
We went on a group tour with Salty Desert Aventours and had an awesome time. The cost for the two-night, three-day tour was 1,050 Bolivianos with a Spanish-speaking guide.
Paying for a Salar de Uyuni Tour
We are not sure what payment methods are most common in San Pedro de Atacama or Tupiza, but many tour operators in Uyuni only accepted cash. There are multiple ATMs in Uyuni that will allow you to withdraw cash. We only withdrew money after we knew which tour company we were going to go with. If possible, avoid withdrawals after dark. If you book online ahead of time, you may be able to use card or may be required to deposit at a bank.