The Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world. It spreads over 12,000 square kilometers in the Bolivian Altiplano. For many travellers, it is a highlight of a trip to Bolivia (or South America, for that matter).
Most people access the Salar de Uyuni via a 3 day 4WD trip leaving either from San Pedro de Atacama (in Chile) or Uyuni (in Bolivia). It’s a great way to cross from one country to the other, taking in some incredible scenery on the way! We started in San Pedro, and here are a few things we learnt along the way…
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
We heard/read a lot of people with horror stories about poor safety and car accidents… To be honest, these things happen, but you’d have to be really unlucky. We asked around and googled a range of companies, but in reality, there is only so much research you can do! Also worth noting that of the 5 people in our car, we had all booked through 3 separate agencies and were all told different company names!
BOOKING YOUR TRIP
Should you book your trip to the Salar de Uyuni in advance? NO. If you book before you arrive you’ll pay way too much! We booked when we arrived in San Pedro. There are SO many companies offering this trip you want have any problems.
Good things to ask before you hand over your money:
- How many people will be in the car?
- Does the guide speak English? (Ours didn’t).
- What exactly is included? Meals, bedding etc – be really specific.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
They vary substantially, and haggling is essential. Generally, you can expect to pay about 90,000 Chilean Pesos for 3 days (includes food, transport, guide & accommodation). Worth noting that your “guide” is also your driver, and more often that not, they will not speak English (if your Espanol isn’t up to scratch, download google translate!).
NOTE: water is not included, bring plenty.
It’s something that you should consider, especially if you are starting your trip in Chile and not acclimatised to altitude. San Pedro is at a relatively low altitude (2500m), however the majority of the trip is spent around 4000m, with a sneaky climb to almost 5000m when visiting the geyser fields. Altitude can affect everyone differently, however generally involves a killer headache (pack paracetamol!), dizziness, difficulty breathing and nausea. Drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves can alleviate the symptoms, and be sure to drink lots of water and avoid eating big meals.
ABOUT THE TRIP
We were picked up from our hostel early in the morning. We cleared Chilean customs in the town of San Pedro, before taking the very scenic drive to the Bolivian border. After going through immigration, we were served breakfast (cake and sandwiches), before getting back in the car and setting off into Bolivia. It’s worth mentioning that the wait for breakfast can be quite long, so take snacks with you!
Next we traversed some of the most beautiful and harsh scenery I have seen. The red desert earth, snow-capped volcanoes and an abundance of llamas will keep you more than occupied during the hours spent in the car. Along the way, most tours stop at the following places for a photo op and a chance to stretch your legs (the 4WDs can get uncomfortable after a few hours!):
- Laguna Blanca
- Laguna Verde
- Laguna Colorada
That night we slept in rustic dorm-style accommodation in the middle of the desert. It’s simple and there are no showers, but the beds were warm (it gets VERY cold at night) and the food was hearty.
Generally, all tours spend day two checking out the incredible rock formations in the desert. The scenery was impressive the whole way, and our guide played some great tunes to keep us entertained (albeit on repeat).
We spent the night in a “Salt Hotel”. I thought it was called that because it was in the salt fields. Turns out, it’s actually MADE of salt. The walls, the floor… all salt! There were private rooms and hot showers. Dinner was served with a bottle of wine (nice touch).
We got up at 4:00am (ouch – especially after the wine) and drove to the Salar de Uyuni for sunrise. Our tired eyes were soon open wide as the sky turned a million shades of pink and orange. The view was perfectly reflected by the salt flats (which were covered by a thin layer of water). It was honestly one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever seen, and I moment I won’t ever forget.
After that, we headed to “cactus island”. It’s literally a hill in the middle of the salt – completely covered in huge cactii. Seriously, can this country get any more bizarre!? We wandered around, ate breakfast, and played with some super cute stray dogs (no idea how they got there?!). Once we were fed, we continued the drive across the salt flats. They seemed to stretch out forever in every direction. It’s pretty surreal. We stopped for plenty of typical “spot the tourist” photo ops (but seriously, it’s Instagram heaven) before finally reaching the end of the salt flats.
The last stop on the tour is a kind of weird “train graveyard” on the outskirts of Uyuni. It’s literally just a bunch of old, broken down trains. But yeah, I guess it’s kinda cool.
We were then dropped in the town of Uyuni at about 4pm. We decided to stay the night. Although there isn’t much to see in Uyuni, we DID appreciate a hot shower, a cold beer, and some time to reflect on our time in the Salar de Uyuni.