Backpacker´s guide to Uyuni’s salt flats

Uyuni’s salt flats is one of the most impressive places on earth: a salt desert of more than 10,000 km2 that houses attractions such as a train cemetery, a museum and salt sculptures, the giant cactus island Incahuasi or the Tunupa volcano. The salt flat becomes the largest mirror on the planet in January and February, during the rainy season, when a layer of water on the surface reflects the sky.

This natural wonder can only be visited on a guided tour, departing from Uyuni (Bolivia), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) or Tupiza (Bolivia). You can choose whether you start and end the tour: it can start and finish in the same place or it can end in a different place. These tours combine the visit to the salt flats with other attractions in the area such as lagoons, geysers and hot springs.

Tips to book your tour

Tours can be private or shared; they can be booked online or in person at local agencies. The cheapest option is the second, also the most reliable, since if any unforeseen circumstances arise before departure you can resolve them in person at the agency.

The agencies assign the passengers to Jeep drivers who are usually subcontracted, so it is common for people who booked with different agencies and paid different prices to travel in the same jeep. People in the same jeep receive the same service, regardless of what they have paid, sleep in the same accommodations and eat the same food. Thus, it is advisable to look for the most economical option.

In my case, I am going to provide you with useful information to book the tour from Uyuni. I did the tour from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in 4 days; and I paid 1200 Bs, about 160€, with the agency Paula Tours. The price for the 3-day tour was 700 Bs, although this option does not include the Tunupa volcano, which is a highly recommended place to see.

The tour prices include transportation, lodging and food. You have to pay separately the entrance fee to the hot springs (6Bs), to the Incahuasi island (30Bs) and to the Eduardo Avaroa National Park (150Bs).

If you lack of time to organise the tour in Uyuni, you can always book it online at Civitatis or Howlanders.

it is all about timing

Visits to the salt flats can be done in 1 day, although the most popular tours are the 3-day tours that visit the Salar and the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. Very few people know about the 4-day tour, that visits all these attractions and includes a night in a small village at the foot of the Tunupa volcano. This option gives you the opportunity to spend the first night inside the salt flat and enjoy its landscapes at sunrise and sunset, as well as the views of the salt flat from the volcano.

Itinerary

Day 1: Cementerio de trenes

Our first stop were the remainings of the extint railway services that operated from 1890 until the collapse of the mining industry in 1940. Wagons loaded with minerals such as tin, silver and even gold circulated throught the bolivian and chilean altiplano to reach the pacific ocean at Antofagasta.

Salt Hotel and the Dakar Rally Landmark

We finally entered the salt flats, took some pictures and had lunch at the Salt Hotel, getting some spare time to visit the nearby Dakar Rally Landmark.

Sunset at Tunupa volcano

One of the most memorable experiences at the salt flats was the sunset at the edge of Tunupa’s volcano. Only 3 groups were staying at the guesthouse “Hospedaje Jesús”, so we had the salar basically to ourselves.

day 2: sunrise and hike to the volcano’s viewpoint

The view of the salt flats at dawn was a magical experience: the colors, the silence, the peaceful athmosphere of such a remote land. After breakfast we made our way to the viewpoint of the volcano. We parked the jeep about halfway up and walk to a nearby cave containing mummy relics. We continue our journey by foot for a couple of hours until we reach a good view of the colourful mountain and made our way down just on time for lunch before leaving to the next destination.

Incahuasi

Our last stop inside the salt flats was Incahuasi, an island full of cactus. We heard is possible to camp on it but it gets extremely cold. This was a very touristy part of the itinerary but quite beautiful anyway. We headed out of the salt flats and spend the night at Tambo Loma, a hotel made of salt.

Day 3: Altiplanic lagoons

The salt flats were over but a super beautiful scenery was ahead of us: the altiplanic lagoons. We visited some of the most popular ones: Cañapa, Hedionda and Colorada, all of them habitat of beautiful flamingos. Cañapa is surrounded by the Cequeña, Tapaquillcha and Cañapa volcanoes to which it owes its name. Hedionda‘s mineralised waters, including sulphur, make it a smelly but beautiful stop along the way. While laguna Colorada was extremely impressive thanks to its reddish coloured waters, consequence of the algae that lays at the bottom.

Day 4: Geysers and hotsprings

After a cold and windy night at a homestay nearby Colorada lagoon we headed towards San Pedro de Atacama, just on time to experience the activity of the Geyser Sol de la mañana at sunrise and have a warm bath at the hotsprings of Termas de Polques. The trip ended at the chilean border, where I took a bus to San Pedro.

What to pack to the trip

Water and snacks: once on the tour there will be no places to buy them.

Wet wipes: showers are cold water. The temperature can drop to -15º at night.

Sunscreen and sunglasses: the reflection of the light in the salt flat is very intense.

Sleeping bag: bed linen is not cleaned frequently.

Warm clothes, especially windbreakers.

Trekking boots if you want to climb Tunupa.

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