One of the top bucket list locations for South America, here are some top tips to know before heading out on a jeep tour of the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia.
1. You can start in different places.
Most people rock up to the town of Uyuni, on the edge of the famous salt flats, and find a tour agency offering a quick day tour or the popular three or four-day jeep tour to explore the area. Consider all the options, including where you want to start and end, depending on your other travel plans. One great recommendation is instead of starting in Uyuni, head south to Tupiza, a quiet cowboy frontier town, and start there. By doing the jeep tour backwards, starting in the south, you’ll visit all the same sites, but avoid the hordes of tourists, as you’ll visit each place at different times of the day. Plus, you save the best for last, arriving at the salt flats on day four to watch the sun rise over Isla Pescado — an incredible climax to this special journey.
2. Not all tour operators are equal.
Wherever you start from, choose your operator wisely. Do your research and check out up-to-date reviews online. If you’re starting in Tupiza, I’d recommend Tupiza Tours, who are rated as one of the best, with a great reputation. Check the route carefully and ask what stops, entry fees and food/drink is included. Also, ask specific questions about your driver and vehicle. There are horror stories about drunk and reckless drivers and vehicles in poor condition that constantly break down.
3. And not all seats in the jeep are created equal either.
When you start your jeep tour, you’ll probably have a driver, cook, and four or five passengers crammed into an off-road 4WD. The two people in the very back row have the short straw, with little leg room, and limited views out of the windows. Chat with your fellow travelers, and decide in advance on a fair way to rotate seats. On my tour, we rotated every two hours, while some groups we spoke to swapped twice a day. Whatever you agree on, it will make a huge difference to the quality of your trip, and group morale.
4. You’re gonna get high.
The town of Uyuni is 11,995 feet above sea level, and during the tour, you’ll climb much higher. The spectacular Laguna Colorada, in the Eduardo Avaroa National Park, is at 15,748 feet above sea level, and many of the tours spend the night at a nearby lodge. Before starting the tour I came from Sucre and Potosi, both at high altitudes, so was well acclimatized. If you arrive straight from low altitude, you’ll want to think about acclimatization, either by spending a few days in Uyuni/Tupiza before starting or by taking acclimatization medication (talk to your doctor first!). To alleviate symptoms, drink lots of water, take it easy, eat light, and drink coca tea/chew the leaves.
5. And you will freeze your ass off at night.
While it can be hot and sunny during the day, the temperatures plummet at night (unsurprising given the altitude), and you’ll be staying in very basic lodges with no heating or insulation. So make sure you pack lots of warm layers and a sleeping bag. One night I slept in my outdoor jacket, hat, gloves, and two pairs of socks, ALL inside a sleeping bag! If you don’t want to lug a sleeping bag around for your whole trip, you can rent one from your tour operator before departure, though you may want to bring your own sleeping bag liner. There was a French couple in my shared dorm who didn’t bring sleeping bags. Don’t be them — you’ll regret it.
6. There’s a nightly stampede to charge devices.
You’ll be taking hundreds of photos of the incredible scenery, and what you may not know is that cold temperatures deplete lithium batteries quicker than usual. Although you’ll be staying in lodges each night, they are all very remote and electricity is powered by solar panels and diesel generators. So they only turn the power on for a few hours each night while dinner is being served. At this point, everyone races to use the limited power outlets and some lodges will even charge guests to use them. Save yourself that hassle, and bring along an emergency charger to keep all your electric gear juiced up. Another tip is to keep your batteries in your sleeping bag at night, so they don’t run down as quickly.
7. There’s nowhere to buy anything you’ve forgotten.
Your tour will be “all-inclusive,” meaning they’ll give you three meals a day. The quality varies hugely, and like all things, you get what you pay for. Just remember that there aren’t any alternatives around — no shops or restaurants to grab a snack, painkillers, tampons, or anything else you’ve forgotten. So if you have any special dietary requirements, make sure you brief the staff carefully and bring back up. Either way, it’s a good idea to bring a supply of your favorite snacks. Also, check if bottled water is included — it doesn’t hurt to bring some along. And top tip — you must bring your own toilet paper!
8. And that obviously means nowhere to get cash either.
Again, while the tour is technically “all inclusive” it doesn’t include entry fees. The biggest cost is the park entry for the Eduardo Avaroa National Park (150 BOB/22 USD) but there are other small ones like Fish Island in the middle of the salt flats (30 BOB/4.35 USD). Then there are optional costs like taking a dip in some beautiful hot springs (6 BOB/0.87 USD) which are definitely worth it, and a couple of the lodges offer a 3 minute hot (interpret that as warm) shower (15 BOB/2 USD). Ask your operator for a list of costs, which will vary according to the route and stops your tour includes. You should also tip your driver and cook at the end of the trip, so make sure you have enough cash in local currency to cover you. You’ll find ATMs before you start the tour in Uyuni, Tupiza, and San Pedro de Atacama, but be warned that they are often not working, and many only accept VISA.
9. You will have no Wi-Fi or phone signal for 4 days.
Embrace this as a good thing! Enjoy the natural scenery, and take loads of photos that you can #throwback on Instagram as soon as you’re reconnected. But you may want to let loved ones know you’ll be incommunicado for a while. In my tour group, there was a medical student needing to submit an application for her hospital placement on a certain day and was frantically trying to get her local SIM card to pick up 4G signal. So you might want to make sure you time the trip to avoid any crucial days for life admin.
10. You will be blown away by the scenery.
The salt flats are the highlight of the trip — the reason that everyone goes, and rightly so. No matter how much you’ve read, or how many photos you’ve seen, nothing will prepare you for the incredible vastness, and how small you’ll feel standing in the middle of a never-ending sea of white. But what really surprised me was how amazing all the other scenery was. If you do the slightly longer 4-day tour, you’ll journey through the Eduardo Avaroa National Park — a pristine landscape with colored lagoons filled with flamingos, bubbling geysers, smoking volcanoes, and herds of grazing llamas.