Photo: SL-Photography/Shutterstock

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Adventure Travel
by Danielle Miller Feb 9, 2018

This article was updated in July 2023 to include information about new hotels, Wi-Fi availablity, and tour companies.

The Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia are one of the top bucket-list locations in South America, probably because the flats are one of the most breathtaking and surreal-looking landscapes on the continent.

@matadornetwork Wet season is the best time to visit Bolivia’s #SalarDeUyuni and this is why 🎥 @SR_Travel #saltflats #boliviatravel #uyuni #giantmirror ♬ original sound – Melissa Findley

This massive salt flat covers more than 4,000 square miles and is the world’s largest expanse of salt. It was once an ancient lake called Lago Minchin, but it dried up during the last ice age, leaving behind only the salt that was in the water. Salar de Uyuni is also a draw for its bizarre phenomena, including a mirror effect: when rainwater collects on pools on the salt flat, they reflect the bright blue sky above, creating an awesome effect you won’t find naturally in too many other places in the world. You can also spot wildlife, such as llamas and vicuñas, which roam freely across the vast landscape.

The most popular way to explore the Uyuni Salt Flats is on a 3- or 4-day Jeep or ATV tour. Tours go through the sprawling flats, stopping at deserts, lagoons, hot springs, photo sites, and more. Accommodations range from basic hostels to hotels made from salt to luxury hotels and guesthouses, so there’s something for everyone whether you’re on a budget or not.

Here’s what you’ll want to know before visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats from someone who’s been there themselves.

1. You don’t have to start in Uyuni

Uyuni Salt Flats

Photo: streetflash/Shutterstock

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). While that’s a tried-and-true way to visit, its not your only option.

You may want to start near Tupiza, a quiet cowboy frontier town. By doing the jeep tour backwards, starting in the south, you’ll visit all the same sites, but you won’t be on the same schedule as most people starting in the north — which means there will likely be fewer people at each stop with you. Plus, you’ll save the best for last, as the morning of your last day will likely be Isla Pescado — the best place to watch the sun rise of anywhere on the Uyuni Salt Flats.

2. Not all Uyuni Salt Flats tours are the same

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, you may want to try Ruta Verde. When booking, check the route carefully and ask what stops, entry fees, lodging costs, and food and drink are included in the base price. Also feel free to ask specific questions about your driver and vehicle. I heard horror stories about drunk and reckless drivers, and vehicles in poor conditions that constantly broke down in the middle of nowhere.

3. Not all seats are equal, either

Bolivia salt flats uyuni

Photo: Olga Gavrilova /Shutterstock

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 through small 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

Uyuni Salt Flats man on reflection

Photo: Vadim Petrakov /Shutterstock

The town of Uyuni is 11,995 feet above sea level, and during most Uyuni Salt Flats tours, you’ll climb much higher. The spectacular Laguna Colorada in Eduardo Avaroa National Park is 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 a high-altitude town, so I was well acclimatized. But if you arrive straight from low altitude, you’ll want to think about spending a few days in Uyuni/Tupiza before your trip to give your body time to adjust. Signs of altitude sickness include headaches, fatigue, sore muscles, trouble breathing, dizziness, and more. If you start noticing any of those signs, stop moving, sit, drink lots of water, and consider eating a light snack before making any more moves.

5. It gets really cold at night

uyuni salt flats at night with stars

Photo: ddg57/Shutterstock

While it can be hot and sunny during the day, the temperatures plummet at night at the Uyuni Salt Flats (an unsurprising impact of the altitude). Depending on what tour you take, you may be staying in basic lodges with minimal insulation. Ask in advance about your lodging, and pack lots of warm layers (and a sleeping bag, if you’re told the lodge has only basic linens).

One night, I slept in my outdoor jacket, hat, gloves, and two pairs of socks — inside my sleeping bag. Most tour operators will rent them if you don’t want to carry one around on the rest of your trip.

6. There’s a nightly stampede to charge devices at hostels


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A post shared by Hotel Palacio De Sal (@palaciodesal)

You’ll be taking hundreds of photos of the incredible scenery, and anyone who’s gone skiing knows that cold temperatures will quickly deplete batteries. And if you’re staying in budget or remote lodges, you may not have power plugs in your room, and the electricity may be solar or diesel. Many lodges only turn the power on for a few hours each night while dinner is being served. It’s then when everyone races to use the limited power outlets; some lodges will even charge guests to use them. Save yourself that hassle, and bring along a backup charger to keep all your electric gear juiced up.

While this is starting to change as the area becomes more touristed and more luxurious hotels begin to open, it’s still a good idea to have a back-up charger for your drives during the day. If you’re camping or glamping, sleep with your your phone or camera batteries in your sleeping bag to keep them warm so they last longer the next day.

7. Forgot something? Too bad

hot springs at bolivia hot spring

Don’t forget a swimsuit. Photo: Mark Green/Shutterstock

Your tour will likely be “all-inclusive,” meaning it includes 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 if you don’t like what’s available. The Uyuni Salt Flats have no shops or restaurants to grab a snack, nor do they have any stores selling things like painkillers, tampons, camera memory cards, or anything else you’ve forgotten. So if you have any special dietary requirements, let your guide know ahead of time and bring some snacks with you from La Paz, Calama, or wherever you are before heading to the flats.

You may also want to bring your own toilet paper as well as a water bottle with a filter to avoid using plastic water bottles the entire time.

8. And there are no ATMs, either

flamingos at uyani salt flats in bolivia

You’ll need cash if you want access to views like these. Photo: sunsinger/Shutterstock

Most “all inclusive” tours still don’t include park entry fees. The biggest cost is the park entry fee for Eduardo Avaroa National Park (150 BOB per person, or about $22), but there are smaller fees for places like Fish Island in the middle of the salt flats (30 BOB, or about $4 USD). Then there are optional costs, like fees to sit in area hot springs or drinks at lodges.

I recommend asking your tour operator for a list of mandatory and optional costs you’ll encounter ahead of time, as they’ll 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 cards. You may want to stock up on cash in a larger city or at the airport when you arrive.

9. Expect minimal cell service and iffy Wi-Fi

internet by bolivian salt flats

Photo: Rbgarcia/Shutterstock

Higher-end hotels are likely to have sporadic and relatively slow-speed Wi-Fi. Most other hotels won’t. But otherwise, you should count on being mostly off-the-grid. So let anyone you normally chat with 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 who 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 deadlines.

If you must have some level of Wi-Fi, good hotel options include the Takya Salt Lodge (with Wi-Fi in the common area), or the more expensive Palacio De Sal and Luna Salada Hotel, both of which have it in the rooms. Occasionally, some tour vehicles will be equipped with Wi-Fi, but it only works on the few occasions when the car is within range of cell towers. Most remote Wi-Fi devices like Solis hot spots also won’t work without cell service.

10. You may not want to spend much time online, anyway

guanacos at salt flat in bolivia

Photo: SL-Photography/Shutterstock

…because the scenery is simply bonkers. The Uyuni 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. That’s especially true of Eduardo Avaroa National Park — a pristine landscape with colored lagoons filled with flamingos, bubbling geysers, smoking volcanoes, and herds of grazing llamas.

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