How to Explore Salar de Uyuni, aka the Bolivian Salt Flats
The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest and most staggeringly beautiful salt flat, hides within the folds of the Bolivian Altiplano (or Andean Plateau) where the Andes Mountains are at their widest.
Covering 4,050 square miles, the Bolivian salt flats extend much farther than the eye can see. Because the Salar de Uyuni is one of the flattest places on Earth, it creates optical illusions of perspective that make for fun pictures and an even funner real-life experience.
A trip to this remote region in South America takes some time and planning, but the effort is rewarded with natural beauty you won’t find anywhere else. Here is how you can explore the Bolivian salt flats.
When to Go to the Salar de Uyuni
Before planning anything else, you need to decide what time of year you want to visit the Bolivian salt flats. The natural wonder changes drastically depending on the season, so you should choose carefully depending on your preferences.
The Bolivian Altiplano has two seasons: wet and dry. The rainy season goes from December to the end of March and is maybe the most popular time to visit. As the rain pours down, nearby lakes overflow and slightly flood the salt flats. Because the water has no natural drainage and because the land is so flat, the Salar turns into a gigantic mirror that reflects the infinite horizon. The beauty of the effect is beyond description. During the day, you feel as if you’re walking inside clouds, and at night, the sky spills into the Earth.
The experience is magical, but nothing beautiful comes easily. The rainy season is also, well, rainy. You might have to tour around the area in the rain, and you’ll walk around the area flooded. There is also a greater chance of your 4WD vehicle (the only way to tour the flats) getting stuck in the mud. Still, if you don’t mind a little inconvenience and are willing to plan for wet feet, the visuals make up for any problem.
Alternatively, you can visit during the dry season, which is from April to November. At this time, the landscape is completely dry, and the salt forms cracked hexagons that expand as far as the eye can see. This season is perfect for getting some fun optical-illusion pictures, taking advantage of the flatness of the land to play around with perspective. One of the biggest selling points of the dry season is the ability to ride a bike through the salt flats and experience the landscape in a more intimate way.
The main downside of the dry season is the temperature, which can drop to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Keep in mind that you most likely won’t have access to indoor heating in your accommodation, given how remote the salt flats are. Plan accordingly by bringing proper clothes and a sleeping bag.
If you believe that Lady Luck favors you and can’t decide between the two experiences, you can always visit in the transition periods between seasons, which usually are late March or late November. There is a chance — though no guarantee — that some of the areas of the salt flat will be flooded and some will be dry.
How to Get to the Bolivian Salt Flats
Once you’ve decided when you’re going, you can plan the starting point for your trip. There are several ways to get to Uyuni, Bolivia, but we won’t waste your time with all of them. Instead, let’s focus on the ones that are the easiest and most convenient.
Most people head to the town of Uyuni from La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia and the country’s most visited city. From here, you can easily take a bus to Uyuni that costs about $11 and takes 10 hours. It’s easy to buy a ticket last minute at the station, but you can also book in advance.
Given how long the bus ride is, we highly recommend taking a night bus and paying a bit more for a lie-flat seat where you can sleep. That way, you won’t waste an entire day in transit. That said, if you’re one to love landscapes, taking a diurnal bus will allow you to see some truly breathtaking scenery.
If you can afford it, however, the best way to get to Uyuni is to fly straight into its small airport. Prices for tickets vary, of course, but are usually between $150 and $250. The flight is about one hour, so if you value time over money, it’s absolutely the best choice.
If you don’t want to worry about any of the logistics, you can simply book a private tour that takes care of the transport from La Paz. You’ll still travel by road, but you’ll be in a private vehicle and will be more comfortable.
How Many Days Should You Spend in the Salar de Uyuni?
Many people come to the Salar de Uyuni for a single day, take pictures and then leave. Unless you have no other choice, we highly recommend against this, as you won’t get the full experience of the salt flats and all the other amazing landscapes that surround them.
If you can wing it, your best bet is a three-day tour, which will give you two nights at the salt flats, upping your chances of starry skies. Besides the flats, you’ll also visit sites like the Laguna Colorada, a red lagoon filled with flamingos; the Siloli Desert, whose rock formations look as if they were painted by Salvador Dali; an intimidating geyser field and hot springs.
Three-day tours are usually no more than $100 but don’t include entrance fees to the Bolivian salt flats or other natural parks. If you don’t mind taking care of your own transportation to and from Uyuni, you can easily book a tour once you get into town.
Practical Tips for a Trip to the Bolivian Salt Flats
One of the biggest mistakes people make when traveling is the Andes Mountains is underestimating how bad altitude sickness can be. To avoid it, let yourself get acclimated for a couple of days in La Paz, which sits at 11,893 feet above sea level. In Uyuni, you’ll be above 12,000 feet!
Taking altitude sickness medication helps, but you can also go with local natural medicine and drink coca tea. Coca leaves have been used by people in the Andes since before the European encounter. The tea works wonders for helping your body get used to high altitudes.
As in most mountainous places, temperatures can vary greatly when the sun is out and when it sets. Whether you go during the dry or wet season, pack layers that you can easily put on and take off, as the day gets cold and hot. When traveling during the rainy season, bringing flip-flops and pants that you can roll up will help you avoid dealing with wet shoes and socks.
Finally, try to get a tour that has at least one night at the Hotel Palacio de Sal, the world’s first salt hotel. Besides a unique lodging experience, it also offers plenty of opportunities for great pictures.