Before we go into details, the most important thing about the tour: Regardless of which city you begin, ask for the route that will put you at the salt flat near the end of the tour.
What is this salt flat thing?
Salar de Uyuni [wiki 1] is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It’s covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted.
Where should I sign up for a tour?
No matter what company you book through, you will end up with the same local tour operator, and you will pay more if there’s a middleman. Unless you’re on a tight schedule, it’s best to sign up for tours at the local operator’s office when you arrive Uyuni, Tupiza, or San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) for the best deal. Tupiza is less known but their tour, but it adds more variety to the standard route. You can also ask to be dropped off near Chile and head on over to San Pedro de Atacama. There will be tours departing daily, or groups looking to fill a vehicle in both cities.
How do I get there?
There are buses, trains, and flights that will take you into Uyuni and buses and trains to Tupiza.
There are only overnight buses from La Paz to Uyuni. The travel time by bus from La Paz to Uyuni takes approximately 12 to 15 hours. Here are the recommended bus companies, you can purchase tickets at the train station or through Bolivia:
1. Todo Turismo with daily departures at 21:00 hrs. (highly recommended). The company counts with semi-bed bus seats and provides dinner and breakfast on board. The bus features a bathroom, heating, and Wi-Fi Internet.
2. Panasur Bus with daily departures at 19:00 hrs. The company counts with bed and semi-bed seat buses. The bus features bathroom and heating.
3. Predilecto Bus with daily departures at 19:00 hrs. The company travels via the Potosí route; though the trip is longer, the road is fully paved. The arrival time in Uyuni is 8:30 a.m. approx. The Predilecto Bus counts with semi bed seats, bathroom, and heating. Dinner and breakfast on board are included.
4. Trans Illimani with daily departures. The company features bed buses with bathroom and heating. The highway from La Paz to Oruro is paved until Challapata town. From there the road is a dirt road, which means that during the rainy season, transit is difficult.
The Predilecto Bus Company and the Illimani bus company travel to Uyuni via the Potosí route, which means that the bus travels during the whole trip on a paved road. The trip to Uyuni is longer but ideal during the rainy season.
The train north of Uyuni departs only from Oruro city. If you want to take the train to Uyuni, you will need to travel by bus from La Paz to Oruro. The travel time is about 4 hours on the paved road.
Once in Oruro, you can take the train to Uyuni. The train company does not sell tickets online. It is possible to purchase the train tickets at the La Paz train station office.
From south of Uyuni, the Expreso del Sur train departs from Villazón on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 15:30 and arrives in Uyuni at 23:35
The Wara Wara train departs from Villazón on Mondays and Thursdays at 15:30 and arrives in Uyuni at 1:00 a.m.
Both trains make a short stop in Tupiza.
Currently, only Amaszonas airline offers La Paz – Uyuni – La Paz flights.
There are 4 to 6 daily departure flights from La Paz to Uyuni. The travel time is 45 minutes; the flight is directly from La Paz to Uyuni. The airline uses jets for this service. Each jet transports 41 passengers per trip.
Because this is a domestic flight, you need to be at the airport at least one hour before the departure time of your flight. The Uyuni Airport is new, and it is located 10 minutes away from Uyuni town.
Our trip begins here
We started from La Paz and took the overnight bus to Uyuni. At Uyuni, our friend negotiated a fair price of around (it’ll vary depending on season) $160 per person for a 3 days/2 nights tour, with a reverse route so we will be at Salar de Uyuni on our last day. This was an essential request for us because we heard from friends that if we’re to go to the salt flat on the first day, it’d be like watching a movie from end to beginning.
There were three of us; we grouped with two travelers from Germany and a French solo traveler for the same tour.
Our first stop for lunch was on the hilltop of what looked like Arizona in the spring – sand, rocks, moss and shallow stream.
Our next stop was the red lake. I don’t know what altitude we’re at, but the wind was brutal, it knocked one of the guys down to his knees.
We spent the night in a…hotel, sort of. It was very simply built, with salt granite as the bed frame, and up to 8 people per room. Our friend who’s a native Spanish speaker helped translate many questions we had about Bolivia that we asked Miguel. The live burial/sacrifice to Pachamama at a construction site? True. Andean wild cats are bad luck? True. Yetis? jk.
Next morning, our first stop was the geyser. When we arrived, it was filled with other tourist 4x4s. The fog effect was ideal for blocking them out.
We continued as the sun rises at the geysers, taking full advantage of day two to knock more stops through the wild Bolivian mountains.
At the end of day two, we arrived the famous “Salt Hotel.” Miguel timed the schedule just right so we can catch the sunset by the salt flat.
Next morning, we’re up at 5 am to get a head start. The sun rises early when you’re south of the equator!
Here’s the crazy fun part of Salar de Uyuni…the borderless salt flat creates a studio effect where the light from above is reflected off the salt like a diffuser. Means we can do a lot of “Lord of The Ring” like special effects!
Then we stopped by the salt factory and watched a demo on how they refine the salt from the field.
For our final stop, the Train Cemetary, we turned it into a jungle gym.