Complete Guide to the Salar de Uyuni

Travel Coach Chile > Argentina and Bolivia > Complete Guide to the Salar de Uyuni

You have probably already heard of the Salar de Uyuni, this unique destination of almost 460 square miles of immaculate white. An essential detour during a trip to Bolivia, the Uyuni Desert is also one of the regions to consider when you are preparing a stay in Chile, as detailed in our blog post. This largest salt desert in the world is located only a few hundred miles from the Chilean border, making it an attractive tour of a few days to add to a combined circuit of Chile and Bolivia, from the Atacama Desert or Northern Chile. Trip duration, best season, accommodations, route, which agency to choose… we cover all of these topics and more in detail in our blog post on a visit the Salar de Uyuni.

The best time to visit the salt desert in Bolivia

If you have not yet bought your plane tickets for your trip to Latin America, you still have a choice of when to visit the Salar de Uyuni. Open all year round, the main elements that can determine which time of year you decide to go are the temperatures and the rainy season. In addition, we recommend you take a look at our guide to find out when to go to Chile to organize your stay according to the seasons.

What is the temperature at Salar de Uyuni?

The salt flat has two main seasons: the dry season (from April to November) and the rainy season, which theoretically extends from December to March (but we usually observe the most rainfall in February). In the Salar de Uyuni, maximum temperatures fluctuate all year round between 57 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, while at night in winter the lows can easily drop to -13 degrees (from June to August). Although the sunshine is more or less constant all year round, choose the dry season to be able to discover the desert and the South Lipez region without restrictions. If, on the other hand, you want to see the Salar de Uyuni with the famous mirror effect no matter what, then opt for a visit in January or February. Keep in mind that the weather can change quickly, and nothing is ever guaranteed.

When should I go to Uyuni to see the mirror effect?

As we mentioned, the rainy season runs from December to March. To have the best chance of witnessing the transformation of the salar into a mirror, aim for the month of February. When the rains flood the salar, which is perfectly flat, it is covered with a thin film of water, turning the salt flat into a perfect site for unique optical illusions. Be careful, though: some parts of the Salar are usually closed during this season, which could force you to modify part of the circuit.

Salar Uyuni pluie miroir
Lever de soleil sur le salar d Uyuni couleurs ocres

How do I get to Uyuni?

To reach the salt desert, located in Bolivia, the following options are available to you:

  • Arriving by air:

The nearest airport is in the city of Uyuni. You will find flights from La Paz or from Santa Cruz to connect the city of Uyuni. Once there, it is easy to organize a 4×4 tour with a driver. Another possibility is to arrive at the Salar de Uyuni from Chile, more precisely through the Calama airport. There are many direct flights from Santiago, the capital of Chile, to Calama. Count on spending $60 (sometimes more) for this flight. Once at the airport, it is recommended to travel to San Pedro de Atacama for a short stay to acclimatize.

  • Arriving by land:

From La Paz and the main cities of the country, there are buses that connect to Uyuni by road. It takes about 4 hours by bus to reach Potosi, 10 hours (by night bus) to La Paz, and 8.5 hours to reach Sucre (14 hours more to connect to Santa Cruz). There is also a bus line that connects to Uyuni from San Pedro de Atacama. This one is a bumpy ride (at times even chaotic) and takes about 12 hours (count on 2 additional hours from Calama).

  • And on foot or by bike?

Although we understand that such an adventure can tempt some travelers, we do not recommend crossing the Uyuni Desert on foot, as this adventure requires expert-level trekking experience in perfect autonomy and in excellent physical condition. If you want to find some inspiration and are curious what this type of journey looks like, we recommend reading a 6-day travel story on foot to the Salar de Uyuni.

There are many stories recounting the experience of crossing the Uyuni desert by bike. These stories tell of the difficulties related to the state of the roads, the complete autonomy, and the challenges of physical exertion at altitude.

Should I visit the Salar de Uyuni with or without an agency?

This is a question that often arises and is quite normal. Do you have to be supervised by an agency to discover the Salar de Uyuni and Sud Lipez? Most people opt for a 4-day guided tour. We strongly recommend the presence of a driver, for logistical and security reasons. Climatic conditions can change very quickly, so it is sometimes necessary to make quick decisions on your feet, and if necessary adapt the route. For this reason, it is more practical to rely on your driver’s perfect knowledge of the terrain. Regarding the drivers, we advise you to read our advice before leaving for a 4-day stay in the South Lipez and the Uyuni Desert. Another benefit of using an agency is that they organize everything for you: from transportation to the border crossing, to accommodation and meals. The tour usually takes place over 4 days of adventure in a Jeep, with a Spanish-speaking Bolivian driver.

Circuit Uyuni en privé avec chauffeur 4x4 jeep

There are two formulas: the shared tour (more economical and ideal for backpackers) and the private tour. The main difference lies in the types of lodging offered. The economic version provides a car for 6 people plus the driver, with overnight stays in basic housing hosted by local communities. There is no heating, and the dormitories are mixed gender in simple brick or stone houses, often poorly insulated. Sanitary facilities are limited (some places still offer a shower with hot water in exchange for a few bolivianos), and the toilets are sometimes separated only by a simple cloth sheet.

The private tour version includes high-end hotels or refuges (given their isolation) with private room and bathroom, heating, restaurant, pleasant common areas, and even sometimes massage services and jacuzzi. Even though the sites visited by the 2 versions are the same, the order differs slightly to better accommodate the travel times between the lodgings. The choice between these 2 possibilities depends on your budget and your travel style.

Also be aware that in general, it is not possible to cross the border from Chile to Bolivia with a rental car for insurance reasons (even for a single day to Laguna Verde or Laguna Blanca, for example).

How many days do I need to visit the Salar de Uyuni?

From San Pedro de Atacama, it takes 4 days and 3 nights of tour to see the main points of interest of South Lipez and the Salar de Uyuni. It is also possible to be dropped off in Uyuni on the third day in order to continue the tour in Bolivia. This tour is therefore completed in 3 days and 2 nights. Those in a hurry (only on a private tour), can also organize a stay of 3 days and 2 nights and return to San Pedro de Atacama, but it must be taken into account that the time spent in the car is substantial and that there is little time on site to appreciate the landscapes.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of places you will visit depending on the duration chosen (departing from San Pedro de Atacama).

Example of a 4-day, 3-night itinerary for a tour in Uyuni

Day 1:

  • Arrival at the Hito Cajon border (departure from San Pedro de Atacama)
  • View of the Licancabur volcano
  • Entrance to the Eduardo Abaroa Reserve
  • Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde
  • Salvador Dali Desert
  • Thermal baths of Polques
  • Geysers de la Mañana
  • Laguna Colorada

Day 2:

  • Rock Valley
  • Laguna Negra (or Misteriosa)
  • Italia Perdida
  • Villa Alota

Day 3:

  • Incahuasi Island (Cactus Island, or Isla del Pescador)
  • The Salar de Uyuni
  • Los Ojos del Salar
  • Dakar monument and flags
  • Train Cemetery
  • City of Uyuni
  • Back to Villa Mar

Day 4:

  • Return to Hito Cajon and San Pedro de Atacama

Those who opt for a stay from Uyuni will do the tour in the opposite direction (plan for 3 days and 2 nights). It is also possible to make a trip from Tupiza, which includes a day off the tourist trails.

To combine this tour with your stay in Chile, we also recommend that you read our article on the number of days needed to visit Chile.

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What to do in Uyuni

As you might have already realized, when we talk about a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we are usually referring to South Lipez, the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, and the Salt Desert. This region can be visited in a few days and boasts a massive concentration of natural wonders with spectacular landscapes. It is a must-see of the Chilean and Bolivian Altiplano. Among the unmissable places, we have compiled a small selection of photos to show you what awaits you for these 4 days of adventure.

Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve

One of the best kept treasures of the Andes Cordillera, between mountains, geysers and fumaroles, and thermal waters, the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve is one of the most famous protected areas in the country. Each year, it welcomes 30,000 visitors. The reserve is home to more than 23 species of mammals and 80 kinds of birds. Among these are the 3 kinds of pink flamingos (Andean, James and Chilean) and the condor.

Siloli Desert

The passage through the Siloli Desert is obligatory when arriving from Chile because it is the gateway to the Eduardo Abaroa Reserve. This extremely arid desert is known for its original rock formations (Arbol de Piedras), its extraordinary ochre colors, and for one of the most famous lagoons: Laguna Colorada.

Arbol de Piedras

These formations of volcanic rocks are surreal, created due to the erosion of the wind. They are called stone trees because some of the formations are nearly 23 feet high, isolated in the middle of the desert. These trees were created over a period of several thousand years thanks to the effect of the wind full of arsenic and salt that breaks down quartz (the main component of the pillars). These stone trees have been declared a national monument in Bolivia.

Laguna Blanca

This lagoon was named as such for the color of its waters. Laguna Blanca is loaded with minerals, which gives it a white hue. It is located near the entrance of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, not far from the Chilean border.

Laguna Azul or Laguna Celesta

As you might be able to guess, this lagoon is also named for its color, this time blue. It lies at the foot of the Uturuncu volcano and hosts 3 species of flamingos.

Laguna Verde

Nestled at the foot of the Licancabur volcano, next to the Chilean border, this beautiful salt lagoon with emerald waters is a real oasis.

Laguna Colorada

With an area of 21 square miles this lagoon with mineral-rich waters is a perfect stop for migratory birds. The red lagoon, among the most famous in Uyuni (you might recognize it–it’s particularly Instagrammable) owes its color to the pigments of a type of algae present in its waters, as well as to the red sediments. This lagoon was shortlisted for the title of one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, but was eliminated in the final vote.

Laguna Misteriosa or Laguna Negra

This lesser-known lagoon is surrounded by rocks with orange tones. It is accessible by a short walk and is an ideal place to observe llamas. Located near the Canyon of the Anaconda, the landscape that surrounds it is breathtaking! It is an ideal spot for photos.

Termas de Polques

This is a welcome stop to recharge your batteries in the naturally warm waters (at +95 degrees) with an attractive view of the Salar de Chalviri. A small restaurant and bathrooms (for a fee) are on site, as well as a changing cabin.

Geysers Sol de Mañana

This spectacular landscape, composed of deep craters, emits vaporous fumaroles from 32 to 160 feet high. Located at 16,000 feet above sea level, in the heart of an area of high volcanic activity, the geysers also have a strong smell of sulfur.

Desierto by Salvador Dali

Called Salvador Dali Desert in homage to the famous Spanish painter known for his surrealist works, this 42-square-mile area brushed with ochre tones and dotted with isolated rocks evokes the background of some of the painter’s compositions.

Rock Valley

Located between the Salar de Uyuni and the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, this stop promises a landscape similar to stone trees. These original rock formations, are also caused by the erosion of the wind, and make up a valley whose panoramic views are superb. Two remarkable places: the World Cup and the dromedary.

Train Cemetery

Remnants of the 19th century and the Bolivian boom in the extraction of minerals and metals such as silver, these train carcasses were once used on the railway line that united Antofagasta (now part of Chile) and Uyuni.

Salar de Chiguana

Located at the foot of the Ollague volcano, this salar is smaller than that of Uyuni and is crossed by the inactive railway line. It is still a great place to take beautiful photos.

Salar de Uyuni

This immense expanse of 463 square miles located at 12,000 feet above sea level is 130 feet thick with alternating layers of salt and clay. The result is flat white desert as far as the eye can see, dotted with a few islets. In the heart of the Salar de Uyuni, do not miss a visit to the Incahuasi Island, known as the Cactus Island (or Isla Pescadores, aka “the island in the middle of the salar”), a limestone formation filled with cacti many feet high. We go there for the sunrise. It is also possible to visit the Ojos de Sal as well as the Dakar Monument in the heart of the Salar de Uyuni.

Village Colchani

An almost obligatory stopping point on the way to the Uyuni Desert, this small village makes a living from the artisanal extraction of salt (resold later thanks to their partners in Brazil and Bolivia). The villagers craft small salt sculptures and are also the creators of several buildings constructed from salt bricks, the famous “salt hotels”.

Photos salar Uyuni groupe sautant

Where should I stay?

  • Hotel de Piedra

The hotel is located just a few feet from the historic ruins of the village of San Pedro de Quemes, and in the vicinity of other impressive natural attractions. Since it’s just south of the Salar de Uyuni, the hotel attracts travelers from all over the world who are eager to find lodging that is both comfortable and exotic. The warm welcome of the staff and the quality of the facilities designed especially for foreign visitors ensure an unforgettable experience.

  • Tayka del Desierto

The Hotel Tayka del Desierto, located in the middle of the Siloli Desert, perfectly harmonizes with this Andean landscape. The hotel provides cozy, warm relaxation for travelers from all over the world. The hotel is equipped with double, triple or quadruple rooms, subject to availability. The rooms have hot water and private bathrooms.

  • Tayka Sal

This hotel is built entirely of salt extracted from the Uyuni Salt Desert. It is run by Tayka, a chain of 3 eco hotels managed by local communities.

The hotel faces the Salar de Uyuni and offers an impressive view of the expansive desert. Thanks to its strategic location, this hotel offers one of the best views of the region.

It includes the following services: satellite telephone for emergencies, central heating (including in the rooms) with solar panels, common areas (bar, lounge, dining room), and WiFi.

  • Luna Salada (our favorite)

This hotel is also built entirely with salt bricks, allowing you to enjoy a panoramic view of the Salar de Uyuni. The beauty of the environment will make you lose track of where the desert ends and the sky begins.

The hotel forces you to disconnect as it is isolated in the middle of the largest salt desert in the world. The rooms are pleasantly decorated with colorful touches in Andean style. Enjoy the exquisite flavors in the Tapuna restaurant, where you will enjoy a hearty breakfast to start your day. You can also access the spa (with a panoramic view) or book a massage, services offered for a fee.

  • Mallku Cueva

This hotel is located in one of the most impressive places on the road to the lagoons of South Lipez. Nestled amongst the rocks, the hotel is Andean-inspired with a rustic flair. It offers 12 rooms, all with private bathroom and central or electric heating.

The hotel is equipped with an emergency satellite telephone, central heating, a restaurant, a bar with wood fire, WiFi, and a lounge. Hot water is provided thanks to solar panels.

  • Hotel Los Flamencos

This hotel is located on the banks of the Hedionda lagoon, at an altitude of 13,500 feet. This lagoon is a favorite destination of pink flamingos and is located in the middle of the desert. The architecture is inspired by indigenous traditions and local materials. The hotel allows you to observe extraordinary sunsets and sunrises while enjoying the view of the pink flamingos frolicking in the lagoon. All rooms have private bathrooms, which operate according to ecological systems.

How much should I plan to budget?

As we mention in the section on agencies, you should know that your budget will be radically different depending on the option chosen. In the both cases, the formulas are all-inclusive, in other words, transport, accommodation, and food are included in the cost.

The cheapest formula is to choose a group tour, during which you will share the car with a driver with 5 other people. This formula costs about $180 to $200 USD per person all-inclusive for 4 days and 3 nights. The entrance fee of $30 USD to the Eduardo Avaroa reserve must be added, as well as the toilets and hot showers, the tax of leaving the country (which is, in theory, illegal, but very often requested at the border), and any extra money you plan to spend on souvenirs. Discover our tips to make your trip to Chile budget friendly here.

By opting for the private, comfortable choice, with accommodation in hotels, you must plan on spending $550 USD per person, food included (based on a party of 6 people). In general, we recommend only 4 adults per vehicle for added comfort. Based on 4 people, the price goes up to $630 USD per person.

Discover our detailed itinerary that combines Atacama and Uyuni.

What is the elevation of Salar de Uyuni?

Monument Dakar Bolivie

While Salar de Uyuni is located at 12,000 feet above sea level, during the stay you will often exceed 13,000 feet above sea level. At least one night will be spent at 15,000 feet, which is particularly high and requires gradual acclimatization beforehand.

In general, altitude is not a problem if the acclimatization process is respected. There are, however, restrictions for some people. It is not recommended for pregnant women and people with heart problems, hypertension, or severe asthma to venture above 11,500 feet. If in doubt, consult your doctor.

How do I avoid altitude sickness?

Before the first climb in altitude, it is recommended to avoid excessive alcohol consumption and to favor slow sugars. We advise trying the infusions of coca leaf or “rica-rica.” During excursions, walk slowly, drink plenty of water, and let your guide know if you are experiencing symptoms (dizziness, headache, nausea). Though hotel-type accommodations usually have oxygen available at the reception, basic infrastructures are often devoid of such equipment, which is why we emphasize gradual acclimatization.

Chemical acclimatization (on medical prescription) can also be done, but the guides we work with always prefer natural acclimatization because these drugs hide the symptoms and make your natural physical reactions less visible.

Apart from the altitude, are there any risks related to a tour of the Uyuni salt flats?

This tour takes place in an extreme environment, in places at high elevation. The majority of the trips are on roads which may be in poor condition. The villages where you will sleep are very isolated and not very, if at all, urbanized. The places are beautiful, but they are deserted. You have to be aware that you are going to take a trip whose conditions are far from the infrastructure that cities can offer. All the places where you will sleep are isolated, and it is difficult to provide electrical energy and equipment.

Even though the route has become popular, that doesn’t detract from its extreme conditions and adventurous side. It will be necessary to deal with unforeseen circumstances, although that can also be part of the magic of the trip on these exceptional lands and villages stuck in the past.

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What equipment should be carried to the Salar de Uyuni?

With such extreme temperatures, it is not always easy to organize your suitcase for your stay in the Chilean or Bolivian Altiplano. We advise you to bring technical clothing in several layers. Long underwear will be useful at night, and for the day, comfortable windproof hiking pants. In addition to your hiking jacket, bring a fleece with you, as well as short-sleeved and long-sleeved t-shirts. Of course, don’t forget your sunscreen, as well as a hat and your sunglasses. We also recommend bringing drinking water to quench your thirst during long days in the car and to better tackle the altitude. Do not forget your camera so you can bring back unforgettable memories of this beautiful trip!

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