Salar de Uyuni – A Trip Away From Earth
The Uyuni Salt Flats is that kind of place that makes your jaw drop when you see it and leaves you awe-stricken for the rest of your life. When I am asked to name a place that really, really struck me, the Uyuni Salt Flats and the landscapes of the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve immediately come to my mind.
It seems that it’s not just me. I remember meeting during my travels three couples who were on a round-the-world trip. These guys had seen the world. I met each of these couples on different occasions, and of course they had never met each other. I asked them that same question – can you name one place in this world that really, really struck you: all of them promptly answered with a big smile, Salar de Uyuni. Coincidence?
This place has won the heart of every traveler who walked on it. How could it be otherwise? The truth is, we would not be too surprised to find this kind of landscape on some other planet, but on Earth? The Bolivian Salt Flats have this power of waking up the explorer inside every traveler.
And I know what I’m talking about. In fact, I have visited the Uyuni Salt Flats twice, during the same trip! I first took a classic group tour just like everybody else, to later realize that I hadn’t had enough of it, and went back on the Salar on a private tour. Yep, I can be that obsessive sometimes.
So in this article, I will go over everything you should know about the Salar de Uyuni, along with the mind-blowing Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve that is commonly combined with the salt flats. Whether you are preparing your next trip or just wishing to fuel your wanderlust, keep reading!
GPS (Isla Incahuasi): 20°14’35.30″S, 67°37’31.48″W
How to go: Group tour or Private tour from Uyuni or Tupiza
Price: 700-750 Bolivianos ($100-110) for a 3-day group tour with Spanish-speaking driver + 30 BOB ($5) entrance to Isla Incahuasi + 150 BOB ($25) entrance for the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve
Duration of the tours: Can be full day, 3 days (most popular) or more.
When to go: Possible all year long. December to March for the mirror effect.
Good to know: ATMs in Uyuni are not always reliable, better have some cash with you.
8 Surprising Facts About The Uyuni Salt Flats
It is the largest salt flat in the world. 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) of pure white salt. That means that is is very roughly 100 km (62 mi) from east to west, and also 100 km from north to south. It is so big that sometimes, the remote mountains seem to float over the horizon, like a mirage.
It lies at 3660 m (12,000 ft) of altitude. The Uyuni Salt Flats are part of a large region called the Altiplano, shared between Peru and Bolivia. The Altiplano is the second highest plateau in the world after the one in Tibet, and it also includes Lake Titicaca.
The Salar de Uyuni was formed by the disappearance of an immense lake called Lago Minchin, about 15,000 years ago. The remains of this lake that exist today are the Uyuni and Coipasa salt flats, and the Poopo and Uru-Uru lakes.
It has islands. An amazing feature of the Uyuni salt flats are its “islands” showing coral and algae fossils dating back from the ancient lake. One of these islands, the 24-hectare Isla Incahuasi (“House of the Inca”), has been developed for tourism, with the construction of a hiking trail and a restaurant to welcome tourists. The Salar’s biggest “island” is Isla del Pescado (Fish Island), 22 km (14 mi) away from Isla Incahuasi.
The islands are covered with giant cacti. These cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis subsp. pasacana), native to Bolivia and Argentina, can grow up to 10-12 m / 32-39 ft tall. They bear rose-white flowers in spring and summer, and the fruits are edible. The pasacana subspecies is distiguished from the Chilean subspecies (E. atacamensis subsp. atacamensis) by the fact that is it usually branched. The Chilean subspecies is often unbranched and grows less tall. They are very slow-growing, only 1 cm / 04. inch per year on average.
Do you realize how unique, bizarre and incredible this place is? “Islands” made of fossil coral formations, covered with giant cacti, in the middle of an immense crust of salt!
It is covered with mysterious hexagonal shapes. These amazing shapes have been a mystery for quite some time, but it is now thought to be the result of a convection phenomenon below the salt flat’s surface. Below the surface, there is an accumulation of rain water. The action of the sun causes the evaporation of this water.
During its migration towards the surface, the water is accumulating more and more salt. Because its salt concentration increased, this water became heavier, which leads it to sink back down. During this process, some of the water evaporates, revealing the shape of the convection cells: the hexagons. The salt crystallises as the water evaporates, forming the ridges of the hexagons.
A world of salt… and lithium. It is estimated that the Salar de Uyuni contains about 10 billion tons of salt, and in some areas its thickness can reach 10 metres (33 ft). The locals of the Colchani village harvest around 25,000 tons of salt a year. Uyuni is also a gigantic reservoir of lithium, an estimated 15% of the world’s reserves. It is now extracted as well, from a site in the south of the Salar.
The Salar de Uyuni is useful to calibrate satellites. Scientists consider the Bolivian salt flat to be one of the best places on Earth to calibrate satellite altimeters (used to measure land elevation), because the skies are often clear, and unlike the ocean, it has no waves.
How To Get There
The salt flats are most commonly visited from the nearby town of Uyuni.
Uyuni is quite easy to reach by bus. It is the cheapest option and the road is in fairly good condition.
- From La Paz: Night buses leave La Paz at around 8:30 or 9 pm, and arrive in Uyuni 9 hours later, at 5.30 or 6 am. The price is roughly between $15 and $25.
- From Cochabamba: There is a direct night bus leaving at 6 pm and arriving at 6 am. Other options all have a connection in Oruro. Price $10-$15.
- From Sucre: There are some direct buses as well as options with a connection in Potosi. The ride lasts about 8 hours and costs around $10-$15.
You can easily find and book buses from the TicketsBolivia website.
Uyuni is also on the railway starting in Oruro, connecting Uyuni and Tupiza, and then continuing to Argentina via Villazon.
Prices are quite similar to buses but the timings are not great as you arrive in Uyuni in the middle of the night. Again, you can check available trains on TicketsBolivia.
If the idea of a 9-hour bus ride across the Altiplano is not your cup of tea, there are also several flights per day between Uyuni and La Paz. The flight lasts 50 minutes and prices can of course vary but generally between $60 and $150. You can search flights on the Amaszonas airline.
When To Visit The Salar de Uyuni
It is possible to visit the Salar de Uyuni at any time of the year. But depending on the season, the experience will be a little different.
The Dry Season
The dry season runs from April to November. During this period, the salt flats are dry and you are walking on a hard crust of salt and all parts of the Salar is easily accessible.
Inside this dry season, 3 “sub-seasons” can be observed:
- April-May: It is probably the very best period because the salt flat is dry and the temperatures are mild.
- June-August: This is the heart of winter and it can get very cold at night. I have visited the Salar de Uyuni in August and I can confirm this! At night, temperatures were dropping to -20°C / -4°F. Usually, it is the best season to have a bright white salt flat and a perfect blue sky.
- September-November: It is a bit of a transition period with a Salar still mostly dry but showers are possible; temperatures are also milder.
The Rainy Season
From December to March, it is the rainy season and in this period, the Uyuni Salt Flat becomes “The Great Mirror”! Depending on how much it rains, the Salar can be more or less flooded, and some areas might become a little trickier to access. Of course, during this season you won’t get to see the white salt crust, but being able to walk on the world’s largest natural mirror is certainly not bad either!
How To Visit The Uyuni Salt Flats
The classic way of visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats is to sign up for a group tour, usually done with a 4WD Jeep.
A first option is a day tour from Uyuni, that will take you to a famous train cemetery, before going on the Salar and explore its main attractions, such as the village of Colchani, the Salt Hotel, and of course the Incahuasi Island and its giant cacti. Some tours lets you watch the sunset from the salt flat, before taking you back to Uyuni.
But the most popular is to go for a 3-day tour combining the Salar de Uyuni and the mind-blowing Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, in the Sur Lípez Province. This is the tour I took, and I will detail its itinerary further down this page. But I can already tell you it was one of the most breathtaking regions I have ever seen in my entire life.
The 3-day tour takes you to the Uyuni Salt Flats of course, then heads south, crossing smaller salt flats, passing by stunning colorful lagoons. There’s the famous pink waters of the Laguna Colorada, but also a whole series of smaller lakes inhabited by flamingo colonies, high-altitude deserts, geysers, all the way to the Laguna Verde, at the foot of the majestic Licancabur Volcano.
The price for such a 3-day tour is usually around $100-$115 in a local agency with a Spanish-speaking driver. But if you want an English-speaking driver, the price can easily go over $200.
An alternative is to visit it from Tupiza, some 200 km (125 mi) south-east of Uyuni. Visiting it from Tupiza can make sense if you are arriving from Argentina via the border town of Villazon. Often, you will be offered the same 3-day tours, with a reverse itinerary, ending with the Salar de Uyuni. Thus, these tours can start in Tupiza and end in Uyuni.
If you are in Chile, you can also find tours from San Pedro de Atacama, going over the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve and the Salar de Uyuni with a similar itinerary.
If you’d rather spend more and have an exclusive experience of the region, it is perfectly possible to go for a private tour.
After my classic 3-day tour, I went on with my trip and headed to Tupiza… and felt that in the end, I had just crossed a small part of the Salar. I had stopped at the Salt Hotel, I had hiked a little bit on the Incahuasi Island like everybody, spent a bit of time on the salt crust and that was it. I felt that this unique place deserved a deeper and longer exploration. I hadn’t had enough of it.
In Tupiza, I got to know a local travel agent, and I went with him on a private 4 wheel drive tour on the Salar. It kinda blew my limited budget, but I really have no regret. It cost me $300 for 3 days. Alone in the Salar, where tourists usually don’t go, stopping wherever and whenever I want. That’s how I got to hike on Isla del Pescado (Fish Island), and sleep in a salt hotel at the foot of Tunupa Volcano that I partially climbed the next day. When I go back to Bolivia someday, I will definitely do it again.
Whether you are in Uyuni, Tupiza, or even San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you can talk to a few travel agencies and they will most probably be able to offer you a private tour. Just talk to a few and compare prices.
Salar de Uyuni & Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve: 3-Day Tour Itinerary
Day 1 • Uyuni → Salar de Uyuni → San Juan
Uyuni & Train Cemetery → Playa Blanca Salt Hotel | 36 km (22 mi) ⁝ 1 hour
Salt Hotel → Incahuasi Island | 61.7 km (38.3 mi) ⁝ 1 hour
Incahuasi Island → San Juan | 88.4 km (55 mi) ⁝ 1:30 hour
For the first stop of this tour, you don’t go very far. Just outside of Uyuni, a site has become an unmissable attraction: the train cemetery. In this place, abandoned rusting trains have become an entertaining visit for every visitor in Uyuni. And yeah, I have to admit it’s fun to climb on the rusty locomotive carcasses. They also make cool photography opportunities.
Once the climbing-on-abandoned-trains session is done, it is time to finally head to the place we came here for, the Uyuni Salt Flats! After crossing the small village of Colchani, your eyes are glued to the bright white strip of the salt flat along the horizon, getting wider and wider, until you suddenly find yourself on it. It is a surprising feeling to be in a car in the middle of this flat and empty landsape. It is so featureless that you can’t even tell if the car is going rather slowly, or speeding like crazy.
7 km from the edge, the Playa Blanca salt hotel was the original salt hotel that was built on the Uyuni Salt Flat. It is now closed due to its environmental impact. It’s a nice stop because it is the first time you actually get to walk on the salt crust and you start realizing how huge it is. In the distance, the bluish mountains look like they are floating.
But the real discovery of the Salar de Uyuni comes when you reach the Incahuasi Island (“House of the Inca”), covered with the famous giant cacti. This island is often mistakenly called “Fish Island”. The real Isla del Pescado, or Fish Island, is the largest island on the Salar, and it is located 22 km / 13.5 miles north-west of Incahuasi Island. It is usually not visited with group tours, but I could go during my private tour.
Isla Incahuasi has been organized to welcome tourists, with a small restaurant and other small buildings, and a hiking trail leading to the top of the island. The doors, rubbish bins and signs are all made with cactus wood. It’s actually very pretty, but also a little sad when you know how slow-growing they are. I wonder how many they had to cut down.
Anyway, luckily, there are still plenty of them left and it’s a real delight to hike in such a unique place, surrounded by an “ocean” of white. You can be sure this day will remain in your memory for many, many years!
After some time enjoying the Isla Incahuasi and the surroundings, it is now time to leave the Uyuni Salt Flats and head south, to the village of San Juan to spend the night.
Day 2 • San Juan → Salar de Chiguana → Lagunas → Arbol de Piedra → Laguna Colorada
San Juan → Laguna Cañapa | 85 km (53 mi)
Laguna Cañapa → Laguna Hedionda → Laguna Chiar Kkota | 12.5 km (7.5 mi)
Laguna Chiar Kkota → Arbol de Piedra | 60 km (37 mi) ⁝ 1:20 hour
Arbol de Piedra → Laguna Colorada | 18 km (12 mi) ⁝ 30 mins
We are now leaving the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Daniel Campos Province behind, to penetrate the no-less otherworldly landscapes of the Nor Lipez Province. Actually, you leave a salt flat behind to immediately enter another one, the Salar de Chiguana. But don’t imagine a second Uyuni. The Chiguana Salt Flat is much smaller and less concentrated in salt, less white.
At some point, the car will need to cross the railway linking Uyuni and Tupiza, The driver will probably ask you to get off the car so you don’t get too shaked, which is a good opportunity to walk on the salt flat. In the distance, the cone of the Ollagüe Volcano, on the border with Chile, is getting closer. And an hour after crossing the railway, tours often stop at a spot with strang rock formations that you can have fun climbing, which make a great viewpoint to the Ollagüe Volcano. It is from that moment that you also start gaining altitude, and passing the 4,000 m / 13,000 ft mark.
Half an hour later, you finally reach the Laguna Cañapa, first of a series of shallow salt lakes. These lakes are really a big feature of this region and on top of being gorgeous, they are unique ecosystems. If you have good binoculars (or even if you don’t), you will have fun watching the flamingo colonies that live on the lake.
The same can be said about the follwing lakes, the Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Chiar Kkota, but the colony at Laguna Hedionda is the most spectacular. There are 3 species of flamingoes that live in the region: the James’s flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis). The 3 species can be distinguished by their size and the shape / color of the beak.
We had lunch on the shore of the Laguna Hedionda at 4125 m / 13,533 ft, and had plenty of time to fully appreciate the fabulous landscape around us. I was also lucky enough to spot a beautiful culpeo, the Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus). Later on, at the Laguna Chiar Kkota , we spotted a herd of vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) that was pretty close. Incredible landscapes and wonderful wildlife come together, what could make me happier?
But it’s only the beginning. The deeper you get into the vast landscapes of the altiplano, the most breathtaking it gets. Soon enough, you will be crossing the ochre, endless emptiness of the Siloli Desert – a high altitude desert at about 4600 m / 15,100 ft above sea level. If you needed proof that Nature can be a great artist, you will be served! In the south of the Siloli Desert, every tour stops at the Arbol de Piedra, the Stone Tree.
This amazing rock formation is the direct result of wind erosion.
30 mins later, the extraordinary Laguna Colorada, or Red Lagoon, is awaiting you! This large lagoon is very shallow: 35 cm / 14 inches on average. Its stunning color is due to sediments and algae contained in the water. It is home to a colony of flamingos feeding on these algae. If you have ever wondered why flamingos are pink, now you know why 🙂
I spent the night in a basic accommodation near the Laguna Colorada.
Day 3 • Laguna Colorada → Hot Springs → Laguna Verde → Villamar → Uyuni
Laguna Colorada → Geysers Sol de Mañana | 25 km (15 mi) ⁝ 30 mins
Sol de Mañana → Hot Springs | 22 km (14 mi) ⁝ 30 mins
Hot Springs → Laguna Verde | 35 km (22 mi) ⁝ 30 mins
Laguna Verde → Villamar | 150 km (93 mi) ⁝ 2:30 hours
Villamar → Valle de Las Rocas | 30 km (18.5 mi) ⁝ 45 mins
Valle de Las Rocas → Uyuni | 163 km (100 mi) ⁝ 2:30 hours
On the third day, you truly start to explore the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and the Sur Lipez Province. You need to get up very early to arrive at the Sol de Mañana Geysers (“Morning Sun Geysers”), as it name suggests, for sunrise. It is a quite surprising place that make you feel like you are walking on a primitive Earth, as it was during the dinosaurs’ era or even before.
Sol de Mañana is a geothermal area at more than 4850 m / 15,900 ft of altitude, consisting in a group of ponds of boiling water and mud, result of volcanic activity under the surface. If you are not very well woken up so early in the morning, don’t worry. You will be welcome by a strong suphur smell that will greatly help you be alert enough to not fall into the boiling mud. Unfortunately, we were there a little too early at dawn, and it was pretty dark. I couldn’t take good pics.
The next stops are the Polques Hot Springs, next to the Laguna de Chalviri, the the Laguna Verde, the southernmost point of the tour and in Bolivia. You might get to to one or the other first. Our driver suggested to rush to the Laguna Verde first before the other cars arrive so we have the place to ourselves, and then drive back to the hot springs. I think it was great.
The Laguna Verde is my favorite (if you omit the constant freezing winds). Located at the foot of the majestic cone of the Licancabur Volcano, the Laguna Verde is a real gem. The “other end of the world” atmosphere of this place is undescribable. Unlike the Laguna Colorada getting its colors from life forms in suspension in the water, the Laguna Verde gets its color from mineral elements. And intensity of the turquoise-green varies with the wind. A really, really striking place. And indeed, we were alone.
Since we were getting too frozen by the strong winds to stay any longer, we headed back to the Polques Hot Springs, where we enjoyed a nice breakfast. My swimming shorts were so well packed deep inside my backpack, itself so well packed on the roof of the jeep, that I gave up the idea of dipping myself into the hot springs. Never mind, I was happy enough with wandering along the shores of the Laguna Chalviri, and unsuccessfully trying to take pictures of the birds flying around me.
On our way back north, we stopped again on the banks of the Laguna Colorada, to take a little break from all the driving, until we finally reached the small town of Villamar. This is where we had lunch. Villamar is a village with adobe houses and roofs covered with dry grass. Feels very much like a ghost town, specially when you notice the wreck of a plane’s tail exhibited at the top of a hill.
I really, really wished we had more time to explore the next stop: the Valle de Las Rocas – Valley of the Rocks. It is a large area filled with bizarre rock formations with the weirdest shapes you can imagine. Of course, you get to explore the area a little around the car, but I think this place would have been great for a longer hike. Oh well, better seeing it like this that not seeing it at all.
At the foot of a rock, I came across a beautiful Yareta (Azorella compacta), an iconic plant of the Andes. Yaretas grow between 3200 and 5000 m. They grow extremely slowly (1 mm / 0.04 in) per year, and some specimens are believed to be several thousands of years old.
After that, we headed back to Uyuni and closed the loop.
What I Did For My Private Tour
I will do a very quick overview of the itinerary I have followed for my private tour to the Salar de Uyuni from Tupiza. Of course, there are a million possibilities but it can give you some ideas.
Day 1 – Tupiza → Atocha → Uyuni
The first day was dedicated to getting back to Uyuni, from Tupiza. It was interesting to stop in small towns of the Altiplano like Atocha and discover the local life, and there was some pretty impressive rock formations and desert areas along the road as well.
Day 2 – Uyuni Salt Flats: Uyuni → Colchani → Incahuasi Island → Fish Island → Coqueza
On the second day, I was back on the salt flats! At first, I got back to the places I had already seen on the group tour – but I discovered them a little more in-depth. In Colchani, I could wander in the area where the locals harvest the salt. When I got back to the Incahuasi Island, instead of following the trail again, I decided to hike all around the island, it took me an hour. And for the first time, I was all alone in the immensity of the Salar de Uyuni, an amazing feeling!
After that, I started going off the beaten track. My driver took me to the Isla del Pescado (the Fish Island), the largest island on the salt flat. This time, there was no hiking trail, no restaurant, and no one. Pure wilderness. I hiked up the island among thorny shrubs and another cactus forest to a high point, from where I could enjoy a fabulous panorama of the Salar, and the nearby Tunupa Volcano.
It is at the foot of this volcano, in the village of Coqueza, that I spent the night, in a hotel build with bricks of salt. On the way, we stopped by other smaller “islands”. From Coqueza, a flock of flamingos was nearby as the sun was setting on the salt flats, a beautiful birdwatching and photography moment.
Day 3 – Coqueza & Tunupa Volcano → Crossing the Salar → Uyuni
On the morning of this third day, me and my driver climbed the slopes of the Tunupa Volcano stopping just before its colorful crater. After that, the climb becomes more technical and requires gear that we didn’t have. But it doesn’t matter, the goal was to appreciate the sheer size of the Salar de Uyuni, from this high point. I could see all the islands I had visited, including the small Incahuasi Island, faraway in the distance.
The way back to Uyuni was pretty cool as well, I asked my driver to stop when we are near the centre of the salt flats, to experience its immensity. Your world is just divided into 2 parts. 360 degrees of pure white salt in the bottom half, and pure blue sky in the top half.
My driver left me in Uyuni so I could continue my journey in Bolivia, and he went back to Tupiza alone. After having experienced this, I really wish to go back to Bolivia and do a much longer private tour around the salt flats and the Altiplano. The cost is not the same of course, but the feeling of exclusivity is priceless.
What To Pack For The Uyuni Salt Flats
- Depending on the time of the year, you might need to pack very warm clothes. During the cold period, I can suggest wearing fleece-lined pants, and a warm wind-breaker. Also take a warm hat to keep your head and ears warm… or you can buy a local alpaca-wool chullo hat!
- In these rugged landscapes, you also need good hiking boots
→ You can check our guide for good hiking boots under $100
- If you don’t trust the hygiene of blankets and sleeping bags provided by travel agencies and in hotels, you can bring your own sleeping bag. (But I didn’t and it was fine). Again, make sure it can withstand low temperatures, if you go in June-August.
- It is always useful to have a good headlamp for evening and night time
→ Read our guide to headlamps
- If you are a technology geek and would like to record your itinerary or check at what altitude you are, you can bring a GPS device.
→ Check our guides to outdoor watches and handheld GPS devices.
- At high altitude the sun is stronger, it’s a good idea to bring sun block.
That’s it for this long post about the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve! I believe that you now have a good idea of what it all looks like, and what you can do to see it by yourself.
To me, this region is truly is a highlight of South America, as much as Machu Picchu, Iguaçu Falls or Patagonia. I hope that after reading through this page, you will be inspired to plan a trip to Bolivia, and be part of the club of those who have seen the most otherworldly landscapes of Earth.