How to Visit the Bolivian Salt Flats

Although desolate and barren, the salt flats are a major tourist attraction.
Although desolate and barren, the salt flats are a major tourist attraction. (Image: larissapereira/iStock/Getty Images)

Known locally as the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s salt flats in the southwest of the country are the largest in the world, shimmering at 11,800 feet on the high plains and covering 4,600 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut. Formed from a dried up lake, this is a desolate but fascinating landscape punctuated by hot springs, geysers, lonely lagoons and cactus islands. At sunset, the vast plane serves as a giant mirror, creating rare double sunsets.

Reaching the Area

Buses from the La Paz typically leave in the late evening and arrive 12 hours later in Uyuni, a rather unexotic military town which serves as the gateway to the flats for most private and shared tours. Alternatively, tours leave from Tupiza, a pleasant city among a landscape of red canyons to the south where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid famously met their end. A third option is to launch an assault from across the border in Chile. Excursions from San Pedro de Atacama typically spend two days first exploring other southwest Bolivian attractions by four-wheel drive before arriving at the salt flats on the final day with a finish in Uyuni.

Short Tours

The salt flats are an inhospitable place, so tours must travel in from bases such as Uyuni, and overnight where appropriate in towns such as Jirira or Colchani, home to a salt factory featured on numerous tours. Some tours stay at the Tayka salt hotels within the flats. The most perfunctory tour is a one-day excursion from Uyuni, which tours the geysers and salt hills around the flats with a stop at Fish Island, a cactus-adorned rocky outcrop towards the flats’ center which has some of the best views of the planes. One-day tours typically ride in four-wheel drive vehicles, but moderate to experienced riders can also try a motorcycle tour between March and December. At other times of the year, rains can cover the flats with a sheen of water.

Longer Tours

Those with more time to spare will find a host of longer three- or four-day tours which incorporate a day on the Salar de Uyuni into a broader exploration of the southwest area, including trips to the vermilion-hued Laguna Colorado, the curious stone shapes at Los Lipez and a tour of the high-altitude Sol de Manana geyser field. These longer tours include food, transportation and rustic accommodation in shared rooms in hostels. Bear in mind that these shared tours involve extended periods at high altitude and freezing temperatures at night, with hot water and heating by no means guaranteed in often basic accommodation.

Planning a Visit

The rainy season runs between January and April, during which many parts of the flats are submerged. As a result, tours do not have the option of zipping across a perfectly flat salt crust surface and may not be able to reach key locations within or on the outskirts of the flats, including Fish Island, the Takya salt hotels and the underground caverns of the Cueva de las Galaxias. However, the wet season also gives the flats their faultless reflective surface which many photographers will not want to miss. To witness the breeding of the native South American flamingos on Laguna Colorado, the best time to visit is in November.

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