Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni – booking a tour

Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, for all its beauty, rivals any destination in the world on the kvetching per tourist scale. Unrealistic expectations from interact with unprofessional tour operators trying to eke out a living.

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The Rapid Traveler obsessively plans his trips, but occasionally it is clear that planning will yield little reward, and this is the case with the Salar. Unless willing to pay a hefty premium for a custom tour, all tourists pay roughly the same amount (around US$150-200 for the common 3-day tour length) and get roughly the same thing, so much so that tourists see the same faces over and over during the circuit. Research an agent all you want, but booking agent does necessarily bear any relation to the final tour. The Rapid Traveler booked with Bolivia Travel Site, and was thrilled with super agent Vivian’s troubleshooting on the rest of the trip as Bolivia’s transport network was shut down for an election, but for the Salar he was mixed in with tourists who booked through Red Planet Expedition. Agents horsetrade tourists to fill out SUVs. In the end, the guide and driver make the difference and this is hard to control in advance.

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The Salar is a physically taxing trip and tourists must be hardy and flexible. Getting bent out of shape about the rough edges of tours achieves little. That said, here are some tips and warnings:

  • The Salar is beautiful both when dry and  when wet. Tours are possible year-round, though weather in other parts of Bolivia may favor one season over another.
  • Altitude and extreme weather are not ideal for humans. Be prepared. Altitudes reach 5,000 m. Winds can be so strong as to make it difficult to walk forward. Nights are freezing, and the salt hotels, while charming, are not warm. Hot showers are not be to relied on, even when purportedly available.
  • If you do not have a sleeping bag, remind the agent to rent one to you. For some reason they do not always offer, but they all have them.

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  • 3 days is plenty. Any shorter and it is not possible to see the greatest highlights, any longer and the days in the SUV will become exasperating.
  • There are now morning flights to/from La Paz. Not all guidebooks list these flights. The bus ride from La Paz is punishing and only about half the price – take the flight if at all possible and save money elsewhere. The Rapid Traveler’s bus had a multi-hour breakdown and the bus did not even have a radio to call for help.

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  • Consider finishing the tour in Chile if heading that way, much better than a full-day backtracking to Uyuni. This must be arranged in advance but is a common routing, with coordination to Chile transportation.
  • Fierce price-based competition leads agents to cut corners. If you want some (relative) luxury, ask for it up front, confirm it in writing, and pay for it. This includes single accommodation which is available throughout, even though standard tour quotes include share nights.
  • Don’t bother paying extra for an English-speaking guide. Many guides speak some English, many tourists speak Spanish, and not much communication is needed anyway.
  • If you have a back injury, real or otherwise, make it known at booking to claim the prized front seat of the SUV. Be prepared to fight off comments from SUV-mates about the need to rotate seats.
  • SUV heating and air conditioning probably will not work. If operational, the driver will make sure they are not used. Prepare for cold at night and to roast while the sun is up.
  • The food is pretty good.

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  • Make sure all electronic gadgets are charged in advance in case hotels do not have electricity. Endless pictures will consume batteries as fast as MP3 players are drained on the long rides.
  • Mobile phone service is extremely limited.
  • No internet.
  • Back in Uyuni, there are a number of basic accommodations. After inspecting several, The Rapid Traveler selected Hotel Tonito run by a hospitable Bolivian and American wife and husband team. Hot water, reliable, free wi-fi (rare) and the excellent Minuteman Restaurant make it stand out.

This does not sound like a lot of fun, but the Salar and surrounding areas of the ‘Southwest Circuit‘ are truly unique, justifying use of that overused descriptor. From the ice-like salt sheet of the Salar itself to the bright green of arsenic lake Laguna Verde, either in dry or rainy season, there can be few more memorable natural scenes in the world.

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Those curious about the economic potential of the Salar should read this article from The Guardian.

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  • Awesome report! I definitely have to do this trip next spring. I’ve read that only Amaszonas and maybe TAM operates the LPB-UYU flights? Do you have any experience flying with them?

    Also, I know you booked in advance, but would you say it doesn’t really make a difference to book the 3-day tour once you get there?

    Thanks for your advice!

  • Wow. Fascinating report.

  • @glu800 – I flew Amaszonas, the plane was old and cramped, the windows too fogged to see much, but it was better than that bus ride on the way out. Amaszonas provides some package tickets with stopover in La Paz if also visiting Bolivia’s Amaszonas region.

    The advantage to booking in advance is to be able to depart for a tour immediately upon arrival Uyuni, which is the morning, either by bus or plane from La Paz. If not in advance, expect to stay the first day in Uyuni checking out the various agents and trying to amuse yourself. There are many agents but if the vehicles happen to be full or you have a large group, there is the possibility of a delay in finding a seat.

    That said, some people I met preferred to sort it out on arrival to develop a comfort level with an agent, even though it is the guide and driver who really matter.

  • Great info. Amaszonas sounds like a pain… but better than a 12 hr bus ride! I’m typically a bit OCD about planning, so I’d prefer to get everything sorted out prior to arriving in Uyuni. Though as you mentioned, it seems like you really won’t know exactly what you’ll get until actually meeting the guide and driver. I’ve read some horror stories about them being drunk/belligerent.

  • @glu800 – and keep in mind the the guide and driver are also your cooks, be careful about complaining before the end!

  • Haha, true… excellent advice to keep in mind!

  • Thanks for this – I have Bolivia in the plans for later this year, and this is really helpful in getting an idea of what to expect!