Salt Flats in Bolivia – 15 Things You NEED to Know Before Visiting!
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The Salt Flats in Bolivia (or Salar de Uyuni) is one of the coolest places to visit in South America. During my adventure there, I was blown away by the sheer size and beauty of the Bolivian Salt Flats.
Imagine salt as far as the eye can see, reflections like you wouldn’t believe, and a landscape that was unworldly. The salt flats in Bolivia is one place I’ll never forget!
My experience was awesome, but much of that came down to chance. With little research, I happened to visit during the best time of year, get a great tour company, and bring everything I needed to have a fun and SAFE time exploring this desert of salt.
However, many people don’t have that same experience. In fact, I have heard absolute horror stories about tours gone wrong and even people who ended up in the hospital.
Of course, I don’t want this to happen to others. So in this guide, I’ll tell you 15 things you NEED to know before visiting the Salt Flats in Bolivia. After reading this blog, you’ll have some background info and also be prepared to have the best possible time touring the salt flats!
15 Things to Know about the Salt Flats in Bolivia
1. Bolivia’s Salt Flat is the largest in the world
Salar de Uyuni of Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world. It covers an area of 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq miles) and sits at 3,656 meters (11,995 feet) above sea level. What’s even cooler is that over this ancient Bolivian salt lake there is only an elevation change of 1 meter (3 feet) – meaning they are almost dead flat!
When summer rain floods the salt flats, they become the world’s largest mirror lake at over 129 kilometers (80 miles) across. The Bolivia Salt Flats’ mirror has become famous and a bucket-list experience for many!
The salt flats are also meters thick. In fact, in some places the salt layer is over 10 meters (32.8 feet) thick! That’s estimated to be a whopping total of 10 billion tons of salt!
Regardless of what way you look at it, the salt flats in Bolivia are extremely impressive and you shouldn’t miss them!
2. The best time to visit the Salt Flats is late March to early May
You can visit the salt flats in Bolivia all year around. But depending on when you go, you’ll get a different experience.
If you visit between January and March, much of the salt flats are closed due to flooding. Of course, there are exceptions especially if you go in early January but for the most part, this is the worst time to visit.
If you visit during the driest months from June to December you won’t have to worry about rain. However, this is also winter and temperatures at night can get to -15 C (5 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s pretty cold and it can make exploring the salt flats uncomfortable.
That leads us to the question, when is the best time to visit the salt flats?
Well, April and May are the best months. The reason?
The weather during this time is dry, but water from the rain season will still be around in some parts of the salt flats (so you can still enjoy the stunning reflections.) You’ll also experience all around warmer weather and avoid any closures.
This is when I visited and based on what our guide said, this is the best time to explore the salt flats in Bolivia!
3. You’ll need a few days to appreciate Salar de Uyuni
You can choose to either visit the Salt Flats on a day trip or on a multi-day tour.
Although a day trip to the salt flats is convenient and great for a quick visit, you’ll miss out on so much! Yes, you’ll get to take the funny and creative photos on the salt, but the multi-day tours are so much more than that.
From exploring geysers to colorful lagoons to visiting a desert valley at over 5000 meters above sea level, there is a ton to see and do! The best advice I can give you is to join a 1 or 2-night tour as a minimum. This way you can experience Bolivia’s salt flats and nearby landscapes in detail.
The most common tour (and the one we did) was this 3-day 2-night tour from Uyuni with an English guide. I can’t recommend it enough! With that said, it was basic and the accommodation and food were not “luxurious”. There are more upper market tours like this 3-day tour, but they are a lot more expensive.
If you do decide a day trip is the only option you have, then make sure it stays at the salt flats until sunset. This specific tour from Uyuni guarantees a sunset on the salt flats and is highly revied by other travelers!
4. You can visit the salt flats from a few different cities and towns
The salt flats are huge and because of this, you can visit them from many different places in Bolivia and even Chile. Of course, the most popular place to leave for the salt flats from is the town of Uyuni, and this is what I did.
Uyuni: Uyuni is a small town in Bolivia right on the edge of the salt flats. In Uyuni there are lots of tour agencies selling all sorts of tours with the most popular being the 3-day 2-night tour. These tours typically start and end in Uyuni, or, start in Uyuni and end in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Uyuni is also the cheapest place to do salt flat tours from.
San Pedro de Atacama: San Pedro is actually in Chile in the Atacama Desert. From here you can cross the border on a tour and explore the salt flats. On these tours, you can end the tour either in Uyuni or return back to San Pedro. Tours from here are the most expensive though because they leave from Chile (it’s a more expensive country with a stronger currency.)
Tupiza: Tupiza is another popular place to visit the salt flats from in Bolivia. This town a convenient place to visit the salt flats for those crossing from Argentina into Bolivia (or vice versa.) Tours departing from Tupiza can either end back in Tupiza or in Uyuni.
La Paz: Despite being really quite far from the salt flats, you can do tours departing from La Paz. This makes for a very long journey to and from the salt flats and day trips involve an 8-hour overnight bus before and after your tour. I personally couldn’t recommend doing that. Instead, if you must visit from La Paz, do this specific tour that flys to and from Uyuni.
5. Salt flat tours are about more than just the salt flats
If you think the only thing you’ll see on a salt flats tour in Bolivia is salt, you are mistaken. On the most popular 3-day tours, you’ll visit several deserts, a few different lakes, a train graveyard, geysers spewing steam, hot springs, flamingos, and more!
In fact, on these multi-day tours, the only day you actually spend on the salt flats is the first. After that, you head off to explore other nearby places.
A salt flats tour is about touring the entire area and visiting the different climates and landscapes. It’s so much more than just salt. So, get ready for a crazy adventure!
6. You’ll see lots of wildlife on the salt flats
If you do decide to do a multi-day tour then you’re actually going to see some cool wildlife. Despite being such a harsh environment, some animals actually thrive in the region. These include:
Andean Flamingos: You’ll see these guys hanging out in the colorful lakes outside the salt flats. Andean flamingos are also one of the rarest in the world.
Culpeo Fox: The Culpeo fox is not rare at all in this region. The Culpeo fox doesn’t pose a danger to humans and eats mainly rabbits and lizards. They’re also the second-largest fox on the continent of South America.
James Flamingo: It can be hard to tell the difference between James flamingos and Andean flamingos. However, James flamingos are much taller. These guys were actually thought to be extinct until a colony was found in 1956!
Vicuñas: Vicuñas are very similar to Llamas and are closely related to Guanacos (which are very common in Patagonia.) They are believed to be the wild ancestor of Alpacas and Llamas which were domesticated for their coats and ability to transport goods. Vicuñas have historically been protected by law even when the Incas ruled. However, due to hunting, only 6,000 Vicuñas were left by 1974, but numbers are now over 350,000!
Bolivian Vizcacha: Vizcachas are rodents that look very similar to rabbits but the two are not closely related. Unfortunately for these guys, they are often food from the Culpeo fox.
Llamas: You’ll see lots of llamas on your trip to the salt flats in Bolivia, but mainly only in small villages. Llamas are domestic animals and you may even eat Llama on your tour.
On our tour, we saw most of the animals above and this was a huge surprise to me. It’s quiet impressive that animals can live in such harsh conditions!
7. The Bolivian Salt Flats are part of the Dakar Rally
The Dakar Rally is known as the hardest race in the world. It involves tackling a huge course on either a motorbike, quad, car, UTV, or truck.
The race spans over several thousand kilometers and is between 10 to 15 days long. Around day 7 of the rally, participants will hit the salt flats and complete the 200-kilometer journey across this flat plain in around an hour! For racing lovers, this will be music to your ears.
On any salt flats overnight tour you’ll visit the flag pit off all the racer’s home countries and get to see the Salt flat Dakar Rally sign. This isn’t a huge deal to most, but for some, you’ll be glad I mentioned it.
8. Not all tours are created equal
Not every tour to the salt flats is the same. Although they almost all follow the same route, what’s missing from some is the attention to detail and activities they do.
So, how do you pick the right salt flats tour?
Well, you could just wing it and hope for the best when you arrive, but in my experience, the easiest way to choose a good company and tour is to book online in advance.
Well, tour companies who advertise online and have good reviews are more likely to follow through with what they promise because you have a way to publicly review them. Whereas when you book at a small local “travel agency” in person last minute, they are generally less accountable.
Of course, this usually means paying a little more, but for a 3-day 2-night tour, what’s an extra $50 to guarantee a good time?
9. You’ll need warm clothes
During the day, the salt flats can actually get hot and you may strip down to one layer of clothing. But no matter what temperature it is during the day, the minute the sunsets it gets bitterly cold.
Even in the warmest months, temperatures can drop below zero and with the harsh winds, it’s freezing! If you’re visiting in winter (June to August) expect temperatures well below zero.
Unfortunately, I didn’t bring enough warm clothes. I wanted to spend time watching the stars at night but with only one sweater it was nearly impossible to stay warm.
Bring layers…and lots of them!
10. Despite the cold, you’ll need sun protection
Don’t be fooled by the cold temperatures, the salt flats sit at over 4,000 meters above sea level and reflect the sun worse than snow. Also because the air is thinner, you get burnt quicker and this can lead to serious injuries.
Remember how I mentioned above about people being hospitalized? Well, not bringing sunglasses put a traveler I met in the hospital without eyesight for 2 weeks!
Another story was from a guy who wore no sunscreen with shorts and a t-shirt for the entire 3 days. He ended up with a severe sunburn that almost ended his holiday.
The sun at the salt flats is harsh so you need to wear sunscreen, bring a hat, and good sunglasses. It pays to also wear long pants and a long shirt. Oh, and I almost forgot, bring lip balm! The dry air and sun will have your lips chapped within a matter of hours.
11. 7 people in one car is too much
Most cheap tours to the salt flats will take 6-7 people in one car plus the driver. Although common, this is too many people and whoever gets the back seats will suffer, especially if you’re tall like me!
So, be sure to book a tour that guarantees to only 6 people at most with the best group size being 4-5 per vehicle. I didn’t know this and ended up with a very sore back by the end of the tour!
12. An English-speaking guide will cost you more… but it’s worth it
One of the best things about a Bolivia Salt Flats tour is learning about the area. Tour companies know this so they charge more for an English-speaking guide. I didn’t know this and booked the cheapest tour I could. Luckily my guide was an English-speaking guide even though our entire group only paid for a Spanish tour – but this rare and I was just lucky.
At first, he only spoke Spanish and the two Colombians on our tour translated for us. However, we ended up tipping him and he did the 3-day tour in English, and I can’t recommend it enough.
This region of Bolivia is so interesting! So, if you don’t speak Spanish, pay for the English guide, you won’t regret it!
13. You’ll want to bring snacks and cash!
On any overnight or multi-day tour your food is included. Now there is more than enough food to go around, but you do have to eat at certain times and with so much adventure to be had, you can get hungry.
My recommendation is to bring some snacks with you so you can get through the day. If not, at least bring some cash. Obviously no cards are accepted out on the salt flats but some of the hotels sell things like wine and snack.
Also, you may want to tip your guide so having a little cash is a great idea.
14. There’s no wi-fi at all and limited power
Because the salt flats are so remote, you won’t have wifi at all and very limited power. What does this mean? Well, be sure to tell your loved ones back home that you’ll be MIA for a few days, and also be prepared to fight (not literally) over power-plugs if you need to charge your phone or camera.
For me, this wasn’t a problem as I brought along with me a battery pack and had a few extra batteries for my camera.
My best tip is to bring your own battery pack. Also, a charging adaptor with multiple USB plugs is great for sharing with others who also want to top up their phone batteries.
15. Expect to share a room if you’re a solo traveler
Accommodation out on the salt flats isn’t fancy. On most tours, rooms are suited to sleep 2 people. While this is fine for couples, solo travelers will often have to share a room with another person in your group.
Although this isn’t a huge deal, it’s definitely something to be aware of. In fact, even as a couple you still may have to share with one other person as we did on night two. This is because the hotel we stayed at slept 3 people per room. Luckily, we were with our friend Liam so it didn’t bother us at all!
If you really don’t want to share a room, then booking a more luxurious tour is your best option!
Before you go…
Thanks so much for reading our guide to Bolivia’s salt flats. We really hope this travel guide has helped prepare you for what is one of the best experiences in Bolivia and South America.
If you ave any questions about your upcoming visit to the Uyuni Salt Flats, please leave them below and we will get back to you!
Also, if you liked this travel guide then be sure to check out all our Bolivia travel guides or these related articles below!
April 27, 2020