Uyuni is without a doubt a remote and challenging place to travel to. The cold, the altitude, and the dry climate can make it a hard trip to weather.
But, for many, the hardest part of your Uyuni tour is picking your tour provider and booking a good tour.
Unfortunately, Salar de Uyuni tours collectively have a less than perfect safety record--breakdowns are not terribly uncommon, accidents are not unheard of, and some tourists have even died on tours. You have to keep an eye on your personal safety as well as choosing a good tour. Because after all, once you’ve chosen your tour and jump into the 4x4, you are as safe as your driver and tour guide is.
We've built a list of recorded accidents on salt flat tours.
Check your tour provider is not on the list before starting your tour!
View it here: Accidents in Uyuni
Despite the increasing international recognition of the salt flats, you can’t forget that you’re in a developing country, where informality still pervades much of daily life--including tourism agencies and their tours.
Types of Salar de Uyuni Tours
There are several kinds of guided Salar de Uyuni tours available. They vary in length and in the different sights you’ll be able to see. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. The tours listed below will all be more of less standardized offers from various tour agencies.
Three Day, Two Night Salar de Uyuni Tours
The “classic” Salar de Uyuni salt flats tour lasts for 3 days and 2 nights, and takes you beyond the salt flats to a few of the regions other stunning natural wonders, like the Laguna Colorada, the Laguna Verde, the Desierto de Dali, as well as to natural hot springs and geysers.
Most 3 day, 2 night start in the salt flats and go counterclockwise along the Chilean border to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, before swinging back around to Uyuni on the third day.
Some have the option to finish in San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile--useful for travelers continuing south on their journeys. Others will do the tour in reverse order--sometimes due to weather and road conditions.
Most travelers who travel to the salt flats take this tour structure.
Four Day, Three Night Salar de Uyuni Tours
A notable exception to the 3D/2N hegemony are Four Day, Three Night tours. However, these tours do not start from Uyuni--in nearly all cases, these tours start from the town of Tupiza--about 5 to 6 hours Southeast of Uyuni.
These tours are often done clockwise, and finish at the salt flats on the last day of the tour. They take advantage of the extra day to start the tour with some extra sights located closer to Tupiza.
This tour is ideal for travelers who are coming to see the salt flats from Northern Argentina, or travelers who have more time on their hands to dedicate for the sole purpose of doing a salt flats tour.
Though these tours are a bit more expensive than the classic 3D/2N tours, as a general rule, these tours are safer and receive better feedback and ratings than tours leaving from Uyuni. There are much fewer informal tour agencies or tour agencies with subpar safety records operating out of Tupiza.
For those reasons, plus the fact that Tupiza is a town worth visiting in and of itself, we’d strongly recommend that you consider tour options out of Tupiza if your time and budget allows it.
One Day Salar de Uyuni ToursIf you’re short on time, cash, or both--there are also options to see only the salt flats on a one day tour. While you still have the chance to see the unbelievable salt flats, we recommend a one day tour only as a last resort--you’ll miss out on so much that Southwest Bolivia has to offer by only taking one day to see the region.
Night and stargazing tours are also possibilities on one day tours. Obviously, most night and stargazing tours are specifically marketed as such.
How Much do Tours Cost?
Pricing vary greatly, but most tour prices tend to be competitive with other tour operators.
Note: These prices are contingent on having a full vehicle. If you’re looking for a “private” tour, or you want to avoid sharing a vehicle, you will likely have to buy out the other seats of the car--prices will rise accordingly.
Taking that into consideration, here are what most tours tend to cost when booking your tour in Uyuni.
Booking a tour in advance, or outside of Uyuni will invariably see these prices rise:
For a “classic” 3D/2N tour, expect prices to start at 600 Bs. per person, with most “standard” tour operators charging 700 to 800 Bs. for a tour. Some of the higher end tours will charge USD $180-250 per person per tour.
Most 4D/3N tours from Tupiza will charge USD $150 to $170 for their tours, while most one day tours will go for around 200 Bs.
Note that all tours include a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in their cost, some will ask for 50 Bs. or USD $10 more for that transfer, if you are planning that.Also note, that this price doesn’t include the price of admission to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve (150 Bs.), Isla Incahuasi (30 Bs.), and miscellaneous third-party entry fees. This will include food and lodging for the duration of your tour.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Salt Flats?
There is no bad time to visit the salt flats.
Those hoping to see the mirror effect of the salt flats should shoot to visit in the rainy season--December through February is best, though you might be able to have some rain at the end of November and the start of March as well.
Note that too much rain can make parts of the salt flats inaccessible, as the vehicles will not be able to safely drive on its surface if there is too much water. You also may not be able to visit the Isla Incahuasi or the Isla de Pescado. The roads into Uyuni can also be in bad shape during the rainy season--something to keep in mind when planning your buses or flights into Uyuni.April through October is the dry season, and though that makes it unlikely you’ll have the mirror effect, it can be a smoother time to visit, as you’ll avoid the bad conditions that the rains can sometimes bring. Though it’s cold year-round on the salt flats (due to its extreme altitude), keep in mind that June, July and August are winter months in the Southern Hemisphere, and will be the coldest months to visit the salt flats.
Booking a Tour--Things to Know & Approach
We cover some of these rules a lot more in depth on our Tips & Trick page, so be sure to review that if you haven’t already.
We recommend that you program a lot of flexibility into your itinerary--and leave a few possible days to do your salt flat tours.
First, it’s important to note that Bolivia is a notoriously relaxed and informal country--things can go a lot slower in Bolivia.
Second, transportation infrastructure in Bolivia is rather poor--it’s not uncommon for protests to block roads, and given the terrain of the Andes, there are few roads in and out of most cities. You can get stuck for days while the roads are blocked.
Third, chances are that you’re not used to 12,000 feet of altitude, and it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict if altitude sickness will affect you on your trip. Though serious complications are rare, it’s pretty easy to suffer from hangover-like symptoms because of the altitude, and you’ll appreciate the chance to take an easy day and slow down.
So, picking a range of 5-6 days to fit a 3D2N tour into, is a wise move here.
Should I book beforehand? Where to Book your Uyuni Tour
Second, we recommend that you strongly consider booking your tour in-person, in Uyuni.
Apart from the above, booking in person allows you to ask the right questions before your tour, avoid getting tossed into another group, and is the most economical way to travel. It’s pretty commonplace amongst locals and pretty common amongst backpackers. Though some of the higher-end tours might be booked up, you’ll still have a wide variety of agencies to choose from, making it relatively easy to arrive on the night bus at 6am and be ready to go for a 10am departure on a tour.
If You Must Book a Tour Beforehand
Sometimes, a firm schedule makes it risky, or even impossible, to wait until the morning of to book your tour.
If you’re dead set on not heeding to our recommendation and want to book in advance, then you should take into account the following:
Many agencies booking from abroad don’t have actual presences in Uyuni, and subcontract out reservations to other, smaller agencies once you’re there. You could get stuck with a grouchy driver, a bad vehicle, weird other passengers, or worse.
Many websites and review websites will recommend tours based on an affiliate relationship (they get a cut of the reservations) and not on tour quality.
Many agencies will significantly raise the price of the tour for the “convenience” of reserving your place ahead of time.
Careful! Be extremely skeptical about paying deposits on tours in advance. Even reputable tours that accept and honor reservations in advance typically do not ask for any payment until you are at their physical offices in Uyuni.
If, after all of this, you still want to book in advance, we recommend: booking directly with an agency that physically operates in Uyuni and runs their tours in their own vehicles.
Many of the good Uyuni tour providers only do tours in Uyuni--a vast network of organized tours in other parts of Bolivia should be a red flag--as it can often be a sign of contracting/affiliate relationships with lesser companies as opposed to running a legitimate salt flat tour.
Researching and Verifying a Tour Provider
Assuming you’ll be booking your tour in Uyuni, or at the very least in Bolivia, it’s definitely worth your while to do your homework beforehand.
We recommend having 4-5 tour agencies in mind while booking. This will allow you to:
- Account for tour agencies who are full that day
- Ask/Negotiate to see extra sights on your trip
- Have backups in case you don’t like the potential driver/vehicle (see Questions to Ask your Tour Provider below)
Once you've found a few tour agencies that you like, give them a look on Tripadvisor to see what their reviews look like, and be sure to Google their name to be sure that they haven't been involved in any serious accidents.
At the same time, remember to take all Tripadvisor reviews with a grain of salt--99% of tourists only ever go on one trip in their lifetimes, and don't have a fair comparison of other tours on which to base their reviews.
Also, keep in mind that some reviewers will leave poor reviews based on avoidable mistakes, like booking in advance. Their poor reviews will be based more than anything on being lumped together with another tour or a similar experience. Keep an eye out for poor reviews based on other unreasonable expectations (for Bolivia, anyway), like an unfulfilled promise to pick them up at the airport, or something like that.
These reviews bring down the aggregate score of a tour provider and aren't really a concern that you need to be looking for as a red flag (like serious safety issues, breakdowns, etc). Even things like reimbursements and refunds can be prevented if you get everything down in writing beforehand.
Questions to Ask your Tour Provider
Booking your tour in Uyuni has the added benefit of the ability to ask questions and review safety measures before committing to taking a particular tour and traveling with a particular agency.
Here are some things that you should ask a tour agency before committing to go with them:
Who Will Be My Driver?
Ask to see them. Talk with them a bit--get a sense of their personality, how enthusiastic they are to be a tour guide. If you don’t speak Spanish, get a sense of how his English may be.
What Vehicle will my Tour Use?
Salt can beat the crap out of even the nicest 4x4 vehicles out there. So, ask to see the particular vehicle. Check its tires, its general wear, and whether it has seat belts. Test the seat belts--be sure all passengers have them.
Remember, this is pretty standard practice in Bolivia--you won’t be rubbing anyone the wrong way by asking to see the vehicle. If you do, and elicit an angry response, that should be a red flag.
It’s worth asking what insurance the agency has as well--minimum insurance in Bolivia is quite minimum and shouldn’t be the norm for tour agencies on the salt flats.
Who Will be on My Tour?
Ask how many spots still need to be filled on the tour. If there are spots already filled, ask who the other tourists are, especially if they’re in the office. Ask where they’re from--often if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll still be okay if you’ve got another Spanish speaker in the vehicle. It doesn’t have to be you!
Where is the tour going to go? What sights does the tour include?
What hotels does the tour use? If it’s a higher-end tour, do they stay in the Tayka hotels? Can you include sleeping bags?
Is a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama included? Are there any costs that aren’t included? Are they willing to negotiate down the price?
What Communication does the Driver Have?
Does the driver have anything more than a cell phone? Does he have a satellite phone too? Much of the area you’ll be driving in won’t have cell or internet service.
What Meals Will be on the Tour?
Ask what meals will be provided, and what specifically will be served.
Where are We Staying?
Ask what hotels you’ll be staying at, get them to show you pictures if possible.
What Can You Guarantee In Writing?
Spend some time hearing stories about mediocre or bad experiences on the salt flats and you’ll know that most Bolivians, unfortunately, aren’t in the business of giving refunds. Nothing is official until you get it into writing.
It’s generally a good idea to get any tour changes, alterations, special accommodations or guarantees into writing. Also consider putting together an agreement of what would happen and how much you will be refunded if the tour were to be cut short.
Best & Recommended Salar De Uyuni Tours
Best Budget Friendly Option
Salty Desert Aventours, Andes Salt Expeditions and Esmeralda Tours provide more budget-friendly options at the salar, though none will be amongst the cheapest tours available. They all have their share of bad experiences (as do most tour providers in Uyuni), but also have a strong amount of good reviews and good experiences. Remember, that each tour is different, and your vehicle and driver make a big part of that success--ask the right questions and you’ll have a good tour.
Best Higher-End Option
Quechua Connection, Red Planet Bolivia and Ruta Verde are the three higher-end tour providers that come consistently recommended. They all have above-average reviews and consistently strive to go above minimum safety requirements. All tend to be amenable to taking reservations beforehand as well, if you’re keen on booking your trip in advance.
Best Tupiza Option
Both companies also offer longer, less standard tours, though you will have to worry about finding other travelers to fill up the other seats for you.
How Much Does a Private Salar de Uyuni Tour Cost?
The cost of nearly all Salar de Uyuni salt flat tours are calculated on a per-vehicle basis.
“Standard” pricing is calculated by dividing that total amount by the number of available seats--assuming that all seats eventually get filled.
“Private” tours should cost the same using that formula. However, if you can’t fill all of the seats by yourself, you’ll have to make up the rest of the cost.
So, if you’re looking for a “private tour” for 4-5 people, you may be able to fill out a vehicle exactly and get a “free” private tour.
Can You Tour the Uyuni Salt Flats by Yourself?
While there is technically no restrictions against visiting and touring the salt flats by yourself, it is very uncommon and we do not recommend driving the salt flats by yourself. However, going DIY, without driving, is a possibility for particularly advanced drivers.
Remember that this area is technically a desert, and any breakdowns can strand you in desperately remote conditions. That can make Salar experiences downright dangerous if you try to go by yourself. If you do go, be sure that you have a satellite phone, a professional GPS and detailed maps of where to go.
Remember! The edges of the salt flats themselves are pretty soft and not safe to drive on. There are only certain spots that should be used to enter/exit the salt surface of the salar. Tour guides know where these are and how to safely navigate them, while you do not.And if you’re looking for a DIY experience because you want to ride a bike or motorcycle on the salt flats, know that there are also bicycle and motorcycle tours of the salt flats. Past that, there’s no place that can’t been seen or explored on a tour with a little negotiation and customization of a tour.
Alternative Tour Options
There are a number of alternative tour options available.
In fact, most agencies will typically offer several tours not listed here as a “standard” tour. However, the catch is that you’ll typically need to fill all of the seats by yourself, pay for the extra seats, or find other travellers willing to share these tours with you.
Having said that, if you’re particularly interested in seeing sights such as the Salar de Coipasa, or hiking up the Tunupa volcano, it’s not terribly difficult to setup these tours. You can even go on a backwards Tupiza 4D/3N tour, if you’d like.
Other companies will offer the possibility to ride bikes or motorcycles on the salt flats, or they will offer the opportunity to take a more photography-centric trip of the salt flats.