The first time I visited New York City, a friend of mine who grew up there told me that I could pay the relatively expensive $18.50 tour to the Statue of Liberty, or I could take the Staten Island Ferry for free, which will pass by the statue as well.
Make no mistake, the Salar de Uyuni fully deserves a three or four day tour, for so many reasons described throughout this website.
However, I also recognize that there are those who choose to travel to Uyuni who do so with some budgetary limitations, or otherwise have an extreme aversion to taking an organized tour.
For those travelers, I present, the guide to a DIY Uyuni salt flat tour–only for advanced travelers!
Visiting Uyuni Without a Tour
Fundamentally, there are two ways that you can visit the Uyuni salt flats without a tour: taking public transportation to nearby villages, and renting your own car, bicycle or motorcycle.
There’s even a third wild card–a custom or private tour of Uyuni–remember, most agencies will allow you to hire them for a custom tour or to take you wherever you’d like to go, for the right price.
Depending on how many people are traveling with you, this could be the most attractive option of the three if you’ve got an off the beaten path destination in mind that “classic” tours don’t hit or otherwise want to spend more time in a certain place.
If you’re only looking to see the salt flats at night, for example, then you shouldn’t look to visit without a tour, in most cases.
Renting a Car
There are opportunities to rent a car to visit Uyuni, but you’ll need to rent the car in La Paz or Sucre.
Even then, you’ll have plenty of obstacles to contend with, the salt, the remoteness, possible breakdowns, and Bolivian driving.
For all of the logistics, we’ve put together a specific page for renting a car in Uyuni.
Bringing Your Own Car/Motorcycle
If you’re not keen on renting a car, you can always bring your own!
Of course, those looking to drive their own cars across the salt flats are often those who live as expats in Bolivia or travelers who are traversing the South American continent.
In both cases, for the sake and integrity of your vehicle, we’d still recommend not traveling onto the salt flats.
If you’re set on doing so, however, be sure that:
- Your car has enough clearance to safely get onto and off of the salt flats
- Your vehicle has four-wheel-drive
- You are up to date on all maintenance issues
Just keep in mind that the salt can really beat up the underside of your vehicle, especially if it’s wet. Don’t say that we didn’t warn you.
Public Buses & Nearby Towns
Another option to visiting the salt flats without a tour is to use public transportation to towns in and around the salt flats.
For example, you can take the public bus to the town of Llica, which drives across the salt flats to reach the town.
You can catch the bus around 10:30 or 11am from Uyuni, exact departure times vary–ask the locals to confirm when buses are leaving. Doubly so if you’re looking to take that same bus back into Uyuni.
In Llica, you will find basic accommodation if you’re looking to spend the evening or hike in the area, but not much more.
Alternatively, you don’t have to go to Llica at all, you can check with the driver if they would be willing to let you off near the Isla Incahausi, from which you could make your way back walking or try to see if a 4×4 with room is heading back that way.
Colchani, about 20km or so from Uyuni, is another village that borders the salt flats that is relatively easy to access. It lies on the main road to Oruro, so even if there are no “direct” buses, there is plenty of traffic heading in that direction if you’re willing to ask around and negotiate.
It also has some basic accommodation as well as some luxury hotels that are near the salt flats.
The following hotels are also located close to Colchani, and are within walking distance of the edge of the salt flats:
If you’re looking to head back to Uyuni from Colchani, you can jump on any bus that has a Uyuni placard or is heading to Uyuni–most public buses and intercity buses will let you. It might not be the most comfortable ride you’ve ever had, but it’s a pretty quick 20km.
If you’re coming from Oruro, you can also explore taking the public bus to towns surrounding the Salar de Coipasa.
DIY Private Tours
It’s worth reiterating, that you can hire a car to take you out to most anywhere in Southwest Bolivia from Uyuni for the right price.
A desire to visit a very specific destination, or to spend a longer than usual time at a particular place shouldn’t necessarily compel you to rent a car or motorcycle.
If you’re traveling in numbers, it can typically be comparable in price to many budget or lower cost tours.
Tours typically cover much more than just the Uyuni salt flats, there are lots and lots of beautiful and serene sights in Southwestern Bolivia that you’ll miss if you decide against a tour.