At this point, the Salar de Uyuni is known around the world. But did you know, that not too far to the north, there is another Salt Flat? One that is in and of itself the 5th largest in the world?
It’s called the Salar de Coipasa, and it’s even more remote and off the beaten path than the Salar de Uyuni itself.
It’s not a beginner destination if you’re planning to DIY or try and go without a tour. We detail more below.
About the Salar de Coipasa
Located in Oruro, north of Potosí and the Uyuni salt flats, the Salar de Coipasa shares its name with a small salt mining village on the center of the salt flats.
If you’ve got the time to spare, it’s worth a visit, and certainly won’t have the “crowds” that the Salar de Uyuni can have.
That makes it a good DIY, off the beaten path destination. It’s also worth considering if you’re going cycling through South America or riding a motorbike across the continent.
However, it’s a decidedly advanced destination for anyone not looking to visit via an organized tour.
How to get to the Salar de Coipasa
The Salar de Coipasa is quite hard to get to, as it’s not along any major travel corridors, and is almost 200km away from the town of Uyuni.
Much like for the rest of the sights in Southwest Bolivia, the easiest way to get to the Salar de Coipasa is in the back of a 4×4 on an organized tour.
Past that, there are entradas near the towns of Sabaya and Tauca on the north and south ends of the Salar, respectively. If coming from the Salar de Uyuni, head towards the entrada at Tauca for safe vehicular access to the Salar de Coipasa.
Surrounding Towns and Where to Stay
Chipaya is the closest you’ll get to a town with tourist facilities, featuring a community-run hostel that supposedly boasts hot water and electricity.
They receive some tours and tourists already on their own from Oruro, there to see the unique Uru-Chipaya people and culture. Featuring distinctive traditional hairdos for the girls and their own language distinct to Quechua and Aymara, they are a rare example of an altiplano community that resisted those respective integrations.
Other towns may have albergues or residents willing to let you camp on their properties, but hardly feature robust tourist facilities in any way shape or form.
They become more suitable, however, if you are planning on camping during your DIY trip
Sabaya, closer to the salar entrance, is another option. However, it is more rudimentary than Chipaya.
Of the tour itineraries we’ve seen, one tour stays in Chipaya, another in Sabaya, and another visits Coipasa without staying overnight altogether.
Salar de Coipasa vs. Salar de Uyuni
The most obvious difference between the two is the fact that the Salar de Coipasa isn’t entirely made out of salt. In fact, quite a large portion of it still exists in lake form.
It’s a different area and experience that the Salar de Uyuni doesn’t have. The lake on the Salar de Coipasa is surrounded by dry salt flat, similar in nature to the rest of the Salar de Uyuni.
Past other smaller differences, the two salt flats are really quite similar, which may explain why so few organized tours go there, despite being only 20km from the Salar de Uyuni at their closest points.
The real allure, and the reason most seek to visit, is the ability to be even more off the beaten path than you would at Uyuni–many accounts of tourists who have visited Coipasa report seeing very few, if any, other tourists on the salt flats.
Salar de Coipasa Tours
The Salar de Coipasa is not a standard offering on most Uyuni tours. That doesn’t mean that it’s inaccessible by any means, but it’s just not within the “package” tours that are most popular and that fill up with other tourists.
As with most tours around Uyuni and Southwest Bolivia, a tour will pretty much take you anywhere you want, with a custom itinerary and do the best to take you wherever you want–provided you can fill up the 4×4 with people, or are willing to pay for the empty space.
Standard tours just fill up the spaces always since travelers tend to band together and there is enough demand that tours can lump people together to fill their 4x4s.
Some combination Sajama/Uyuni tours that leave from La Paz will also go to the Salar de Coipasa, since it is on the way to the Salar de Uyuni.
Don’t discount Tupiza if you want to see the Salar de Coipasa!
It may take you quite a bit longer, think 6-7 days, but tours from Tupiza also can take you to the Salar de Coipasa, the Tunupa Volcano and Sajama National Park. Tupiza Tours offers tours with stops in the Salar de Coipasa and here’s a sample itinerary for 10 days from Torre Tours.
Cycling the Salar de Coipasa
Most accounts of tourists visiting the salar de Coipasa come from people who are cycling through Bolivia. Cycling gives you the flexibility to travel off of the beaten path and access the salt flats via Oruro as you inevitably make your way down to Uyuni.
It goes without saying that you’ll need to take extra good care of your bike, particularly the tires, the tread, and any other places where salt can build-up.
Be 100% sure you take a GPS enabled device, whatever battery power you may need, and ask locals about the conditions of the salt flats before heading out.
Also note that the Salar de Coipasa may be significantly more salty, build up more salt deposit, or generally be “wetter” and more difficult to traverse in the wet season.
Other Coipasa Salt Flats Tips and Tricks
Traveling to the Salar de Coipasa is a very advanced DIY trip if you want to go outside of a tour.
Similar to suggestions that we give to those looking to drive or visit the Salar de Uyuni without a tour, we do not recommend heading out this way if you’re not confident in your Spanish.
This is prerequisite #1.
Chances are, many of the locals may speak it as a second language themselves, and the chances that you run into organized tours and tour guides is much lower out this way.
Past that, please also keep the following tips and considerations in mind:
- Double check with your rental agency if your contract and insurance allow you to drive on the salt flats–most do not!
- Driving can be difficult on the salt flats–only use designated entry/exit points to get onto the salt flats, check GPS locations
- Always consult locals on conditions before going
- Take enough food/medication/etc