Uyuni is the world at its most extreme: remote terrain, extreme altitude, and fast Toyota 4Runners on a seemingly endless expanse of flat white salt. There’s no cell service, no electricity, no industry, and few people.
But that’s all part of its allure and part of what brings in tourists from all over the world.
What’s not cool is that it’s not uncommon for visitors to Uyuni to suffer from altitude sickness, and/or get tricked into tours that cut corners. In rare cases, there have even been fatalities from drunk tour drivers.
It’s a place where a little bit of research goes a long way to ensuring you have a great time. Even better: having some real insider tips and tricks, beyond just knowing what tour to choose and what hotel to stay in, can make a real difference in having the trip of a lifetime.
Because you can’t forget, once you’re in that 4runner, you’re at the total mercy of your tour guide--there’s no turning back and there’s no jumping off.
- 1 Surviving Bolivia
- 2 Be Flexible!
- 3 Price is Not an Indication of Quality
- 4 Don’t Book in Chile
- 5 Seasoned Pros start in Tupiza
- 6 Altitude Sickness and Acclimating to the Altitude
- 7 January/February is Mirror Season
- 8 Should I Book When I Arrive in Bolivia?
- 9 Take it Easy on the Alcohol
- 10 Bring Layers!
- 11 Uyuni Day-Before Prep Checklist
You can’t survive Uyuni if you can’t survive Bolivia.
Perhaps survive is a harsh term, because Bolivia is a mesmerizing place, with beautiful natural wonders and an enchanting culture.
But Bolivia is also a subtropical landlocked country, a heavy-misfortune which dooms it to considerable amounts of poverty and everything that comes with it--poor infrastructure and dangerous roads, exotic diseases and troubles with crime and informality in some areas.
So while chances are that you won’t come in contact with that negative side of Bolivia, it hinges on being informed and knowing what you’re getting into.
Luckily, a lot of the resources here will help you do just that. Don’t forget to download our cheatsheet, to be sure you’ve covered all of the bases and are fully prepared to live Uyuni to its fullest!
Make no mistake, things go at a much slower pace in Bolivia, like they do in much of South America.
Bolivia, in particular, is a country where you need to have a lot of flexibility, and time, in your travel plans in order to be 100% sure you will check off everything on your travel wish-list.
Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely country with warm people and a fascinating history with lots of other merits, but travel infrastructure is not one of them.
So, being flexible is what will most allow you to enjoy your time in Bolivia, see what you want to see, stay sane, and most importantly, have a great time.
Sometimes we joke that this is our Uyuniguide.com golden rule of travel in Bolivia for happiness and success.
Price is Not an Indication of Quality
Despite the remoteness of Uyuni and the salt flats, there are quite a number of tour operators--ranging from the relatively informal to professional and reliable businesses.
This competition helps keep the prices on tours affordable, and keeps most tour prices within shouting distance of one another.
For example, most 3 day 2 night tours will tend to run you around $100 USD, give or take $15 in either direction. That includes some tours with stronger safety records and some others with shoddy ones.
At the same time, more expensive setups and tours--especially if you book from outside of Uyuni or Bolivia and especially if you book weeks in advance--can sometimes sometimes just book you onto another tour agency anyway.
At the end of the day, that means that you can shop around and get a fantastic tour for right around that $100 price-point, but you can also get a sketchy one as well. Do your research and don't let price be a primary indicator of quality when deciding on your tour.
Don’t Book in Chile
If you can at all avoid it, don't book your tour in Chile, even if you're coming to the salt flats from Chile.
Only Bolivian tour guides are licensed to give tours of the Salt Flats--Chilean guides cannot give tours. So, tours from Chile are marked up, the choice of tour operators is quite limited, and on top of it all, and you're likely to just get lumped into another 4x4 anyway to fill up the ride.
Sure, you'll circle back on your tour to areas you will have bypassed on the bus from San Pedro to Uyuni, but it's worth it to have a better and safer tour.
We definitely do NOT recommended booking a tour from Chile.
Seasoned Pros start in Tupiza
Tupiza is about 5-6 hours southeast of Uyuni, or 5-6 hours past Uyuni if you're coming from La Paz or Sucre.
It's not always worth it to go that extra distance if you're not planning on going to Tupiza or towards Argentina--and can be skipped if you're very strapped for time.
However, if you've got some extra time, you should definitely consider taking the extra effort to start your tour from Tupiza.
Altitude Sickness and Acclimating to the Altitude
Uyuni is over twice the altitude of Denver in the United States and some parts of the typical [three day tour] will take you over three times the altitude of Denver. In layman’s terms, this means you have to respect the altitude, and be sure to schedule time to acclimate. If you aren’t already living or traveling in the Andes, you should schedule at least two full days off. And no, busing to Uyuni doesn’t count as a day off!
And though severe complications are rare, it’s easy for the altitude to be a real nuisance and leave you feeling lousy during your trip. Even people who live in relatively places have troubles in and around Uyuni, it’s really not an exaggeration to say, and it’s worth reiterating, that many parts of the tour are at extreme altitude.
So, what will happen? Altitude sickness, in simplest terms, can feel like a terrible hangover, and can strike without reason. The best way to mitigate the potential negative effects of the altitude include:
- Avoid exerting yourself physically--take it easy and rest, especially in your first 48 hours at altitude.
- Eat light--one of the effects of being at altitude few mention is slowed digestion, so try to eat light!
- Drink tons of water--hydration is very important to avoiding altitude sickness.
- Get lots of sleep--see avoid exerting yourself physically.
Should I drink Coca leaves?
Drinking coca tea or consuming coca leaves or candy provide a mild stimulant which can help fight altitude sickness. But, it won’t help you if you’re don’t follow the four bullet points above. At best, it’s a poor man’s caffeine.
January/February is Mirror Season
There’s not really a bad time to visit the Salar, but the “mirror effect” that you’ll see in some images comes when the salt floods are flooded with a little bit of water. Bolivia’s rainy season is January and February, with not much rain falling in Uyuni outside of those months. There’s no guarantee you’ll get the mirror, but if you’re particularly set on trying to get the mirror, you should go in January and February.
At the same time, be advised that tours can be cancelled if there is too much rain on the salt flats. Buses to Uyuni can also get cancelled if there’s too much rain and road conditions deteriorate. Sometimes you even won’t be able to visit Incahuasi or the Isla del Pescado if too much water on the salt flats
On the flip side, many choose to avoid these months to ensure clear skies and good vistas on the Salar. It hardly rains at all outside of the rainy months.
Should I Book When I Arrive in Bolivia?
We'd highly recommend it if you possibly can!
Make no mistake, most of the information currently existing in English about Uyuni, the salt flats and salt flat tours are put together by tour companies or affiliate marketers. They'll usually recommend booking ahead of time, or booking outside of Uyuni, but that's only because it helps them make money.
The real truth is that booking your trip in Uyuni itself, in person, has numerous advantages:
Before your tour, you can:
- Meet your (potential) driver
- View the agency's vehicles
- Meet other tourists that you'll share the tour with
- Ensure you won't be lumped into another vehicle/tour/agency
- Verify the tour's agenda and route
- Negotiate rates, discounts and extras
Remember, it's quite common to book and start your tour in just one morning. Most buses arrive into Uyuni at 5 or 6am, so you'll have plenty of backpackers who are in the same boat--looking to take off on tours that same morning.
If you book beforehand, or outside of Uyuni, you risk:
- Paying unnecessary commissions and premiums
- Being placed into older or substandard vehicles
- Being lumped into other tours, with other tourists
- Having trip itineraries changed or altered
- Having hotel/accommodations changed
Yes, there are some advantages to booking beforehand, but it's not necessary and doesn't usually present too many extra benefits unless you're 100% set on customizing the tour and/or seeing something that's not commonly included on "standard" tours, like a stargazing-specific tour.
Plus, and perhaps more importantly, booking in advance goes against the Uyuniguide.com golden rule of travel in Bolivia for happiness and success: be flexible!
Take it Easy on the Alcohol
One of the things that nobody told me about the altitude is the increased effect of alcohol at altitude.
One drink sometimes feels like three, especially considering that being at altitude already seemingly dehydrates you much more than usual.
So try not to drink too much, or at all, if you're fresh off the plane and just trying to acclimate to the altitude. Even once acclimated, it's a good idea to go easier than you normally would on the alcohol.
This is not your boilerplate bring and dress in layers warning--this is serious.
If you're an REI junkie, or think you need to buy all of those fancy clothes you don't really need to travel somewhere far--this is the one place it will actually pay off for you.
Because Uyuni can swing from below freezing to scalding hot in a matter of hours. Plus, you'll only have a limited amount of space to bring clothes with you on the tour--you can't pull your entire suitcase with you usually.
Uyuni Day-Before Prep Checklist
Uyuni is a unique destination--that requires a unique checklist.
Ours is built specifically for Uyuni, and the unique challenges you'll face only in this part of the world: