The Bolivian Salt Flats. If you haven't already been to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, put it on your bucket list.
Vast, stunning, barren, surreal — and a stark, beautiful reminder of how small we humans are, particularly in the face of Mother Nature. That's southern Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding high deserts that float in pastels from 11,500 to 16,400 feet.
The beauty of motley mountains and chromatic lakes contrast with the hostility and harshness faced by people living in this environment. Only llamas, vicuñas and flamingos can really survive above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). Agriculture is similarly limited to just about nothing; not even the rugged potato can make it at this altitude. Minerals are abundant, but extracting them is no easy task. It's no wonder we passed only a handful of sparsely populated villages across our 1,000 km (620 mile) journey.
When we meet travelers headed to South America, Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni is among our top recommendations. And while the all-white salt flats are the goal, it's the 1000 km (620 miles) four-day jeep trip from Tupiza to Uyuni that features some of the world's most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes around. It's definitely worth taking the longer tour from the south instead of the shorter one from Uyuni as we were treated to a gradual build up over four days which culminated at the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats.
Booking a Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) Tour
Choosing a Route: Most Salar de Uyuni tour-goers take a two or three day tour that begins in the town of Uyuni and ends in Tupiza. We chose a four-day trip in the opposite direction. Not only do tour companies in Tupiza have consistently better reputations, but their routes also feature a gradual build up over several days, from the red rock scenery in the south to the gaping white salt deserts in the north, with ever-improving lagunas (small lakes) in between.
Tour company: We took the advice of several travelers who had taken successful (i.e., no drunk drivers or food poisoning) jeep tours with Tupiza Tours. Tupiza Tours delivered everything they had promised: jeeps were well-maintained, food was good and varied, and there were no “surprises” or additional expenses.
Cost (2009): The cost of your Salar de Uyuni tour will depend mainly on how many people are in your jeep and what time of year you choose to travel. We booked one day before departure in Tupiza and paid 1,000 Bs ($145) per person for five people in the jeep. For a smaller group of four people, the cost was 1,200 Bs ($170). This includes all food, accommodation, transport, entrance fees, and return transport to Tupiza (if you choose). Note that accommodation during the first two nights is very basic (that's all there is). On the third night, you will likely stay in a hotel made entirely of salt (impressive and comfortable) and have access to a hot water shower (for $1.50) — a welcome relief after three days in the dust. You can apparently upgrade to a higher-quality hotel (also made of salt) on that final evening, but reports from other travelers did not make this option sound exceptional.
Getting there: There is a lovely and reasonably priced train that runs from Oruru to Uyuni (7 hours) or to Tupiza (12 hours) several times a week. We were not able to get a ticket in first class ($30) for the 12-hour journey, but we were pleased to find second class ($13) surprisingly clean and comfortable.