The Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat spans further than the eye can see until the horizon disappears at the end of it, then there’s the lagoons that shine strange colours from red to green and blue, some are filled with flamingos, and snow capped mountains and volcanos rise above them creating picture perfect mirror reflections. At the same time your head pounds and your breath pants from the insanely high altitude – up to 5000 meters to be exact! (To put into perspective just how high Bolivia is, the highest point in the UK is Ben Nevis which sits at just 1344 meters). It’s an adventure for sure but one that shouldn’t be missed. Within just a few days, Bolivia had become my favourite country in South America.
The Logistics & Cost
A multi-day tour of this area is in our opinion the best choice as there’s so much to see aside from just the salt flats themselves. You can start your tour in Bolivia from either Uyuni or Tupiza, or from San Pedro de Atacama if you’re coming from Chile. We began our tour in Tupiza, which is located at an altitude of 2900 meters so if you’re travelling South America from South to North and haven’t had chance to acclimatise yet, Tupiza is a great starting point.
We chose to go with a company called ‘Tupiza Tours‘ because of their fantastic reviews and they did not disappoint. Our tour cost £130 each and lasted 4 days starting in the town of Tupiza and ending in Uyuni, therefore saving the the famous Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat until last.
I’m starting with this point fairly early on in this post because for months before our tour I panicked and panicked over how well I would handle the altitude and what it would feel like and would we get sick. Extreme high altitude was probably what I was most worried about when coming to South America, and the internet is unfortunately filled with horror stories of people severely suffering with altitude sickness during the salt flat tours. Which is why it’s important to acclimatise before you go. The lady in the Tupiza Tours office reassured me that with 3 days in Tupiza beforehand, we would be fine and that there would also be an oxygen supply in the van if required. I was still concerned, as we would be going from 2900 meters to 4850 meters in day 1! And in reality, no-one knows how they will handle altitude until they are up there. Age and fitness do not play any role in how you will cope.
But I’m pleased to report, the altitude was manageable and we were both fine!
Here is our experience of a 4 day tour of the Bolivian salt flats and beyond:
We left Tupiza early in a group of 4 plus our driver and a chef and we instantly climbed higher and higher, up past dramatic red rock formations and desert-like landscape. With the oxygen getting less and less we both got headaches fairly quickly but we managed this by taking ibuprofen every 4 hours. We had lunch in a remote village before continuing the drive up and up. We drove through a couple more indigenous villages that got more and more remote as we travelled further from Tupiza, it’s hard to imagine life in such an isolated and harsh environment.
Much to my delight, we also saw more and more llamas and alpacas! The land changed drastically as we got higher, until we were so high that as you drive you notice that there’s snow-capped mountains in the distance that are even lower down than you are. We visited some ancient ruins (altitude 4650m) and then the first of many huge lagoons, at an altitude 4855m!
That night we slept in the extremely remote village of Quetena Chico (4200m above sea level) it was not as cold as I had expected (again, from things I had read online). Due to wearing every layer of clothing that I owned, I actually woke up in the night too hot!
I woke up with a dry mouth and a banging headache which made me feel like I had been on a massive bender the night before. But nothing that can’t be fixed by ibuprofen, loads of water and a cup of Coca tea. I was just happy to have survived my first night at mega high altitude and not be one of the 1 or 2 people that spent the night on the toilet.
Day 2 of the Bolivia salt flats & beyond tour was absolutely beautiful. This day we saw our first flamingos and came close to huge volcanos and stood next to geysers that were spraying out the ground at up to 5000m altitude as well as hot springs that you can bathe in. It felt like another planet.
Day 2 ended at the impressive Laguna Colorada, a bright red lagoon filled with flamingos. That night we had even higher altitude to handle than last night, at 4350m above sea level. This night was definitely much colder than the last, but once I had all my several layers on and was tucked up in the sleeping bag under 2 alpaca blankets I was perfectly snuggly and warm.
Back in the van our journey continued across more incredibly bumpy roads which are made up for by the views out the window. Day 3 of the salt flat tour took us to more incredible sights and it was crazy how much the landscape changed from one amazing sight to another. We travelled through desert landscape, past many more lagoons, more flamingos and volcanos. We also saw our first salt flat of the tour.
At the end of the day we arrived at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flat. Most parts of our hotel were even made out of salt! There was even a hot shower here, pure luxury! The altitude was also much lower by now compared to what we were used to, about 3660 meters, we now felt fully acclimatised and even shared a bottle of red wine that evening.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. And despite being SO flat, it is located at an altitude of 3656m.
On the 4th day of our salt flat tour we finally got to visit the Salar de Uyuni, we woke up mega early in the freezing cold and watched the sunrise on the salt flat. The salt flat goes on and on as far as the eye can see which means you can have lots of fun taking perspective photos. We realised just how huge it is when the drive along it goes on forever! It really was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.
And that’s our experience travelling across Bolivia’s southwest, an adventure that we will remember forever. It’s no surprise that a tour of the Bolivian salt flats and beyond is often a highlight of a traveller’s South America trip.