Tips For a Uyuni Salt Flats Tour – Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni)

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Uyuni Salt Flats is a much sought-after destination and it became part of my bucket list when I set my eyes upon the jaw-dropping reflecting horizonless shimmering landscape.  It is definitely not the place where one can travel independently due to the vastness and no definite routing to speak of.   So.. the best way to explore this spectacular place is to join an organized tour.  There are many schools of thought/experiences of the best way to do the tour.  As I had personally gone on a 3 days 2 nights tour in August 2014, I will write of my own experiences and hope that it can help you with the preparation of your own passage.

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Andes Salt Expeditions Tour Operator

Yes… like many other travellers, I read blogs after blogs, forums after forums, and reviews upon reviews of numerous tour operators.  What I did, I took those advice and recommendations that I think can work for me.  I have travelled long enough to know that one man’s meat is another man’s poison and I can’t swallow everything I read hook, line and sinker.  At the end of the day, it’s up to me to make the best of my own journey. My travel buddy and I booked our salt flat tour via our hotel in La Paz.  We didn’t even check with other travel agents to compare prices.  Why?!!  The hotel gave us such good service that we don’t mind them earning some commission out of our tours.  I do know the current going rate of the tour and the hotel may charge us a bit more but we are more than willing to go with it.  Thus…. we ended up doing this tour with Andes Salt Expeditions Tour Operator.

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Map showing the route of the Tour

We took the VIP bus from La Paz to Uyuni and yes, as described by many travellers, it was a very very very bumpy ride almost all the way.   It was so bad that the bus had to stop by the side to hand out our breakfast. We left about 10 pm from La Paz and arrived Uyuni, thankfully still in one piece albeit with a much bruised bottom, around 8 am.  Since we have booked earlier, the agent came to pick us up from the Uyuni bus depot to his office. In the office, there is a big map showing the routing of the tour and we got a better picture of where we are going.  Since the tour only starts at 10 am, we decided to walk around the small town of Uyuni.

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Uyuni Town

We noticed that there are many and I mean, many tour operators running the salt flat tours in Uyuni.  So, one advice I read do hold water.  You can get better rates for the tour if you book it when you arrive at the town of Uyuni.  There are a few reason why this is so.  Firstly, the tour operator does not need to pay any commission to other travel agents who are selling their tours in other parts of Bolivia and South America.  Secondly, the tour operator might just need one or two travellers to fill up their vehicle and at this juncture, you can get good rates.  Thirdly, you can hop from one agent to another till you get the lowest price, if that is your objective.

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My travel buddy, Yvonne and I on Salar de Uyuni Tour

TYPES OF TOUR FROM UYUNI 

The Salar de Uyuni Tour is more than its name suggests.  Yes, it does cover the salt flats but if you opt for the 3 to 4 days, you are actually touring southwest Bolivia.  You will also see a myriad of landscapes, wildlife, geothermal geyser basin, volcanoes, hot spring and stupendous coloured lagoons.

a) Day Tour which leaves Uyuni around 10 am, visit Colchani town to see how salt is produced and onwards to visit the salt flats.  The tour also includes a visit to a salt hotel which has a small museum with sculptures made out of salt.  The last place of visit before you return to Uyuni is Isla del Pescado.  Tour ends around 6 pm.  (If you do have more time, I will recommend that you do more than a day trip because it will be worth your while to see the beautiful lagoons, the amazing flamingos, the shooting geyser and the hot spring.  The landscapes are so picturesque that they made you feel as if you are in a storyland!!)

b) 2 Days Tour : Itinerary similar to Day Tour except that after Isla del Pescado, spend a night in a salt hotel.  On the next day, after visiting Jirira Momias and flamingos, return to Uyuni. (This is the second best tour if you are really short of time.  I am glad that I made time for my 3 days tour and didn’t heed the advice of those who said that the salar itself is enough.)

c) 3 Days Tour: Itinerary is similar to the 2 Days Tour with additional night and the tour includes the “4 Pequenas Lagunas” (4 little lagoons), Arbol de Piedra (rock formation shaped like a tree),  Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), and Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon).

Drop off point for transfer to Pedro de Atacama

At the end of the tour you can choose between dropping off at the crossover to San Pedro de Atacama or return to Uyuni. (We chose to carry on our journey to Pedro de Atacama.  The tour operator arranged our transfer from the drop-off point to Pedro de Atacama.)  Our transfer to Pedro de Atacama is the white van at the left hand side of the above photo.  Amazing right?!  Doing a transfer out of nowhere!!

The tour can begin from Tupiza and end in Uyuni and some travellers claimed that this route is better as it leaves the best (salar de uyuni) for last.  As for me, I find every part of the journey breathtaking and incomparable as the beauty of each place differs dramatically.

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Flamingos in a blue lagoon against the mountain – Awesome!!

WHEN TO GO?

If you want to catch the mirror reflections from the salt lake, then it has to be during the rainy season which is between December to March.  During this time, some of the tour operators stopped business as floodings can interrupt the tour.  But again, it is the most beautiful time when there is just a layer of water on the salar and the lake becomes a mirror.  I was there in August and the salar was as dry as can be but the hexagonal patterns was just as fascinating and gorgeous.  During winter time which falls in the months of July and August, there is a risk of snowfall which makes the road too slippery to travel on.  But when I was there in end August, daytime weather was hot and beautiful but it was freezing cold at night.  Weather can be unpredictable and you just have to take your chances with it.

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4 x 4 Toyota Cruiser – our ride for 3 days

VEHICLE

All the tours are conducted in 4×4 vehicles (usually Toyota Landcruisers) with 6 to 8 people.  Our vehicle was in mint condition and our tour was conducted without any hiccups.  One common complaint from travellers is that vehicles are in poor condition and broke down occasionally.  Tip:  Do check out your vehicles before you board because once you are on the way, there is nothing much you can do if the vehicle is in poor condition.

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Could not ask for better travel mates!

HOW MANY PASSENGERS IN A VEHICLE?

In my case, there were 6 travellers and the driver.  It is very normal for the driver to act as the guide as well as your personal cook due to space constraints and also to gain more revenue from one car load.  One common grouse of the tour is that some operators put 8 people in the vehicle making the journey extremely cramped and uncomfortable.  Tip:  Do remember to ask how many tourists and staff will be in one vehicle. This tour involves a lot of travelling on uneven terrain and all in all, maximum capacity should be only 7 people.  You can’t choose your travel mates but we were very blessed to have 4 beautiful people to share our time in Salar de Uyuni.  Our heartiest appreciation to (from L to R) Steward, Jemah, Nia and Naoki.

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Our Driver cum Cook cum Driver, Alberto

DRIVERS/GUIDES

When we made our booking for the tour, we specifically ask for a English-speaking guide.  Tip:  Many travellers found themselves with Spanish speaking guide even though they have requested for a English speaking one.  Most of the time, travellers have to contend with a driver cum guide who can only speak a smattering of English.  Again, do check that out before the tour – at least you can seek for some compensation if your request is not met.

Alberto does speak English but I would not say that his guiding is very informative.  But he tried his best and he was very helpful, caring and most of all, always wearing a smile.  Many travellers were stuck with intoxicated drivers/guides and there were cases whereby the traveller had to take over the wheel because the driver was too drunk to drive!!!! Most of the time, your driver is your guide and the one who cooks all your meals.

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First night accommodation in a salt hotel

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2nd night accommodation in a room for six

ACCOMMODATION

For the first night, we stayed in twin rooms in a salt hotel.  Yes… everything is made out of salt, even our beds.  If you are travelling as a couple, enjoy your privacy for the night as the second night’s accommodation is quite different.  Typically, on the 2nd night, all the travellers in a vehicle will stay together in a room.  As you can see in the above photograph, the room has just enough space to put in six beds and had practically not much space to move around.  Both accommodations are not heated and if you are in dire need of a shower, you will need to cough out 10BOB for hot water.  Did I mention that the room are not ensuite?!  Shared toilets and showers is the way to do it.  Temperature plunged drastically during the night and if you are susceptible to cold, do rent/bring a sleeping bag plus wearing warm clothings to bed.  I did.

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Yup… the bonnet is our lunch table.

Salar de Uyuni, Salt Flats Tour Bolivia, Backpacking Budget Travel

Pasta and chicken for dinner at salt hotel.  Benches and tables made out of salt.

FOOD

Our driver is quite a good cook and we have no complaints whatsoever (except that the chicken was a tad undercooked on the first night but it was fixed in a jiffy).  I derived more pleasure from dining in the middle of a salt lake than the food itself.  Yes… it was perfect for me.  Can’t say the same for some travellers as there were complaints about bad quality food and not enough to go around.  If you have special needs pertaining to food, you need to convey that to the tour operator before the tour commences.  The driver will not go out of the way to buy your food as towns are few and far between.  We were very blessed with our tour and was even given a bottle of red wine to celebrate our last night together.  Thank God Alberto didn’t touch a drop of alcohol as he was already waiting for us by his car at 5 am the next day.

WHAT TO BRING ALONG

You will need a few litres of water to last for the duration of the tour.  For protection against the harsh sunlight, bring along sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.  When the temperature plunged in the night-time, a jacket that can keep you warm at freezing point would be ideal, a pair of gloves, wool socks, beanie and a sleeping bag.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a sleeping bag as you can rent it from your tour operator. Your accommodation would be basic and at a certain time, the power will be cut off.  You will need a torchlight to go to the toilet or look for your stuff. A good pair of walking footwear is necessary as you will be navigating your way on different terrains. For those who are susceptible to attitude sickness, cocoa leaves or any prescribed medication is imperative.  If you are planning to take a dip in the hot spring (which I highly recommend), you will need swimwear and towel.  Last but not least, lots of snacks to munch along the way.

IMPORTANT TIP:  For those who love to take photographs, do take extra fully charged batteries and memory cards.  You can’t just dash out to buy them as you are in the middle of nowhere.  You only get to charge your camera batteries and other gadgets when you reach your hotels and you will be competing with other travellers to get a power plug.  Normally, there will be a few groups staying in the same hotel and there is only one charging station with limited power plugs.  There are no power plug in the rooms.  So be forewarned!

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Coca Leaves – Excellent to treat or prevent altitude sickness

ALTITUDE SICKNESS – YOU MAY BE A VICTIM!!

This tour will take you up to 5,000 m above sea level and many tourist had succumbed to altitude sickness.  As air is thinner at high altitudes, altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air. It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly from lower altitudes to 2438 m (8000 ft) or higher. For example, you may get a headache when you drive over a high mountain pass, hike to a high altitude, or arrive at a mountain resort.

 The symptoms of altitude sickness include:

  • A headache, which is usually throbbing. It gets worse during the night and when you wake up.
  • No appetitie
  • Feeling sick to your stomach . You may vomit.
  • Feeling weak and tired. In severe cases, you do not have the energy to eat, dress yourself, or do anything.
  • Waking up during the night and not sleeping well.
  • Feeling dizzy.

Your symptoms may be mild to severe. Altitude sickness may not set in until a day after you have been at a high altitude. Many people say altitude sickness feels like having a hangover.  Altitude sickness can affect your lungs and brain. When this happens, symptoms include being confused, not being able to walk straight (ataxia), feeling faint, and having blue or gray lips or fingernails. When you breathe, you may hear a sound like a paper bag being crumpled. These symptoms mean the condition is severe. It may be deadly.

How to prevent altitude sickness

a) Proper acclimatization to altitudes of 2,500m (just over 8,200 feet) or above is the best way to prevent altitude sickness. Ascending slowly will give your body time to adapt to the change in altitude.

b) To prevent altitude sickness, acetazolamide can be taken twice a day. You should begin taking the medication two days before you start to ascend and should continue to take it while you’re ascending. You may also be advised to take it for a day after you’ve reached your highest altitude.

c) Keep well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

d) Don’t smoke, drink alchohol or use medication such as tranquillisers and sleeping pills while you are at high altitude.

e) Coca leaves are abundant in this part of the world.  Chew the leaves or drink coca leaves tea  to ward off the sickness.

Don’t take for granted that you will not succumb to altitude sickness.  I had been to many high places but during the tour, I could not breathe well at night, had a hard time sleeping and my chest felt very tight.  This was my first time experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness.

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Wish you are here!!

FINAL ADVICE

Yes… please do your homework and read as much reviews as you can and ask as many questions to the tour operators.  You may have noticed that I did not pinpoint/recommend any tour operators in particular.  For every positive review, there is always a negative one for the same tour company.  For me, travelling is what we make it out to me.  Things may not turn out to be what you want it to be in spite believing that you have everything planned out perfectly.  I do believe in making the best out of situations.  Salar de Uyuni is one spectacular place where the astounding beauty will shut out all the negativity that might come your way.  To have a peek at this gorgeous destination, take a look at my next post on Uyuni.

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