These never ending white flats. Those houses built of salt. The cold at night. The heat during the day. Endless spots and possibilities to shoot beautiful, goofy, and surreal pictures. It looks mystical – and I always wanted to see this place myself.
Traveling through South America it’s basically a must-do to visit the salt flats – the salt crust which is several meters thick was formed after a prehistoric salt water lake evaporated. After spending some time in La Paz I headed to Uyuni. The bus arrived at around 7.30am which was good since I didn’t have any tour, hotel, or anything booked yet. So I had some time and I walked around the small, dusty town to find agencies offering tours to the salt flat. Looking for tours to the Salars you should be aware of certain things, though. Choose wisely – here is what you should know.
What you should know when choosing a company for the tour to the salt flats:
Which starting point should you choose?
There are three starting points for the tour. Uyuni, Tupiza (both in Bolivia), or San Pedro de Atacama (Chile). Tours starting from Tupiza, close to the Argentinian border, usually take 4-5 days and are therefore a little bit more expensive. But you have 1-2 more days and more places you’ll visit. By far the most common starting point is Uyuni. Starting from there has the advantage to choose from several companies and get a better offer. However, if you wanna make your way from Chile to Bolivia it is a very good opportunity to start in San Pedro to cross the border while seeing some beautiful landscapes. The tours tend to be slightly more expensive from San Pedro due to less demand than in Uyuni.
Personally, I started and ended my trip in Uyuni so will refer to this one.
Don’t go with the first company that talks to you!
When you arrive by bus there will most likely be some salesmen waiting for you. You can talk to them but you definitely should take your time and compare the different offers of different companies in town. The reason behind this is that on the one hand the price range is quite huge. Rates vary greatly. But also the quality of the tour operators ence is in quality of the guides and comfort (vehicles and housing – anyway, you shouldn’t expect too much luxury). Some tour companies have been known to offer poor quality experiences with grumpy guides or unsafevehicles. Check online reviews anyway. However, there is no need to book in advance. Booking in advance, in another city for example, leads to higher prices because agents charge a commission. Personally, I arrived like 2-3 hours before tours usually start (10 or 10.30am). I talked to a few guys of different companies and eventually I found one that looked rather trustworthy and appealing. The lady in the office explained all the different offers and possibilities. So I ended up doing the 3 days/2 nights trip with Esmeralda Tours (Basically, you can book various tours from 1-4 days to different places. More information on: http://www.esmeraldatoursuyuni.com/en-US/programs/2/uyuni-tours/#body) and I did not regret it.
Whichever tour you book, generally you have to pay cash for it. So did I. 750 Bolivianos (roughly 110 USD). A didn’t know that. Since I arrived on a Monday almost every ATM was empty. It took me a while to find one with enough money to withdraw and pay for the tour. And I wasn’t the only one doing this. Should you arrive on a Monday, make sure you have the cash ready.
What does the tour to the salt flats include?
The tour includes the housing, transport (in a 4×4 Jeep – usually in groups of 6 people) and meals during the three days. What’s not included are snacks, entrance fees to some parks or hot springs, and sometimes you have to pay for a shower or toilet.
It’s recommendable to buy some snacks and bottled water before you leave. At certain places you can buy snacks in small stores. However, it’s more expensive than in a super market.
Anyway, the tour is totally worth it. You’ll eat and sleep in a houses made of salt. You’ll see different places including the salt flats, lagoons, flamingos, volcanos, and more.
What time of year should you go to see Uyuni’s salt flats?
During the warmer rainy season, between November and March, you might have the chance to see the flats flooded with a layer of rain. It creates like an enormous mirror with incredible photo opportunities.
April through October on the other hand is generally pretty dry but can get quite cold.
However, you can do the tours all year around and you will get some good pics and nice memories anyway.
Tips for saving money
- Bring some snacks with you instead of buying them during the trip.
- Choose a tour with a Spanish speaking guide. It’s usually less expensive than with an English speaking guide (about 400 Bolivianos cheaper).
- Compare different offers
- Ask for a cheaper price. Sometimes people get a cheaper rate just for asking nicely.
- If you’re alone or with a partner, try to look for another couple or people. The more people you are the more bargaining power you have.
- Sometimes it’s possible to sleep in rooms with more beds. If you don’t mind sharing your room with more people you can save some money there, too.
Oh yeah, but bring a tip for the guide. They do everything form loading, unloading the van, cooking, etc. It will be highly appreciated.
Enjoy the beautiful deserts!