Salar de Uyuni & Volcanoes of South West Bolivia

Trips to the Salar de Uyuni (the worlds highest, and largest, salt plain / lake) are an absolute must on any vacation to Bolivia. You can either take day trips from nearby Uyuni to visit the Salt flats, but it’s really worth going on a more extended package that includes the amazing volcanoes, multi coloured lakes and lunar like highland landscapes further South.

Visited: 25-28 June 2008.

This part of Bolivia is blessed with some of South America’s most beautiful landscapes, however tourism infrastructure is a little lacking. A visit to this part of Bolivia is real adventure travel, involving travelling vast distances in Toyota land cruisers for days on end. The roads are rough, the temperatures often unbearably cold and most of the accommodation is very basic. A few travel agencies (eg. Transturin) offer relatively upmarket tours that stay in luxury salt hotels near the Salar de Uyuni combined with basic but warm accommodation further South at the amazing Laguna Colorada.

Bolivia - Volcanoes & Lakes
Bolivia’s multi-coloured lakes really are multi-coloured, and have to be seen to be believed. Visit at the right time of day (normally midday), when the sky is clear, and they’ll look like this. Amazing….

Geysers are found throughout this volcanic area - thanks Matt Welsh & Amy Bauer for this fantastic photo.

However, this is part of the gringo trail - most travellers are backpackers roughing it, in large numbers, through South America. Most tour operators use very basic, but normally clean, accommodation with no heating systems - and temperatures often are as low as minus 20 celsius. Expect to be very, very cold unless you can splash out on a luxury, personal tour of this part of Bolivia.

There’s three departure points for such 3, 4 or longer day packages to this beautiful region - Uyuni, Tupiza and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. From any of these departure points you can arrange to end the tour at a different destination, and travel onwards. There’s very little point in starting and finishing in the same place.

Tours from Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) - quite beautiful, especially at sunrise. All local tour operators use Toyota land cruisers for their tours, just like this one in the photo. It’s a bumpy ride, and long periods are spent travelling. Dealing with the uncomfort isn’t too hard considering the amazing scenery everywhere you look.

Tours from Uyuni are the most popular, spending the first night on the far side of the Salar and the second night at Laguna Colorada. Such 3 day tours often drop you on the border with Chile, from where it’s easy to travel on the same day to either Calama or San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama desert. This is a great, and easy, way to travel from Bolivia into Northern Chile. Alternatively you can include an extra night in the package and end the trip in Tupiza, from where it is a couple of hours by bus to the border with Argentina. Uyuni is the most popular departure point for tours to this part of Bolivia, and as such at least a dozen land cruisers depart each day, invariably at the same time. Remote Bolivia is not quite so special when 10 different groups of tourists all arrive at the same hot springs, all at the same time. This is the problem of booking the package from Uyuni - that privileged feeling, of being somewhere amazingly beautiful and remote, gets lost if you’re travelling in a large convoy of vehicles.

Tours from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile

My understanding is that vehicles can travel from San Pedro across the border into Bolivia to Uyuni, but vice versa it’s not possible - you have to be dropped at the border if coming from Uyuni (I believe it’s about politics). As such, it’s a 3 day (2 night) package from San Pedro all the way to Uyuni in Bolivia. The advantage of this route is that it’s not as busy as the route in the opposite direction, plus you get to see parts of the stunning Atacama desert. Various tour operators in San Pedro de Atacama offer this package, with various departures every day, but as you’ll book it in Chile, prices are higher compared to Bolivia (which is one of South America’s cheapest countries). Note that if travelling from North Argentina with the destination of Salar de Uyuni in mind, it’s just as quick, and easy, to take a bus from Jujuy or Purmamarca (North Argentina) to San Pedro de Atacama, rather than travelling to Tupiza (Bolivia) and booking the package from there. We travelled from North Argentina to Tupiza, and visited the Salar de Uyuni and nearby volcanoes from there - with hindsight, I wish we’d travelled into North Chile and arranged the package from there. I’d no idea how easy it would have been to do, until now…

Tours from Tupiza

It’s typically a 4 day (3 night) package when booked from Tupiza. The first night is in a random town I can’t remember the name of. The scenery en route on day one is spectacular, but not as impressive as the subsequent days. Day two begins with a visit to an intriguing ghost town that lies in ruins, dating from pre-Inca times - eerie and fascinating, you’ll miss out on this site if Tupiza is not included in your itinerary either at the start or finish. The second night is spent at Laguna Colorado, from where you’ll start to encounter the other groups who have departed from either Uyuni or San Pedro. Night 3 is usually spent in a salt hotel near the Salar (salt lake), and the final day spent crossing the Salar. The advantage of booking the package from Tupiza is that you see less other groups en route - just two vehicles departed on the day we left - we booked with Valle Hermoso Tours who can be recommended - good guide, great food and a fantastic tour.

Ending your tour of the Salar de Uyuni, and travelling onwards

As I mentioned early, it really makes sense to begin the package at one point (San Pedro, Tupiza or Uyuni) and end it at another. On all itineraries, Uyuni must be included, otherwise you miss out on the real highlight - visiting the Salar de Uyuni. Watching the sun rise over the salt lake (yes it’s a lake, though a frozen one) ranks as one of the top travel experiences I’ve had in South America.

After your tour, you’ll invariably travel onwards somewhere - here’s some advice.

Uyuni really is a boring town - there is nothing to do here. If your tour ends in Uyuni, it will invariably end in the early afternoon. You can waste your time spending a night in town, or alternatively catch an early evening bus to Potosi. If you want to travel to La Paz, there’s an overnight bus with every day except Wednesday and Sunday. When there isn’t an overnight bus to La Paz, the train departs from Uyuni to Oruro at midnight, arriving 7 am (a bus onwards to La Paz takes a few hours).

If your tour ends in Tupiza, it’s a decent place to spend a night or two. Buses to Villazon on the border with Argentina take a couple of hours (there’s also a train) - cross the border and there’s plenty of buses South to interesting destinations such as Humahuaca (3 hours) or Salta (about 6 hours).

If ending the package in San Pedro, you could spend a bit of extra time to explore the nearby desert and it’s attractions. The airport at Calama is very close by if you want to fly South in Chile. Alternatively there’s buses (which take almost all day) into Northern Argentinan destinations such as Jujuy.

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