As the end of our world trip nears and as each cash withdrawal or check of the bank account reminds us how soon the money will run out, we’ve become more and more anxious about spending. It’s the main reason why we hesitated taking a Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia’s (and world’s) largest salt flat, clocking at 4,086 square miles. The hefty Bolivian visa fee for Americans (USD 135) combined with the cost of the tour (CLP 90,000/USD 164 per person) made our eyes bulge a little.
We changed our minds for three reasons. For one, we kept running into a British couple we had originally met in Bariloche who couldn’t stop talking about the Salar and its must-do status among South American sites. After seeing them the third time on the way to San Pedro de Atacama, it almost felt like a cosmic sign telling us to just shut up and go take a Salar de Uyuni tour.
Secondly, our blogger friends over at What are You and Ewan Doing wrote a great summary of their adventures, inspiring us further to, well, just shut up and go take a Salar de Uyuni tour.
And lastly, we decided it was a good use of our money because visiting nature is what we love to do. In the end it just seemed wrong to miss one of the most visually mind-blowing spots on Earth while we were so near.
Once we decided to take a Salar de Uyuni tour, the hardest part was deciding on which tour company to use. If you’ve ever researched Salar de Uyuni tour companies, you know that even the best companies are wrought with bad reviews and harrowing stories of drunken drivers, accidents, injuries, bad food, and terrible customer service. It seemed we had to base our decision on the lesser of evils and we narrowed down three companies: Cordillera (the company Ewan and Emily used), Estrella del Sur, and Sol Andino Expediciones.
In the end, we settled for Estrella del Sur based mostly on our interactions with the customer service representative. Estrella’s guy was the only one to give us a written itinerary (without asking) and he was straight-forward and clear when answering our questions. He even offered to help arrange our bus tickets from Uyuni to La Paz. One of the main problems occurring with tours is “selling” customers between companies. If a tour company doesn’t meet its minimum they will sell their passengers to another company, and unknowing customers may end up with a lesser tour company even through they may have paid a much higher price. Estrella’s representative claimed that if their minimum wasn’t met, they would give us the option going another day or to go with another company. See our review of Estrella del Sur below.
Most Salar de Uynuni tours leaving from San Pedro de Atacama follow the exact same itinerary, so there isn’t a lot of variation between sights and activities.
Salar de Uyuni tour day 1: Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve
After passing immigration at the Chilean and Bolivian borders, the tour headed to the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve. We began our tour with views of the eerie Laguna Blanca.
At Polques Aguas Termales, travelers who didn’t leave their swimsuits in their luggage (now attached to the roof) could enjoy the hot springs.
Next we visited the Geiser Sol de Mañana, where sulfuric steam and mud bubbled up from the earth like a scene from outer space or, possibly, hell.
After checking into our first-nights lodgings and enjoying a hot lunch, we set out for Laguna Colorada, the best viewing spot for Chilean, Andean, and James flamingos.
The sun set and we lingered a little longer than our driver likely wanted. There was something so forcefully stunning about Laguna Colorada—the flamingos, the mountains reflecting in the lakes, the rising full moon. We felt a little overwhelmed by the staggering beauty before us.
That night at Hostal Huayallajara, we slept warm thanks to rented sleeping bags despite temperatures around freezing.
Salar de Uyuni tour day 2: Arbol de Piedras, Lagunas Altiplanicas, Salt Hotel
Day 2 of the tour involved a lot of driving. Our first stop was the Arbol de Piedras, a “forest” of odd rock formations.
A couple of hours later we toured five Lagunas Altiplanicas, high-plateau lakes. More sulfuric lagoons, more beautiful flamingoes.
That night we stayed at the Salt Hotel, a hotel made of salt bricks from the Salar. We timed our tour just right and were able to catch a giant full-moon rising over the Salar in the distance.
Salar de Uyuni tour day 3: Salar de Uyuni, Train Cemetery
On our final day of the tour we finally got to see what the fuss was all about. Our team left at 6:00 a.m. to catch the sunrise over the Salar, the full moon setting as the rising sun colored the salt flat in pinks and lavenders.
We had breakfast at Isla Incahuasi, an island in the salt flat that offered an opportunity to see giant cacti up close. We hiked to the top for a 360-degree view of the Salar.
At one point we questioned whether this was still Planet Earth.
Peter reconnected with his childhood obsession. The Dakar Rally, which has run through South America since 2009, has some especially cool advertising in the Salar.
The Train Cemetery, a wasteland of abandoned, rusted train cars outside Uyuni town, was the tour’s final stop. Two astrophysicists were touring with our group and offered an over-our-heads explanation of Einstein’s formula on this abandoned train car.
Rating Estrella del Sur
Our experience with Estrella del Sur was problem-free. Estrella had three SUVs on this tour. One of their SUVs broke down on the first day and we heard the group had to wait several hours for a new vehicle. We thought the food was great for being on the road in such a remote location. The accommodations on the first night were very basic and cold, but it was to be expected. The “salt hotel” on the second night was just okay, a step up in comfort and warmth, but they fell through in the promise of hot showers. Our driver Cedrillo was careful and cautious with his Lexus (all other vehicles of this and other companies were Toyota Landcruisers and most drivers don’t own their vehicles)—with stories of drunken, reckless drivers in the back of our minds, we were happy with him. He didn’t speak English, which wasn’t a problem for our group, but even though we could all understand some Spanish, he was quiet and didn’t explain a lot about what we were seeing. But our trip felt safe and we were well fed, so we would recommend Estrella del Sur.
P.S.: Find more of our photos from the Salar de Uyuni tour in our Flickr album:
I’m so glad you guys went (and thanks for the shout-out!), I think that tour was one of the top highlights for us in our South American adventures…it is just SO different from everything else we’ve ever seen/done. It was neat reading your post since it’s a backwards itinerary to ours (which makes sense given our start/end points).
So glad your company turned out great! We reconnected with some of our Inca Trail crew in Chile and they told us horror tales about their driver being drunk and doing cocaine…luckily they found another dude so they didn’t risk their lives in the end…yikes!!
We’re so glad we went! It was very much worth it and we were glad for the chance to see La Paz too, which wouldn’t have happened had we not done the Uyuni tour. We were so thankful our driver wasn’t loco – some of the stories we read online were horrendous. Though no cocaine stories – that’s a first! Yikes indeed!