Tucked in the southwestern corner of Bolivia lies the vast salt plains of Uyuni and the high altitude Siloli Desert. Starting out from the small town of Uyuni, tour companies embark on overnight tours to as far as the border of Argentina.
This itinerary highlights what to expect on a 3-day drive, covering the Uyuni Salt Flats, multi-coloured lakes, and an unforgettable soak in natural hot springs under a starry night.
How do I get to Uyuni town?
Taking the bus to Uyuni
The easiest way to get into Uyuni is on the overnight bus from La Paz. While local buses offer the cheapest fares, the ride is generally uncomfortable and you’ll need to transfer to another bus at Oruro. For a non-stop ride in air-conditioned comfort, book a seat on a tourist bus (e.g. Todo Turismo, 250 Bolivars, 9pm departure, or local companies like Panasur or Trans Omar) The bus will reach Uyuni bright and early before 7am, which leaves plenty of time to find your tour agency’s office, settle down, and grab some breakfast before setting off.
Alternatively, buses depart from Sucre and Potosi. The Sucre-Uyuni service runs regularly and takes between 2.5 to 3 hours each way. From Potosi, five scheduled buses make the 5-hour trip, with the last trip leaving the city at around 5pm.
Taking the train to Uyuni
If trains are your preferred mode of transportation, trains run from Oruro to Uyuni 4 days a week, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Most people will take a bus from La Paz to Oruro earlier in the day, to catch the train which reaches Uyuni late at night. Here’s the timetable as at April 2018:
|Time (Departure to Arrival)
|2.30pm to 9.20pm
|Company Expreso del Sur
|7.00pm to 2.00am (next day)
|Company Wara Wara del Sur
|2.30pm to 9.20pm
|Company Expreso del Sur
|7.00pm to 2.00am (next day)
|Company Wara Wara del Sur
Taking a flight to Uyuni
How do I get to the Uyuni Salt Flats?
The Uyuni Salt Flats are located at least an hour away from Uyuni town. Most operators offer several package tours catering to various budgets, from one day trips to the salt flats to four day expeditions deep into the semi-desert further south.
While Uyuni is filled with tour agencies at every corner, it is important to engage a reliable guide in this remote and potentially dangerous territory. Three operators are well-regarded here – Red Planet Expeditions, Quecha Connection and Perla de Bolivia. For this trip, I followed Red Planet Expeditions for a three-day trip, and was very impressed with the experience and their guides.
The three-day itinerary to the Uyuni Salt Flats and Siloli Desert
Day One – Train Graveyard, Dakar Rally Landmark, Uyuni Salt Flats & Salt Hotel
On the first day, you’ll head out just after 10am to visit the train graveyard right outside Uyuni. In its heyday, Uyuni served an important town at the crossroads of the trade route between Bolivia and Chile. Today, this graveyard is a reminder of the days when locomotive power brought wealth and prosperity to this unassuming town.
After spending half an hour clambering up rusted train carriages and posing over tracks, you’ll carry on and reach the edges of the salt flats. The Uyuni Salt Flats is still actively mined for salt, and you’ll see white mounds littering all around the crystalline ground. As one of the world’s richest lithium deposits, the salt flats is constantly under threat by mining. For now, it’s future is still uncertain.
Driving into the salt flats proper, the next checkpoint is the Dakar Rally landmark. Located in the middle of nowhere, you can start getting a sense of the scale and vastness of this otherworldly land. You’ll notice that the salt on the ground are still not arranged in the hexagonal crystalline shape – that will come soon, after a toilet or snack break here.
3-4 hours after the start of the tour, you’ll finally reach the salt flats. With salt crystals crunching under the sole of your feet, you’ll be running back and forth posing for perspective shots. At first, everyone in the group will shyly pose for proper photos… but start bringing out your props and warm the crowd out to pose for crazier photos!
Having taken all the effort to come here, it’s easy to spend an hour playing in a featureless desert. But spare some time for the final stop at Isla Incahuasi, which is worth the extra hour drive further in. An island set in the prehistoric lake that dried out to become the salt flats, Isla Incahuasi today stands out of the white expanse like an oasis filled with cacti and hardy plants. It’s a small hill with a walking trail up – as long as you pay an additional entrance fee. Otherwise, you can just play around with more salt around the island, if you haven’t already had enough of it.
At the end of the day, your guide take you to a salt hotel to spend the night in a unique setting. All salt hotels must be built outside the salt flats, which might take an hour or more to get out of. This place is really, really, mind-bogglingly huge.
Day Two – Atulcha, Lagunas, Laguna Colorada, Geysers, Hot springs and Polques
The next day, wake up on a salt bed, step into a salt toilet and try not to dissolve the salt floor. Drive futher in, you’ll enter the Siloli Desert and the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. The almost featureless landscape here is pockmarked by a few extinct volcanoes and high altitude lagoons inhabited by flamingoes who have adapted to the mineral-rich waters.
The isolation extends for miles in all direction. If you’re feeling bored, you can encourage your driver to floor the accelerator and create a large-scale artwork using tyre tracks on a smooth canvas of sand. Remember to keep an eye on the fuel gauge, though!
By midday, you’ll pass the first of three lagoons. As the nearest settlement is at least a few hours drive away, your driver will prepare a hearty picnic by the lake, with fresh food cooked at the salt hotel earlier in the morning. Do tread lightly on the soft mud by the waters, and avoid entering the lagoon, as toxic heavy metals from the mountains and mining operations might be present in the water. With proper medical help hours away even by air, this is not a place to take chances.
Towards evening, your group will reach the geothermal region way down south. Never-ending streams of steam billowing out of underground vents indicate that this is still a volcanic area, and you’ll need to exercise caution when exploring the hot springs.
You’ll reach the guesthouse near Polques before dark. It’s very remote and you’re likely to be put up in a basic dormitory with your tour group companions, as proper tourism facilities here are few and far between.
It’s worth the effort to come all the way out here though, as you get the chance to spend the night soaking in a natural hot springs pool under a blanket of stars. If you’re going on the trip with Red Planet, you’ll likely be given exclusive access to a private hot springs pool, so there’s plenty of space (and hot water) for everyone in the group. This is entirely out in the open, so there’s no staff on duty or fenced up area. When you’ve finally reached your optimum level of comfort, just head back into the guesthouse and retire for the night.
Day Three – Polques, Dalí Desert, Laguna Verde and back to Uyuni
On the last day, wake up to a hearty home-cooked meal by the host, and squeeze in one last soak in the hot springs. Departing Polques, you’ll drive past the Dalí Desert and reach Laguna Verde, or the Green Lake. Located at the foot of Volcano Licancabur, the green tint of the lake ranges from turquoise to emerald, and is caused by minerals like arsenic in the sediment. Once again, don’t jump in for a swim here!
From here, you can cross the border into Chile, and reach San Pedro by midday via a regular bus service. Otherwise, your driver will head back towards Uyuni, stopping by an interesting place for lunch. If you’re lucky, he might even make a detour to the ‘Secret Canyon’ for a picnic. Just ask about it, and you might be in for an absolute treat if he does make the trip!
By late afternoon, you’ll return to Uyuni, in time for an early dinner and to catch an overnight bus to your next destination. If you can spare a day, consider staying the night and exploring this interesting town, and take a break from the relentless sightseeing over the past days!
How do I get around in Uyuni and the Siloli Desert?
You’ll need to rely on the expert guidance of your guide to visit interesting spots like the multicoloured lakes, scenic canyons and even make your way out of the featureless salt flats and desert. Fuel stations and proper roads are rarely seen way down south in this part of Bolivia, so it’s best to leave it to the experts if this is your first time here.
Most tour groups use four wheel-drive vehicles to move on sandy desert ground, muddy shores and steep slopes. They’ll also carry along spare fuel cans and bottled water for the ride, so you might want to check and ensure your car is well-equipped for the trip.
Where to stay in Uyuni?
Guesthouses or hotels in Uyuni
As the nearest large town for many, many miles, Uyuni has a wide range of guesthouses and hotels. This itinerary assumes you’ll be heading into the salt flats on the day you arrive and depart right after you return. Nevertheless, consider staying a day to explore this interesting town if you can spare the time.
The Salt Hotel in Uyuni
On the first day, you’ll probably be staying in a salt hotel located along the outskirts of the Salt Lake. As a protected reserve, no buildings are permitted on the salt flats, with some exceptions like the Dakar Rally landmark.
The salt hotel is almost entirely build with blocks of salt, and not in a salt cave as you might imagine. Of course, some facilities simply cannot be made with salt, so rest assured the taps, water pipes, shower facilities and mattress are not salt-based.
To encourage guest interaction, some salt hotels have a communal dining hall where you’ll sit side by side with other tourists. If you’re with travelling with backpackers and independent travellers, you can be assured of amazing stories as the night unwinds!
A last word of advice – as tempting as it may be, I’d advise not to lick the walls. The damage from your saliva may be minimal, but just imagine… how many other people have made their mark on the same spot over the years?
The guesthouse in Polques
You’ll be staying in a basic guesthouse on the second day. If you’re thinking private rooms and ensuite toilets, you’ll be sorely disappointed. As Polques is located right in the middle of nowhere, there are no modern infrastructure and sewage system. Hence, all water is pumped from a lake nearby, and all toilet business is disposed the old fashioned way – into a hole to be collected for ‘processing’.
The dormitory is laid out with simple beds and thick mattresses. In the high altitude desert, the temperature dips to below freezing at night, so you’ll need all the cold weather protection you can get. On the plus side, this is a big reason why a dip in the outdoor hot springs pool at night is so much more awesome!
Safety tips for travelling in Uyuni
Outside of the cities, Bolivia is relatively safe if you follow the usual rules about looking after your stuff, travelling in groups and keeping your guard up around strangers. Here are some things to look out for during your time exploring Uyuni and the rest of southern Bolivia.
Look after your belongings on the bus
If you’re travelling on an overnight bus (especially the local ones), keep an eye out on your bags always. Keep your valuables in a daypack and secure it to yourself while you sleep. If you need to put your bag in the cargo hold of the bus, try to place it right inside and secure it to a frame.
Drink plenty of water
The dry desert climate of Uyuni and the surrounding region will easily dehydrate you. Take along plenty of water, and make sure your car is stocked with at least enough water to last 3 days. At an altitude of 3,600m and above, keeping yourself hydrated is also important to reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
Don’t swim in the coloured lakes
I can’t stress this enough, and there are plenty of signs also saying the same thing. The water are toxic with minerals like arsenic, and that’s bad for your health. If you need to go for a soak, you’ll have plenty of time at the hot springs.
Where to go after Uyuni?
After visiting the salt flats and the desert, you’ll can take the overnight bus back to La Paz on the same day. On most days, this is when the town is abuzz with activity, as local street vendors play the dusty roads and long distance buses warm up the engines for the long rides out of town. To find the right bus, check the latest outbound bus schedule through your tour agency, or visit the tourist information centre in the middle of town right by the clocktower.
If you’re up for it, take a bus to Potosí and check out the famous silver mines. You can embark on an adventurous tour with the hardy miners, and watch them going about their daily work seeking their fortune deep in the bowels of the Cerro Rico mountains. Who knows, you might even pay for your entire vacation with a bit of luck!