Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is considered one of the most extreme and remarkable vistas in all of South America, if not Earth. Stretching more than 4,050 square miles of the Altiplano, it is the world’s largest salt flat, left behind by prehistoric lakes evaporated long ago. Here, a thick crust of salt extends to the horizon, covered by quilted, polygonal patterns of salt rising from the ground.
At certain times of the year, nearby lakes overflow and a thin layer of water transforms the flats into a stunning reflection of the sky. This beautiful and otherworldly terrain serves as a lucrative extraction site for salt and lithium—the element responsible for powering laptops, smart phones, and electric cars. In addition to local workers who harvest these minerals, the landscape is home to the world's first salt hotel and populated by road-tripping tourists. The harsh beauty and desolateness of Salar de Uyuni can make for an incredible experience or a logistical nightmare. Here’s a guide to help:
Uyuni, Bolivia: The most popular jumping-off point for salt flats tours, Uyuni is a small, dusty town packed with tourism agencies in Plaza Arce, its main square. Travelers can book tours in advance online, through tour offices in La Paz, or they can simply arrive in Uyuni and peruse the options in town. Since Uyuni is so close to the salt flats, tourists can easily book day trips. Flights from La Paz to Uyuni can be booked through Amaszonas and BoA (one hour, about $130 round-trip). Overnight buses from La Paz are available with Trans Omar and Todo Turismo (10-12 hours, $30 to $40 each way).
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Agencies drive travelers to the border before handing the tour over to a Bolivian operator. Due to the distance, this is a three-day tour.
Tupiza, Bolivia: This is the best starting point for travelers coming from Argentina. Tour operators recommend four-day tours from Tupiza, visiting Salar de Uyuni on the final day.
Salar de Uyuni has two distinct seasons. The rainy season (December to April) is when visitors come to witness the Salar’s breathtaking mirror effect. Be wary of excessive rain in December and January, as it can cause tour cancelations. During the dry season (May to November) temperatures are colder, the ground has hardened, and travelers can drive across the stark white landscape to places that aren’t accessible in the rainy season. Tour operators consider June through August their high period, and rates may rise accordingly.
While the salt flats are one of Bolivia’s most popular attractions, it’s only a small part of the gorgeous Altiplano region. Many visitors indulge in a three-day tour (or longer) that includes the deserts, volcanos, geysers, hot springs, and high-altitude lakes to the south. Tours out of San Pedro de Atacama and Tupiza are already scheduled to drive through these sites.
Travelers can choose between a shared tour (cheaper and standardized) or private tour (higher-priced and custom-tailored). Shared tours generally provide Spanish-speaking guides who double as the driver and chef. These follow a rigid itinerary that will not likely accommodate individual requests and can hinder certain times of day, like sunrise or sunset. Private tours, by contrast, can be customized to a client’s liking, giving travelers more control over itinerary and the ability to go off the beaten path to volcanos or caves. Private tours also provide an English-speaking guide, chef, and a more comfortable vehicle.
Check online reviews and travel guides to carefully choose a reputable guide. Avoid companies that offer rock bottom prices—they may not provide an accredited guide or working car, which can endanger tourists. Also ask your agency whether they carry an emergency radio and first-aid kit.
One of the highlights of Salar de Uyuni is an endless horizon that allows photographers to play with perspective and depth of field. Stage battle scenes with toy dinosaurs, cook your friends in pots and pans, or crawl out of seemingly giant jars of peanut butter. The key to great photos is to get the camera low to the ground and close to your prop. This gives the perspective that the prop is larger than the human subjects, who stand farther away. Don’t let your subjects venture too far, though—the larger the distance between the prop and the subjects, the harder it will be to keep everything in focus. If your camera permits, make the aperture as narrow as possible.
At nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, visitors may experience altitude sickness if they haven’t properly acclimatized. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, and insomnia among others. Discuss various options for preventing and treating altitude sickness with your doctor before your trip.
Bolivia requires a tourist visa ($160 for U.S. citizens) as well as a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate to enter the country.