So, you're planning a trip to Bolivia. If you have an extra day and a half in La Paz, it IS possible to do Salar de Uyuni (the beautiful, perspective-bending salt flats south of La Paz) in what is essentially a day trip. By spending two night in a row in transit, you avoid paying for two nights of hotel accommodation, and save lots of time. There are two main ways to get to Uyuni from La Paz - bus or train. Only the buses run at night, and that's what I am going to discuss here.
Be at bus terminal at 7:30 pm
Get on bus at 8:00 pm
Leave terminal between 8:30-9:00 pm
Arrive in Uyuni around 7:30 am
Look for a tour company
Leave for tour around 10:30 am
Arrive back in Uyuni around 6:30 or 7 pm
Grab something to eat
Get bus back to La Paz at 8:00 or 8:30 pm
Buying Bus Tickets
I bought my tickets from www.ticketsbolivia.com, and I was satisfied with the service, price, and options offered. If you're really looking to save a buck, you can go in person to the bus terminal (on Uruguay Ave, northwest corner of the city) and pick out a company, buying tickets directly. Most companies don't have a web presence apart from aggregators like Tickets Bolivia.
There are two types of bus companies: 'publico' and 'turistico'. The public buses aren't municipal buses, but are aimed more for local people traveling between the cities, while the tourist buses are aimed at, well, tourists going to see the salt flats. Tourist buses are a bit more expensive but are generally newer, nicer, cleaner, have safety precautions so your bags don't get stolen from the hold, and maybe even offer water and a meal upon arrival in Uyuni. I tried two different companies out, here's what I thought:
I would recommend this bus service. It is not luxury, but is tourist oriented, and has full cama (lie flat beds). The buses are pretty new, they have nice seats, warm blankets, and a secure-feeling baggage check system. It also technically has wifi, although it wasn't working right on my bus.
Panasur really sucks, though. The buses are dirty and look old inside. The seats are that old gross cracked black leather. But I guess it gets the job done - they also provide blankets which was my big fear!
Bonus: there is no "terminal tax" or document check out of Uyuni
What is Uyuni like?
Uyuni is a pale, dusty town full of low, white washed buildings and parades of salt-encrusted 4x4s. You can really feel its history as an edge-of-the-world salt mining town that once had aspirations to be a big city, but instead plateaued mid-century. There isn't much nightlife here, so don't expect to find a trendy bar to pass the time. The residents of Uyuni rely on the 60,000 tourists that pass through each year to support local businesses (including the dozens of Salar tour companies), but don't completely embrace the unending influx of outsiders to the otherwise quiet town. Bolivians in general are not overly friendly, and especially in a place so oriented towards tourists, there is quite a bit of tension. I don't recommend spending too much time here, but a few hours of thoughtful exploration, with a dose of local history and cultural sensitivity, would be well worth your time.
Should I just spend the night in Uyuni?
Unless you have lots of money to spend, no. The quality of available lodgings is only a notch higher than sleeping on the bus, and Uyuni doesn't have much to offer beyond a couple of hours of walking around in the morning. If you are looking to splurge, there are a couple of salt hotels just outside of town that are worth your consideration! Start by checking out Luna Salada or Palacio del Sal.
How do I find a tour company?
Two options: book in advance online or in La Paz, choose a company in Uyuni.
Booking online works well for a multi-day tour or if you have a big budget ($75-100 USD/person for a day tour), but the vast majority of companies don't really have an online presence. Booking in La Paz is a good option - you guarantee your spot on a tour (useful especially in the high season), and have a pretty good selection - also, most tourism companies in La Paz will be able to communicate with you in English. Booking in Uyuni is a good option if you want to really investigate all the options and be confident in what sort of product you are getting, but beware that most companies speak only Spanish and accept only cash. I have heard both that it's cheaper to buy in La Paz and cheaper in Uyuni...so I can't really say, but I ended up paying about $25 for my day tour, which included lunch. There are lots of options in Uyuni - you can either wait until someone (women at the bus stop, waitress at a cafe) asks if you have a tour booked and they will offer you some package, or you can go yourself door to door at the tour companies' offices and compare packages.
What should I look for in a 1-day tour?
- Newer cars
- Small group size (maximum 6, not 7!)
- Lunch (ask what's on the menu)
- Guide: mostly, the driver is also the guide but sometimes you get both - ask if they speak English, if that matters to you (you will pay more) and if it's a driver/guide, make sure they are really knowledgeable - and feel free to ask lots of questions on the tour if your driver isn't talkative!
- All the key stops: train cemetery, Colchani town, the original salt hotel, Isla del Pescado or Isla Incahuasi
How was your trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Samantha?
|leche con cafe|
My tour group was, interestingly, all girls! Maria, the driver/answerer of questions (not a guide, per say), who loves both traditional pan flute music and Backstreet Boys, was very nice but quite introverted. In addition to me, the passengers were a Colombian girl taking a field trip from her business trip to Uyuni, two German friends on vacation, and two Puerto Rican friends on vacation.
The landscape is stunning and beautiful, but the sun was just killing me and I hadn't eaten much. My stomach was turning, I couldn't muster enough energy to lay in the salt and try to get a ton of dramatic photos.
|lots of people|
At about the fourth stop of maybe ten, I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I knew what was coming. While everyone got out of the car to take pictures of the "ojos del agua" (bubbles of water coming up through the ground) I went behind the car, put my hair up in a bun, and threw up all over the salar. Twice. It was mostly liquid since all I ate today was warm milk, half a piece of toast, and a few bites of a cheese omelet. I give you this detail to note that I didn't leave a significant mark on the already white and tan desert landscape. If anyone noticed it was our driver Maria, but she didn't say anything as I rushed back to the car to grab a roll of toilet paper between heaves.
|ojos del agua|
|ojos del agua|
After watching the sun set, we raced a public bus (going from pueblitos on the edge of the Salar) back to Uyuni. Behind us the clouds glowed with pink and red fire, to the right the mountains and sky blended in a blue brilliantly offset by the white salt. Ahead of us, town lights were faint enough for me to wonder how the drivers don't get lost. Maria assured me they can read the landscape, but many tourists get lost each year after attempting to navigate the flats alone, and it can be very dangerous.
Back in Uyuni I said farewell to my fellow passengers, and scarfed down a weird mushroom and cheese pizza before hopping on my bus back to La Paz!
Overall, I highly recommend Salar de Uyuni if you're in Bolivia! Stunning, unforgettable, and demonstrates the power of nature. It is definitely better with a partner - someone to take pictures of you and someone to talk to on the long open stretches of salt flats.