The Salar de Uyuni and it surroundings are among the most beautiful places on Earth. The town of Uyuni, on the other hand, is not. Dusty, windy and bitterly cold, many travelers get out as soon as possible. But after a grueling three days in a bumpy jeep, it makes sense to stay and sleep in a warm bed rather than brave the overnight bus.
Bus: Buses go between La Paz and Uyuni overnight to allow tourists time to find and start a salt flats tour in the morning. The best companies are Todo Tourismo and Panasur who offer comfortable seats, food and heating for just over 140 BOB (US$20). Cheaper companies might be half the price but the journey will be miserable.
Day and night departures between Uyuni and Sucre take eight hours and cost just over 70 BOB (US$10).
The best buses often fill up so it’s advisable to book ahead.
Train: A fun and underappreciated way of traveling Bolivia is by train. The line runs from Oruro to Uyuni to Tupiza and Villazon, making it a far more comfortable, scenic and safe alternative to the bus.
Plane: Amazonas offer three daily flights between Uyuni and La Paz with connections elsewhere in the country. Prices vary between US$75 and US$150 one way, depending on availability.
High-end: Those with the cash to splash should consider staying in El Palacio de Sal, a luxury salt hotel which has been painstakingly made from the abundant local resource – beds, furniture and all. The hotel boasts a spa, swimming pool, onsite restaurant and even a salty golf course.
Mid-range: Most come for the pizza, but Toñito Hotel also offers the best value mid-range accommodation in town. Well decorated rooms, strong WiFi and an awesome free breakfast to kick start the day are just some of the perks on offer.
Backpacker: There are stacks of no frills cheapies all around town competing for the backpacker dollar, but the best of the lot has to be Bunker Hostel. Their snugly warm blankets, friendly English speaking staff and attention to cleanliness makes it a great budget place to relax in after a demanding tour.
Food and Drink
Minuteman Pizza: Get ready to eat the best pizza in Bolivia, if not South America. It would be foolish for a pizza connoisseur to spend a night in Uyuni without giving Minuteman a try. Creative toppings include spicy llama and pesto, among others.
Extreme Fun Pub: A rather outrageous pub that is a hit with the rowdy backpacker crowd. The food is okay but the focus is definitely on drinks, which are strong and plentiful. Doing one of their drinking challenges is not recommended the evening before a tour.
Tika: Great upmarket option, arguably the best in town. They do a range of well prepared international dishes such as steaks, salads, curries and desserts. Not the cheapest but worth it for the warm atmosphere and excellent quality cuisine.
See and Do
Archaeology and Anthropology Museum: Rather small museum with a decent collection of mummies and other artifacts from the region.
The Train Graveyard: Included in most salt flat tours, but if not then definitely worth checking out. It’s a selection of a dozen or so rusted out locomotives from back in the day when Uyuni was an important transportation hub.
Pulacayo: An old mining town that shut up shop back in the ’50s. Despite losing the industry, a few people still remain today and tours of the old shafts are available. Buses leave from the Uyuni post office and cost 5 BOB (US$0.70).
Colchani: This small one-street town with a population of some 600 people does all the industrial salt extraction and processing in the region. Most tours pass through here on the way to the salar.
Health and Safety
It’s of utmost importance to properly acclimatize before embarking on a salt flats tour. While everyone adapts to altitude differently, staying above 11,450 feet (3,500 meters) for three days is a minimum. There are several ways to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness.
Uyuni and the region get bitterly cold, especially in winter when night time temperatures plummet to -20 C. Bring warm clothes and hire a decent sleeping bag for the tour.
Unfortunately, drunk drivers are a real issue on the salar tours. Gauge whether the driver has been drinking before setting off and cancel the tour immediately if he has. More expensive, high quality companies generally manage to avoid these issues.
The sun is harsh at altitude so pack adequate protection.
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