Crossing Bolivia’s Salt Flats

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Bolivia, Budget Travel, Central and South America, Tours & Attractions — By on January 10, 2011 at 6:09 am

By Erin Griffith
LG Correspondent

It’s about three days sans shower or heat, with possibly drunk drivers jeep-ing you across incredibly harsh and desolate desert terrain. And the seatbelts probably don’t even work. Excited yet?

Thanks to its promise of adventure, otherworldly terrain, and dirt cheap prices, Bolivia is officially a backpacker’s hotspot. And the top Bolivian destination on most travelers’ lists is Salar de Uyuni—the salt flats. There’s basically one way to visit the vast white plains and breathtaking desert—a three- or four-day jeep tour—but plenty of variables you won’t read about in guidebooks. Here’s what to know when planning your trip:

The first thing to consider is from which direction you’ll approach the flats. You can begin your trip in Uyuni, the one-horse town in Bolivia where many tour operators are based. These trips begin with the salt flats and spend the following days looping across the desert. If you choose this route, you’ll spend more time driving and squeeze more into each day. Often tours that begin and end in Uyuni take four days (and cost more on account of the gas and food). A better option? Make your trip one-way. Many tour operators offer the option to begin in Uyuni and end in the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, or vice versa.

Don’t book your trip in advance. Finding a tour that leaves the next day is no problem once you’re in San Pedro or Uyuni. Besides, most operators have limited-to-zero web presence and you’ll want to check out their offices in person or talk to other travelers before you commit. Get a larger group together and you’ll be able to bargain on price.

Expect to pay anywhere from $85 to $110 U.S. dollars for three or four days—that includes food, water, and accommodations. All the tours use the same bare-bones hostels; the food on the majority of the tours is consistently mediocre; and liters of drinking water are pretty standard. So the biggest differences between operators are jeep quality, warmth, and drivers. The unfortunate truth is that no matter how discerning you are when choosing, this is Bolivia, and here, you never quite get what you expect. But ask anyway:

  • How old are your jeeps?
  • Do your drivers speak Spanish? (Don’t expect any drivers to speak English, but note that some only speak an indigenous language like Quechua, which makes communicating quite a bit trickier.)
  • Do your drivers get paid in bolivianos or Chilean pesos? (Companies that pay in pesos, which are worth more, claim they are in a better position to enforce zero-tolerance policies for drunk drivers. Still, I’ve seen at least one tourist driving a jeep while his hungover, peso-paid driver takes a disco nap in the passenger seat.)
  • How many people are there to a jeep? Six should be the limit. Squeezing in seven is not pleasant unless three of the passengers are less than five feet tall. And even then, when you get to your accommodations, there may not be enough beds. This is less of a problem if couples are willing to share a twin bed, which I recommended for warmth anyway.

Even with the above considerations, you could still get lied to and have very little recompense. Meaning, the best way to prepare is to have an unbreakable attitude. The landscape is worth it.

Bolivia requires Americans to pay a reciprocal visa fee of $135 U.S. dollars to enter the country. It’s steep for Bolivia—odds are you won’t spend that much cash on hostels, food, and transport during a week’s stay there. (At least the visa lasts five years.) But be warned: Have that cash on you in bolivianos if you’re crossing the border from Chile on a salt flats tour. When I tried to withdraw 900-some bolivianos from Uyuni’s only ATM, the thing ran out of money. You can believe I converted every random real, Chilean peso, sole, COP, and dollar I could dig out of my pack to cover that visa. Bolivia, as a general rule, does not accept credit cards.

Next Monday, read up on what to expect on the tour.

Photos by Travis Harwood

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    1 Comment

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