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Taking a Bolivia Salt Flat tour was one of the top highlights of my six-month backpacking journey through South America. I will try and show you the beauty of the Salt Flats near Unuyi through my pictures and videos, but it’s really something that needs to be seen in person. So, I’ve provided all the info you need to plan your own Bolivia Salt Flats tour!
Background of the Bolivia Salt Flats
The Bolivia Salt Flats, also known as the “Salar de Unuyi”, are the largest salt flats on the planet. They are so enormous, you can see them from space!
Salar de Unuyi are the remains of what was once a giant prehistoric lake. Thousands of years ago the water dried up, leaving what we now know as the Bolivia Salt Flats. Nowadays, salt is mined and harvested from the flats for consumption, and as a building material. And of course, tourism is becoming increasingly popular in the area!
Choosing your Salar de Unuyi Tour
Choosing where to start your Salar de Unuyi tour depends entirely on where you are coming from.
- From Bolivia, the easiest place to start a tour is in the town of Unuyi, as this the town closest to the flats. However, if you are in the city of La Paz, it is possible to book a tour that leaves from there. This may be an easier option, instead of arranging for your own transport from La Paz to Unuyi.
- From Argentina, it makes sense to start your tour from Tupiza, Bolivia as Tupiza is within easy reach of the Bolivia-Argentina border.
- From Chile, it makes sense to start the tour from San Pedro de Atacama. This is what I did, and the tour I will be reviewing in this post.
While it is possible to do a single day Bolivia Salt Flats tour, I highly recommend taking one of the 3-day tours which start/end in either Unuyi or San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This is because of the incredible landscapes you see on the other two days. It completely blew my mind, I had no idea Bolivia had such wild beauty. Check out the video below for some footage of that three-day tour.
3-Day Salar de Unuyi Tour from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Unuyi, Bolivia.
If you take the 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile you will visit the salt flats on the third day. If you take the tour the other way coming from Unuyi, you will visit the salt flats on the first day. Either way, you will have the same itinerary.
There are also 4-day tours where you either return to San Pedro de Atacama or Unuyi, but if you are backpacking through South America taking this tour one-way as a transportation option makes sense. Learn more about the first two days of the tour and all the beautiful sights you will visit. In this post, I’ll be talking about the third day of the Salar de Unuyi tour.
Sunrise on the Salt Flats
The night before we arrived at Salar de Unuyi our tour guide gave us the option to wake up at 4 am to see the sunrise on the salt flats. No one likes waking up that early, but we knew the sunrise would be spectacular and all agreed to get up. The next morning we had a silent ride to the salt flats as everyone tried to catch a bit more sleep.
After about an hour of driving, we arrived at a very wet area and all the drivers stopped to talk with each other. I think there was concern that the cars would get stuck, as the water levels were still quite high in some spots. After some debate, we ended up continuing the drive and the little 4×4 powered through!
We parked the car and all got out to watch the sun appear over the flats which were just as beautiful as I could have dreamed. As it was in the wet area, it created an incredible reflection in the ground of the sky above.
After the sunrise, we drove to the next stop which was Fish Island, named for it’s shape. It was quite stange to suddenly encounter a hill in the middle of the flats, which are as you might have guessed, flat. The area was formed by petrified coral, and now has huge cacti growing on it.
While the area is interesting to walk around, it does have an extra fee of 150 Bolivianos. In my confused pre-coffee state of mind, I thought it was a fee that I had to pay for being at the salt flats, but it turns out it was just for entrance to the island. It was a cool spot and the views are nice on top, but I just don’t think it’s worth that much for the 20-minute hike up. The hike also felt quite challenging, as the elevation is above 3000m so you feel it in your lungs. If you don’t visit the island you can just walk around the flats themselves, and see the island from below.
Post-hike, we walked down to the vehicles where breakfast was waiting, thank goodness! It was probably about 4 hours between waking up and eating breakfast so if you are a person that can’t handle lack of food right away definitely bring snacks for that portion of the trip. After breakfast, we drove a bit further through the salt flats to the dry area. It was incredible driving through the Bolivia Salt Flats and seeing how vast they are, it seemed never-ending.
There are some incredible photography opportunities on a Bolivia Salt Flat Tours. The landscape of the salt flats creates a photo effect in which you can easily look larger/smaller than nearby objects/people which makes for incredible perspective photos. Or if you are there during the wet season, reflection photos. Either way, you’ll be sure to get a gram-worthy photo.
Tips for taking photos on a Bolivia Salt Flats Tour
Plan ahead. You only have about an hour stop to take photos, so make sure you think ahead of what you want to do beforehand. The key to taking great photos at the salt flats is all about perspective so the composition needs to be spot on. Check Instagram for some inspiration beforehand.
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Location, Location, Location. The best way to capture perspective photos is to have one subject as close to the camera as possible. The other subject(s) need to be further in the distance so that they may appear that they are on top of/to the side/or descending into the distance. This is how you are going to create depth that deceives people’s perspective. The more subjects you are using, the trickier this will be. The photographer needs to be as close to the first subject as possible without cropping it out in any way. Don’t be afraid to lay down on the salt! If you lay down, it creates the optimal level that sets the shot. Yes, you will get salt on your clothes, but it’s worth it.
Bring props! Because of the flatness of the area, you can create fun perspective photos in which smaller objects look much bigger than you. Note that small toys are actually very hard to shoot perspective photos. Since the toy will be the object in the forefront of the picture to create the desired ‘perspective’ effect, it must be a decent size. Our guide brought a small dinosaur toy with him which was perfect. Other good objects you can pick up along the way are soft drink cans and Pringle canisters.
Use your guide! The guides do this tour on a regular basis and have a great knowledge of how to get the best photos. Ours was willing to take a bunch of photos and got the right perspective much quicker than us, as it does take some practice.
Make sure your lenses are clean. Due to the bright white space and blue sky, any smudges of dirt will become very clear when you upload your photos. Bring some lens cleaner/cloth and make sure it’s clean before snapping a shot.
Be creative. There are so many fun angles to take on the salt flats. If you didn’t bring any props get creative with what you have in the car, you might be surprised with how well they turn out.
After the photo shoot, we made a brief stop in the tiny town of Cochani where you can shop for handicrafts and souvenirs. From there, the last stop was at a railway cemetery. Yes, that’s right, a place where rail carts come to die. It was started in the 1940s when Bolivia mining industry collapsed. Old steamers began to pile up just outside of this trading post town, where they still remain today. Nowadays, it makes for a bizarre tourist attraction. After all the magical things we had witnessed over the last three days, it was a bit underwhelming as the last stop, but some might find this interesting.
How much does it cost?
If you don’t book online in advance, you can easily book the tour in San Pedro de Atacama or Unuyi. I booked mine through Hostel Rural for 115,000 Chilean Pesos ($165). If you are looking for a hotel in San Pedro, I can’t recommend this place enough. The staff are amazing and helped me plan everything there.
I’ve heard of other people getting the tour for around 95,000, but from what I understand there is a difference in quality between companies. Considering we were given home-cooked meals for three days, all transportation, a driver, and accommodation for two nights, I thought this tour was great value.
At the end you get dropped off at the tour office in Uyuni, unless you are on a return trip. The town of Uyuni doesn’t have much to offer but the tour ends around 3 pm which leaves plenty of time to catch an evening bus onwards. I went straight to Sucre on an overnight bus which takes about 8 hours. Sucre is a beautiful town and a great next stop if you’re continuing on in Bolvia!
There are a few hostels and hotels in Uyuni if you want to spend the night.
Tips for visiting the salt flats
Best time to go
The best time of year to visit the salt flats depends on your preference of what you want to see. Most people say that the best time to go is from May to November, as this is when the weather is mild and during this time the salt flats will be dry. It ensures that the 4×4 can access all the areas of the flats and gives ample space for illusion photos. On the other hand, if you go during the wet season which runs from January to April, you get the beautiful reflection in the water. This creates incredible images.
I went during the middle of April which ended up being a really good time to go because the rainy season was just ending, which meant some of the salt flats were still wet while other parts were dry. So we ended up getting the best of both worlds.
What to bring
- Layers are your best friend on this trip! At the start of the morning, we were all absolutely frozen. Bring hats, gloves, pants, a sweater, and a rain/wind jacket. If you don’t have warm clothes, you can pick up very affordable and cute hand-made sweaters, scarfs, and gloves all throughout Bolivia. If you go during the rainy season (even at the tail-end), you will want something on your feet that protects against the wet. I had my hiking boots which were perfect.
- By the end of the day, I was only wearing a t-shirt and pants as it became much hotter once the sun was out. The elevation is above 3000m, so it’s strong. Don’t forget sunscreen for the parts that are exposed!
- I didn’t take altitude pills for this part of the trip nor did anyone in my group. No one was sick from the elevation, but there is a noticeable effect when walking, especially uphill. Take it slow!
- Camera equipment! Bring your favorite camera because this place is a photographers dream. I used my Sony a6000, which is a remarkable travel camera. I also saw people using their drones there which looked like a great spot to fly. Unfortunately, at the time, my Mavic Pro was out of commission.
- Extra Batteries. Make sure all your photography equipment is fully charged and that you have extra batteries. If you do the 4×4 tour there won’t be a lot of access to charge your equipment. At the accommodations, there is a generator but it’s quite busy at night with everyone’s stuff plugged in. Bring a portable battery charger with you to make sure you can charge up!
- Bottled Water – There is some water provided during the meals but otherwise, you need to bring your own. There are some opportunities to buy water along the way, but it’s double the price what you would pay elsewhere in Bolivia. Stock up before you go. Bring 1.5L for each day of the tour.
- Toilet Papers – Some of the toilet stops along the way are BYO-TP, so make you have some.
This 3-day trip from the desert of Chile to the Salt Flats of Bolivia is among my top experiences in South America adventure. Definitely consider this tour if you are heading to that region, you won’t regret it!
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