Why My Trip to the Uyuni Salt Flats Was an Epic Fail
If you've booked a trip to Bolivia, you're probably headed to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Because it's this show-stopping natural wonder that puts this landlocked South American country on most travellers' radars. And for good reason. Though there are lots of other cool places to explore in Bolivia too. But I digress. Already.
There are countless blogs that will tell you everything from why you need to visit Uyuni to how to get there to which tour to book at what time of year. So why bother cluttering the internet with even more advice, you ask? Well, largely because I love to write about travel and share my tips with fellow adventurers. But this time, it's also because I had an absolute nightmare travel experience in Uyuni, and I want this little corner of the internet to help stop it from happening to anyone else. So no one ends up like me, hating most of their travel experience in literally one of the most breathtaking, otherworldly landscapes on the planet.
Though I lived to tell the tale of my Uyuni trip, and as you can see, have some pretty fantastic photos to show for it, I certainly wouldn't relive the experience. And if I'd made different choices, I wouldn't have ended up the only young(ish) single female on a tour with 30+ senior citizens (rather than with other trés chic flashpackers, ha!), missing out on a soak in thermal baths under a star-filled sky, and worst of all, fearing for my life in a car with a drunk driver.
So, here are my essential tips and tricks to help you plan your trip to Uyuni and avoid any trouble along the way, making your travels to Bolivia's Salt Flats your most epic adventure ever.
1. Don't wait until the last minute: Like any good traveller, I like to live spontaneously. But sometimes it really does pay off to plan. I arrived in Uyuni by bus (from Sucre it's about 7 hours, from La Paz it's about 8 hours) and booked with the first tour agency I could find because I needed something urgently for the following morning. Huge, huge mistake. I'm going to call out the tour agency here because my experience was downright awful. Do not (I repeat do not) book an Uyuni tour with a company called Tours Y Bol. You can check out other horrible reviews here. I'd love to run these guys out of business.
2. Do your research: If you're not holidaying for long, do some research online and book a highly rated Uyuni tour well in advance. This will be slightly more expensive but a lot more secure. If you're a backpacker with no concrete travel dates, read up and have some reputable agencies in mind when you arrive. Then give yourself a full buffer day in Uyuni town to speak to a number of agencies and choose a tour and Uyuni experience that's really right for you. As a starting point, Lonely Planet recommends Cordillera Tours and Esmerelda Tours. But these don't always get rave reviews online. So speak to as many agencies as you can firsthand and pick the one that feels right to you.
3. Ask ALL of the questions about your tour driver / chauffeur: This is my most crucial tip. The sad truth is that there has been multiple tourist deaths in Uyuni due to drink drivers. Ensure your experience is as safe and enjoyable as possible. Find out everything you can about your driver and his certification as well as the agency's policies. And read other travellers' reviews. I can't emphasise this enough. You don't want to end up like me, begging your driver to stop drinking and refusing to get back in the car in the middle of the desert. Yes, this really happened.
4. Assemble a tour group yourself or ask to meet with your fellow travellers beforehand: You're going to spend an intense three or four days with your fellow salteños so you really want to get this right. I didn't. I was lied to, told I'd be travelling with a young Spanish couple and some Canadians chaps. In reality, I was paired up with a group of 30 or more seniors from Peru. Admittedly, they took good care of me, and this now makes for a hilarious story, but this was not the epic adventure I'd had in mind. So pick the people you want to travel with, or demand that the agency introduce you to the group beforehand. Because, why not? This can literally make or break your Uyuni experience.
5. Clarify your Uyuni route in advance: There is a traditional circuit that takes you through the Trains Cemetery, two lagoons (Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde), the thermal baths, the original Salt Hotel (in addition to the grimier ones you'll sleep in), the volcano Licancabur, the geysers and the salt lake itself. You can end your tour in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and continue your travels from there or wrap back around to Uyuni town. But you have the option to choose the order of this circuit and when you'll stop where. I wasn't aware of this and later found out I'd missed out on a few classic Uyuni stops. So get a good sense of the various routes and choose the circuit and timings that suit you.
6. Check the weather and save some £££: Once again, my tour agency exaggerated the cold weather conditions and convinced me to spend more money to rent a sleeping bag. But, not only were there plenty of warm sheets provided in the salt hotels, my driver also forgot to bring it along. Luckily I managed to track down the agency and get my money back (and tell them off, obvs!) after the tour. Don't be fooled into any unnecessary extras.
7. Avoid rock-bottom prices: If the price of the tour sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Dirt cheap Uyuni tours are cheap for a reason. Be prepared to pay a little more for an agency that will offer you the full Uyuni circuit, a safe and certified driver and an Uyuni experience that actually deserves your hard-earned cash.
So there you have it: my epic Uyuni Salt Flats travel fail. Follow these travel tips and you'll have an unforgettable experience in Uyuni too. But for all the right reasons.
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