Photo by Paul & Paveena McKensie from Wild Encounters
For many years, I dreamed of visiting the Salar de Uyuni in Southern Bolivia. At 12,000 square meters, equivalent to the size of Belgium, it is a the largest salt flat on earth, a vast expanse of blinding whiteness as far as the eye can see. During the rainy season (December – March), it transforms into an immense mirror, producing an astounding reflection of the sky and clouds above.
When it came time to plan my trip, however, I found the process of selecting a tour operator so perplexing that I almost chose to skip Bolivia altogether. Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is essential to ensuring you remain safe. Dozens of tour operators based in Uyuni offer tours of the Salar, but the challenge lies in identifying one that is both reasonably priced and responsible.
Two types of tours are offered: private tours, which are reliable but pricey and group tours, which are cheap but potentially unsafe. The price difference between the two is significant. While a four-day private tour costs about $1000 per person, the standard three-day group tour costs about $150 per person. Many budget travelers opt for group tours and emerge satisfied with their experiences. Others, however, return with horror stories.
In 2008, ten tourists died after two jeeps from competing agencies crashed into each other on the Salar and the gasoline each vehicle carried on its roof exploded. Though no one is certain how this collision occurred, it is common knowledge that many tour drivers come to work drunk or deliberately fall asleep while traversing the Salar. During my own trip to the Salar, I was alarmed to hear a rumor that some budget operators serve as fronts for drug trafficking gangs. By posing as tour operators, these gangs are able to both launder their money and deliver drugs in the same jeeps used to transport tourists. Not surprisingly, they often offer the best prices since they do not actually rely on tourism to finance their operations.
Given the risks that come with booking a group tour, and the fact that even the most reputable budget operators fail their clients on occasion, it is advisable to pay more and opt for a private tour. This is undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable choice. By booking a private tour with a reputable company, you will stay in the best hotels, eat well and be able to stop whenever you like for photos or bathroom breaks. In contrast, even on the best budget tour, you will be crammed into a jeep with up to eight tourists and sleep in dorm style barracks with an outhouse. If comfort is important to you, the private tour is the way to go.
If, however, you are on a tight budget and don’t mind sacrificing creature comforts, booking a group tour should be safe as long as you select a reputable company. During my visit to Uyuni in December 2013, I heard consistently positive reports for two budget operators in particular: Cordillera Traveler and Red Planet. Below I have included a list of reputable companies, recommended to me during my time in Uyuni, that offer both group and private tours.