Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

Salt-cones-and-cloud-reflections-at-sunset-on-the-Salar-de-Uyuni-Bolivia1

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.

Group Tours

Cordillera Traveler

Red Planet

Licancabur Tours

Private Tours

Fremen

Ruta Verde 

Hidalgo Tours

6 thoughts on “Bolivia: Choosing a Salar de Uyuni Tour Operator

  1. >> Hiring an experienced guide and driver to accompany you to the Salar de Uyuni is
    >> essential to ensuring you remain safe.
    Curious what “safe” means here — safe from bandits? Safe from falling in the flats? The guides present so many dangers themselves. Is there an alternative, however unsafe? Renting a jeep?

    • Hi Erica, great question! The main danger on the Salar is that you will get lost and not be able to find your way out. Being in the Salar is like being in the ocean– every direction looks the same. There are no signs and no roads. For this reason, it is important to go with a guide who is familiar with the area and trained to drive across the Salar. If you were to go on your way own and got trapped on the Salar, the main danger would be surviving the hazardous weather conditions– extreme winds, freezing temperatures, intense solar reflection that can induce snow blindness. So you really do need to go with a professional guide to be safe. And no, there are no bandits!

  2. Hello,

    Great tips, I’m brazilian, planning a trip from Lima to Atacama…passing between Salar. I’m travelling alone in low cost, the private trip is only you and the guide? Can you share with one person?
    What would you help me avoid on Salar, group tour? Even if I choose one of your companies names?
    Tks

    • Hello! If you are traveling alone on a low budget, then I think a group tour is the best choice. You can do this safely as long as you research the company you select to confirm other travelers have had a positive experience with their tours. Also, avoid choosing the operators offering the cheapest tours. If the price is very low, it may mean the tour operator is compromising safety. Enjoy the trip! If you have a moment, write me again once you are back to let me know how it went.

  3. Hi, I’m planing to take a 1 person private tour to Salar 2N/3D staying in Tayka desert hotel & Palacio del Sal. My questions: Is it too lonely or boring to travel alone with just driver & english speaking guide, I think the drive is around 8-10 hours each day? but hopefully a frequent stops help.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for writing! The answer to your question depends on your style of travel. I personally enjoy spending lots of one-on-one time with a guide because I love asking questions and learning as much as I can about a place. If you think you would prefer to break up the time with the guide by traveling with other tourists, then you should look into a tour group with a company that is well-reviewed and not the absolute cheapest. Yes, the drives each day are very long. However, they are far from boring because the scenery is bizarre and mesmerising and there are frequent stops. Have a wonderful trip and, if you get a chance, let me know how it went!

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