The small, uninspiring town of Uyuni has little to offer, apart from being the starting and finishing point of all trips to the world famous Salar De Uyuni. Centred around a small park with a clock tower, you can find many tourist agencies, cafes, markets and bus offices. At almost 3700 metres above sea level, the wind chill factor shocks even the residents, and tourists don’t tend to stay here longer than necessary. In an icy, desert landscape, there is little agriculture, as the water is saline.
Uyuni serves as an important Bolivian military base and mining town. It is within close proximity to the salt flat that lies on top of the biggest lithium reserve in the world. With around 100 million tons of this mineral, the mining opportunities here will keep the locals in employment for many centuries to come.
Uyuni has a small airport, as well as important train connections, with several lines joining here. There was once thriving mineral transportation activity in Uyuni, and the old junction of the railway line that linked Bolivia to Chile and Argentina is now a Train Cemetery that you can visit, and normally features in the Salar de Uyuni tours. Below is our Uyuni travel guide with information on all the best things to do, places to go and what not to miss.
VISIT SALAR DE UYUNI - Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, almost 3700 metres above sea level. The Salar was formed when the waters of Lake Tauca (one of the largest lakes which covered the Altiplano) evaporated and left behind salt that came from the nearby mountains. The salt is formed in layers, in some places up to 120 metres deep. The surface of the salt is around 10-20 centimetres thick and in the cold weather dries out to form a hard crust, yet below this the salt is covered with water. The Salar withstands vehicles driving over it, which is how you can now tour the huge expanse of salt: being here it’s as if you’re on another planet. 4x4 day trips run by Uyuni Operators offer 1 to 3-day trips from Uyuni (with some finishing in Chile), visiting the salt flat, lakes, and geysers. You can even stay overnight in the 'Salt Hotel’ where the bedrooms, common areas, and even the chairs and tables are all made of salt!
EXPLORE THE TRAIN CEMETERY – If you’re an avid train spotter then you can’t miss the train cemetery, located 3km out of the city centre. A usual stop off, and the start or finish of your Salar de Uyuni trip, here you can explore the old rusting train carriages and get some cool photos for the album. It came about after the trains that once transported minerals were left abandoned, due to the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940’s.
*** WHAT NOT TO MISS ***
A 4X4 trip to visit Salar de Uyuni.
Pizza at Minuteman Pizzeria.
Minuteman Pizzeria (Avenida Ferroviaria 60) is famous amongst tourists and locals alike for its huge, freshly made pizzas and nice salad bar. It’s a little bit more expensive that the usual Bolivian restaurants, but so worth it! If you need a good feed after a 3-day trip across the salt flats, this is the place to go.
Otherwise, you will find a number of cafés and bars around the main square where you can sit outside and people watch over lunch. They serve all kinds of international food such as Italian, Mexican and Arabic food.
There is limited nightlife in Uyuni, but you can find a couple of bars and pubs around Plaza Arce. Most travelers tend to get an early night before visiting Salar de Uyuni, or are exhausted after returning!
Go to Extreme Fun Pub (Av. Potosi 9), one of the few places open at night. Here you can take part in “challenges” and drinking games, meet other backpackers, and check out some inspiring photos of the salt flat before your trip! Come here to warm up, away from the chilly Uyuni nights, and enjoy some hot beverages: you might catch a local folk band playing.
The wet season is from November to March when the rain settles on the salt, creating an incredible mirror effect at the salt flats! The dry season is from May to October, and temperatures are freezing all year round at night-time. There’s a strong sun due to the altitude, and once the sun goes down it gets very cold very quickly. The warmer months are from September to March.
If you travel by bus, be prepared to journey through the night - overnight buses from La Paz take 11-12 hours. Arrival into Uyuni is around 7.30am, giving you enough time to grab breakfast before your tour, or if you haven’t booked anything yet, to look around for a suitable operator. If you’re coming by bus from other cities in Bolivia, from Sucre it takes 10 hours, and from Potosi it takes 6 hours.
If you want a significantly quicker, comfier – but more expensive – journey, flights from La Paz last just 1 hour.
You will want to stay somewhere with heating, as nights in Uyuni are freezing! Only the better guesthouses/hotels have heating, so either be prepared to pay a bit more or bring a sleeping bag to keep warm.
Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel (Av. Arce No 27) has hot showers, a decent breakfast, clean and cozy rooms, and friendly staff. It’s well located, and at less than a 10-minute walk to the bus terminal. Reina del Salar (Avenida Potosi 19) and Hostal Oro Blanco (Av. Ferroviaria 6) are two other decent options, both centrally-located.
Buses from Uyuni can get very cold at night so make sure you take a blanket, or even better travel during the day.
Bolivian restaurants are known to take their time, don’t be surprised if you have to wait an hour for your dish to arrive.
Reaching heights of almost 5000 metres on your trip to Salar de Uyuni, altitude sickness is a common issue. Drink plenty of coca tea, take tablets if necessary, and don’t over exert yourself. Sleeping with a window open helps as oxygen levels are low, and it is common to suffer from headaches.