Uyuni is a small town in the middle of nowhere. It originally blossomed as a transportation junction and then as a railroad hub, and though this is still an important aspect, tourism is now its main source of prosperity. What would otherwise be a fairly dull stopover en route between Salta, Argentina and La Paz or Potosí, has become absolutely mandatory on this leg of the gringo trail. The sole reason: salt flats, the world's biggest: the Salar de Uyuni.
There's not that much to do in Uyuni itself, so just plan to stay for as long as it takes you to do your salt flat tour. Spending one night in town before the tour and one night after should be enough, and may even be more than you need depending on your transportation plans.
There's a helpful 1 tourist map of the town right across the street from the train station.
Uyuni doesn't have a real bus station, just a cluster of different bus company offices on Avenida Arce a few blocks from the train station.
You will need 12-15 hours from La Paz, by bus. The bus ride can be bitterly cold in winter - travellers have been known to sit in their sleeping bags on the night bus from Oruro to Uyuni. With other options (Todo Tourismo,Trans Omar and Panamerica Sur) you must change buses in Oruro to get to La Paz. Beware that even though Panamericana has a direct line, heating and toilet, it is notorious for breaking down, and the ride can easily take 8 hours more than promised. Buses to Oruro/La Paz are often booked up in advance - you likely need to book at least the day before, several days if you wish to take the comfortable tourist bus or one of the better bus companies - best to do this before going on a Southwest Circuit tour (if coming from San Pedro de Atacama, be prepared to spend a night in Uyuni and have little choice of bus company).
There are several buses daily to and from Potosí (6-7 hours, 30 Bs.), from there you can go on to Sucre (3-4 hours more). There are also less frequent direct buses to Sucre. Beware however, companies such as Transporte 11 de Julio have been known to cancel buses without notice, and without even opening their office to explain.
Many daily departures around 5:30 - 6:00 AM for Tupiza, stopping halfway for lunch in Atocha, 7-8 hours, 60 Bs. Three days a week there are 9 AM departures, and occasionally a Land Cruiser departs 6-7 PM, -ask around. Although the train is definitely smoother, and somewhat faster, this bus ride offers terrific views.
The 1 train station is centrally located and an important landmark.
Trains of Ferroviaria Andina run south to Villazón on the Argentinian border, stopping in Tupiza and Atocha. Northbound trains go to Oruro. The formerly existing train connection to Calama, Chile has been discontinued. Trains leave Villazón Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 15:30 and usually arrive in Uyuni after midnight. Trains leave Oruro Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.
The train to and from Villazón passes beautiful mountain scenery on the way.
You can also rent a car in La Paz and drive. After Challapata the road signs are scarce to find Uyuni, in the rainy season the rivers grow and it's dangerous to come in a car that is not a jeep 4x4.
- Despite its modest site and geographical isolation, Uyuni is worth an hour or so walking around. Particularly the Avenida Ferroviaria has many monuments, mostly railroad related.
- Allegedly Bolivia's first locomotive, stands in the emiddle of Avenida Ferroviario, by the corner of Calle Santa Cruz. The first locomotive is in Pulacayo almost 20 kilometers on the road to Potosi. Used in the Huanchaco mine.
- Train Graveyard - a couple of km south of town, by the railway to Chile, there are dozens of old, rusted locomotives, a few wagons and some other antiquated machinery. Usually a stop on salt flat trips.
- 1 Museo Ferrocarril. Supposedly open M–F 08:00–12:00 and 14:30–18:30, but it doesn't seem to stick to these times reliably. A rail museum, inconveniently located behind the train station – walk all the way around to the street behind the station to find it.
The salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, can be visited on daytrips, or longer trips, up to 4 days, including a swipe down towards the Chilean border and the lagoon and geysers of that area. Be aware that during the longer trips of 3 or 4 days going towards the Chilean border, you will travel up to 5,500 meters above sea level. Rising quickly by car could cause altitude sickness.
Most tours leave at about 10:00, and it's easy to arrange one at the tour companies' offices around the train station.
Make sure that you point out that you only wish to go with a responsible driver; there have been reports of drunkenness among drivers that may be averted with continued pressure on the tour companies before departure.
On Thursdays, several blocks of the main street Avenida Potosí turn into an open air market, selling a bit of everything, including loads of handicrafts.
Souvenir shops and other miscellaneous stores (including outdoor recreation stores, small supermarkets, and clothing stores) are scattered throughout the downtown area.
- There are several ATMs in Uyuni, on Calle Potosí. WARNING: the Banco Credito ATM will fail silently if it runs out of cash. Your card will still be charged, you will not get your money and the bank staff will be 'unable' to help you even if you speak Spanish fluently. On weekends the Maestro ATM runs out of cash stranding tourists who counted on that ATM for money. Bring an extra stash of dollars just in case.
- Prodem gives cash advances on Mastercard or Visa credit cards with a 5% commission.
- There are several casas de cambio to change travellers' checks or dollars, euros, Chilean pesos or Argentinean pesos. If you are heading to Chile, get rid of your bolivianos, as the exchange rate on the other side is much worse.
- For a cheap lunch (10Bs for soup and main) head for any little joint with the sign Almuerzo outside.
- Minuteman Pizza, Ferroviaria 60, ☎ . Breakfast Buffet 50bs. 7:30-10AM, Dinner 5-10PM. Closed for construction as of December 2017. Within the Tonito Hotel, backpackers congregate here in the evenings (enter through the hotel reception, this keeps wandering petty thefters from entering). Large variety of pizzas (including spicy llama), great breakfast, English-speaking owner, travel-book library. Just don't arrive too early for dinner - the people running the hotel were incredibly rude and refused to let us wait 30 minutes in the lobby for the place to open. From 35 Bs for an individual pizza.
- 1 Restaurant Pizzeria "Jalisco", Avenida Arce (near the train station). Centrally located restaurant with a variety of options, including pizza, Mexican food, and vegetarian dishes. Free wifi.
Beware of the cheap hostels near the bus offices. If you arrive in the early morning these places will charge you a full night for your stay until 12PM (noon).
- Bunker Hostel B&B, Avenida Ferroviaria 2.
- Hotel Avenida, Ferroviaria 11, ☎ . Clean and inexpensive in the town center, near tour operators. Only two hot showers, but the door to one is often locked. Single 30Bs, Double/Matrimonial 60Bs (U$S 9), with bath 100Bs (U$S 14).
- Piedra Blanca Backpackers Hostel, Av. Arce No 27, ☎ .
- Reina del Salar Hostel, Avenida Potosí 19.
- 1 Marjor Hostal, Avaroa between Colón and Potosí. Check-out: 11:00.
- Tonito Hotel, Ferroviaria 60, ☎ . Mid-range hotel in town. Rooms are situated around an internal atrium area. Clean rooms, solar or electric-heated showers, transportation from train station available, book ahead in the high season. New rooms with solar showers and heating. Very slow wifi, American buffet breakfast. Double with private bathroom, 400 Bs (as of May 2012).
- Luna Salada Hotel, ☎ . Salar de Uyuni, High-end hotel at the entrance of the Salar de Uyuni. Walking distance from the salt flats.
- Hotel Girasoles, Av. Santa Cruz 155, Uyuni, ☎ . 75$ double.
If the sun is not shining in Uyuni and the salt flats, it can get extremely cold. Make sure you wear a lot of layers and to bring thermal underwear, a scarf, a hat and gloves. When the sun is shining, it will get very warm in the car and outside if you are out of the wind.
If traveling by (rental) car, find and pay for a gated and secured car park. (Or you may lose some external parts.)
Do not lose sight of your luggage when taking public buses from Uyuni. Some bus companies might 'forget' and then it will be nearly impossible to get your luggage back. Watch them actually put your luggage on the bus and make sure it is coming to your destination.
It is better to spend a little more money on a quality tour company than go for the cheapest. A lot of people going on an Uyuni trip, spend 3 days with car trouble in the cold desert instead of enjoying the breath taking views. There are also some guides that steal from their passengers or drive drunk. That can be dangerous on the road.
Do not attempt to walk into the desert or cross it walking unless you are under expert advice. People die there.
The cheapest international phone calls seem to be at Call Shop Uyuni, Av. Arce, 30 metres from the clock tower. Bs 2,50 to most of the world. Internet here is expensive, though, at 6 Bs an hour.
There are several slow internet places for around 5 Bs. per hour. Quite fast internet you can find in Hotel Julia.
- One of a handful of laundries, Laundry Huila Khota at Av Ferroviaria 257 (by the homonymous hotel), has same-day service at 15 Bs per kilo. Lava rap is the biggest laundry service for 15 bs a kilo.
- Get the exit/entry stamps you need at the immigration office now on ferroviaria inside the old cine.
- Salar de Uyuni - with over twelve thousand square kilometers, is the largest salt flat in the world. It can be done as a daytrip, or with a few overnights, often combined with the lagoons and geysers closer to the Chilean border. Instead of returning to Uyuni, you can opt for San Pedro de Atacama or Tupiza.
If you plan to go Chile, you can get transport onwards to San Pedro de Atacama instead of return to Uyuni. The price is usually around an extra $10USD. Some tours include this in the tour price, ask first. Remember to get an exit stamp in Immigration Office in Uyuni (the date on the stamp is the expected exit day, so you may get Chilean entry stamp with earlier date). The Immigration Office is open 7 days per week.