Uyuni a small town situated in the middle of nowhere. It originally blossomed as a railroad junction, and even if this is still an important aspect, no doubt is tourism 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. (See Salar de Uyuni).
Plan to arrive a day or two before you intend to depart on a salt flat tour, especially if there are only 2 of you. That gives the chance to meet other travellers, thus a larger group has more bargaining power for the 'daily rate'.
Uyuni has a small airport (IATA: UYU). Líneas Aéreas Canedo (in codeshare with Aerosur) used to operate flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Cochabamba on a historical Super DC-3. Those flights took about 90 minutes landing at a salt runway near the city (1km northwest). Ticket prices were 150USD one way, 250USD return. In 2010, these flights are cancelled and it is unknown when and if there will be flights in the future. The new airport is almost completed. TAM and Amazonas are starting to promote their future flights, but it is still uncertain when they will fly.
UPDATE: Amaszonas is now servicing Uyuni
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 one to Sucre (3-4 hours more). 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.
Trains of Ferroviaria Andina [www.fca.com.bo] run south to Villazon 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 oruro on Tuesday and Fridays at 3:30pm arrive 10:30PM to Uyuni. That is the Expreso del Sur..Executive and 2nd class tix. The other Train Wara Wara leave Oruro on Sundays and Wed at 7pm and arrive in Uyuni at 2:30 am.
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.
- Museo de Arqueologia y Antropologia, Arce (Half a block from the clock tower). Quite a few skulls and a handful of mummies, plus some less exciting stuff. Bs 2,50.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Several blocks of the main street Avenida Potosi turns in to an open air market, selling a bit of everything, including loads of handicraft. The open market feria is on Thursdays.
- For a cheap lunch (10Bs for soup and main) head for any little joint with the sign Almuerzo outside.
- Minuteman Pizza, ☎ . Ferroviaria 60, Uyuni, ) Hours: Breakfast Buffet 50bs. 7:30-10AM, Dinner 5-10PM 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. From 35 Bs for an individual pizza. 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.
- Pub-Pizzeria-Restaurant ARCOIRIS, ☎ . – Avenida Arce 27, Uyuni, ); English / Italian - speaking owner ( Willma ); Hours: 3-12PM; Pizza & Pasta (Italian taste), typical local plates, some time live music.
- Have a beer or a good coffee during daytime at the shack right next to the clock tower.
- Tonito Hotel, ☎ . Ferroviaria 60, Uyuni, ) 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. Only hotel with wifi (very slow, however) and 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.
- Hostal Sajama, Potosí 35, 693-3099. Cheap place with basic clean rooms. Single with shared / private bathroom Bs.25 / Bs.40. NOTE! On May 30, 2007, two Canadian students visiting Uyuni were found dead in their rooms at this hostal due to carbon-monoxide poisoning from their gas heater.
- Hotel Avenida. Ferroviaria 11, 693-2078, 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).
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).
- Hostelling International Salar de Uyuni, Calle Potosí esq. Sucre, Uyuni. There are reports of poor service, unbelievable levels of rudeness and management not honoring bookings, in fact literally shoving booked guests into the street late at night.
- Hotel Girasoles, Av. Santa Cruz 155, Uyuni, ☎ . 75$ double.
- There is now a Banco Credito ATM in Uyuni, on Calle Potosí. WARNING: this 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.
- If the sun is not shining in Uyuni and the salt flatss, 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.
- Prodem gives cash advances on mastercard or Visa creditcards with a 5% commission.
- You can get cash out of an ATM indoors at a bank with Maestro. WARNING: on weekends the ATM runs out of cash stranding tourists who counted on that ATM for money. Bring an extra stash of dollars just in case.
- There are several casas de cambios 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Get the exit/entry stamps you need at the immigration office now on ferroviaria inside the old cine.
- There are several slow internet places for around 5 Bs. per hour. Quite fast internet you can find in Hotel Julia.
- If traveling by (rental) car, find and pay for a gated and secured car park. (Or you may loose some external parts.)
- Do not lose sight of you 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.
- 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 geisers 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.