I will be backpacking South America on a budget this summer. It is hard to find any advice about visiting the salt flats in Uyuni without a tour guide. Is it possible to do this or is it mandatory to have a guide? How about other attractions in Bolivia? Are many of them able to be done independently/on a budget or are tours and guides required?
I traveled in the Salar de Uyuni in March during the wet season. While I did meet a couple of Brazilians who took public transportation there -- they also walked the salt flats barefooted -- you'd miss quite a bit if you didn't take a tour, particularly if you also want to travel around the Bolivian altiplanicas on your way to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. While there's public transportation directly to Chile, you'd miss most of the geologic features that make this area of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina so special. For example, you'd miss seeing the fumaroles in Bolivia's Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve.
In San Pedro de Atacama, I met someone from Costa Rica who traveled through the area by bicycle. He also had camping equipment.
If you do this independently, you need to prepare for rigorous travel. It can get pretty cold at night, with freezing or near-freezing temperatures at elevations of as much as 3,500 to 4,000 meters. There are no shops and no standard hotels. You can stay at the Hospedaje Ebenezer in Culpina (ask around for its location). It has hot water for a shower; but bring your own toilet paper, soap and towel. There are rooms and dorms at a "lodge" at Polques in the national reserve, but no running water; no electricity, except for three hours at night, supplied by a generator; and no heat. There are two drop toilets. As with the Hospedaje Ebenezer, you need to bring your own supplies. There also are accommodations near the park entrance.
Most tours from Uyuni spend the first day visiting an old train "cemetery," along with a stop to see salt being packaged. The rest of the day is devoted to trick photography in the salt flats. In my view, the highlight of the three-day, two-night tours is the amazing Bolivian altiplanicas. Besides the geologic features (including volcanoes), plants and wildlife (particularly birds), you'll see a lot of stars.
I traveled with Uyuni-based Red Planet Expedition. The cost was $195 for a guide, transportation, food and accommodations. It also included bus transfer at the border to San Pedro de Atacama for those who didn't want to return to Uyuni to travel to La Paz and elsewhere. Besides the $195, you have to pay the national park fee of 150 Bolivianos, in cash.
I liked Red Planet because many of its drivers own their vehicles; so the 4x4s are better maintained. You'll see some breakdowns as you travel on the rough roads. Red Planet also spends the night in Polques, where you can bathe in the thermal pools, under the stars. The other tour operators spend the night near the park entrance, visiting the thermal pools around daybreak. There are more people then.
I often travel in remote areas, such as Gambela National Park in Ethiopia (near the border with South Sudan), the Sahara in Mauritania; Timor-Leste; and the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands. In each case, I hired a guide and driver, or joined a tour. You don't want to compromise personal health and safety to save money. You can cut back elsewhere.
Whatever you decide, best of luck. You will have an amazing experience!
P.S. I've traveled independently elsewhere in Bolivia; and also in Patagonia, where I recently spent two weeks hiking in El Calafate, El Chalten and Torres del Paine NP. But I also took reasonably priced day tours in Chile's Atacama desert, such as visiting the Geysers el Tatio in the predawn hours. Sometimes, day tours are the most convenient way to get where you want to go. For example, last spring I visited Georgia's Kazbegi mountains and Gergeti Trinity Monastery on an all-day tour that cost 65 GEL, or less than US$30 at the time. The tour saved time and money. Check out my photos on Travellerspoint. I'll upload my Bolivia and Patagonia photos over the next week or so.
One final thought. When traveling in desert or jungle, on mountains and in the sea, it's best to know what you're doing; and where you're headed. I traveled with an experienced guide in the Sahara last fall; and we still got lost a few times, despite having a GPS. In some areas of particular difficulty, such as mine fields in Western Sahara and Mauritania, we hired or consulted local guides. Better safe than sorry.
[ Edit: Edited on 17-Apr-2016, at 16:18 by berner256 ]
Thanks for the detailed information. Exactly what I was looking for.
Thanks very much!