There are so many Salt Flat tour operators to choose from, and there seem to be just as many positive reviews on each one as there are negative. So how the hell do you know which one to go with?
Short answer: you don’t. You just pick one and hope for the best.
I opted to book through my hostel in La Paz, Wild Rover, who works with Extreme Expeditions. I went this route for a few reasons: first, I figured a reputable hostel would work with a good company for the many tourists its hosts; second, after doing some quick research I learned that this tour was priced reasonably compared to a few others I was looking into (Kanoo and Cordillera); and third, the process was incredibly easy – I booked and paid for the tour and my bus to Uyuni all at the hostel, and with credit card (finally somewhere that takes credit card!). If I was to do it again though, I probably would not have booked through Extreme Expeditions.
Why? Because I ran into other tours and envied them a little, mainly because of their guide. Everyone drives around in the same cars, eats the same food, and sleeps in the same places. The only difference really is the people you are with. Your driver acts as your guide in the Salt Flats, but depending on who your driver is you may not believe that. Once I referred to the driver as guide to someone who had been on a different tour and they said, “Oh we didn’t have a guide, just a driver.” That’s who I meant. Our driver was a semi-guide; he told us the basics about where we were but not much more than that. He also only spoke Spanish, so even if he had tried to explain more it would have been lost since the majority of my group didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
We met another group our first night who had a bilingual guide with them. She told them history of the sites and came up with the ideas for their Salt Flat pictures that we were all a little jealous of; the typical ones that play with perspective, ones of people standing on cars or crushing each other. We had no such pointers.
Then we heard another guide at one of our stops go into detailed explanation about the rock formations we were surrounded by; how they had been formed, why they got their name, theories about their appearance and the truth behind it. My entire group eavesdropped. As we walked back to our jeep, Tony remarked, “Now that’s a guide.” He was right.
For those who are curious, this guide was with Red Planet. I had heard of Red Planet and when I got off my bus I realized that the majority of English speakers on the bus had booked with them. This is when I started to think maybe I had chosen wrong. Maybe I should’ve pushed for an English guide or a more prominently reviewed company, if I could have found one. Going back to what I said in the beginning, if I had to book a tour again, I probably would book with Red Planet just from overhearing this one guy. But honestly I don’t know if a different company would have changed anything in the end. I really do think it is just luck of the draw.
So I was in the middle of the Salt Flats thinking about all of this and I made the decision to not be negative about it. Here is my conclusion on Salt Flat tour operators:
For everyone who booked through a smaller company like Extreme Expeditions, we were all thrown together anyway just to make sure that each jeep had its 6 people. Me and Sylvia were in one office, while Tony, Petra, Grant, and Marnie were in another, and since that totalled 6 we were all put in a car together. So in all likelihood unless you book with Red Planet or Cordillera you will end up in a truck that bears one of many names; ours actually said Alkaya Expeditions.
There is a range of possibilities of how this will end up: great and informative, like the two we were jealous of; middle of the road, like ours; or absolutely horrible. I had heard horror stories of drivers showing up drunk, making tourists drive, and threatening to turn the jeep around and take everyone back to Uyuni. At least I didn’t have one of those guys.
We had middle of the road, but I think a higher up middle of the road. We got some information on where we were, had no major issues, and I really do think that our guide cared about our group but was discouraged at our inability to communicate just like we were. So did this ruin the experience? Absolutely not, the Salt Flats are amazing no matter what. Could it have been more informative? Probably. Was there any way to guarantee that it would be? I doubt it. If anyone has any ideas on better ways to find and review these companies please share with as many people as possible. It’s an incredible experience and it is unfortunate that it is possible to come out of it with a negative opinion due to the luck of the draw with your tour company.
If anyone reads this who is planning on going and ends up with a middle of the road guide, I think the best advice I could give you would be to look around you. So what if you don’t know the details of how that stone ending up looking like a tree, the point is that you saw it, and years from now you most likely wouldn’t remember those details anyway but you will never forget the wonder you felt at seeing it.