The largest salt flat in the world, and the prettiest
4 travellers have this on their Bucket List
2 been here
Salar de Uyuni is a unique salt flat in Bolivia. It is huge, but above all beautiful. You can experience it relatively easily; in a group or individually. This is done with a jeep or other four-wheel drive vehicle. Although you can also drive there yourself with your rental car. These are the best tips and all the attractions so that you get the most out of your trip.
Most people visit Uyuni for the immense salt flat, but you will be amazed at the volcanoes and bubbling mud pools. And a wonderful graveyard of trains. So take the time for your visit. It would be a shame to travel to Uyuni and not have enough time for all the sights.
The famous Isla Incahuasi, is also called Cactus Island or Isla del Pescado. The last name is because the island has the shape of a fish. It is one of the islands that rise above the Salar de Uyuni. Isla Incahuasi is not really high, about 102 meters.
On this island you have a good view over the salt flat, but you can also see the cactus species Trichocereus pasacana. They grow to more than ten meters in height. It is also famous for the many fossils including algae that you can see. Which shows that this used to be a gigantic sea, although it is difficult to imagine now.
Ojos de Sal represents a strange phenomenon. In some places cold water bubbles up from under the salt flat. Ojos means eyes, because the water makes holes in the salt that look like eyes. The salt crystals are, according to scientists, the purest of all. Razor-sharp and as smooth as a mirror. Ojos de Sal is located on the Salar de Uyuni, ask for the location on the spot.
The wonderful Sol de Mañana is a geyser area of about 2 km2. According to the locals, it is located at an altitude of 4,850 meters. You can see gases inject mud about three meters above the ground. Remarkably, El Tatio's famous geysers are located in Chile's Atacama Desert on the other side of the mountain. But El Tatio is an immense geyser field, while Sol de Mañana has only a few geysers but many bubbling mud pools.
The best time to see these geysers is early in the morning when the most productivity can be seen. The first rays of the sun provide more steam, which decreases during the day. Don't forget to look at the hills. The sun beautifully illuminates the entire area.
For many, the city of Uyuni is the starting point for an exploration of the salt plains. The town was founded in 1890 as a trading town. The village is at an altitude of 3,670 meters. Uyuni is also famous for its street market, although it has become a lot more popular in recent years. It is now much more tourist-oriented, as you will soon see. You can find numerous hotels and hostels. It's also possible to book various excursions for your trip.
Cementerio de Trenes, or train cemetery, is a strange attraction. Countless trains are parked in No Man's Land. There are several trains just outside the village of Uyuni, just to rust. Most of the trains come from England and date back to the 19th century.
Uyuni was once an important hub for trains from Calama in Chile, La Paz, Potosí and Villazon on the Argentinian border, among others. But the glory days are over. As a result, countless carriages, but also locomotives, were given a final resting place in Uyuni. It is an impressive setting, and a great place to take pictures, especially in the early morning or late afternoon.
The dormant Tunupa volcano is a relic of the geological activity millions of years ago that pushed up the Andes Mountains for instance. It is 5,432 high and towers over Salar de Uyuni. Tunupa is a sacred mountain, where people were also buried in the past. You can still see the now mummified bodies of families on the mountain wall.
The dormant Tunupa volcano is a relic of the geological activity millions of years ago that pushed up the Andes, among other things. You can climb relatively easily and safely to about 4,700 meters (watch out for altitude sickness) and you are then about 1,000 meters above the salt flat. With an impressive view as a reward. Experienced (and well-prepared) mountaineers can reach the 5,432-meter summit in two days.
The village of Coquesa is famous for its sacred cemetery with mummies in a sacred cave at the foot of the Tunupa volcano. Ancestors of the current residents were buried at this spot. They are estimated to be 1,000 to 3,000 years old. You can see their dried up remains in caves with a local guide. You will also receive a lot of information about their life at the time. Note that not all caves are open. Go early in the morning when it is still relatively quiet. The locals still commemorate them and they put coca leaves next to the mummies. The village is located at an altitude of 3,679 meters.
Rocks in all kinds of strange shapes, that's Valley of the Rocks (Valle de las Rocas). The volcanic rock has rolled over each other in the rough past, solidified and is now massively eroding by water and wind. It is a popular place for mountaineers, especially the old lava corridors, which sometimes overhang, are very popular. For most tourists it is mainly a walking area. It is located south of Uyuni.
Lake Poopó is located northeast of Salar de Uyuni. Actually a small part of the water in the lake reaches the salt flat. This lake also has a remarkably high salt content. Despite this, three species of fish live in the lake, which have adapted to the conditions. Edible species such as trout have also been released. No fewer than three types of flamingos live on the waterfront.
The Salar de Coipasa salt flat is located north of the Salar de Uyuni. At 2,218 km2, it is much smaller than its famous brother. In the Salar de Coipasa are also old cemeteries of the local residents. These date back to the time of the Incas. Countless groups of flamingos can also be seen, making a visit to this salt flat more than worthwhile.
In the village of Colchani, the salt of the plains is processed into table salt. It is dried, quality checked and bagged. Which still involves a striking amount of manual work. From this village it travels all over the world. You can easily book a tour in the village with a local guide. Although you can also walk around the village yourself.
It is the most common excursion and it is (almost) the only way to get to Salar de Uyuni. A 4WD car is made for this terrain and can take you to the remote parts. Only when you are alone with the salt mass do you feel the nothingness, and listen to the wind blowing across the plain.
You can pitch your tent in Salar de Uyuni. Although that is not often done. Anyone who visits Cactus Island can just as well stay overnight. In a tent that is. Arrange this in advance with your guide and make sure you have good gear with you. Mind you, it can get very cold at night, so be well prepared. But you do get the sunset and sunrise in return. And you will never forget it.
Most tours in this area are a bit standard. All highlights are visited, but the locals are usually forgotten. In the evening you can meet the people who are trying to build a life in this desert of salt. They are proud of their environment and their rich history. You can also have dinner with them and sometimes even stay the night for some change. It's an experience that actually belongs to the landscape and its inhabitants.
There are several lakes south of Uyuni. With beautiful names such as Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Chiarkota, Laguna Honda, Lago Colorada and Laguna Hedionda. The latter is popular with many flamingos. You see them constantly looking for food in the water. But they also breed in some of the lakes. It is an ideal place for a picnic, where you can watch the animals in peace. In an environment that you will not soon forget.
The volcanic activity creates some hot springs. Termas de Polques is the best known. It's ideal for washing the salt from your body. Or to get up to temperature, because it can be mercilessly cold at night. You will certainly relax in this otherworldly decor. Also pay attention to whether animals, such as flamingos, are nearby. They often continue to search for food in the background.
In de Uyuni plain you'll see a small salt factory. On the spot you can get an explanation of how what is now under your feet eventually ends up on your plate. The factory fits this region exactly; somewhat alienating. In the village of Colchani you can see how the locals make table salt from what is simply found on the bottom. Also special are the salt-made souvenirs that are sold.
One of the best ways to experience this area is by bicycle. In Uyuni (and some hotels) you can easily rent bicycles. After which you can quickly get on your way. You can also place the bikes on the back of a jeep and only get on when you are at a salt flat. Which may be smart at this height. Ask for the possibilities on the spot.
Once Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding area formed an enormous sea. Nowadays it is the largest salt flat in the world. This almost surreal world lies at an altitude of 3,650 meters. There are mud geysers, thermal springs and strange rocks carved by the wind.
As always, Mother Nature has adapted itself and there is life in abundance in this part of Bolivia. For instance, there are three types of flamingos that roost at this spot, and some cacti can grow an grow as tall as 40 feet (12 meters).
Salar de Uyuni feels like another planet. The endless salt flats, the rugged volcanic landscape of the Andes, together with the striking tranquility, provide a scenery unequalled the world over. It is a place we can only experience, filled with awe, time and again; a place where you simply have to adapt, like the plants and animals do.
Scientists have discovered that this territory in the southwest of Bolivia was part of Lake Minchin some 40,000 years ago. This prehistoric lake once covered the whole southwestern part of Bolivia, but through the years, it gradually dried up. Two smaller lakes remain as living memories, the Poopó lake and the Uru Uru lake.
In some caves you can still find fossilised coral, proof that the sea was really there once upon a time. In the dried up parts, salt has remained (in fact, this is a mixture of regular table salt and calcium sulphate). The flats are known as Salar de Uyuni and the smaller Salar de Coipasa.
The salt is formed by minerals that slowly rise out of the ground. As there is no way out for the water, countless minerals are visible on the surface. The dormant volcano Mount Tunupa is the basis of this area, towering 5,432 meters high over the flat. The salt flat now stretches out over 12.000 km2. The wind ensures that the salt ‘lives’: it the only place in the world where you can see shifting salt dunes.
From December to February, you can witness a remarkable phenomenon. Because of the various rain showers the lake fills up with rain water. This turns the Salar de Uyuni (but also the nearby Salar de Coipasa) into the largest mirrors in the world. The reflection of everything you see is almost surreal, whether it be the clouds, flamingos, a car or a person.
The landscape around the salt flats is called páramo, or subtropical alpine meadow. Because of its altitude, it lies between the tree line and the Andes. The climate of Uyuni is rough: at night it is bitterly cold, there is a lot of wind and rainfall is limited to just about 400 mm per year.
Despite being an immense salt flat, there are plenty of animals around Salar de Uyuni. Like the fluffy Vicuna, the Andean fox, but also birds like Chilean flamingo, Andean flamingo, James flamingo and Rhea.
Summer (November to March) is the best time to visit. In winter it can be very cold at night. Keep in mind that most (and almost some) rain falls in winter, which is when the famous mirror effect occurs.
The Salar de Uyuni (and most other sights) is located at 3,650 meters altitude. Which makes acute altitude sickness a major problem. Therefore, acclimatise well before your visit.
And take it easy at this altitude anyway. Watch your body and in case of complaints (such as headaches and dizziness) immediately go to an altitude below 3,000 meters.
In Uyuni and surroundings it often freezes in the evening. It is therefore very useful to bring warm clothing. Especially if you go out early, you must be well prepared with a hat and gloves, among other things.
The village of Uyuni is the capital of this area. You can also book all kinds of 4 × 4 tours to explore the area. Tours from a few hours to several days. The most common way to get to Uyuni from the capital La Paz is first by car (or bus) to Oruro, then it is a seven-hour train ride from Oruro to Uyuni. From La Paz you can fly to Sucre, after which it is also still seven hours away by car. It is also possible to combine Uyuni with a visit to Chile, where you cross the Andes.