Visiting the Salt Flats of Uyuni
Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) are one of Bolivia’s major tourist attractions. The starting point for visiting them is the town of Uyuni, an important road and railway junction, with traffic to and from Chile.
The town of Uyuni is located 280 miles south of La Paz, and is accessible by plane and road. Flights take 1 hour, and cost about $200 round trip. A night bus takes 12 hours and costs $30-40 one way. The option preferred by most travelers is a combination of a bus to Oruro (4 hours, $5) and a train to Uyuni (7 hours, $15). The train arrives in Uyuni early in the morning, allowing visitors to do a tour of the Salar the same day.
Tours can be booked in advance online, or on the spot with a local travel agency. One-day tour costs about 140 Bs ($20), the 2D/1N package, the most common option, starts from $80 and includes transport in 4×4 vehicles, simple accommodation in salt hotels, simple meals and an English-speaking driver-guide. A 3D/2N tour offers the option of being dropped off across the Chilean border in the town of San Pedro de Atacama.
General standard of local facilities and services is not very high, due to the harshness of the terrain, vehicles can break down at any point – keep that in mind for the best experience.
Salar de Uyuni is often visited in combination with staying in Sucre and Potosí, two of Bolivia’s historically important cities, without which the trip to Bolivia wouldn’t be complete. Direct buses between the towns of Uyuni and Potosí take 4 hours, between Potosí and Sucre around 3 hours.
Salar de Uyuni
Stretching more than 4,000 square miles of the Altiplano (the size of Hawaii or Cyprus), the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat on Earth, roughly 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States.
Located at an elevation of 11,995 feet in southwest Bolivia, it has one of the country’s most magnificent landscapes – a vast plane of bright-white salt surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and cactus-covered islands. Due to its otherworldly beauty, the Uyuni location was used as the setting for an epic battle scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Salar de Uyuni is associated with several prehistoric salt lakes, that evaporated 40,000 years ago and left behind a salt desert, covered with solid salt crust. The extraordinary flatness of its surface with its strong reflection properties make it ideal for calibrating satellite altimeters, instruments used to measure surface topography. In some places, the salt layer is over 30 feet thick.
Salar de Uyuni has relatively stable temperatures that range between 10°F and 70°F, depending on the season. June is the coldest month and January the warmest; nights are cold throughout the year with temperatures between 15 °F and 40 °F. In the dry season, the salt flats are white and hard, easily passable by car.
During the wet season from about November to April, when Lake Titicaca overflows and causes flooding of the Salar, a thin layer of water of six to twenty inches transforms the flat into an enormous, reflective lake 80 miles across, the world’s largest mirror. Perfectly mirroring the sky, the water makes the line of the horizon disappear and the sky and ground look as one – this visual ‘mirror’ effect draws thousands of visitors every year, making it Bolivia’s top tourist destination.
Either season is impressive visually, with the endless horizon making for exceptional perspective photos.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which 25,000 tons are extracted annually. A salt-processing factory is found at the village of Colchani, a tiny village of over 600 people and the home of Bolivia’s largest salt-processing cooperative, where visitors can observe the process of extraction and refinement of salt. Scraped from the desert into pyramid-shaped piles and left to dry, the salt is shoveled into trucks and taken to a processing facility, where it is mixed with iodine and sealed into sacks as table salt.
Apart from serving as a source of salt, the crust covers a pool of brine, exceptionally rich in lithium, the world’s lightest metal used in batteries for electric cars. With an estimated 9,000,000 tons, it contains 20% of the planet’s total known lithium reserves that could (in near future) turn this Latin America’s poorest nation into the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium.’
Located in the middle of Salar de Uyuni is Isla del Pescado, Fish Island, that looks like a fish when viewed from the distance. Known also as Isla Incahuasi, the ‘house of the Inca’ in Quechua, this remnant of a volcano was already an island when the Salar was a prehistoric lake roughly 40,000 years ago.
The island is covered in fossilized coral-like algae and gigantic cacti growing at a rate of about 0.4 inches per year, with some of them towering up to 40 feet. A hiking trail of 15 minutes climbs to the top and then loops back, offering the perfect vantage point for salt flat photos.
The island has a small tourist center with a café-restaurant, and restrooms. The entrance fee is 30 Bs ($4.5), and is usually not included in tour prices.
Known for its beautiful colors and pink flamingoes, Laguna Colorada is another natural wonder of the Salar. Only 3 feet deep, the lake stretches across 6000 hectares. The mineral-rich laguna is a perfect photography setting – dotted with white borax islands, its dark red waters contrast strongly with the clear blue of the sky and the dark brown of the distant, snow-capped mountains.
One of the lagoon’s biggest attractions are colonies of three species of pink flamingos, that populate the high altitudes of Andean plateaus, and get their distinctive color from feeding on the lake’s pink algae. The best time to come here is at sunrise. It is possible to walk along the lagoon side.
To unwind after a long day of exploring the Salar, there are several salt hotels to stay in. Since salt is in ready supply here, it is only logical to make hotels from it when other construction materials are scarce.
They are built entirely out of salt blocks, including the walls, floors, ceilings, the furniture and even the sculptures, and a room costs anything between $40-$200 a night.
In 1995, the world’s first salt hotel was built in the Salar but had to be dismantled in 2002 due to serious environmental pollution. Around 2007, a new hotel was built, constructed of about 1 million of 14-inch salt blocks. Since rain causes salt to disintegrate over time, the salt blocks need to be rebuilt every 10 to 15 years.
Tempting as it is, don’t lick the walls (or at least, stick to your room, please!).
The sparkling white sheet of the salt desert is full of all kinds of strange natural phenomena. Created by salt crystallization, millions of tile-looking hexagon patterns of 5 by 5 feet cover the flat’s surface, making it look like a huge honeycomb.
Another area has small bubbling pools, round holes, where water erupts through the salt crust like a spring in a spa, except the water is cold. Locals believe it has therapeutic effects (especially on rheumatism), so it’s common to see people sitting on the salt with their feet in the pools.
Located 2 miles outside the town of Uyuni, the Cementerio de Trenes, the Train Graveyard, contains over 100 abandoned trains. They were imported from Britain in the early 20th century, and served the new railway built at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the area was found rich in minerals, and British engineers were brought to construct a railway for their transportation.
In the 1940’s, the mining industry collapsed partly because of mineral depletion, and with the introduction of new diesel engines, the railway project and the coal-powered locomotives were abandoned. The trains were ditched and left on the outskirts of Uyuni to the mercy of salty winds and graffiti artists. Today, they serve as a popular stop for taking ‘eerie’ desert photos.
Located at an elevation of 17,500 feet, the Tunupa Volcano is a giant red summit, rising 1.1 mile above the surrounding terrain. It has a tiny village of Coqueza on its slopes. The eroded volcano can be climbed – the hike takes 3-4 hours, and ends at a viewpoint that offers panoramic views of the Salt Flat.
The volcano’s crags and lava flows hide caves some of which are accessible. The Devil’s Cave has a collection of mummies mummified by the salty air of the Altiplano and said to be 3,000 years old. The Galaxy Cave is decorated with stalactites and petrified algae resembling lace; the intricate patterns on the walls and ceilings that look like star galaxies were formed by melting lava.
What is the Altiplano?
The Altiplano, or Andean Plateau, is the second largest high-altitude plateau on Earth outside of Tibet; the average altitude is about 12,500 feet.
Sandwiched between the western and eastern chains of the Andes mountains, it formed along with the tectonic uplift of the Andes.
This historically important region in west-central South America extends for 600 miles from southern Peru to western Bolivia (small parts lie in Chile and Argentina). It is populated by the indigenous Quechua and Aymara.
The plateau hosts several important cities such as El Alto, La Paz, Oruro, Potosí and Puno, as well as Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. During the last 8,000 years, the Altiplano has been home to several pre-Columbian cultures, including the Tiwanaku and the Inca; Spain conquered the region in the 16th century.
The dominant vegetation consists of grass and shrubs, the wildlife of alpacas and llamas. Alpacas and llamas are believed to have been first domesticated here thousands of years ago by the Quechua and Aymara, just like potato.
Apart from stunning natural attractions like the world’s largest salt flat or the world’s highest navigable lake, the Altiplano also contains important agriculture lands and mineral deposits like one of the planet’s largest reserves of lithium.
The people of the Altiplano
The Aymara and Quechua are two indigenous nations that make up the majority of the Altiplano’s native people. In addition to Spanish, they speak Quechua and Aymara.
The Quechua language is believed to have originated in Peru about 4,500 years ago. It was adopted as the official language by the Inca who conquered the Altiplano in the late 15th century, and helped spread it over the entire Andean region.
The Quechua population is estimated to be 10 to 13 million. Approximately 5.1 million live in Peru, 1.6 million in Bolivia, 2.2 million Ecuador and the rest in Northern Chile and Argentina. An estimated 2 million Aymara live in Bolivia, mostly in the Lake Titicaca area, 500,000 in Peru and about 20,000 in Chile.
Many Quechua and Aymara live in cities, and participate fully in Western culture. The city of El Alto, called the ‘Aymara capital,’ is the largest city in Latin America with mostly Indian population (about 76% of its inhabitants are Aymara).
The Aymara and Quechua people share many cultural and religious practices.
Though forced to accept Christianity in colonial times, they have continued to practice their native beliefs.
The most potent of their gods is Pachamama, Mother Earth, who grants fertility to land and to whom burnt offerings are made.
People perform daily toasts by spilling a small amount of chicha, corn beer, on the floor to honor her.
Strong is also a belief in apu, spirits that reside in mountains. Locals build apachetas, small pyramids of rock, along the road for them as a way to ask them for protection, rain and a safe passage. Inti, the God of the Sun, is also worshipped, as are huacas, lesser local deities.
Since the average Altiplano’s elevation of 10,000–13,000 feet brings cold and harsh weather conditions, only crops suitable for such climate can be grown here, like potatoes with over 200 local varieties, corn, quinoa and beans. Meat is usually fish from the lakes, or llamas.
Used in traditional medicine as well as ritual offerings to Inti and Pachamama, the leaves of coca plant have been grown and chewed by the Quechua and Aymara for millennia. The biggest promoter of coca as a symbol of cultural identity is the Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself of Aymara descent.
The Quechua and Aymara also share a way of clothing.
Prohibited by the Spanish from wearing traditional native tunics and wrap-around dresses, the indigenous women adopted a mixture of native and Spanish peasant styles.
Polleras, wide skirts, are their most distinct features, as are white embroidered blouses and colorful shawls.
This is completed with a bowler-style hat, worn since the 1920’s when it was brought to the country by British railway workers.
For festive occasions, women cover their heads with a black embroidered shawl.
To carry small children or various other items on their backs, women use aguayo, a rectangular woven blanket.
Younger men generally wear Western-style clothing – the most popular are football shirts, tracksuit pants and baseball caps.
Older men wear dark knee-length handwoven pants and woolen waistcoats, completed with a woven belt called chumpi.
Chumpi provides protection to the lower back when working in the fields.
Sometimes, the personal history of the wearer is woven into his chumpi.
The most distinctive part of men’s clothing is a hand-woven poncho, generally red in color and decorated with intricate colors or patterns, that sometimes represent specific regions. It is mostly worn on special occasions like festivals, village meetings and weddings. A small woven pouch called chuspa carries men’s coca leaves. Ajotas, durable sandals made from recycled tires, are the standard footwear.
Chullo is a hand-knitted woolen hat with earflaps. The first chullo a child receives is traditionally knitted by his father. A sombrero is sometimes worn over it.