Called the Salar de Uyuni, these vast salt deposits are the largest in the world, spanning more than 4,000 square miles. But aside from being the ideal location to produce mind-bending photographs, it’s also full of cacti-covered islands, dormant volcanoes, flamingos, and other wildlife.
History of the Salar
Approximately 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, the Salar was completely underwater as part of a massive prehistoric lake surrounded by mountains. Thousands of years later, that lake dried and separated into several smaller lakes, one of which dried up and formed the Salar. The region’s indigenous people, the Aymara, believe that the surrounding mountains of Tunupa, Kusku, and Kusina, used to be giants. Tunupa, an important goddess to the Aymara, married Kusku, but Kusku left her to be with Kusina. The forlorn Tunupa cried salty tears while breastfeeding her son. Legend has it that her tears and milk mixed to form the Salar.
The flats are dotted with about 30 islands, the most well-known of which is Incahuasi Island. The islands contain carbonated reefs on them, as well as massive cacti. During the wet season, Lake Titicaca overflows into the smaller Lake Poopó, which then floods the Salar de Uyuni, creating a mirror-like effect. The Salar contains a large amount of sodium, potassium, borax, magnesium, and lithium—50 to 70 percent of the world’s lithium reserves, to be precise. Historically, there is one village, Colchani, which has the allowance from the government to mine and process the salt. However, they do so in minimal quantities, usually in their homes or small shops.
How to Get There
Located in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia, the flats lie near the peak of the Andes and are at an elevation of 11,995 feet above sea level (so be prepared for possible altitude sickness). The most popular way to get there is to get to the nearby town of Uyuni by bus, train, or plane. Tupiza is also a starting point but much less common, and you usually have to get to Tupiza from Uyuni. You can also reach the Salar by driving overland through the Atacama Desert in Chile to San Pedro de Atacama, the border town across from Bolivia.
Buses from La Paz to Uyuni take about 10 hours, so traveling overnight is common, but expect a bumpy journey. If you book in advance, you can reserve a “cama” or a lie-flat seat.
Alternatively, there’s a train between Oruro and Uyuni and Uyuni and Tupiza; check timetables and prices here. The fastest and most convenient is flying between La Paz and Uyuni, which only takes about an hour. Amaszonas and BoA airlines both fly there.
However you get there, if you start in Uyuni, stop at the train graveyard (literally what it sounds like) and the village of Colchani on your way to the flats.
Where to Stay
The options for accommodations on or near the salt flats are limited. There are three hotels made out of salt just outside the Salar. Tayka de Sal and Luna Salada are both charming options. Palacio de Dal is a bit more extravagant and includes multiple dining and drinking options and a spacious spa. Most recently opened is Kachi Lodge, the only accommodation on the flats. It consists of six geodesic domes with en-suite bathrooms, food by La Paz’s famous Gustu restaurant, and art by Bolivia’s own Gastón Ugalde, known as the “Andean Warhol.”
Remember that the flats have a desert climate, so they get intensely hot during the day, mainly since the whiteness reflects the sun, and very cold at night, so bringing lots of layers is a must.
Both seasons, wet and dry, are worth visiting. While the wet season has its visual advantages, it makes it hard to get to much of the flats because the water is too high to drive on. The dry season makes the entire Salar accessible, but you may miss out on the mirror-like quality of the wet flats. During the wet season, you may be able to paddleboard, while you can use a fat-tire bike in the dry season.
Hiking up one or more of the cactus-covered islands that dot the flats is highly recommended, as is a hike or drive up Tunupa Volcano on the northern edge of the flats for sweeping views. You can also visit quinoa and alpaca farms in some surrounding villages, like Jrira or Coqueza.
A bit further away but worth seeing is the red Laguna Colorada filled with flamingos, and Alcaya, a sacred mountain with caves holding 2,000-year-old mummies. Most importantly, take in the epic sunrises, sunsets, and star-filled black skies.