Fun on the world’s largest salt flat
29.04.2019 - 02.05.2019
After our long stays in Chile and Argentina, it was time to move on to a new country. Our bus brought us across the border to Bolivia and over a bumpy unpaved road to Uyuni. Bolivia immediately felt different from previous countries. The Andean culture and traditions are strong here, compared to the westernized Chile. Many women in Uyuni wore traditional colorful clothing and a dark skin color was the norm among the local population. Uyuni is a fix point of most tourist itineraries through Bolivia because of its proximity to the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. After one night’s rest in town, we also departed on a two-day tour of the awesome salt flat.
All tours have more or less the same itinerary, so despite the fact we booked a private tour, our first stops were full of people. The first stop was at the train cemetery a few kilometers outside of Uyuni, where trains were discarded in the middle of the 20th century when the local mining industry collapsed. After that, we stopped in Colchani where the salt extracted from the salt flat is processed. All these stops were so crowded that it was hard to enjoy.
It all changed as we drove out on the salt flat. The place is so enormous, that we quickly lost sight of anyone else and found ourselves alone, surrounded by nothing but whiteness below and the blue sky above. The Salar the Uyuni spans more than 10’500 square kilometers (more than a quarter of the area of Switzerland) and is still growing every year. It is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, among with roughly half of the world’s known lithium reserves (the stuff in the battery of the device on which you are probably reading this), though there are currently no large-scale mining efforts. We spent half an hour biking on the Salar, before we stopped for our private lunch in the middle of the salt flat. A truly awesome place to eat lunch.
A must when on the Salar de Uyuni is to make some funny photos, as the uniform whiteness of the surrounding make it easy to play with perspective. Here are some of our favorite photos:
The next stop was Incahuasi island, which had again more people. The small island in the middle of the salt flat is notable for the giant cacti that grow there. They grow only around one centimeter per year, so they are not just very tall (many are over 10 meters), but also incredibly old. Besides the cacti, it is also the best place to grasp the size of the Salar de Uyuni, as we could see far away in all directions.
The Salar de Uyuni has two very distinct appearances depending on the season. We visited right at the start of the dry season and saw most of the salt flat dry and white. However, we were very lucky to also see the salt flat in its other state, as one area was still covered with up to 10 centimeters of water. When the Salar de Uyuni is covered with water, it turns into the world’s largest mirror. For the end of the day, we drove through this wet part of the Salar de Uyuni and witnessed possibly the most beautiful sunset of this trip.
We spent the night in a hotel built mostly out of salt. The walls and even the bed frame were made completely of salt, as were the chairs and tables in the restaurant where we ate dinner. The next morning we started very early and drove almost three hours to some hot springs in the middle of the Bolivian altiplano. It was great to have the place all to ourselves and we did not see another soul the entire morning. After the hot bath our guide served us breakfast there surrounded by nature.
For the rest of the day, we stopped at multiple volcanoes and lagoons, many of which were filled with flamingos. Overall, the second day was less worthwhile than the first, as we have already seen very similar landscapes in Chile. It was also quite tiring since we spent in total 10 hours sitting in the car on very bumpy dirt roads. There are also four-day tours from Uyuni that visit even more sights of the altiplano, but we were happy to have chosen against that. For the salt flat itself, no more than one day is needed.
During the second day of the tour, we saw numerous herds of llamas. The llama is Bolivia’s most common camelid. Unlike vicuñas and guanacos, llamas are domesticated animals, so they are never wild. They are used for their wool and their meat, which we found quite tasty.