Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world and one of the most amazing natural attractions of Bolivia. Whether you're walking on the seemingly endless white, desolate surface of the dry flats, or admiring the simply perfect reflection of the clouds and blue sky above when there's water — all travellers agree the Salar de Uyuni offers an out-of-this-world experience.
The flats cover an area of over 10,000 km² and to see the best parts, you'll need to cover quite some ground. While it's possible to explore this unique piece of land on your own, most visitors opt for organized tours along some of the best sights.
The Salar is part of the Bolivian Altiplano, and its history began when that high plateau emerged as a result of uplift of the Andes. About 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, the area that is now the Salar de Uyuni was a huge, deep lake known as Lake Minchin. As Lake Michin dried up, it left smaller lakes behind, which in turn dried up until two current-day lakes and two salt deserts remained, of which the Salar the Uyuni is the largest one. One of those two lakes, called Poopó, still has a major impact on Salar de Uyuni. As Titicaca, another large current-day lake of the Altiplano, overflows during wet season, it fills up lake Poopó. As Poopó overflows in turn, it floods the salt flats, creating the stunning landscapes of winter, when a thin layer of water creates magical reflections of the sky and anything or anyone on the flats.
The area is the biggest lithium reserve of earth, containing some 70% of world's lithium in form of salt. Yearly, around 25,000 tonnes of salt are mined here, out of estimated 10 billion tonnes.
Thanks to the sedimented salt, the area is perfectly flat and is often used for various technical purposes (testing of vehicles and the like).
In the middle is Isla del Pescado, a volcanic rock. It provides great views and is a natural reservation.
Flora and fauna
There isn't much flora, mostly just grass and bush. The Isla del Pescado is covered by an ancient cacti forest, cacti like Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana and Echinopsis tarijensis, which grew up to 12 meters high. The cacti grow at pace of 1 cm per year, hence their age is up to 1000 years.
In November, three types of flamingoes flock here. 80 other bird species are present, and few other small animals.
Very little rain happens in the area, but yearly flooding occurs, mostly in January. At that time the whole area changes to a world's highest altitude mirror. After the water evaporates, bee-hive-like polygons cover the area.
Temperature peaks at 21°C in November-January, and 13° in June. Nights are cold all through the year, -9 to 5°C. Rainfall outside January is almost non-existent.
Dress in layers. Parts of the Salar are very windy, and temperature drops at sunset. Also, make sure to bring sunscreen and lip balm, as the sun is very bright due to the high altitude, and sunlight can reflect off of the salt. A hat is a good idea too, but make sure it doesn't blow away!
Most organized tours start in Uyuni, usually 1 Uyuni Plaza Arce. For independent travellers on a budget it's possible to hop on a local bus from Uyuni to Colchani, which crosses the salt flats, and ask the driver to let you out where you want to be. This way, you're free to walk around and explore the area on your own but you should count on a hike of at least two hours to any salt hotel. A local bus should cost Bs10, and you can catch a bus in the street where most the bus companies have their offices, around the corner of Cabrera St. and Arce Av. La Paz’s Terminal de buses.
Single-day and multi-day tours are available. Multi-day tours allow you to see more, including nearby desert areas beyond the salt flat, but they also bring a greater risk of altitude sickness as they go to significantly higher altitudes.
Alternatively, you can start your trip from 2 Tupiza. Tour prices are more or less the same as in Uyuni, but tours starting from here often include more lakes and interesting rock formations. Because this option is less popular, you probably won't encounter as many other tourists on your tour. The end point is Uyuni, although there are options for transportation to Chile.
Fees and prices
No fees or permits are required to enter the salt flats itself, but the vast majority of visitors come on an organized tour.
As of 2018, expect to pay somewhere around Bs. 200 per person for a one-day tour (including lunch) and at least Bs. 600 for a 3 day tour (including lodging, meals, water and toilet paper), plus Bs. 50 if you want onward transport to San Pedro de Atacama. Many 3-4 day tours get sold for Bs. 800-850, but they are essentially all the same and if you are good at bargaining, aim for the Bs. 600 mark. For the several day tours, you might require an additional Bs. 200 for national park entrance (Laguna Colorado), rest-rooms, thermal pools, etc., but this is paid directly on-site, and not to the agency nor the driver. Do not fall for the double room extra pricing of US$100 or so—this is way overpriced and sometimes you even get a double room anyhow for the first night.
Tours are cheaper for larger groups, so if you're by yourself or with just one friend, try to meet other people and form a group of four to six for a better per-person rate. However, this shouldn't really be off your concern, because often tourists are shuffled around to fill the cars. It seems actually to be more a way of tricking people into believing they have to pay more. Do not fall for this scam, just head to the next tour agency.
Simple sunrise/sunset tours for photography go for Bs. 130, for a fully loaded van.
Standardized car-tours are the most common way of visiting the salt flat. Because of the sheer area size and hostility of the environment, moving by feet or even bicycle is not easy.
The salt flat is very difficult to navigate if you don't know what you're doing. Tour guides are familiar with the landmarks and mountains in the distance and use them extensively when driving around the salar. Trying to navigate it on your own is not recommended.
- 1 Train Graveyard. The famous lot of old wrecked steam locomotives.
- 2 Colchani, Bloques de Sal. A salt processing village, 7 km north of Uyuni. Lots of salt souvenirs available for purchase, and there's a small museum of salt statues.
- 3 Salt-Mining Area. Area with many salt piles, weighing approximately a ton each, which are left there to dry.
- 4 Isla del Pescado (Isla Incahuasi, "fish island"). The "island" of fossilized coral, covered in ancient cacti that grow only a centimeter a year. It's not an island in the strictest sense, just a big rock sticking up out of the otherwise flat ground, but the salt near the edge of it looks strikingly like water coming up to the shore. The island has a hiking trail to the top, for truly surreal views of the salar. It also has a restaurant, and lunch is eaten by most tour groups on the western "shore" of this island. There are well-maintained washrooms. Bs30.
- 5 Pulacayo. Near world's second largest silver mine, at this historical site there's the Bolivia's first railway and a train robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
- 6 Laguna Hedionda. A lagoon where the flamingos can be observed.
- Viscacha Area. A rocky outcropping with a colony of Viscachas, trained by the guides to come out for the food.
- 7 Arbol de Piedra. "Stone tree", an isolated sandstone formation eroded by winds carrying sand.
- 8 Laguna Colorada. A red-colored lake, by algae, with flamingoes present too. Bs. 30 (Bolivian citizen), Bs. 150 (foreigner) to enter Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.
- 9 Sol de Manaña. A geyser basin, including bubbling sulphur pools, normally visited at sunrise.
- 10 Laguna Verde. A lake colored by heavy metals (arsenic, lead, copper etc.) The laguna only shows green when it's windy, which is often not the case in the early morning (common visit time of tours) 4 Vulcán Lincacabur is reflected in the lake.
- 11 Laguna Blanca. A borax-filled white lake.
- 12 Laguna Celeste. A lake at the foot of the 5 Uturuncu volcano, called according to the color of its clear blue water (caused by magnesium and manganese). Andean flamingos feed and form large flocks here.
- Laguna Amarilla. A yellow lake, colored by sulphur, with old cave paintings nearby.
- 13 San Antonio ruins. An abandoned 16th century mining town, where slave labor was used. Guides provide different stories why it's no longer inhabited. An equally named village is nearby, but it's not overlooked by the ominous volcano Uturuncu.
- 14 Valles de Rocas. As the name says, valleys of rocks, The guides will do the common thing: try to point out some look-alike objects.
- 15 Sillar. Giant columns of clay nearby Tupiza, which were formed by erosion.
- 16 San Cristobal. A town nearby the homonymous mine, one of the largest mine facilities in Bolivia. The town used to be near the mine, but was completely moved to this area. There was a 350-year-old church in the city; it was not destroyed, but instead transported and rebuilt stone-by-stone at the new spot, including the cemetery. The altar within is made of silver, likely because the mine is 3rd largest silver producer of the world.
- 17 Tunupa Volcano. A dormant volcano that some longer tours allow you to hike up. At some times of year you can see flamingos eating microorganisms at the foot of the volcano.
- 1 Termas de Polques hot springs. Adjacent to Salar de Chalviri, allowing for hot spring swim. Primitive bathrooms are included in the price. Bs. 6.
- Trick photography – the beautiful, otherworldly Salar is great for photography. In particular, the large, flat, homogeneous nature of the area provides an excellent opportunity for trick photography with objects out of proportion. With some careful staging and trial and error, you and your friends can take pictures of someone with giant shoes, balancing on shoestrings, or holding a tiny person in their hands. (These are just a few ideas to get you thinking.) If you get a very good guide, he will take care of most funny motives.
Your big shopping opportunity is at Colchani, which has lots of stands selling clothes, food, and all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs. Beyond that, you can find souvenirs in the town of Uyuni.
Eat and drink
Tours should provide meals, and vegetarian options are possible. You may end up eating a meal at a salt hotel, even if you don't sleep there. Isla Incahuasi also has a restaurant.
The tours sometimes bring not enough water supply. Get informed, you may need to take 2 liters or more per day.
If you take a multi-day tour, the tour will organize lodging for you.
- 1 Salt Hotels. Several hotels made of salt, non-free entrance. You might stay here during multi-day tours.
- In the tours, drunk drivers are a possibility: do not risk if you have a suspicion.
- Taking emergency supplies is advisable if undertaking a private trip. With organized tours, most follow the same path, thus another truck will meet you in minutes.
- You will be travelling at high altitudes. Make sure to take necessary precautions to prevent altitude sickness. Take the time to get acclimated and educate yourself on the symptoms, methods of prevention and treatments. The German embassy in La Paz is said to already have a "storage room" for deceased because of the causalities. Highest visited point of the area is about 5,000 m, and sleeping at 4,200 m; in this regard, it's better to start from Uyuni (3,700 m) than from Tupiza (3,000 m).
- The Atacama Desert is not too far away, across the border in Chile. San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to this region's incredible landscapes, and especially Valle de la Luna (the "Valley of the Moon").
- Jujuy, Argentina — deserts and colorful mountains to the south
- Oruro — just an overnight train away from Uyuni, and known for its carnival
- Potosí — a high-altitude silver mining town a few hours away from Uyuni by bus
- Tupiza — small town southeast of the salt flat with beautiful mountainous surroundings.