Earth’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni is located in Potosi, in southwest Bolivia, and is an attractive destination for tourists to spend a day or more taking in the scenery. Visitors can stay in hotels built of salt blocks and take tours across the landscape.
The Salar is a uniquely large formation that was part of a massive prehistoric lake called Lake Minchin, 30,000 to 42,000 years ago. This lake changed over thousands of years, eventually drying in part, and leaving two lakes in its place as well as two salt deserts. The larger became known as Salar de Uyuni, and spans over 4000 square miles. The Salar is neighbor to two large lakes: Lake Poopó and Lake Titicaca and the Salar de Coipasa, a tenth of the size of Salar de Uyuni. During the wet season, the Salar floods from its neighboring lakes.
The Salar became a major transportation route across Altiplano in Bolivia and is a breeding ground for several flamingo species. Before Spanish conquest across South America, the salt flats and nearby areas were home to the indigenous Aymara. The legend of the Salar tells of the mountains Kusku, Tunupa, and Kusina, which were once giants. Tunupa and Kusku were married, but Kusku ran away with Kusina. Tunupa, an important deity to the Salar, grieved, and her tears mixed with milk while breastfeeding her son to form the Salar. It is a held belief by many locals that a more proper name would be Salar de Tunupa.
Salar is Spanish for salt flat, and Uyuni derives from the Aymara language and refers to a pen. The city of Uyuni benefits as the entryway for the salt flat’s tourism industry. Founded in 1890 and no more than a trading post, the city sees approximately 60,000 visitors annually and provides the primary hub for guided tours and hotels along the salt flats. The Salar contains over ten billion tons of salt, which has been harvested by local salt gatherers or “saleros” for hundreds of years.
Also containing large reserves of sodium, magnesium, potassium, borax, and lithium, the Salar was of especial interest to mining investors. Rails were constructed in the 1880s for the mining industry and saw regular sabotage by the indigenous Aymara. During the 1980s and 1990s, local communities opposed lithium extraction by foreign companies, and Bolivia drew up plans to begin a mining operation of its own. In 2016, the first lithium shipment was made out of Salar de Uyuni. The largest collection of lithium reserves in the world, the Salar de Uyuni and Bolivia are a major supplier of the world's lithium, used to make the li-ion batteries that power mobile devices, laptops, and other electronics.
There are many reasons to visit the Salar de Uyuni. Guided tours are available, so guests make sure they don't miss anything. Depending on the season visited, the experience can vary greatly.
- Salt Hotels – A field of white so large as to be visible from space and so flat the elevation differences are within one meter of each other, the Salar de Uyuni is home to many attractions. Due to an abundance of salt and scarcity of other conventional materials for construction, hotels in Uyuni and on the Salar are constructed with great salt blocks. Visitors will walk bright white hallways of salt brick in the flooring, ceiling, and walls, and sit on salt chairs and lie on salt beds. Travelers who do not wish to stay in the hotels of salt can still visit and view them for a nominal fee.
- Tours – Travelling to the Salar is possible by plane or car ride from La Paz. Tours usually involve six to seven people and take place in large land-cruisers in caravans that can last three or four days. The driver will sometimes serve as a cook. With the rugged weather and the harsh conditions, travelling across the Salar is an attraction to adventurous visitors. The two most popular touring seasons are the wet and dry seasons. The rainy season from December to April is the time to come to see the flooded mirror effect and experience the flamingo breeding period. The new year celebration of Ano Nuevo happens during this time, and it is celebrated with festivities and favors pork dishes. The dry season is from May to November and opens up more possible travel locations that aren't otherwise available. Uyuni is home to many tourism agencies - tours can be booked in advance online, or found In Plaza Arce, the main square.
- Wet Season – During the wet season, the Salar floods from the adjacent lakes, forming a smooth layer of water over top of the flats. While the native cacti and shrubs drink from this great floodplain, visitors will be able to look out across a vast ocean-like mirror reflecting the sun on high. Though it is at an elevation of 11,890 above sea level, the Salar may stay flooded the entire season, allowing visitors to look out from islands of cacti across breathtaking vistas to photograph mirrored mountains on the horizon.
- Dry Season – During the dry season, the Salar is a vast flatland broken apart by occasional small hills sometimes only a meter in height. The high elevation makes the air thin here, and the salinity creates an atmosphere not to be found elsewhere in the world. With sunrises and sunsets seen on the far horizon and the ability to drive farther than in the wet season, visitors will experience the raw untamed ruggedness of the salt desert.
- Flora and Fauna – Though the Salar has scarce populations of fauna and is nearly devoid of vegetation, every November there is a spectacle for visitors. Among the cactus clusters and shrub ribbons, South American pink flamingoes will flock in droves. The Salar serves as the principle breeding ground for these eye-catching birds, as well as 80 other bird species, all benefitting from the vast mirror of water covering the land.
- Terrain – The very terrain itself is an attraction for visitors, being a composite of meters thick salt and water. Across the great flats can be seen tiny hills, geysers, colorful lakes, and dry islands dotted with vegetation. Depending on the season, wet or dry, visitors will experience two vastly different Salars and two vastly different tours. A popular subject for photography, the unusually flat land is textured with polygonal shapes rising from the ground.
- Great Train Graveyard – The final major attraction is the “Great Train Graveyard,” home to hundreds of trains eroded by salt winds. Comprised of broken down and abandoned antique trains, it is connected to Uyuni by retired train tracks from the 19th century. Built in 1888 by Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies, the trains were to serve as a means to bolster the economy of Bolivia and assist in the mining operations of the Salar. Local indigenous Aymara Indians would sabotage the trains, and by the 1940s mining ceased as the industry collapsed, leaving the husks of antique trains behind.
Bolivia is a country of many holidays, and in nearby La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, visitors to the salt flats will be interested in some of the more colorful, celebratory offerings:
- Fiesta del Gran Poder – In the end of May, the Fiesta del Gran Poder commemorates Bolivia's mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs in honor of an ancient religious painting of the Holy Trinity, with Mestizo features. The festival hosts thousands of dancers in colorful costumes flowing down the streets in La Paz.
- Aniversario de La Paz – In July, beginning the evening before the holiday, the streets of La Paz are lined with stalls and dancers as the city becomes a large street party. Bolivian cuisine, dancing, and music are sure to delight visitors.
- Dia de la Indepencia – The Bolivian Independence Day is a country-wide celebration of festivities including food, song, and dance in the streets. Dia de la Indepencia is known for parades all across the country.
Dining and Shopping
Travelers visiting Uyuni and the salt flats have a variety of options for dining. The hotels and restaurants in Uyuni will offer up a variety of Bolivian cuisines to choose from. With quinoa a native plant to the salt flats, it is used in many dishes as a versatile protein-packed pseudo grain. Papas Rellenas are mashed potato balls stuffed with boiled egg or cheese and deep-fried and are a local delight. Tucumanas are a pastry filled with various meats, boiled egg, spicy sauces, and diced veggies.
Visitors to the salt flats will have their choice of tour guides and gift shops in Uyuni, as tourism to the Salar de Uyuni makes up the bulk of the small city's business. Surrounding Plaza Arce are many shops offering opportunities for travelers to souvenirs from their trips to the salt flats. Local handmade goods are on offer including jewelry, apparel, and others, honoring this site's ancient indigenous heritage.