Some of the most unusual landscapes in the world can be found on the Bolivian Altiplano. In the southwestern part of the plateau the vistas range from the largest salt flats in the world to picture perfect volcanos hovering above flamingo-filled lagoons. You will be astounded by the fascinating scenes around Uyuni, Bolivia.
To fully explore as much of this unusual landscape as possible we took a 3 day/2 night tour. This much time allowed us to visit not only the salt flats, but also the surreal terrain further afield.
Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats of Uyuni)
As we stepped on to the vast white expanse of salt we were in awe of what we saw. A glaringly white sea spread out in front of us for as far as our eyes could see. It looked otherworldly.
The largest salt flats in the world are located near the town of Uyuni. They were formed when a prehistoric salt lake began evaporating 40,000 years ago. After Lago Machín evaporated for 30,000 years all that was left was the flat, white mineral reserve that we see today.
At 3,656 m (11,995 ft) of elevation the sun is very bright. The reflection off the white salt makes it even brighter. It was difficult to look at the white flats without sunglasses. Being this high during the Bolivian winter also meant that it was very cold. We wore down jackets and thick sweaters as we walked over the salt. We thought it would be soft like walking on a bed of table salt, but in fact the surface is very hard.
The flats are massive and contain an enormous amount of salt. They cover an area over 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) and can be up to 120 m (400 ft) deep. This amounts to almost 11 billion tons of salt. In addition to salt there are large quantities of lithium, boron, potassium, magnesium, sodium carbonates and sulfates in this lake and others in the region.
On the edge of the flats are Ojos de Salar (Salt Eyes). These small, bubbling pools are outlets from underground rivers. We thought the water would be hot, but it was surprisingly cold.
After spending time walking around this strange lake, we hopped in a 4WD and began to drive across the salt flats. It was one of the most bizarre drives we’ve ever had. Surrounded by flat, white nothingness, it felt like driving across the Canadian Prairies in the winter.
After an hour of driving with only white on the horizon, we reached an island in the middle of the large salt lake. It was not just any island though. This one looked as if it was from another planet where giant cacti rise out of coral hills in a sea of salt.
It is called Isla Incahuasi (House of Inca Island). The legend says that the Inca found safety on this island when fighting the Spanish. This is because their llamas could walk across the salt flats, but the Spaniards’ horses could not.
Walking to the highest point on this surreal island feels like you’re on a science fiction movie set. The ground is made of a prehistoric coral reef which somehow manages to support large cacti in various shapes. To top off the scene, the large white salt flats come right up to the shores of the island. It is a beautiful and bizarre place.
The black marks on the salt are tracks from 4WDs.
Today there are a few different salt hotels on the flats, but the original one was built entirely of salt. The walls and furniture are made from salt bricks and the floor is covered in a thick layer of salt. Most tours stop at it for lunch on the first day, but it no longer operates as a hotel.
We spent one night in one of the new salt hotels which was partially made from salt. The interior walls and furniture are made of salt bricks and salt covers the floor, but the ceiling and wall frames are made from wood, stone and metal. The blocks of salt used in the walls, table, chairs and even bedframes were cut out of the salt flats. The different layers that you can see in the blocks are laid each successive rainy and dry season allow you to determine the age of the block. It was a very unique hotel to spend the night.
Sunsets and Sunrises
Sunsets on the salt flats were gorgeous. The setting sun illuminated the fascinating hexagonal shapes that form when the lake evaporates during dry season. Behind us a full moon was already high in the sky.
The next morning was very cold when we went to see the sunrise from Morning Sun Geyser Basin. The full moon provided light as we waited for the sun to rise. Volcanic mud pots were spouting liquid and geysers were shooting steam adding unique elements to the sun’s first rays. Even though temperatures were well below freezing, it was a fantastic setting to watch the sunrise.
Unusual Volcanic Rock Formations
The salt flats are surrounded by desert landscapes and tall volcanos. There are many areas where clusters of volcanic rock have assumed interesting shapes. Some look like animals, others like trees. One area is said to remind visitors of a Salvador Dali painting. To us the tree looked more like a tornado and the Salvador Dali rocks were quite underwhelming, but they were interesting components of this strange landscape.
A common stop that all tours make is the Train Graveyard. In the early 19th century, the plan was for Uyuni to be a major transportation hub. The idea didn’t pan out and today the trains are hollow shells of their original selves, standing in the barren dessert on the edge of Uyuni. They may not be useful anymore, but they do make interesting pictures.
Crazy tourist pictures
We’re not sure where this trend came from, possibly Instagram, but almost every tour agency makes you pose for quirky pictures that you otherwise wouldn’t take. Not wanting to be rude, we joined in on the fun.
Our time was not done exploring this incredibly unique area. Beyond the salt flats we found magical volcanic lakes filled with thousands of flamingos. Stories from that part of our Uyuni tour is coming soon.
When to visit
Like many things it depends on what you want to see. For clear skies and dry roads the best time to visit is during dry season from May to November. Remember that from June to August it’s winter and the temperatures will be much lower. During rainy season the flat lake is covered in a thin layer of water and becomes a huge mirror. It is a popular time to visit, but the water means some of the other sites around the lake are inaccessible. To see the mirror effect of the wet lake visit between January and March.
About the tours
In order to explore everything that Uyuni has to offer you need to take a tour. There are one-day tours to the salt flats, but you wouldn’t get to see any of the other amazing landscapes. Because of the distances between sites, two-day tours wouldn’t allow you to see much more. We took a 3 day/2 night tour and felt that was the perfect amount of time to fully explore many of the sites around Uyuni.
Many tours can be bought in advance on-line but prices for these will be higher. We booked our tour from an office in Uyuni one day before our trip and paid only 700 Bolivianos each for 3 days/2 nights, including all meals, hotels and transportation/guide.
Where to stay
The city of Uyuni is the most common starting point for tours of the salt flats and lakes. There are several basic hotels and restaurants that are fine for a night. There’s not much to do in town so don’t plan to spend more time than necessary in Uyuni.
If you’re coming from Argentina you may want to take a tour from Tupiza instead (post coming soon).
How to get to Uyuni
There is an airport in Uyuni receiving flights from La Paz and Cochabamba. It’s also easy to get to Uyuni by bus from many cities in Bolivia as well as from Chile and Argentina.
Coming Next – Stunning Volcanos and Lakes of Uyuni
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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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