Adventure awaits you in the Bolivian highlands.
A 17 hour bus ride from La Paz leads you into Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Spanning an astonishing 4,650 square miles, Salar de Uyuni is actually a remnant of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake which dried up, leaving nothing but salt behind.
From time to time – usually after rain or recent snow melt from the Andes – a thin layer of water spreads across the salt pan, reflecting the sky above in picture-perfect clarity.
At first glance, it’s as lifeless as the moon’s surface. But as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park: life finds a way.
And so it does. Amidst this seemingly endless sea of white lies Incahuasi Island, a small strip of highly productive soil which produces cacti up 33 feet tall.
Mount Licancabur – an extinct volcano – looms over the southern border of Salar de Uyuni. Nearby, the hot springs of Laguna Challviri make an ideal spot to stop and soak. A bit further leads you to Laguna Colorada (“Colored Lake”), whose red algae sustain not one, not two, but three types of flamingoes: the Andean, Chilean and James flamingo.
The final highlight of your journey is Sol de Manana (“Morning Sun”), a veritable hotbed of geologic activity. Geysers shoot water straight into the air, while bubbling mud pots gurgle in the background. Before heading back to Uyuni, you’ll climb up the Licancabur volcano and catch the beautiful sunset spread across the horizon.
When To Go
June to August Salar de Uyuni is at its clearest and driest.
Winter is cold and dry in the Bolivian highlands. Daytime temperatures range from 45 – 54°F (7-12°C), but plummet to 14°F (-10°C) after nightfall. This drop in temperature is due to the lack of clouds (which help retain heat); it’s also why the views are especially impressive in winter.
Getting There & Around
Getting there and around: Salar de Uyuni is difficult to access. International flights land in La Paz; from La Paz it’s a 12 hour bus ride to Potosi, followed by a five hour bus ride into Uyuni. If this sounds a bit hectic, consider flying from La Paz to Sucre, followed by a bus ride to Uyuni.
Uyuni’s salt flats are only accessible by four-wheeler. Numerous operators run multi-day tours in and around the salt flats, and can be booked in Uyuni. Accomodation is included with any tour.
Prices will vary depending on number of days, season and tour package.
- Take time to acclimatize. Altitudes exceed 14,500 feet in some areas; if possible, spend a day or two in Uyuni (or La Paz at least).
- Bring extra water. The high altitude, dry air and direct sun all dehydrate you quickly.
- Pack warm clothes and sleeping bags. Temperatures drop below freezing in Salar de Uyuni at nighttime; purchase a quality four-season sleeping bag ahead of time to help you stay warm.
- Forget your bathing suit. Numerous hot springs await you at Laguna Challviri. Bring swimwear and enjoy a morning dip to help warm you up.
- Forget sunscreen. The high altitude and clear skies equal strong sun. Pack a wide-brimmed hat as well.
- Book a trip without recommendations. There have been numerous reports of drunken tour guides; ask for recommendations before you book. As in most countries, the agencies which book the trip aren’t necessarily the operators.
- There are over 10 billion tons of salt in Salar de Uyuni. It’s over 25 times bigger than the salt pan in Utah.
- Salt is big business here. The Colchani salt collective sends villagers out to the flats for five days at a time to cut salt. While out there, villagers live in igloos made of (you guessed it) salt.
- Each villager cuts roughly 500 blocks of salt per day.
Feature Image Credit: Nouhailler