The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is one of the most awe-inspiring tours you can take any where in the world. It is quite possibly the most visited tour destination in the country. Over 60,000 tourists arrive each year. Use the links at the top and bottom of this page to learn more about this cold but beautiful desert and surrounding tourist attractions.
When I was growing up in we used to go to Uyuni to the hot springs near Laguna Polque and two others: Laguna Verde is a bright turquoise color and Laguna Colorada is a deep rusty red. The colors are created by algae and minerals found here.
There is also an area called Sol de Mañana where you can view mud pits and geysers bubbling. It smells a bit like eggs sometimes due to the sulfur in the soil, although when it's windy you won't sense the smell too much. Locals claim the mud is great for your skin and heals wounds.
The sheer size of the salt flats of Uyuni Bolivia is just mind boggling. Located in the department (state) of Potosi, it covers 12,000 square kilometers (3 million acres or 3800 square miles) as is visible from space. It is the largest salt desert in the world. It's located 3650 meters (over 12,000 feet) above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano, a wide highland region in the Andes Mountains that extends into Peru. About 40,000 years ago, the area was covered by a lake called Lago Ballivián, which some people know as Lago Michín. When the lake dried up it left behind TWO salt flats: Uyuni and Coipasa, which is smaller. There are two remnants left from this lake, now forming two lakes: Lago Poopó and Lago Uru Uru.
The Uyuni salt beds contain 10 billion tons of salt. Locals "harvest" over 25,000 tons per year, piling the salt into hundreds of cone-shaped mounds and then shoveling it by hand into trucks. The salt is sold in Bolivia and is also exported all over the world. It's grains are large and similar to sea salt. The salt flat itself is 120 meters thick (deep). Scientists indicate there are actually 11 layers of salt, each between 2 and 10 meters in depth. See these maps.
The area is so flat and extensive you cannot see the end of it. Because there is no horizon, this creates an optical illusion in photographs: there is no sense of depth. When you take a photo, if you place an object near your camera, then walk far behind it and take a picture, it looks like you're standing next to it, or on it. This gives the impression that your object is huge and you are tiny. Tourists love this and there are thousands of photos and videos on the Internet that show this. See our photo gallery.
Another illusion is created when it rains. A thin sheet of water covers the salt causing the entire area to look like a huge lake. Although it's only a few millimeters deep, the water is absorbed slowly by the salt, and acts like a mirror, reflecting everything in sight. If you walk or drive on it, it looks like you're walking on water - and if there are clouds in the sky, the water reflects the clouds and it looks like you're walking or driving in the sky. The downside when it rains is that tours may be postponed or delayed because vehicles suffer a lot of rust damage from the salty water. In Bolivia, the rainy season takes place between November and April (summer in the Southern hemisphere) and is slightly warmer than the rest of the year. It cold at night all year round. See today's weather.
The area is also garnering international attention because it contains 140 million tons of lithium, which the Bolivian government intends to extract for export as well. Lithium is used in long-life batteries, camera batteries, and cellphone batteries and is also thought to contain some medicinal or nutritive qualities.
Another amazing fact is that NASA uses the Salar de Uyuni to calibrate satellites. The surface of the salar is so stable and unchanging, that laser beams are bounced from satellites to its surface to help scientists calculate the distance between it and the satellite. This is being used to gather information on climate change. If you're going "huh?" watch this 2-minute video that explains how and why they do this.
The Uyuni salt desert attracts some strange wildlife too. Most amazing is the fact that thousands of flamingos spend several months here, arriving near the month of November each year. This is very unusual, since normally flamingos are considered a tropical bird and the Bolivian highlands are arid, cold and windy. There is little vegetation other than brush and extensive cactus fields. Three species of flamingos (the James flamingo, Chilean flamingo and Andean flamingo) inhabit the area.
Other than the flamingos, you'll see little else other than rodents, insects and a few other birds. Locals keep llama and alpaca herds and if you're lucky, you might see one of the world's few remaining vicuñas. Most of the wildlife inhabits the lagoons and a large island that rises abruptly out of the vast Salar de Uyuni called Isla Pescado (Fish Island) because there literally is nowhere else to find food in the area. The lagoons are just a little over half an hour from where most tours begin.
Despite the lack of plant life and wildlife, Uyuni is a beautiful area. This extremely flat region is usually very cold and windy. Wind erosion has created some awesome rock formations. Cactus gardens grow around the salt flats of Uyuni and on Fish Island. The giant cactus can grow up to 40 feet in height.
Tourists also really enjoy what has come to be called the "Cementerio de Trenes". During colonial times travel was mostly by train because roads were not paved. As roads and trains improved, old engines and train cars were abandoned in this area and over 100 years later you can still see them in what is now known as the "Train Graveyard" by tourists. Click here for other Uyuni tours and attractions.
When I was little the road to Uyuni was just a rutted dirt road and it took twice as long to get there by vehicle as it does today. We used to stop at little villages and the people would invite us to eat chuños and ispi (little fish like minnows) along the way. Sometimes we would take the train. Along the way we saw what looked like a pink lake, rippling and moving. This was actually over 70,000 pink flamingos on the ground. When the train tooted its whistle, the pink "lake" would suddenly burst into motion and rise all at once into the air, transforming into an enormous pink "cloud" that covered the sun.
Today it is estimated that there are fewer than 5000 flamingos on the Altiplano. The flamingos mate for life and lay a single egg per year. The locals eat the eggs and kill the flamingos because they use their wings and feathers to make Carnaval costumes. The flamingos do not reproduce quickly enough to maintain the size of their population.
You have to careful in Uyuni not to get sunburned. The weather goes from one extreme to the other. During the day it can get very hot as the sun reflects off this giant white surface. Sunblock is a must for anyone who is fair and burns easily. On the other hand, it gets very cold at night. You need to plan on bringing very warm clothing and dressing in layers. You should also hydrate by drinking lots of liquids as the will dry your skin.
The town itself has a population of only about 15,000. It is very small and mostly subsists on its income from tourism. There are several interesting hotels and hostels and various tour companies. You'll find a good selection of restaurants and other smaller places to eat, including some small cafés and pubs. There are also some small stores where you can buy the basics like soap, water, and snacks. You can also buy souvenirs at the local market stalls and sometimes children will approach you on the street with handcrafts.
There are several hotels and hostels. One of the most extravagant hotels in the world is the Hotel Luna Salada, which is made entirely out of salt bricks. That's right, the building, the furniture, and even the decor are all made from salt. Click here for Uyuni hotels and here for hostels. This page has tons of tourist and travel information.
One thing many tourists fail to take into account is the sheer remoteness of this region and its distance from nearby cities like La Paz, Oruro or Potosí. It's very difficult terrain and distances are long with few emergency facilities nearby. It's important to choose a reliable tour operator and for this specific tour Travel Insurance is advisable.
Because it is very far away, most tours last between 3 and 5 days. Even though there are a lot of tour operators to choose from, I recommend Ruta Verde Bolivia to arrange your Salar de Uyuni Tour. They speak English, Spanish, and Dutch and their customer service is second to none. You can see what other travelers have shared or ask questions in the Uyuni Travel Forum. You can also share your own Uyuni travel stories!