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The Unearthly Mirror of Salar De Uyuni

The Unearthly Mirror of Salar De Uyuni

Do you dream of visiting another planet? If so, your chances of realizing that dream are slim to none — unless you’re willing to give up on space travel and take a slightly more conventional voyage to Bolivia.

That’s where you’ll find the Salar de Uyuni, an austere and surreal landscape that’s as close to another world as you’re likely to get.

Stretched out in an expansive 4,000 square miles in the remote southwest corner of this South American nation, Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.

Salar De Uyuni is in the travel itinerary of any traveler visiting Bolivia. Also known as Bolivian Salt Flat, Salar De Uyuni is a true beauty. The landscape at this place gives you some of the best natural beauty you could ever ask for.

Salar de Uyuni Bolivia
Photo: Luca Galuzzi

Salar De Uyuni is so weird and unearthly that it almost feels like a different planet. This vast land stretches for over 4,000 square miles and fulfills travelers’ dreams of visiting somewhere almost totally alien. It is the largest salt flat in South America and also worldwide.

Read on as we unveil history, features, and everything you need to know about Salar De Uyun in this travel guide article.

An Overview of Salar De Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni Salt Grounds
image by PsamatheM is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Salar De Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat (or playa), covering an area of over 10,000 square kilometers (or around 3,86o square miles). It is located in the Daniel Campos Province in Southwest Bolivia, South America. 

You will find it near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 11,995 feet above sea level.

This natural wonder is part of the Altiplano of Bolivia in South America. Altiplano is a high plateau formed during the emergence of the Andes Mountains. Some features you will find here include fresh and saltwater lakes and the infamous salt flats of Salar De Uyuni.

Let’s break it down into subtopics to help us understand what this major tourist attraction in Bolivia is all about.

Origin and Naming

“Salar” is a Spanish word meaning salt flats. “Uyuni” originates from the Aymara language. It means a pen or an enclosure. When joined together, Salar De Uyuni means an enclosed salt flat or salt flats at Uyuni.

According to Aymara mythology, the mountains of Tunupa, Kusku, and Kusina that surround the Salar Salt Flats were giant people. Tunupa married Kusku. However, they had a painful breakup when Kusku ran away, leaving Tunupa and Kusina behind.

The grieving Tunupa shed tears when breastfeeding her son. Her tears mixed up with her milk to form the Salar.

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Geological History

Salar De Uyuni Sunset

The geological history of Salar De Uyuni is linked to the sequential transformation of different lakes, such as Lake Minchin. These date back thousands of years ago to prehistoric times. Attempts to determine the age through carbon dating have yielded different results.

Lake Minchin (named after Juan B. Minchin of Oruro) is the genesis of Salar De Uyuni. It was later changed to paleo Lake Tauca which extends 460 feet deep. Its age is estimated to be between 13,000 and 26,100 years.

The youngest prehistoric lake in the region was Lake Coipasa. It left behind two lakes; Poopo and Uru Uru. The two salt deserts left behind when Lake Coipasa dried are the Salar De Coipasa and Salar De Uyuni.

Salar De Uyuni is a vast landscape. If you have been to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States and thought that was big, think again. Salar De Uyuni is 100 times bigger.

Monument in Salar de Uyuni
image by PsamatheM is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

When it rains, the nearby Lake Titicaca overflows and discharges its water into Lake Poopo. Lake Poopo, in turn, floods the two salt deserts. That turns Salar De Uyuni into the world’s largest mirror!

If you plan on visiting Bolivia, do it between December and March to witness this phenomenon. It is the best time to take reflection photographs and marvel at the stars that appear doubled in the sky and on the ground.

The surfaces of Salar De Uyuni consist of lacustrine mud, salt, and brine. Brine is a concentrated solution of lithium chloride, sodium chloride, and magnesium chloride. The vast surface is covered by a solid salt crust whose thickness varies from a few centimeters at the edges up to a few meters deep at the middle.

Salar De Uyuni has some islands that remained during the Lake Minchin era. They are made of unusually brittle coral-like structures and algae and fossils.

Salar De Uyuni Climate

The Salar Salt Flats have a stable temperature. During the day, it can get to 70 degrees Fahrenheit from November to January and fall to 55 degrees Fahrenheit in June. The area experiences cold nights all year round, with temperatures ranging from 16 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salar De Uyuni experiences low humidity, ranging between 30% and 45%. Rainfall is also scarce, typically experienced between April and November, but may increase in January.

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Economic Value of Salar De Uyuni

Salar De Uyuni Ground Salt

Apart from the tourism it brings, the Salt Flats is one of the economic powerhouses in Bolivia in its own right. Its location in the Lithium Triangle means it has large sodium, potassium, and magnesium deposits, all existing as chloride salts. It also has a sizeable borax deposit.

Because of Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia produces an estimated 9 million tons of salt, about 9% of the world’s total production.

Valuable lithium is found as a brine under the salt crust or in the top layers of a porous halite body. It is about 0.3% concentration.

The Salar Salt Flats has an estimated 10 billion tons of salt, out of which only 25,000 tons are extracted each year.

The Bolivian government is very conservative about how much salt is harvested and does not allow foreign companies to get involved in the exploitation of this natural resource.

Flora and Fauna around the Salt Flats

Fauna at Isla del Pescado

Salar De Uyuni is covered by giant cacti and other shrubs such as Pilaya, Thola, quinoa plants, and countless scrub bushes. The landscape remains largely devoid of animals until November when flamingos and other bird species come here to breed.

However, you can occasionally spot Andean foxes and viscachas on Incahuasi Island.

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An Unforgeable 4-Day Tour of Salar De Uyuni

Most local tour companies offer a 3-day tour of the world’s largest salt flat. But you can find other tour operators with a 3-day plan. The most recommended option is the former if you want to explore everything this vast landscape offers.

Day 1

Visiting Salar de Uyuni is like traveling to a different planet. When you take a 4-day tour, your journey will likely begin at the salt flats. That is where you will explore the features of this seemingly fictional landscape. If you come here during the rainy season, you will have a one-of-a-kind experience as you watch the reflection of the sky in the world’s largest mirror.

Some of the places you are likely to visit on your first day of the Salar De Uyuni tour include:

Uyuni Plaza Acre

Plaza Arce Uyuni and Skyline

This is the first stop where all tour operators take their guests. The Uyuni trip usually starts here at around 10 am. Hotel pickup services may be available, depending on the tour agency you choose.

Train Graveyard

Rusty Train in Train Graveyard

Most tour guides end the first day at the train graveyard, but it can also be your second stopping point. Here you can relive the good old days of steam locomotives…or at least take a wander through the haunting rows of rusted carcasses.

Colchani, Bloques de Sal

Mina Crisanta Casa Clay House
image by WeHaKa is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

This remote village is located about 7 km north of Uyuni and thrives from salt processing activities. The Salt Museum is the highlight here. You can see different animal sculptures made from salt, old furniture, and unique home-building skills.

Salt-Mining Area

Salar de Uyuni Salt Blocks
image by PsamatheM is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

As the name suggests, this is where you will meet the salt you enjoy on your table in its infancy. Salty planes are dug out and sundried before transportation to the refinery site. Each salt plane weighs up to 1 ton!

If you have never seen a salt hotel, this will be your chance to see different facilities built from salt. You need to buy at least a candy bar to explore the interior of these unique salt hotels. It is a requirement for admission into the salt hotels.

Isla de los Pescados or Isla Incahuasi

Fauna at Isla del Pescado

Isla de Los Pescados, or Isla Incahuasi, is an island with a fish-like appearance during the wet season when water creates reflections. It is covered by fossilized coral and is located in the middle of Salar.

You will likely get to this island by the afternoon when your stomach has started creating movements and rumbles. In other words, you will get here around lunchtime for a quick snack. Fortunately, the western shore has a restaurant that serves visitors. You can stop by to have a bite!

Your first day at Uyuni Salt Flat ends here. It will likely be late in the evening by the time you’ve explored all the features of this island.

Unless you’ve already booked, you can start thinking about where to spend the night. There are some accommodation facilities on the island, but there are other options that your tour company should help you get to in Uyuni. They include the following:

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Day 2

Your second-day tour will be heading south past the colorful lakes to Laguna. However, it depends on your tour urgency. It can take you elsewhere, but you will come to this place during your 4-day tour of Uyuni Salt Flat.

Laguna Hedionda

Flamingos in Flamengos Laguna Hedionda
image by Karmelo777 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Laguna Hedionda is a beautiful lagoon where you will see wildlife for the first time on Salar. If you want to see flamingos at this lagoon, visit in November when they are here to breed. Laguna Hedionda is also an ideal spot for lunch because of its many outdoor picnic shelters.

Viscacha Area

Hare in Viscacha
image by Clinamen – Arica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Viscacha Area is a place of Viscachas colony. They are rodents of two genera in the family Chinchillidae native to South America. Viscachas look similar to rabbits due to convergent evolution.

Your tour guide will lure them out by giving them carrots!

Laguna Colorada

Flamingoi in Laguna Coloroda

Laguna Colorada is a red lake because of the algae that grows in it. You will also have another chance to see flamingos, who in turn are pink from consuming the algae! You will be required to pay a fee to enter the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.

Arbol de Piedra

Rock Formation in Arbol de Piedra
image by PsamatheM is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Arbol de Piedra is a stone tree that has been uniquely carved by wind, sand, and time. It is one of the Unique features of Salar De Uyuni.

This isolated rock formation is one of the most photographed features in the country. It projects out of the altiplano sand dunes of Siloli, just about 11 miles north of Laguna Colorada.

Most people call it a Stone Tree because of its tree-like shape. It stands about 7 meters tall with a thin stem that has been eroded by strong winds carrying sand.

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Day 3

Your day three will be one of the busiest Salar De Uyuni tours. It is usually divided into two sections; morning and afternoon. In the morning, you’ll be wending your way to Laguna Verde. In the afternoon, you will likely head eastwards to Tupiza.

Solar de Manaña Geyser Basin

Solar de Manaña geyser basin has a collection of boiling sulfur pools and a geyser. This place is best visited in the morning when the sun just starts rising. The surface around here can be slippery, so be extremely careful.

Termas de Polques Hot Springs

Termas de Polques Hot Springs and Skyline

The Termas de Polques hot springs offer visitors the first swimming opportunity in its warm waters. Consider carrying your swimming costume when you plan a trip to this hot spring.

Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde and Skyline

Your morning tour ends at Laguna Verde.

The Laguna Verde is a green lake at an elevation of 14,140 feet. It covers an area of 2.9 square miles and is 18 feet deep.

In the backdrop is an inactive volcano Licancabur at an elevation of 19,252 feet. It forms a nearly perfect cone.

The name Laguna Verde means green lake, named after its emerald water. That attractive color is due to the Mineral suspensions of arsenic, magnesium, carbonate, and calcium from the subsoil that dissolves in it.

Laguna Celeste

Laguna Celeste Skyline
image by DanielGuzmanDuchen is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Laguna Celeste is a natural clear-blue lake. Its color is due to the high concentration of manganese and magnesium.

Laguna Celeste is in the Sur Lípez Province, Potosí Department. It is at an elevation of 4529 m above sea level and covers an area of 2.3 km².

There’s nothing much you can do at Laguna Celeste, but the picturesque view is well worth it.

Laguna Amarilla

Laguna Amarilla

Laguna Amarilla is a C-shaped crater-lagoon filled with yellow water found at the base of the El Altar volcano. El Altar mountain has an elevation of 17,451 ft and forms part of the Sangay National Park. It also has nine snow-covered peaks.

Laguna Amarilla means yellow lagoon, a name derived from its yellow waters. Its water is an accumulation of rainwater and melted chunks of ice that drop into it from the volcano peaks.

You get to Laguna Amarilla lake through a hike along a challenging path. Once you get there, you will be awestruck by the panoramic view of this pristine lake.

Ruinas de San Antonio

Ruinas de San Antonio Scenery

This old town dates back to the 16th Century. It was born as a mining town for silver.

The town was abandoned 50 years ago, and only its ruins remain today. Ruinas de San Antonio once had a population of 150,000 people. It is just unbelievable it is now a ghost town, slowly being claimed by nature.

One mythology states that miners made a deal with the devil to enrich them through the silver mines. The miners then failed to keep their promise. That angered the devil, who killed all the mine workers.

After some time, the other residents began to see ghosts and strange activities, which lead to the inhabitants fleeing the town.

Some believe it happened due to labor rebellion, while others claim that men started going missing or turning blind. No one really knows why people abandoned the town – the truth may never be known!

When you get to Ruinas de San Antonio, you will likely see the following:

  • Flora and fauna consisting of straw, cactus, and others
  • Historical Circuit of the ruins of San Antonio
  • Natural landscapes
  • Hot Springs
  • Marble deposits

Another option for your afternoon trip on day 3 is travelseereing northward to Uyuni. You will likely stop by the small communities along the way before you come to Valles de Rocas. This area has many strange valleys sticking out of the Altiplano.

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Day 4

Your last day is not as packed as the previous days of salt flats tours. You can choose to end at either Tupiza or Uyuni.

San Cristobal

The first option involves a long drive as you see the beautiful landscape for one last time. You will also pass by Sillar, a giant clay column formed due to many years of erosion.

If you choose to end your trip to Uyuni, you will pass by San Cristobal, a town with a 3-and-a-half-century-old church.

San Cristobal is one of the cultural and political centers for many native people in the Chiapas highlands. It has many pre-colonial and colonial structures constructed and left behind by the Spanish colonists.

The town also has indigenous cultural influences, making it a perfect spot to end your Salar de Uyuni trip.

You will also come to the train graveyard once again as you see the wonders of this place for the last time.

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How to Travel to Uyuni Salt Flats

Visiting Salar De Uyuni is easy because of the different options available. You can choose a bus, train, plane, or combination, depending on where you are coming from.

Most people take tours departing from Tupiza or Uyuni. You can also visit the infamous Uyuni Salt Flat from San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Chile. Therefore, you will have to cross the border to enter Bolivia.

Visiting Salar de Uyuni by Bus

Hemsdalsbilene Tour Bus
image by Kk70088  is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0

Most tourists take a bus from La Paz to Uyuni. It is a 12-hour journey that can leave you exhausted, but it saves you a ton of money.

You can simply walk to the bus station and buy a ticket at the door. But if you travel during peak seasons, such as during Carnival Restaurant, you will have to book a bus ticket in advance to ensure you get a seat.

Tourists who want to begin their trip from Tupiza can take another bus from Uyuni. It is a 4-hour-ride. But if you are coming from Argentina, you can take a bus from Villazon.   

You can also use a bus from San Pedro de Atacama. However, the cost is high, and the journey takes forever. You can take a flight from San Pedro de Atacama, which costs almost the same but much faster.

Visiting Uyuni Salt Flat by Train

Train in Leyburn Railway Station
image by mattbuck (category) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

You can take a train from Oruro for about a 6-hour journey to Uyuni. The same train also goes to Tupiza, Villazon, and other towns en route.

The train departs four times weekly. So, you should time yourself appropriately not to miss it.

Visiting Uyuni by Aircraft

Uyuni Copenhagen AirTaxi
image by Gordon Leggett  is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0

Uyuni has a small airport with a direct flight from la Paz to Uyuni. It takes just an hour to get to Uyuni by plane.

You can also take a flight from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, to Uyuni. Different airlines such as LATAM, Sky Airline, and Jet Smart service the route.

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What Is the Best Time to Visit Salar De Uyuni?

Many tourists visit Salar De Uyuni when they can experience the world’s largest mirror phenomenon. That is only possible in the rainy season between December and March. It is the best time to visit this salt flat if you want to take the best reflection photos.

The reflection of the sky in the waters creates an illusion of the horizon disappearing. If you can stay at the Salt Flat until sunset, you can watch the spectacular scenery of the setting sun.

Sunset at Salar De Uyuni

Visiting Uyuni Salt Flats requires a 4WD vehicle and driving experience to handle the challenging terrain. That is the only disadvantage and price you pay for wanting the best.

You can also go to Salar De Uyuni between April and October. However, it won’t be as exciting as December to March tours. It is the best time to explore all the features of this vast landscape. However, you should not forget your winter clothes because the temperature can fall below freezing point at night.

What to Bring for Salar De Uyuni Tours

Your trip should be well-planned and carefully executed. As part of planning, you need to know what to bring to make a safe, convenient, and memorable experience. Consider including the following in your backpack:

Tour Companies to Consider When Visiting Uyuni Salt Flat

There are many private tours and companies to choose from when you visit Bolivia to see its vast landscape of salt flats. However, you should be cautious and make the best decision.

You will most likely spend hours in the vehicle during your trip, and that applies to private tours and companies. That may not go well with you if you suffer car sickness.

Watching the spectacular views through the windows can be fun, but not when you feel unwell. So, consider taking your medicine, opt for a front seat and keep your eyes ahead or on the horizon.

Before taking any private tour, ask about what to expect during your tour. You can also share your expectations and what you probably need to spend most of your time doing. Spending time at the train graveyard may not be fun for all. Instead, you can opt for more time swimming at the hot springs.

Also, mind the language your tour guide will be using. Most shared tours have Spanish-speaking tour guides. That may not be fun if you don’t understand them. If you can’t handle the lingua franca, choose private tours with English-speaking tour guides.

The following are our recommended tour companies to consider when visiting Salar De Uyuni:

  • Cruz Andina Travel is the best option if you are from the Chilean side, San Pedro de Atacama.
  • Tupiza Tours and La Torre are recommended for tours from Tupiza.
  • Banjo Tours and Quechua Connection will serve you right for an unforgettable Salar De Uyuni experience.

Accommodation Services in Uyuni, Bolivia

You should rest at night after spending the entire day hiking or bouncing around in a 4×4 touring Salt Flats.

Some tour companies do not allow spending the night outside Uyuni because of the inconveniences it can cause when picking up tourists. Fortunately, you can find reliable accommodation services without leaving Uyuni.

There are some very affordable and comfortable traveler hotels in Uyuni. Search for the best that suits your budget at Booking.com or choose from the recommended ones on the list below:

Other things to Know About Salar De Uyuni?

Something of great concern is the altitude sickness you can suffer at Salar De Uyuni. It is located about 12,000 feet above sea level. Instances of some tourists feeling headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and other related symptoms are common for people who are not from mountainous parts of the world.

Don’t feel too bad, those people make up the majority of the human population!

Also, you need a Bolivian Visa to jet into the country. Additionally, you need a yellow fever vaccination certificate, (but that can change from time to time) and you may also need a COVID-19 vaccine. It is better if you get your facts before you start your journey.

FAQ

How much does it cost to go to Salar de Uyuni?

What it will cost for your trip to Salar de Uyuni depends on your pocket. A one-day tour can cost as low as $20 per person, while a multi-day tour can cost up to $500.

The most common is a 3-day tour that costs about $100-$150. It includes transport, meals, and most attraction sites you will visit.

What is the best time to visit Salar de Uyuni?

The best time to visit Salar de Uyuni depends on your interest. You can plan your trip between May and November when the weather is dry to allow you to see the stunning crystallized salt patterns.

But if you want to see the world’s biggest natural mirror, visit during the rainy season. However, you should be ready to navigate muddy roads.

How many days do you need in Uyuni?

The most popular tour packages last 3 days and two nights. However, you can also choose a 4-day tour to make the most of your time when you come to the salt flat. You will have no rush to admire this stunning landscape and other features.

Can anyone drive on the salt flats?

Yes. Driving on the salt flats is permitted during the dry season but not during the wet season when there are mud and water pools. Do not venture beyond the main road if the surface is not dry.

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