Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is considered one of the most extreme and remarkable vistas in all of South America, if not Earth. Stretching more than 4,050 square miles of the Altiplano, it is the world’s largest salt flat, left behind by prehistoric lakes evaporated long ago. Here, a thick crust of salt extends to the horizon, covered by quilted, polygonal patterns of salt rising from the ground.
Exploring this amazing empty white landscape is an incredible experience and a must-do while you are travelling in South America. It is the largest salt flat in the world and it can even be seen from space. It was formed after a prehistoric saltwater lake evaporated, leaving a salt crust several meters thick.
From La paz, I head off to Uyuni to start my 3 days Bolivian outback tour. After an overnight stay at Salt hotel, early on the day, me and my private tour started our 4WD journey to one of the most surreal and otherworldly landscapes I have ever walked through – an endless expanse of blinding white nothingness- that is Salar de Uyuni.
Colchani is the first stop on Salar de Uyuni Tours. It is atiny, one street town situated on the edge of the Tunupa Salt Flat, 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Uyuni, Bolivia. There was not much here except for a few houses and dirt roads filled with land cruisers embarking on tours.
There is a small salt factory on the plain. There you will get an explanation on how the substance under your feet, eventually ends up in your kitchen. The factory fits in perfectly with the area: somewhat strange. In the village of Colchani you can see how the locals produce kitchen salt from what simply lies on the ground here. They also make extraordinary souvenirs of salt, which you can purchase.
Factory salt worker individually sealing each table salt pack with fire.
They scrape salt off the salar into pyramid-shaped piles and leave it to dry in the sun. Once dry (after 4 days or so) the salt is shoveled into trucks and carted to Colchani to be processed. It is cooked in ovens to dry further, then iodine is added and the mixture milled before being sealed into 1 kilogram sacks. The final product – table salt
The only salt-making facilities using salt from the Salar de Uyuni are located in Colchani – a cooperative joint-owned by all salt workers. There is an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt contained in the Salar de Uyuni, with around 25,000 tonnes excavated and processed at Colchani annually.
After driving to a dirt road like this picture below, most of the road in Bolivian outback have no street sign or exact physical road. So the driver drove straight through the wide desert.
After an hour or two on this place, we headed off to my destination for the day – that is to the Uyuni Salt Flats. Salar de Uyuni is not only the world’s largest salt flat – it’s also the largest mirror on the planet!
The sky is huge in Bolivia. There’s something about the vast amount of blue up there that makes me feel different; like I’m at once an intrinsic part of something, and yet I’m also utterly tiny and insignificant. It’s both dangerous and strangely thrilling to think of yourself as nothing more than a speck.
With its never-ending sparkling horizon, the mesmerising are one of South America’s most astonishing sites. Remote, breathtaking and unique, Salar Uyuni – as Bolivia’s salt plains are known – are the world’s most extensive salt flats and by far one of the most revered South American destinations of all.
The magnificent expanse of salt that makes you lose all sense of perspective, where the enormity of the scene highlights the fragility of everything else, where harsh is beautiful, time is obscured and reality seems more like a dream.
Most Salt Flats tours are safe and reliable; however, the conditions are basic in this area and you should be aware of this. The Salar de Uyuni is one of the harshest environments for vehicles on the planet and occasional vehicle issues can happen, this to a certain extent is unavoidable. The drivers are used to breakdowns and are pretty adept at fixing their vehicles. They are always willing to help each other out and you are usually not stuck for long – so a bit of patience is often all you need. Food will be basic. If you don’t mind a bit of rough travel then these tours are well worth it. You are guaranteed to see some of the most unique landscapes on the planet
A walk across the miles of white salt looks more like a trek across the moon than a trip through South America.
During the rainy season, most of the enormous salt flat is covered by shallow water, as rain has nowhere to drain to.
These few inches of water have a dazzling effect on the landscape, transforming the plane into one endless mirror, reflecting sun, sky, clouds, visitors and the indigenous pink flamingos that heavily populate the area.
Salar de Uyuni is a beautiful natural mirror, but also an important source from salt and lithium, a vital component in electric batteries.
Standing on the salt flat is a surreal experience. You expect it to be cold but smooth like ice. With the sun burning overhead it doesn’t feel cold at all, and the salt, far from being smooth, is really rough on the hands.
How to take good photos in Salar de Uyuni?
The unique setting of endless salt flat at Salar de Uyuni make all kinds of crazy perspective photography possible. Here we have our top tips for great Salt Flats photos to add to your collection.
- Bring as much small and interesting items as possible: toy animals and action figures, toy vehicles and regular props such as sunglasses, hiking boots, and water bottles can all be turned into something funny and useful.
- To set up for the shot the photographer needs to lie on their stomach and rest the camera on the ground to make positioning much easier; holding the camera in your hand makes it next to impossible
- Advice from an old photographer: “Shoot, shoot, shoot!!” Take lots and lots of shots since it’s not so easy to see your camera screen in the glare and you might never be back here again.
- Making everyone jump in the air is a last resort shot that can always come out well!!!
Will I get problems with altitude sickness at the Salar de Uyuni?
- Altitude sickness can catch many travellers a little bit off guard. Not everyone gets sick at high altitudes and it is difficult to predict who is likely to be badly affected by it. For most people it is nothing more than a headache and some dizzy sensations that diminish over a short period of time, 1 to 2 days for most people.
- If you want to limit your chances of getting sick though, there are a few things you can do.
- Drink lots of water and slow down!! This sounds simple but both of these things are very important. Your body is struggling because you don’t have enough oxygen so avoiding any extraneous activity is a good idea. Chew Some Coca Leaves. The native people of South America have been chewing coca for centuries thanks to its ability to alleviate mild altitude sickness symptoms. Coca leaves can be bought in any supermarket and even souvenir shops or street stalls.
- Take Altitude Sickness pills, these are sold over the counter all over Peru and Bolivia and are just a few dollars. If you are flying straight into altitude over 2500meter, without spending any time at a intermediate elevation and you’re worried about getting sick, you can ask your doctor for more specific and stronger altitude sickness medication in advance.
What time of year to go?
It is possible to visit the salt flats all year long. However, if you visit during the warmer and wetter months between November and March, you will find the flats flooded with a layer of rain.
This is what creates the appearance that you are walking on an enormous mirror, which can look amazing in photos.
Visiting between April and October means that the salt flats will be dry and the skies will be blue, which is perfect for those goofy perspective photos.
The vast, open, desolate landscapes that make up the southwest of Bolivia illustrate this feeling like no other place I’ve been. It’s vast, stunning, and barren, and a stark, yet colourful, reminder of how small we humans are in the face of nature.