In the remote southwest corner of Bolivia, South America, lies the world’s largest salt flats, surrounded by a rugged area known for its extinct volcanoes, snow capped mountain peaks, deserts, rock formations, turquoise lakes, thermal active areas, and wildlife including flamingos, llamas, guanacos and vicuña. Rent a four-wheel drive with driver and head off for a few days to explore this beautiful region.
It’s big. No it is huge! In fact, Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flats measuring more than 10,500 square km. Located at an altitude of 3,656 m above sea level in the Daniel Campos Province, this region is remote, unique, and inhospitable.
The best way to travel this area is to find a few buddies and rent a 4×4 vehicle with its driver. The tricky part of the journey is finding the right vehicle and the right driver. It is not unheard of to end up with a grumpy driver who has no interest in his passengers, and even of a driver who abandons his passengers and escapes over the horizon, with the vehicle of course! Choose wisely. Ask many questions and bargain to get a fair deal.
A good route is to start in the town of Uyuni where you should find the vehicles and drivers, and then head straight for the salar where you will stop at the salt hotel, Isla del Pescado (fish island), Isla Incahuasi, and drive over miles and miles of flat salt roads without any clear tracks. Once you exit the salt flats to the south, you will come across many lakes, such Lago Cañapa, Lago Honda, Lago Colorada, and many more beautiful turquoise lakes, each with their flock of flamingos – James’s flamingo, Chilean flamingo, and the Andean flamingo. Early November is breeding time for the flamingos and they come in large numbers to feed on the pinkish coloured algae.
The area is known for its scenery with dormant volcanoes, turquoise lakes, weird rock formations, and its volcanic active areas with fierce fumaroles and boiling mud pots. While the salar is rather void of any noticeable life other than the odd tourist Landrover and the giant cacti on Isla del Pescado and Isla Incahuasi, the area off the salar has wildlife in abundance, if you have patience to search, and wait. The area is known to have about 80 bird species, including the flamingos, horned coot, Andean goose, and the Andean hillstar. Look out for the cute light-brown Andean fox, and the colonies of adorable rabbit-like viscachas which breed and live among the rocky outcrops.
Vast Salt Flats
Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flats) is part of the Altiplano high plateau of Bolivia, located on the South America continent. The plateau was formed during the uplift that also created the Andes mountains. The area is known for its fresh and salt water lakes surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlet. As a result, some 40,000 years ago, the area was covered by over 150 m of water. It’s been claimed that the lake was formed as a result of the transformations between several prehistoric lakes. Over the years the lake started to dry up. The last recorded lake with a substantial amount of water was around 12,000 years ago.
It has been a vast and dry salt flat for quite some time. However, during the rainy season which is roughly from January to April, the local rainfall as well as overflows from Lake Titicaca in northern Bolivia at the border with Peru, floods much of Salar Uyuni.
So, while in dry season it is nothing but a massive, yet very impressive dry salt flat, during the rainy season, particularly in January, it transforms into a vast water-filled lake. This temporary lake is only a few centimetres deep but the mirror reflections of the water on the salt makes for some spectacular photos. This is also the time when the roads off the salt get really muddy and difficult to navigate.
From near and afar, the vast salt flats seem totally flat. However, some crazy scientists have crisscrossed the salt with SUV’s sporting GPS antennas mounted to the roofs. They came to the conclusion that the flats did not exactly live up to their name. The highest elevated area is about 50 km away from the lowest area, and have a difference in elevation of 77 cm. Their theory explains that the highs and lows correspond to the local gravity field and the dissolving of the salt by rainwater which follows the curvature of the earth. Go figure!
Another theory is that the surface of the salt rises and falls to reflect the subsurface density variations. Whatever the correct theory is, this is one of the largest flat surfaces on our planet, and as a result it is being used to calibrate distance measurement devices aboard satellites.
The salt crust measures in thickness between just a few centimetres to a few metres. Containing 50% to 70% of the world’s highly prized chemical element lithium (a soft, silver-white metal used in lithium batteries), the area has been earmarked for massive mining operations. In addition to lithium, large amounts of sodium, potassium, and magnesium are also present.
While the Bolivian government has long prevented foreign companies from possibly exploiting the area’s rich mining resources, in 2013 Bolivian President Evo Morales opened a $19 million lithium-production plant and told reporters that more than 60 percent of the profits from the lithium mining will stay within the country. It wasn’t long before the local mining companies realised that their lack of sophisticated equipment could not deliver the massive projected profits. So, they courted engineering firms from Germany and Switzerland.
There is much fear among the local indigenous Aymara people who have been harvesting the common table salt for ages, that mining on a large scale will seriously harm the area’s fragile ecosystem. Fortunately no large scale mining has been launched yet, but who knows how it will change with the increasing demand for lithium by the growing demand for electric cars and mobile devices.
It is truly a wonderful experience just to gaze over the wide stretches of almost pure white salt.
Exit the trip to the east via Tupiza and then south on a stunning route to Argentina. Alternatively exit to the south across the border of Chile to San Pedro de Atacama.
A Cacti Fish Island
Within Uyuni Salt Lake are several islands. They are the summits of pre-historic volcanoes from the days when this was still a massive and deep lake. Each island is home to its own fragile ecosystem.
Among the most prominent islands is Isla Incahuasi (3,687 m), a hilly and rocky outcrop. Isla is the Spanish word for “island”, while Inca refers to the Indian “Inca” tribe, and huasi is derived from the Quechua-language word “wasi” which means a house. However, a more apt name is Cactus Island as the almost 25 hectares’ outcrop is covered in tall, slow-growing, columnar, gigantic cacti, Echinopsis atacamensis.
Isla Incahuasi is also home to colonies of rabbit-like long-tailed rodents called viscachas. You will also find fragile coral-like structures, fossils and algae.
A neighbouring island, Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) at 3,726 m, is the largest of these islands. It derives its name from its ellipsoid shape when viewed from the east or west. This island is also home to the viscachas, and cacti, some of which can measure more than 10 m in height, referred to as “thousand-year-old giant cacti”.
On the sides of the islands, terraces mark the level of ancient lakes, and in some places, fossilised algae can be seen covering the rocks.
Volcanos and Rocks
Southwestern Bolivia sits on the Altiplano tectonic plate which has some of the world’s highest volcanoes. Most volcanoes are located along the border with Chile which is part of the so-called “ring of fire”. The volcanoes run from Chile in the south to Peru in the north.
While most of the volcanoes here are not extremely active, they continuously show that they are more alive than dormant.
Volcan Uturuncu in the south, east of the Chilean border, has recently been described as a new super volcano in the making.
The area is also known for its beautiful rock formations. Some are located on the islands inside Salar de Uyuni, while others are in the deserts.
To the north of Laguna Colorada, in the Pampas de Siloli, is the Arbol de Piedra, a large rock sculpted by the wind into the shape of a tree. Over many years of strong winds across the desert, the sand has sculpted the rocks into beautiful formations. The Siloli desert is considered a part of the Atacama Desert and is one of the most arid in the world, due to low precipitation that occurs in the area. The conical shaped extinct volcanoes, red desert, and sculpted rocks all make beautiful scenery.
Nothing as good as soaking in hot springs with nothing but flamingos and dormant volcanoes around you! Oh, and the odd llama and alpaca grazing nearby along the shores of the turquoise lake. Feel free to do it the natural way. There is probably nobody nearby, except a friend, if you brought your own.
The hot springs here are unmarked without any signage indicating where to swim. Walk along the lake, watch out for spurts of hot water, until you find a nice clean and warm pool. Slip off the jeans and pop right in. Early in the mornings, almost year round, its cold to very cold. But, once you are in the hot water, just lay back and enjoy the feeling and the stunning scenery around you. The flamingos, the llamas, alpacas, and snow-capped conical shaped dormant volcanoes. Life is good!
Nearby, in the northwest corner of Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, to the south of Laguna Colorada, is one of the highlights. Sol de Mañana is an area of geothermal activity with boiling mud pots and fumaroles.
However, if you can stand the stench, and the thought that should you slip into a boiling mud pot you will instantly become part of the soup, then you should enjoy the experience.
This is raw nature at its best.
There is no visitor’s centre, no safety railings, or even directions. Should you arrive alone, then you will be alone. Do not fall into a mud pot because nobody will come to your rescue. The next tourist to arrive will discover your soft-cooked body in the soup.
The fumaroles emit highly pressurised steam with a strong hissing sound. Some of them are strong enough to shoot up to about 50 m high.
In addition to the fumaroles and the boiling mud pots, there are also mud lakes and steam pools. There are no geysers which intermittently discharge boiling water, ejected turbulently and accompanied by steam.
The thermal active area extends over about 10 square km so spend an hour or two to walking around and appreciating our active planet.
It is not clear if the government will go ahead with a planned geothermal electricity-generating project for this area, which will destroy its natural beauty.
Llamas and Flamingos
Another highlight of South America’s Altiplano Plateau is the flamingos. James’s (or Puna) flamingo, Chilean flamingo, and the Andean flamingo.
Keep an eye out for the Andean flamingo with its pale pink body with brighter upper parts. Living exclusively around South America’s Andes mountains, it is one of the rarest flamingos in the world. Its bill is black and pale yellow with yellow legs.
The Andean and James’s flamingos are the only flamingo species that have three-toed feet without a hallux, or hind toe.
For a long time the James’s flamingo was presumed extinct. However, in 1909 a nesting colony was discovered at Laguna Colorada. The flamingos of the Altiplano sure know how to elude predators. Non-flying predators would have to defy the seemingly bottomless saline mud to get to an egg or a tasty chick while flying predators would face very thin air and the intense and relentless winds. True survivors!
Early November is breeding time for the flamingos and they come in large numbers to feed on the pinkish coloured algae.
They have likely never been hunted so most don’t seem to care much about human presence.
It’s truly an incredible sight to see hundreds of flamingos grazing in the shallow lakes. The only thing more beautiful, is when they en masse take to flight right in front of your very eyes. Most of the lakes at some point have a flock of flamingos present. However, some lakes seem to be more popular, such as Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Cañapa, Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde, near Volcan Licancabur.
The Salt Hotel
With durable, rock-hard salt in abundance, no wonder you can stay in a hotel built with salt carved from the crust.
The first salt hotel, Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca, was built in 1993 almost in the middle of Salar de Uyuni. Consisting of 15 bedrooms, a dining room, living room, bar, common bathroom and no showers, it became popular. Due to sanitation difficulties and a threat to the fragile environment it was forced to dismantle.
Then in 2007 a new hotel, Palacio de Sal, was built at the eastern edge of the salt flat, just 25 km from Uyuni town. Constructed with about a million blocks of salt, cut into 35 cm pieces, almost the entire building, including the furniture and sculptures were completed within a short time. The sanitary system now complies with strict government regulations.
Salar de Uyuni these days boasts more than one salt hotel. Check out Hotel de Sal Luna Salada to the northwest of Uyuni town, as well as Hotel de Sal Cristal Samaña a few kilometres south.
The Train Cemetery
It is not every day that you see a train cemetery in the middle of nowhere! About 3 km outside the town of Uyuni is the rather bizarre scenery of rusted old trains, still on their rusty tracks.
The “antique train cemetery“ (“Cementerio de trenes” in Spanish) has an interesting history.
A very long time ago, Uyuni used to be the hub for trains moving minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports of Chile.
The rail lines were built by the British from 1888 and completed in 1892. However, the local Aymara indigenous Indians were not impressed with the trains and frequently sabotaged the tracks.
When the mining companies collapsed during WWII, the trains were moved outside town and left to die a rusty death!
The train cars and locomotives date back to the early 20th century and are being slowly eroded by strong salty winds blowing relentlessly.
There are no restrictions or entrance fees, so climb around and do your yoga tricks, but be careful and don’t get cut by rusty or fallen metals.