The Uyuni Salt Flats is that kind of place that makes your jaw drop when you see it and leaves you awe-stricken for the rest of your life. When I am asked to name a place that really, really struck me, Uyuni immediately comes to my mind.
It seems that it’s not just me. I remember meeting during my travels at least two couples who were on a round-the-world trip. These guys had seen the world. I met them at different occasions and they did not know each other at all. I asked them that same question – can you name one place that really struck you: both of them promptly answered with a big smile, Salar de Uyuni.
This place has won the heart of every traveler who walked on it, and it’s fully deserved. It is the largest salt flat in the world. 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) of pure white salt. That means that is is very roughly 100 km (62 mi) from east to west, and also 100 km from north to south. It is so big that sometimes, the remote mountains seem to float over the horizon, like a mirage. It lies at 3660 m (12,000 ft) of altitude.
Salar de Uyuni was formed by the disappearance of an immense lake called Lago Minchin, 10,000 years ago. The remains of this lake that exist today are the Uyuni and Coipasa salt flats, and the Poopo and Uru-Uru lakes.
Another incredible feature of the Uyuni salt flats are its “islands” covered with giant cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis). One of them, Isla Incahuasi, has been developed for tourism, with the construction of a small path and a house to welcome tourists.
The Salar’s biggest “island” is Isla del Pescado (Fish Island), 22 km (14 mi) away from Isla Incahuasi. Do you realize how unique, bizarre and incredible this place is? “Islands” made of fossil coral formations, covered with giant cacti, in the middle of an immense crust of salt!
North of the Salar, Tunupa Volcano dominates the salt flat with its very colorful crater and offers great panoramic views of the Salar.
How did I visit Salar de Uyuni?
After an epic night spent wandering like a homeless, I finally got on a tour to Salar de Uyuni and Sud Lipez. That’s the very classic tour you can get anywhere in the town of Uyuni. This tour was fantastic. We explored the exceptional landscapes of Sud Lipez and crossed the Salar. Yeah, that’s how I felt, we just crossed it. We stopped at the Salt Hotel, we stopped at Isla Incahuasi, and we left.
That’s what most tourists do and they can say they have seen Salar de Uyuni for sure but I just felt that this place was so unique, so exceptional, that it deserved more exploration and time than that.
After this tour I headed south to Tupiza. From there I got to know a local travel agent, and I went on a private 4 wheel drive tour on the Salar. It kinda blew my budget, but I really have no regret. It cost me $300 for 3 days. Alone in the Salar, where tourists usually don’t go, stopping wherever and whenever I want. That’s how I got to hike on Isla del Pescado, and sleep in a salt hotel at the foot of Tunupa Volcano that I partially climbed the next day.
When I go back to Bolivia someday, I will definitely do it again.
If you happen to be visiting that region soon, make sure you find a way to go beyond the simple tours provided everywhere in Uyuni. It’s really worth spending some extra money and visiting the Salar properly, and avoid the frustration of having traveled through it too quickly.