Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, measuring 4,086 square miles (10,582 square kilometers). It is located in the southwest corner of Bolivia and contains an estimated 10 billion tons of salt. The flats are thought to have developed from a prehistoric lake that has since evaporated, leaving a salt crust up to 32 feet thick. Beacuase of the evaporation process, the flats are unusually level, creating an opportunity for many fun photos.
Once we decided on a tour company (Andes Salt Expeditions) we were able to sit back and enjoy being transported to some of the most unique landscapes we had ever seen. We spent the next three days driving around in a 4×4 SUV with our guide Walberto, a young couple from Australia, a Colombian, and a German. Before starting the tour we anticipated that the immensity of the salt flat would be the highlight of our tour. As it turned out we were amazed by the salt flat but we were also stunned by the beauty of the lakes, geysers and colorful mountains.
Our first day we drove a short distance from the town of Uyuni and to a train cemetery. From there we returned back to Uyuni to head the other direction to the salt flats. We made a couple of stops to take pictures of the landscape as well as some fun shots taking advantage of the perspective offered by the flat terrain. We also made a stop at Isla Incahuasi, an island covered with cacti and fossilized corral. The cacti were supposedly planted by the Incans, and we were told that they grow only 1-2 cm a year.
After our day enjoying the flats we drove for a few hours for our first night’s accommodations. The first night we stayed at a “salt hotel.” This was a building made entirely out of salt blocks. The concept sounds quite novel and would likely have been beautiful if we chose to stay in a high priced, luxury hotel. As it was, ours was very simple just looked like a slightly dingy adobe building.
We were also a bit nervous about the extreme conditions that region is famous for. The trip through the Salar reaches elevations of around 16,400 feet and during the winter can often reach temperatures of -10 celcius. Luckily, we were there in the summer and we had a much milder climate.
The second day was spent driving through valleys that were beautiful and often barren as we made our way to various lakes and points of interest. We visited 2 lakes with white shores that we initially assumed was more salt. It turns out that the white substance that coats the area is actually borax, of which the lake has levels that are toxic for most organisms. It turns out that one animal not affected by these chemicals are flamingos and the bacteria that they feed on. We also visited the Arbol de Piedra (tree of stone) which is a large area with interesting rock formations, one of which looks like a tree. That evening we stayed in a hostal with a half dozen 6-person dorms inside Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. The reserve was the at the highest elevation of our trip so it was the coldest night, but nowhere near the subzero temperatures that occur there during the winter. Also, because of the altitude many people suffer from altitude sickness on this portion of the trip. Luckily, we were prepared after our hike up Huayna Potosi, and neither of us suffered any ill-effects.
Our last day we got up 3:30 am and had an early breakfast so that we could hit the road just after 4 am. Our first stop of the morning, and the reason that we had to get up so early was to see the geysers. The geysers only erupt in the early morning and they were about an hour drive from where we spent the night. We spent an hour enjoying the geyser and exploring nearby sulfur pits before heading to soak in a nearby hot spring. It was still early morning and quite brisk when we got to the hot spring. The combination of the cool weather and multiple long days of sitting in an SUV made the natural hot springs seem incredibly luxurious. After 45 minutes of relaxation we piled back into the car and head to our last stop, Laguna Verde. The name Laguna Verde translate to green lagoon, which is evidently how the lake appears in the afternoon when the winds pick up, stirring up the lake and causing sediments containing copper minerals to give the lake a green hue. If you visit the lake in the morning it is more aptly named Laguna Negra, or black lake. The lake and surrounding mountains were still beautiful even if the lake didn’t live up to its green name. From the laguna we made our way to the Chilean border where we were picked up and transported to the nearby town of San Pedro de Atacama.
We had an amazing 3 days traveling through the salt flats enjoying the diverse and unique landscapes that it offered. We are sad that it passed so quickly but are excited to see what adventures we find in Chile.