My trip to Bolivia and Uyuni Salt Flat is by far the most physically challenging journey that I had in my life. I had to combat jet lag, high altitude, zero humidity, polarized temperature range, lost in translation, and complete remoteness with no cell phone coverage…
I didn’t know why I did it, but I did it. I signed up for a 4-day Spanish speaking local tour that took off from the Atacama and headed to Uyuni. It’s a group of six, and the tour guide could only speak Spanish. Now that I think of it, I should have been better prepared – what if something bad happened and I had to support system around me in the most remote places in the world? Luckily, I had an amazing group of peers coming from Germany and Spain that translate what the tour guide said for me. We ended up had a great time during our 4 days in Bolivia, and I will tell my story bit by bit. For this post, I am going straight to the highlight of my excursion – the Salt Flat. For the first part of our journey from Chile to Uyuni, check out: Lagoon! Lagoon! Reasons Why You Should Go to Uyuni from the Beautiful Atacama.
I believe the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia is on everybody’s travel bucket list. For our 4 days to the Salt Flat, we traveled through the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, where we saw many flamingos and incredible natural sceneries. It was our last day that we finally reached the Salt Flat, and we had to wake up at 5 am in our Salt hotel to catch the sunrise at the Salt Flat. Before we took off, I got out of the hotel, and the night sky was filled with stars. I couldn’t believe the number of stars and I saw and it is one of the most impressive night skies that I have seen. Too bad that I don’t have much time to savor the view, but only gasp when I looked up.
Do you know that the Atacama is one of the best places for stargazing? Check out: How to Spend 4 Days Discovering the Best of the Atacama.
Unfortunately, our tour guide (a.k.a. driver) overslept and we couldn’t make it to our first stop in Incahuasi Island for the sunrise. We stopped in the middle of the Salt Flat and still we had a great view of the sunrise from the horizon.
Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest mirror
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It is located at an elevation of 3,656 meters with an area of 10,582 square kilometers – this is the size of Lebanon and the largest “flatland” in the world! Yes, it is completely flat, and so it was really amazing to see the sunrise on the horizon as if the world is limitless. Since it’s a flat surface, NASA uses Salar de Uyuni as a guide to position their satellites.
Given that it’s a salt flat, it has an estimation of 11 billion tons of salt in Uyuni. The area is also the gathering place of 80 species of birds, including the three species of flamingos.
How the salt flat was formed?
The salt flat is the end result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variation within one meter over the entire area! Following rain, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror. That’s why tourists are flooding into the lake to see this incredible natural phenomenon.
The Amazing things that you have to do in Uyuni
Driving on the salt flat was like driving on an ice lake at full speed… and the flatness does mess up your sense of distance. The entire salt flat is actually 129 kilometers across. Tunupa Volcano, situated on the other side of the lake, is the highest point in the area. At 5,321 meters in height, the volcano looks so close to us yet it would take over almost 3 hours to drive there from where we were.
Climb the Incahuasi island
Well, since it’s a salt flat, the entire area is really, just salt. There were several “islands” in the salt flat and the Incahuasi Island is in the center of the Salar. The island is a hilly and rocky outcrop of the land – “Incahuasi” literally means “Inca house” and the island is a giant rock that filled with coral-like structures… and gigantic cactuses. That’s why sometimes it is called the “Cactus Island” as well. It is also a great viewpoint once you reach the top of the island. The view of the salt flat is boundless, and I am sure it would look so much more amazing if the salt flat is filled with water.
Hang your country flag
After we had our breakfast by the island (with a little bit of Dulce de leche, a sweet bread spread that we desperately need some sugar), we continued our journey and we reached an old hotel in the heart of the salt flat. The salt hotel was once in operation, but now it’s a pit stop for tourists to take pictures of the flags and have a walk inside.
The outside of the hotel has many country flags hanging on a series of poles. in fact, these flags were brought there by the tourists. If your country flag isn’t already there, bring one and hang it! Yet I see a lot of countries already had their flag hung.
Visit the Dakar Monument
After a short break in the salt hotel and taking some pictures of the flags, we migrated towards the Dakar Monument. It is within walking distance The Dakar Rally is an annual rally raid, started in 1978, organized by the Amaury Sport Organisation. Contestants drive across South America in this off-road endurance competition with different motor vehicles – crossing dunes, mud, camel grass, rocks, and erg. The Uyuni Salt Flat was the stage of the rally since 2014, and the dramatic terrain remained one of the most awaited parts by spectators.
Find the Eyes of the Salt Flat
Ojos de Sal, which literally means “Eyes of the Salt Flat”, is where you could see how the salt flats are formed. These bubble springs are outlets for subterranean rivers flowing under the surface of the meters of thick salt.
The Salt Flat is covered with water during the rainy season after rain. Then the sun and the wind dry the surface and a layer of white crust is formed. The crust will eventually crack as the salt, which is still wet, underneath dried up and protrude to the surfacing. The end result is polygon patterns that we saw during the dry season.
Sleep in a salt hotel (but don’t lick one)
There are many salt hotels in the area that are built with salt bricks. While salt is basically the most abundant resource in the area, it makes sense that the locals build houses in salt. But not only that – in the salt hotel, tables, chairs, nightstand, and your bed, are all in salt. Since people cook in the building, the once shiny white salt may then turn black yet I was told the salt surroundings have healing properties that improving breathing, mood, and quality of sleep.
There are many salt hotels at different price levels from basic accommodation to luxurious hotels that has facilities like a dry sauna, steam room, and saltwater baths.
One thing that you need to know while staying in the salt hotel is, as tempting as it is to verify if the hotel is really made of salt, there is a rule that guests should not be licking the walls during their stay in the hotel.
Take optical illusion pictures
The reflection of the water after the rain is the perfect setting for epic photos that allows you to show off to your friends. True, that’s probably the reason that you visit the salt flat. But in case the weather doesn’t go your way, the vast, white flatland is still very impressive. The dry land may be even more friendly for you to take optical illusion pictures. Imagine the flatland is filled with nothing but salt as far as your eye can see. This is the perfect canvas for taking optical illusion pictures and let your mind go wild. Play with proportions, and play with distance – the horizon will give the perspective that the objects nearer to the camera are larger than those farther away, and there is nothing else in the frame to ruin your illusion!
If you are not prepared with props, your tour guide might just have a thing or two in their cars. In fact, any daily products or items could be used a prop anyway. Soda cans, cereal boxes, or simply pose creatively! For photo shooting ideas, remember to flip through other people’s photo albums on Instagram and you will have lots of inspiration. (But do it while you are in the city because you have absolutely no internet connection while you are there.)
Learn about Uyuni’s mining past in the Train Cemetery
Leaving the salt flat, we headed to the city of Uyuni for lunch and we finally have a Wi-Fi connection at the restaurant spending four days in the wild with no reception at all :P. The antique train cemetery is a major attraction in town and it’s about 3 kilometers outside Uyuni. Uyuni has a history of mining and minerals transportation where the train carried minerals to ports near the Pacific Ocean. However, the industry collapsed in the 1940s, and partly due to resources depletion, the train track was closed and trains were abandoned. Hence the cemetery was produced.
Buy some salt or souvenir in the Colchani village
Finally, if you have some loose Bolivian Bolivianos and are looking to buy some souvenirs for your friends at home, spend them in the Colchani Village.
There are stores, street food, and a small museum lining up along the village. You may even take pictures with a llama! While the village has some good choices of handicrafts, it may be a good idea to buy a bag of salt from the Salar home as a souvenir. Another fun thing to do is to send a postcard at the post office in Uyuni!