The Salar de Uyuni salt flat is a mesmerizing, thought-provoking, and incredibly mysterious site that one needs to visit at least once in the lifetime. It can be termed as the natural world’s most unique and peculiar marvel.
Located in Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni or Salar de Tunupa is the earth’s largest salt flat. The site is truly breathtaking and it won’t be wrong to state that it is an otherworldly site. So, what actually is Salar de Uyuni and what makes it a site worth visiting, let’s find out.
All about Salar de Uyuni – Largest Mirror and Salt Flat
Salar de Uyuni is a Spanish term. It means the salt pans of Uyuni (Salt Flat Enclosure) in the English language. The term has been derived from the Aymara language. The name was given because it is located nearby Uyuni city, which is at 25km distance from the salt flat. It is located in the southwest region of Bolivia, Daniel Campos Province in Potosi and Oruro near the crest of the Andes. The entire area is usually covered in snow from the Andes mountains. Salt flat of the Uyuni is elevated at approximately 3,656 meters or 11,995 ft altitude above the sea level. It covers a total area of 10,582 square kilometers.
Nearly 30,000 to 42,000 years ago this massive salt flat was a part of a huge prehistoric lake known as Lake Minchin. Lake Minchin transformed over the course of centuries and dried eventually in two portions leaving behind two lakes and later on two salt deserts. The larger desert is Salar de Uyuni while the smaller desert is the Salar de Coipasa. Interestingly, Salar de Coipasa is much smaller in size, about one-tenth of the size of Salar de Uyuni. There are two lakes that neighbor the salt flat, namely Lake Poopó and Lake Titicaca.
The Salar de Uyuni is truly beneficial for the city of Uyuni because it opened doors for the salt flat tourism industry. In fact, the city of Uyuni, which was founded in 1890 primarily as a trading post, welcomes nearly 60,000 tourists per year because of the salt flat. The Salar was a key transportation route covering the entire Bolivian Altiplano.
It is geologically a significant location because NASA uses it for positioning its satellite due to it being easy to spot and static or unmoving.
Key Facts about Salar de Uyuni:
- It contains more than 11 billion tons of salt. For centuries, the salt is locally harvested by salt gatherers, who are referred to as saleros. Annually, roughly 25000 tons of salt is extracted from the Salar de Uyuni and refined in Colchani village.
- Salar de Uyuno also contains massive reserves of precious metals like lithium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and borax. That’s why it has remained an important mining site for the mining industry. In the 1880s especially customized rails were constructed to facilitate the mining industry but the indigenous Aymara tribe sabotaged the mining plans.
- The place houses the world’s largest reserves of lithium (about 9 million tonnes of lithium according to a recent survey), thus, making Bolivia world’s leading supplier of lithium. It is claimed that Salar de Uyuni has about 70% of all the lithium reserves of the world. Lithium is commonly used in the creation of Li-ion batteries that are compulsory for powering mobile devices and other portable/cordless electronic items like laptops.
- It is also called the world’s largest natural mirror because on rainy days the salt flat gets covered in thin layer of water, which gives it the look of a mirror reflecting the sky. Water usually comes from the nearby two lakes due to flooding caused by the rains.
- It is also the breeding ground of over 80 different species of flemingos.
- Before the Spanish conquered the South American region, the salt pans and all the nearby areas were inhabited by the indigenous Aymara tribe.
Legends about the Formation of Salar de Uyuni:
Although there is scientific reasoning behind the formation of Salar de Uyuni’s salt desert, mythologists have their own logic and reasoning to explain it.
Dominantly, there are two myths that are usually associated with the salt flat. The first myth claims that the salt flats were formed due to a domestic issue involving a couple Cuzco (Kusku) and Thunupa (Tunupa). Cuzco, the husband, cheated on his wife for a much younger girl Cosuna (Kusina). Thunupa,who was an important deity, cried so much that her salty tears flooded the ground to create the salt desert. That’s why Salar de Uyuni is also called Salar de Tunupa.
The other story states that a woman had two lovers who fought with each other over who impregnated her. The woman was so depressed that she sent her child away to stop the fight but later realized that the child would need to be fed. Hence, she released her milk in the direction of the salt pans, which created the salt desert.
Natural Beauty of Salar de Uyuni:
There is no doubt about the fact that this salt pan is among the most mesmerizing natural wonders of the world. The look of the Salar is truly breathtaking as you will see a white colored ground that is so extensive that you won’t be able to look beyond the salt pan. The dry flats is also a desolate place that suddenly turns into a natural mirror to offer clear and near-perfect reflection of the sky, clouds, and anything lying above. This entire scene is so amazingly unbelievable that tourists throng to the site exclusively during rainy season only to view the reflection.
Salar de Uyuni is basically a white, large ground that is visible from space as well. The ground has abundance of salt and other precious minerals/materials. The area is so salty that none of the other materials can be used to construct buildings such as hotels and resorts. That’s why, all the hotels in Uyuni are constructed using big blocks of salt. Everything from the floor, walls and ceilings are made from giant sized salt blocks, isn’t it an unusual fact. Even the chairs and beds are made from salt blocks. So, when you visit the site, do remember that you will be sitting, walking, and sleeping on salt blocks.
This area doesn’t offer much variety of flora and fauna mainly because of the presence of salt and dry environment. You won’t find any kind of vegetation over here and the only flora you would see are shrub ribbons and cactus clusters. However, during November the site turns into a spectacular location as South American pink flamingoes flock the salt pans in droves. This place is actually the chief breeding ground for the beautiful pink flamingoes. The birds greatly benefit from the vast reserves of water that cover the land during this month.
The terrain is also an attractive attraction from a tourist’s perspective. The ground is composed from meters thick salt and water. All around the salt flats, you will see geysers, hills, dry islands with some vegetation, and beautiful lakes. The location is totally different in wet and dry seasons. It is all white and plain during dry season and turns into a natural mirror during wet season.
Unusual Things about Salar de Uyuni:
Despite such high amount of salt covering the area, Salar de Uyuni’s temperature remains relatively stable. The temperature reaches a maximum peak of 21 °C between November and December while the lowest noted temperature is 13 °C in June.
It is an area that is totally covered in salt but still it attracts rains up to 80mm in January, which is the peak time for rainy season in Uyuni. The salt flats become a mirror when it receives rain.
This place is extensively broad and flat in surface, which is why the Salar is considered ideal reference guide for altimeters orbiting the Earth.
Three species of pink flamingoes namely Andean, Chilean, and James flock the Salar de Uyuni for breeding. Furthermore, there are around 80 different species of birds on the Salar. These include many rare varieties such as the Andean Hillstar, Horned Coot, and Andean Goose.
The Salar is covered by several feet of salt crust. This gives the area an extraordinary flat surface. However, contrary to popular belief that the Salar has a completely flat surface, the site isn’t as flat as it is assumed. When the surface was surveyed using modern GPS technology, it turned out that there are small undulations on the surface. Many missed features were also discovered later that are similar to hills, ridges and valleys. Interestingly, there height is only in millimeters.
Salar de Uyuni is a strange salt flat that scientists have tried to explain in their own way and as per their understanding. The salt desert’s bright white surface, which is over 4,000 square miles long, creates a unique kind of optical illusion. This illusion is void of objects that help our eyes understand the depth of field. Moreover, between February and April and November and March the salt flats turn into a natural mirror, which is also the world’s largest natural mirror. This happens because of the thin cover of water that heavy rains during these months create. This mirror offers the perfect reflection of every object present nearby from mountains to clouds and even the sky. There is no doubt about the fact that the Salar de Uyuni is an important ecosystem to study and understand.
The reason behind the mirror effect is that when rain water accumulates on the salar’s surface, the lack of horizon causes this effect. The salar immediately becomes a giant mirror that can reflect almost everything. As far as the white colored, salty surface is concerned, scientists opine that the location was home to a gigantic lake called Minchin Lake. This lake dried up and completely disappeared around 40,000 years ago. This prehistoric lake was then replaced by several smaller lakes but these also got dried up. Hence, just the salty strata were left behind and this is how the magnanimous salt flats got formed.
Salar de Uyuni- Mini Tour Guide:
It won’t be wrong to state that Salar de Uyuni is a whole new world. Anyone who wants to experience an outwardly phenomenon must visit this site. If you want to enjoy the mirror impact then the ideal time would be between February and April. However, you can visit the Salar anytime during the year as the salt flats offer a truly rewarding experience.
To visit the Salar de Uyuni, you need to reach the city of Uyuni because all the tours to the site are launched from Uyuni. There are two ways to reach the city of Uyuni, bus and plane. Air travel would only be an hour long journey while bus travel may take somewhere around 8-12 hours. If you are arriving in Bolivia from another country then most probably you will land in La Paz, which is Bolivia’s third largest city. But, La Paz is farther from the salt flats while Uyuni is far closer. If you have arrived in La Paz then you will need to reach Uyuni to visit the salt flats.
Bus rates vary considerably as per the time of the year and you can easily book your tickets online or you can buy them from Uyuni or La Paz upon your arrival. Most of the cities in Bolivia offer travel options to the salt flats, so you can visit the salar from any location. The rates will be higher during rainy season. Typically, bus travel will cost you minimum $20 and maximum $40. On the other hand, air travel can cost you between $90 – $120 if you have booked your flight with any of the two main airlines in Bolivia, namely BoA (Boliviano de Aviacion) and Amazonas.
Bus travel rates vary because of the different types of buses available for tourists. For instance, some buses have toilets while some are centrally heated, some offer full cama (fully reclining seats) and some offer semi cama (half-reclining seats), and some offer snacks. There are buses that offer multiple luxuries too. If your bus doesn’t have toilets, then the driver will make pitstops, however, we suggest that you pay for a better bus after doing adequate research to avoid discomfort in a foreign country.
If you are taking the bus from La Paz then it will take you two days to travel to and from the Salar de Uyuni. You will find many tour operators in the city of Uyuni and La Paz, so you can consult them for making arrangements for your visit to the salt flats. Local companies normally charge $30 per person for a one-day tour to the salt flats. The package will include viewing the Salar both with and without water. Hence, you will get to enjoy both the views and take pictures to your heart’s content. You may also choose to book 2-3 day tour to the salt flat but this option won’t be available from February to April because some areas remain closed due to flooding.
It is worth noting that in Uyuni, the rates of tour can vary according to the quality and comfort level of the vehicle as well as tour guide, meals, and accommodation. Therefore, you need to select a package that suits your budget. It is a better idea to book a tour from Uyuni city as the rates will be lower from here as the distance is lesser than La Paz.
Train travel option is also available if you want to visit the salt flats via Uyuni while the tour can be arranged directly from Tupiza, Sucre, and Lap Paz
Things to Remember:
Bolivia mostly is a highly elevated country and therefore, the salt flats are also quite elevated. The salar is around 12,000 feet or 3,660m above the sea level. This is why tourists often experience altitude sickness while they are visiting the country, especially the salt flats. The condition will subside within a few days and you will acclimatize. Do remember to drink plenty of water and fluids to stay hydrated. You can try the delectable coca tea, which is a popular beverage in the area and very refreshing as well.
The temperature remains warm and sunny during the day while the nights are colder and sometimes the temperature may reach sub-zero. So, you must pack some warm clothes and opt for layered clothing at night and lighter, breathable clothing during daytime. Sunscreen is a must-have item on your packing list. To save your eyes from hurting from the intensely bright white color of the salar and the overall high temperatures, sunglasses are a must.
Visiting the Salar de Uyuni would definitely be a worthwhile decision. You should list this site in your bucket list of travel destinations and take out time to relish the natural wonder that it is. The salt flats offer you a wonderful opportunity to learn about certain naturally occurring phenomena like the formation of salt desert and the naturally reflective surface. Additionally, the place is an amazing location to take some memorable pictures, especially if you are visiting it during the rainy season.