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Salar de Uyuni

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Travel Guide South America Bolivia Salar de Uyuni

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Introduction

Salar Uyuni

Salar Uyuni

© All Rights Reserved mark92

Driving for hours on a perfectly flat salty plain is one of those experiences a traveller to Bolivia can enjoy. The flats are on an elevation of about 3,600 metres but during a tour you will visit areas up to 5,000 metres, so bringing a warm sweater, sleeping bag and mountain sickness pills are recommended. Typical prices for these trips are around US$120 per person (3-4 days), including accommodation, full board, a guide/driver and a great experience. Add a few dollar for a tip or the option of staying in a cheaper salt hotel. If you like you can start this trip in Uyuni, but end in Tupiza or San Pedro, or the other way around of course, which makes a trip also a good option for moving on further along your route.

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Geography

The Salar is part of the Bolivian Altiplano, and its history began when that high plateau emerged as a result of uplift of the Andes. About 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, the area that is now the Salar de Uyuni was a huge, deep lake known as Lake Minchin. As Lake Michin dried up, it left smaller lakes behind, which in turn dried up until two current-day lakes and two salt deserts remained, of which the Salar the Uyuni is the largest one. One of those two lakes, called Poopó, still has a major impact on Salar de Uyuni. As Titicaca, another large current-day lake of the Altiplano, overflows during wet season, it fills up lake Poopó. As Poopó overflows in turn, it floods the salt flats - creating the stunning landscapes of winter, when a thin layer of water creates magical reflections of the sky and anything or anyone on the flats.

The area is biggest lithium reserve of earth - containing some 70% of world's lithium in form of salt. Yearly, around 25,000 tonnes of salt are mined here, out of estimated 10 billion tonnes. Thanks to the sedimented salt, the area is perfectly flat - which is often used for various technical purposes (testing of vehicles and the like). In the middle is Isla del Pescado - a volcanic rock. It provides great views and is a natural reservation.

There isn't much flora, mostly just grass and bush. The Isla del Pescado is covered by an ancient cacti forest – cacti like Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana and Echinopsis tarijensis, which grew up to 12 metres high. The cacti grow at pace of 1cm per year, hence their age is up to 1,000 years.
In November, three types of flamingoes flock here. 80 other bird species are present, and few other small animals.

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Weather

Very little rain happens in the area, but yearly flooding occurs, mostly in January. At that time the whole area changes to a world's highest altitude mirror. After the water evaporates, bee-hive-like polygons cover the area. Temperature peaks at 21 °C in November-January, and 13° in June. Nights are cold all through the year, -9 to 5 °C. Rainfall outside January is almost non-existent.

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Sights and Activities

  • Train Graveyard - The famous lot of old wrecked steam locomotives.
  • Colchani, Bloques de Sal - A salt processing village, 7 kilometres north of Uyuni. Salt souvenirs (sometimes with a non-free exit) and museums available.
  • Salt-Mining Area. Area with many salt piles, weighing approximately a ton each, which are left there to dry.
  • Isla del Pescado (Isla Incahuasi, "fish island") - The island of fossilized coral, covered in ancient cacti. Lunch is eaten by most tour groups on the western "shore" of this island Bs30.
  • Pulacayo - Nearby world's second largest silver mine, at this historical site there's the Bolivia's first rail road and a train robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  • Laguna Hedionda. A lagoon where the flamingos can be observed.
  • Viscacha Area - A rocky outcropping with a colony of Viscachas, trained by the guides to come out for the food
  • Arbol de Piedra - "Stone tree", an isolated sandstone formation eroded by winds carrying sand.
  • Laguna Colorada - A red-coloured lake, by algae, with flamingoes present too. Bs30 (Bolivian citizen), Bs150 (foreigner) to enter Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.
  • Sol de Manaña - A geyser basin, including bubbling sulphur pools, normally visited at sunrise.
  • Laguna Verde - A lake colored by heavy metals (Arsenic, Lead, Copper etc.). The laguna only shows green when it's windy, which is often not the case in the early morning (common visit time of tours)
  • Laguna Blanca - A borax-filled white lake.
  • Laguna Celeste - A lake at the foot of the Uturuncu volcano, called according to the color of its clear blue water (caused by magnesium and manganese). Andean flamingos feed and form large flocks here.
  • Laguna Amarilla - A yellow lake, colored by sulphur, with old cave paintings nearby.
  • San Antonio ruins - An abandoned 16th century mining town, where slave labour was used. Guides provide different stories why it's no longer inhabited. An equally named village is nearby, but it's not overlooked by the ominous volcano Uturuncu.
  • Valles de Rocas - As the name says - valleys of rocks, The guides will do the common thing - try to point out some look-alike objects.
  • Sillar - Giant columns of clay nearby Tupiza, which were formed by erosion.
  • San Cristobal - A town nearby the homonymous mine - one of the largest mine facilities in Bolivia. The town was formerly nearby the mine, but was completely moved to a this area. There was a 350-year-old church in the city - it was not destroyed, but instead transported and rebuilt stone-by-stone at the new spot, including the cemetery. The altar within is made of silver - likely because the mine is 3rd largest silver producer of the world.

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Opening Hours

The Uyuni Salt Flats are open year-round.

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Cost

No fees or permits are required to enter the salt area.

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Getting There

There are lots of tours from Uyuni but also from Tupiza in the south of Bolivia and even from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, which is the best way to see the salt flats as well as the extremely beautiful southwest of Bolivia, where lakes in the colours red, green, white and turquoise against a backdrop of high snow covered volcanoes make you feel as if you were out of this world. Few people live here and public transport is close to nonexistent, which makes a tour maybe the only feasible option unless you want to bike it!

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Getting Around

Because of the sheer area size and hostility of the environment, moving by feet or even bicycle is not easy. Standardized car-tours are available - while the agents try to convince about their "specialties", they are mostly the same.

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Eat/Drink

Usually, all food and drinks are included in the tours. The tours sometimes bring not enough water supply. Get informed, you may need to take 2L more per day.

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Sleep

During most of these trips you sleep in sleeping bag accommodation with shared facilities. Rooms are rather dark and cold, but only add to the experience. There is also the opportunity of spending the night in a salt hotel near Uyuni.

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Contributors

as well as hasbeen (3%)

Salar de Uyuni Travel Helpers

  • Wendylek

    I travelled to Salar de Uyuni for 2 times. First time I did a 4 day tour from San Pedro de Atacama and the second time from Uyuni.
    So, if you have any questions about travelling the Saltflat, ask me and I will try to help you out!

    Ask Wendylek a question about Salar de Uyuni

This is version 5. Last edited at 11:28 on Aug 10, 17 by Utrecht. 1 article links to this page.

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