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Why visit… Salar de Uyuni

| 17 Aug 2016

Nick Wilkins, Latin America expert, travelled to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia for the second time – and tells why he could never bore of this exceptional place, and why it’s worth a visit.

Salar de Uyuni reflection

There are many iconic sights in South America. But one of the most memorable I have seen, and unlike any other place I have visited, is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat covering some 10,000 sq km. It lies in the far south-west corner of the country, close to the Chilean border and can be reached by a daily flight from La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia.

This visit was my second time to the Salar – and it literally does take your breath away. Situated 3,600 metres above sea level, the air is thin, and in the dry season – from April to November – the skies are usually clear and the sun is strong. If you visit, be sure to take along sunscreen and sunglasses; I’m unsure if ‘salt blindness’ is a proven medical condition, but the eyes can start to ache quite quickly on a sunny day without protection. With sunglasses in place, you can comfortably experience this stunning natural wonder of the world.

Unless you arrive from Chile, you will come via Uyuni as I did; a small dusty town that has a definite frontier feel to it, as if you are at the edge of the world.

Uyuni town

The town of Uyuni

From Uyuni it is a short drive out of town and towards the salt flat itself. The dusty, arid landscape eventually peters out and soon you will find yourself in a very alien environment. A small village nearby is Colchani, home to local people who mine the salt. Near the village can be seen a landscape of piles of salt, drying in the sun, before being collected, processed, bagged up and sold.

salt in Salar de Uyuni

Mounds of salt drying in the sun

There are no roads across the flat, the drivers simply know the route through experience. The tyre tracks crisscrossing the white expanse are washed away and the salt flat emerges pristine after every rainy season.

driving the Salar de Uyuni

Crossing the Salar de Uyuni

Once out in the middle it feels like nowhere else I have been. A complete feeling of isolation, a nearly featureless white desert, patterned with hexagonal shapes caused by the crystalline nature of the salt itself. On the horizon you can just make out the hills and mountains that surround the Salar.

cracks in the Salar de Uyuni

Crystalline salt patterns

However, there are small areas that rise up out of the salt. The largest of these is Isla Incahuasi, a small ‘island’ that juts out of the surface, covered in giant cacti and home to some of the only wildlife in many miles. Vizcacha are small rabbit-like rodents that can be seen scurrying between the rocks. Do try and make it to the top of the island, but take your time. The uphill walk may have you panting for breath a little – however the views across the whole vast salt flat are certainly worth it.

Isla Incahuasi

View of the Salar de Uyuni from Isla Incahuasi

While you could stay in Uyuni town itself I would certainly recommend staying at one of the salt hotels on the edge of the Salar, like the Salt Hotel Cristal Samana. Most are made primarily of blocks of salt and some have salt lining the floors. It is certainly a unique experience and I will always remember the view in the morning light across seemingly endless miles of almost total quiet.

Luna Salada hotel

The Luna Salada Hotel

At the northern edge of the flat is the imposing bulk of the dormant volcano, Tunupa. In its shadow lies the tiny village of Jirira. It is in this less visited part of the salt flat that another unique accommodation option lies. While most who visit the salt flat stay in one of Uyuni’s hotels or one of the salt hotels, it is possible instead to spend the night in one of the converted Airstream caravans that park up on the salt itself. Your own private chef prepares you meals and, during the evening and following morning, it will feel as if you have the entire Salar to yourself.

Airstream camper, Salar de Uyuni

Airstream caravan on the Salar de Uyuni

No matter how you choose to experience the Salar de Uyuni, I highly recommend for you to visit – the memories of this one-of-a-kind expanse will last a lifetime.

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