Bolivia’s salt flats

Crossing the Salar de Uyuni

Some 40,000 years ago, a vast expanse of the Altiplano desert was covered in water; an immense saltwater lake 3,650m above sea level and over 200km from the Pacific Ocean. The lake shifted over time as it evaporated and flooded, reaching depths of up to 140m, shrinking into smaller lakes, and eventually drying out entirely, leaving an almost perfectly flat salt crust.
Today, these salt flats – known as the Salar de Uyuni – cover over 12,000km2 and contain 10 billion tons of salt, making them the largest salt desert on earth. Each year, they draw tens of thousands of tourists who come to experience the blinding white expanse. During the dry season, the emptiness distorts all perspective, creating opportunities for surreal photography. The annual rains turn the Salar into a gigantic mirror, reflecting the immense sunrises and the Andean peaks that surround it.

How to visit the Salar de Uyuni

Uyuni is a small town situated in the middle of nowhere.
– Wikitravel

Passing the salt - How to get to the salt flats

Uyuni – the main gateway to the salt flats – is 540km from La Paz, yet once you take into account the unpaved roads, Bolivian transport schedules and disruptive weather, making this journey overland will take all day or all night. Uyuni has something of a Wild West feel to it, thanks to the dust and desolation; this former trading post, at the junction of railroads leading across Bolivia and Argentina, would almost certainly be a ghost town by now were it not for the steady flow of tourists.
By bus from La Paz, Uyuni is a bumpy ride along mostly unpaved roads, taking anywhere from nine to 12 hours. Tourist class buses have reclining seats and toilets. Another option is to take a three to four hour bus ride from La Paz to Oruro, then the train from Oruro to Uyuni, which is another seven hours. The train runs four days a week, so this will be factored into your tour dates. The train’s main selling point is the novelty factor: this is one of the few opportunities to travel by rail in Latin America, and you’ll cruise across some extraordinary landscapes.
The quickest and easiest option by far is the one-hour flight between La Paz and Uyuni – though this is also the most expensive, and not for those who fear flying; the planes are tiny. Plenty of overland tours also do the journey in reverse, entering Bolivia from Chile’s Atacama Desert, traveling north.

How to get around

Crossing the Salar is a three-day, two-night expedition in a 4x4. By night, you’ll stay in basic hotels (in either shared dorms, or a private room with shared bathroom), and by day you’ll be driving across the salt, with picnic lunches by the side of the vehicle. You’ll normally spend one night in the middle of the Salar, in a hotel made of salt bricks.

You’ll be up each day at dawn or earlier, when the temperatures are well below freezing, but it’s worth it. Few sights can compete with a Salar sunrise, as the shadows stretch, unbroken, to the horizon, and the sun’s warmth penetrates the thin, icy air.

Close to Uyuni is the eerie ‘train cemetery’ where the rusted hulks of engines have been gnawed away by salt laden winds. As you drive deeper into the salt pan, things get even more surreal. There are the ‘islands’ of Incahuasi, meaning Home of the Inca, and – less explicably – Isla del Pescado, or Island of the Fish. These rocky outcrops are covered in giant cacti which grow just a centimetre per year; look out for shrines and offerings to Pachamama, the Incan Earth Goddess. Further south are is the Árbol de Piedra – the Dalí-esque stone tree – and lakes that dramatically change colour at dawn, as the sun warms the algae on the surface. Flamingoes perch in one of the lakes against a backdrop of snow tipped volcanoes. The surrounding mountains stand in the way of the clouds, giving the Salar its own microclimate; the skies are a deep, empty blue, magnified by the thin air, and sunglasses are essential to combat the brilliant light bouncing off the salt pan.

Although the Salar itself is pretty barren, once you are in the desert look out for pretty vicuñas (similar to small llamas), vizcachas (Andean rabbits) and dusky pink plantations of quinoa.

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Best time to go the Salt Flats

May to November is the dry season in the Altiplano. This is the chilliest time of year, with temperatures plummeting well below freezing at night, but the dry weather means the entire Salar can be traversed in 4x4s. The peak months are June, July and August; book well in advance if traveling at this time, and be aware that prices may be higher.
December to April bring rains, and the Salar floods. This creates a surreal, mirror effect which is wonderful for photographers. However, some areas will be inaccessible, so check with your vacation company to ensure you can visit the places you want to see.
Do also take into account any other places you are visiting on your South America vacation; Peru’s Inca Trail is closed in February, for example, and will be wet through to early April, while the Amazon offers completely different experiences depending on whether it is flooded or not.

Visiting the Salar – the practicalities

Bring a lot of layers. The Salar is bitterly cold at night, and depending on whether or not your accommodation is heated, you may find yourself sleeping in all your clothes! The cold is deceptive though. You are at very high altitude, at tropical latitudes, and the air is thin – bring high factor sunscreen and wear a wide brimmed hat as skin can burn in minutes. Bring sunglasses too, as the salt is brilliantly white.

All meals will be included on your tour, so advise your vacation company in advance if you have any dietary requirements. You might want to bring snacks, and you may also be responsible for your own water supplies; large water bottles can be picked up in town before you depart. There are no shops along the way.

Altitude sickness is the biggest issue for most. You won’t be walking around much, which makes catching your breath a little easier, but do spend time acclimatising before you head off so that you can make the most of your trip. Even the hardiest of travelers are likely to have a rough night at over 4,000m, in the icy cold.

Some people like to bring all manner of props to take photographs in the Salar, with toy dinosaurs a particularly common theme. But you can always improvise with equipment in the vehicle; cooking pots and spoons, hats and water bottles can all be used to take creative shots. Top tips include keeping the camera low to the ground, using a small aperture (if your camera allows) and angling yourself to keep shadows behind your subjects for the most convincing ‘tiny person’ pictures.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Diego Delso] [Food: Frank Smith] [Places: Joe Bloggs]