5 Amazing Places in the Uyuni Salt Flats
One of the greatest road trip adventures you can embark on in the whole of South America is across the Salar de Uyuni. Stretching 4,050 sq miles (10,489 sq km) over the Altiplano high plateau in southern Bolivia, this vast salt flat is actually the remnant of a prehistoric lake that long ago evaporated. It’s become quite the tourism hot spot in recent decades, and multi-day 4WD tours leave from the dusty Bolivian town of Uyuni and the northern Chilean outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. Wherever you decide to begin the journey, you’re bound to see some incredible natural wonders, and the best are listed below.
1. Hexagonal Salt Tiles
Comprising this desolate salt desert are countless hexagonal tiles that formed on the bed of the prehistoric lake once it dried up. To drive across them is an experience unlike any other, as you’ll feel as though you’re a pioneer on an alien planet. Needless to say, there are plenty of great selfie opportunities on these flats, but a real treat is waking before dawn and heading out to watch the sunrise over the Salar.
The hexagonal tiles in the Uyuni salt flats are a unique geological formation that occurs in certain areas of the salt flats. They are formed by the natural process of salt crystallization, which happens when brine (saltwater) evaporates, leaving behind salt crystals that eventually grow into large hexagonal-shaped plates.
These hexagonal plates can be quite large, some measuring up to two meters in diameter, and they create a stunning and surreal landscape. The hexagonal tiles are particularly visible during the dry season, when the salt flats are at their driest and the sun reflects off the surface of the salt.
The hexagonal tiles are not uniform in shape or size and can vary depending on the location and conditions in which they were formed. In some areas, the tiles are tightly packed together, while in others, they are more spread out.
2. Incahuasi Island
If there’s anything resembling an oasis in the sea of salt that is Uyuni, it would be this rocky outrcopping. It’s dotted with towering cacti native to the region, and a hike to the high points offers panoramic views of the flats. The name translates to “House of the Inca,” but while there are no homes here now, there is a café that serves llama steaks. It’s also common to spot emus milling about (a flightless bird similar to an Ostrich).
Incahuasi Island is a popular destination for tourists who want to experience the natural beauty of the salt flats and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Visitors to Incahuasi Island typically get guided tour that lasts around 45 minutes to an hour. The tour includes a walk around the island's rocky terrain, which is covered in giant cacti that can reach up to 10 meters in height. The cacti are estimated to be over 1,200 years old and are an iconic symbol of the island.
At the top of the island, visitors can enjoy stunning panoramic views of the surrounding salt flats, which can stretch out as far as the eye can see.
3. Salt Hotels
A truly unique experience of any visit to the Salar de Uyuni is overnighting in a salt hotel. No need to put that in quotations, because that’s exactly what it is: a structure built mostly out of salt. Don’t expect a four-start resort, as these are mainly humble dwellings that are more like guesthouses than resorts. Get lucky and after dinner you’ll be serenaded with songs from a group of local children.
These hotels are constructed using blocks of salt, which are extracted from the salt flats themselves. The walls, floors, and even furniture of these hotels are made entirely of salt, creating a unique and surreal experience for visitors.
The first salt hotel in Salar de Uyuni was built in 1993, and since then, several other salt hotels have been constructed in the area. These hotels offer a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors who want to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the salt flats.
While the construction of salt hotels may seem unusual, it is actually an environmentally friendly option for building in the salt flats. Salt is a renewable resource, and using it to construct hotels ensures that the natural landscape is not permanently altered.
However, it is important to note that due to the fragile nature of the salt flats, many of these hotels are not built to last long periods of time and require frequent maintenance and rebuilding. Additionally, visitors should be aware that the hotels may not offer the same level of comfort and amenities as traditional hotels, as they are located in a remote and unique environment.
4. Train Cemetery
Travel to the outskirts of the town of Uyuni and you’ll see the final resting place of dozens of trains. Most of these weather-beaten and rusted hulks date back to the early 20th-century. Back then, the region’s mining trade and access to the coast held the promise of various train routes connecting Uyuni with greater Bolivia. Alas, it wasn’t to be, as territorial disputes with Chile negated the need for new railway lines, and the trains were thus relegated to this desert scrapheap. To beat the crowds, visit the cemetery in the early morning or late afternoon.
5. The Mirror Effect
Not so much a place as it is an event, the famous mirror effect on the salar is the result of a thin layer of water running off from nearby lakes. It covers the entire salt pan, creating a reflective effect that offers some of the finest photography conditions anywhere on earth. The time to see it is during the “rainy season” (Uyuni receives a mere five inches of rain per year), which occurs during the summer months of December-April.
During this time, the Uyuni salt flats transform into a giant reflective surface, creating a mirror-like effect that makes it seem as though the sky has merged with the earth. This unique natural phenomenon is a result of the flatness of the salt flats, which creates a perfectly flat surface that reflects the sky and clouds above.
The Mirror Effect is a popular attraction for tourists who visit the Uyuni salt flats. Visitors can take stunning photographs and enjoy the surreal experience of walking on a seemingly infinite expanse of sky and water.
It is worth noting that the Mirror Effect is dependent on weather conditions, and there is no guarantee that it will occur on any given day.
A 3-day tour of the Uyuni salt flats is a popular way for visitors to explore the stunning landscapes of southwestern Bolivia. The tour typically begins in the town of Uyuni and covers a wide range of natural attractions (mentioned above) including the salt flats, colorful lagoons, geysers, hot springs, and unique rock formations.
Day 1: The tour typically starts with a visit to the Train Cemetery, a collection of old locomotives and trains from the early 20th century that were abandoned in the desert. From there, visitors will journey to the Uyuni salt flats, where they can take photographs and explore the unique landscape of the largest salt flat in the world. The first day often ends with a visit to the Isla Incahuasi, an island in the middle of the salt flats that is home to giant cacti and offers panoramic views of the surrounding area.
Day 2: The second day of the tour usually includes visits to several colorful lagoons, including the Laguna Colorada and the Laguna Verde, which are home to flamingos and other wildlife. Visitors can also explore the nearby hot springs and geysers, including the Sol de Mañana Geysers, which are known for their geothermal activity and bubbling mud pools.
Day 3: The final day of the tour typically includes a visit to the Arbol de Piedra, a unique rock formation that looks like a tree. Visitors can also explore the nearby Valle de las Rocas, a collection of unusual rock formations that have been shaped by wind and water over time. The tour usually ends with a drive back to Uyuni, where visitors can catch a flight or bus to their next destination.
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