Introducing Uyuni: the world’s biggest salt pan
As a team, we’ve been lucky enough to visit some pretty amazing places, but the salt pan outside Uyuni in Southern Bolivia (el Salar de Uyuni) is right up there. In fact, if you’re after otherworldly photo opportunities, a sense of utter desolation and a peek at an extremely fragile ecosystem, there’s no place like it anywhere in the world.
In other words, if you’ve always wanted to go to the moon but don’t know anyone at NASA, Uyuni is your next best bet.
SA Expeditions has learned how to get the most out of this pristine and delicate gem. Uyuni is very firmly on the Gringo Trail, but our tours ensure both comfort (we've handpicked the best salt hotels) and exclusivity – we make a point of visiting a more remote (but much more impressive) train graveyard, for example, and we also steer clear of the most popular 'islands' on the salt pan. But more about that later, let’s hit the road…
The town of Uyuni is straight out of the Wild West. It’s dusty, and has the gangly unassertiveness of an adolescent who hasn’t had the time to buy new clothes after their growth spurt. Fortunately, you won’t spend much time in Uyuni. On your way to the salt pan you’ll stop at the abandoned mining town of Pulacayo which is home to a train graveyard which includes a locomotive that was robbed by none other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (read much more about their untimely demise in a remote Bolivian outpost here).
The Salar – which used to be a giant prehistoric lake - is hard, crazed, and white. It’s located at 12,000 ft above sea level and covers an area of 4,086 square miles – making it both the largest and the highest salt pan in the world. It has an average depth of 25cm and is smoother and firmer than most of the roads in Bolivia. Which is a good thing because you’ll cover some distance in this vast landscape.
Endless salt takes a bit of getting used to. In the beginning, you’ll be asking your driver to stop every few minutes for a photo break, but soon you’ll realize that every inch of the Salar is a photo opportunity. If you visit in the rainy season the flats will be covered in the thin layer of surface water which acts as a mirror for the cumulus-heavy skies. If you travel in the dry season the Salar becomes the world’s biggest blue screen, a studio where even the most camera shy can’t resist posing for silly, perspective-warping photos. (Read more about when to visit Uyuni here.)
A few ‘islands’ protrude from the Salar, a vibrant, biodiverse contrast to the lifeless salt. These islands are usually covered in giant cacti, which support abundant populations of small mammals and birds. The islands are especially impressive when the cacti are in flower. And the views from the top aren’t too shabby either.
Some parts of the salt flat see a lot of tourist pressure, and one island, in particular, is exceptionally popular at lunchtime, but our expert local guides make sure you avoid the most crowded locations / times. What's more, all the hotels we work with are located far from the madding crowd (and most are made entirely out of salt!).
You’ll get to visit 800-year old Aymara fortresses and marvel at Pre-Incan mummies. You’ll walk, cycle (if you want to) and drive through some unreal places. You’ll almost certainly encounter llamas, vicuñas and flamingos. You’ll see some mind-bending landscapes and take some amazing photos. You’ll eat great food and meet people who have lived on the Salar all their lives. But most of all you’ll realize that the emptiest place in the world is actually one of the fullest.