While the town of Uyuni itself does not have much to write home about, the surrounding area is simply spectacular, and we believe they more than make up for the somewhat basic nature of the town itself. Sometimes the best things in life do not come wrapped in comfort!
Founded in 1890 as a trading post, the town of Uyuni has a population of approximately 21,400. Today Uyuni exists primarily for tourists, who are visiting the world’s largest salt flats – the Salar de Uyuni. Each year, Uyuni receives approximately 60,000 visitors from around the world drawn to this amazing natural wonder, which is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Bolivia’s tourist attractions.
The Salar de Uyuni is comprised of the world’s largest salt flat and covers an area of 10,582km². The Salar, which sits at 3,650 meters, was formed when several ancient lakes were transformed by changing weather conditions, and is said to be over 10 meters thick in the center.
It is situated in the southwest of Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, and is located in the Potosi and Oruro departments.
The Salar de Uyuni is roughly 25 times the size of Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States and is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is extracted annually.
The salt crust serves as a source of salt and creates a pond of brine which is unusually rich in lithium. Bolivia is home to about half of the world’s lithium reserves. Most of those are located beneath the Salar de Uyuni. Demand for lithium, used in battery powered cars and portable electronics, is expected to increase drastically over the next decades.
A tour of the salt flats can be done as a one-day tour of just the Salt Flats and the “Fish Island”, shown in the photo above, or over several days, including other areas with amazing scenery. Tours are undertaken in four-wheel-drive vehicles and accommodation ranges from simple to very simple!
During your tour, you are likely to visit the Train Cemetery that contains old, rusting trains, which were mostly used by mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly due to mineral depletion. Many trains were abandoned thereby producing the train cemetery.
Other highlights include a visit to the cactus island, located in the middle of the Salt Flats, where giant cacti (some over 5m high) grow; a brief tour the local salt refineries; a stop at the now-defunct, original Salt Hotel; and on longer trips, stops at Tunupa Volcano and sites such as Laguna Colarada, which is a major flamingo nesting site.
Whatever you do, make Uyuni a must-see on your visit to Bolivia, for the quirky town and the spectacular Salt Flats – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bring a very warm jacket and plenty of sun block!
Ps. (By Gary) Just to illustrate the point that the place is a true experience, on my last trip there, a few years back, I managed to set light to the vehicle tire while driving (banned from the wheel after that) as the friction of the salt and intense heat got too much. It was minus 28 degrees Celsius one night: all the local llamas froze to death and we had to light a fire under the car engine to thaw it out! Combine that with sitting in natural hot springs in the middle of nowhere, on the Salt Flats, with views of the volcanoes and you start to get the picture.