The Uyuni Salt Flats, also called Salar de Uyuni in Spanish are located in Southern Bolivia near the country's Tunupa volcano and make up the world's largest salt desert, around 11,000 km sq.
That makes the Uyuni salt flat even larger than the Lake Titicaca, a vast stretch of water shared by Bolivia and neighbouring Peru.
The salt flats themselves are 3,600m above sea level in the Andes - making it almost possible, it seems, to reach up and touch the clouds from the ground.
The area has long been popular with tourists, particularly those looking for a holiday with a difference.
Although tourists have long been visiting the area, it wasn't until around five years ago that interest grew in extracting the 5.4m tons of lithium which is found just below the surface of the salt.
Salar de Uyuni comprises over 10,000 sq km in the Potosi region. The salt is over 10 meters thick in the center. In the dry season, the salt plains are a completely flat expanse of dry salt, but in the wet season, it is covered with a thin sheet of water that is still drivable.
The Salar de Uyuni was formed by the disappearance of an inland ocean that covered most of the Altiplano and extended all the way to the Titicaca Lake. This body of water disappeared about 13,000 years ago.
It is an extraordinary experience to cross this lake of salt by car, especially during the winter, because at that time the sky is completely clear and the bright blue color of the sky contrasts brilliantly with the salt. On a cloudy day there is a "white-out" effect: the horizon seems to blend in with the sky and you can hardly tell where the salt lake actually ends.
Amid this shiny white desert there are idle polyhedral figures that seem to emerge from the ground; these forms have been formed by nature, mostly by the movement of the air.
The islands that are in the center are attractions that marvel all visitors.
Isla Pescado (Fish Island)
The Cujiri Island, better known as Fish Island, is located at 74 kilometers from Colchani, right in the middle of the salt mines. It has a total extension of 100 hectares and a very picturesque scenery.
The layer of granite and organic materials have yielded a strange breed of giant cactus (6 meters in height) which has developed an interesting ecological system.
On the island's summit there is a cave. The internal walls of the cave present a geological cut that provides information of the various layers of the ground. This is perhaps one of the best places to take wonderful pictures of the island and the salt mines as well.
Isla Incahuasi (Fishermen's Island)
The Incahuasi Island, known as the Fishermen's Island, is formed on top of the remains of a volcano at 120 meters above the surface of the salt mines.
On this island there are 7 archaeological sites that belonging to the Tiwanaku culture. There are two Inca ruins, 30 caverns, 12 natural tunnels and 1 forest of cactuses (quirucolumbar, pillaya, piscallu, thulo, huajraguaya, anaguaya, etc.).
Alfredo Lazaro (a resident from Llica) has been living on the island since 1987 as a protector of this natural wonder. He has personally counted 4,030 adult cactuses, 5,000 cactuses that are still developing and 16 which are either burnt or dry. The island is also a nest to several species of birds and vizcachas (American species of rodent, similar in size and form to gophers).
This is a perfect place to contemplate an amazing landscape and to take very unique pictures.
The entrance ticket to Incahuasi's Island is 15 Bs.- = 2 usd. aprox.
The Salar itself is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation. The latter is dominated by giant cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana, Echinopsis tarijensis, etc.). They grow at a rate of about 1 centimeter (0.39 in) per year to a height of about 12 meters (39 ft). Other shrubs include Pilaya, which is used by locals to cure catarrh, and Thola (Baccharis dracunculifolia), which is burned as a fuel. Also present are quinoa plants and quenua bushes.
Every November, Salar de Uyuni is the breeding ground for three species of pink South American flamingo: the Chilean, Andean and rare James's Flamingos, their color presumably originating from feeding on pink algae. There are about 80 other bird species present, including the Horned Coot, Andean Goose and Andean Hillstar. Andean fox (culpeo) is a representative animal, and the "islands" of Salar (in particular Incahuasi island) host colonies of rabbit-like viscachas.
Following the different route options:
To get to Uyuni from La Paz city, take a bus. The trip takes approximately 12 to 15 hours. The suggested bus companies to Uyuni from La Paz are:
The highway from La Paz to Oruro is paved till Challapata town. From there the road is a dirt road, which means that during the rainy season the transit is difficult.
The trip from Oruro to Uyuni can be made by bus or train:
By bus: Trans Azul buses make daily departures at 18:30
To get to Uyuni by train there are two alternatives:
The trip from Potosi to Uyuni can be made by land and takes approximately 7 hours by bus.
The bus companies that travel by these routes are:
The trip from Villazón to Uyuni can be made by train on the Expreso Sur which departs on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 15:30.
The trip can also be made by train of the Wara Wara company with departures on Mondays and Thursdays at 15:30
To get to Uyuni from Chile, take the paved highway from Iquique, passing through Calama till San Pedro de Atacama and arriving at Hito Cajones.
In order to get to Uyuni from Argentina, I recommend Aerolíneas Argentinas to San Salvador de Jujuy. From there go by road to La Quiaca. Cross to Villazon and from that town it is possible to take a train to Uyuni - the journey takes about 9 hours.
Another option is to take a flight from Buenos Aires to Cochabamba, go from this city to Oruro by bus and from there to Uyuni by train.