Jan 13 2018

Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni

Visiting The Largest Salt Flats on Earth

Categories: Bolivia, Road Trips

The whole reason for us visiting the dusty town of Uyuni was to see the nearby salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. We did not enter the flats from Uyuni, instead we drove about 20 minutes north to a tiny town called Colchani, and stayed in the world’s first hotel made of salt, the Hotel de Sal Luna Salada. Salt is not the best building material. It dissolves in water and is highly corrosive, and so the hotel require continuous maintenance, as you can see in this National Geographic video. Even though the hotel was in plain sight, the “driveway” was so rough it took 10 minutes to traverse every time we came or went. But the hotel was a pretty cool, unique place to stay in.

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A few miles out is a monument for the Dakar Rally, which passes across the flats.

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Near the monument is this other monument shaped like a star and covered with flags from all the countries participating in the race.

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Absolutely no matter where you go in Bolivia, a dog will show up in 30 seconds.

We were not there during the rainy season so we did not get to see the infinity reflections but because it was dry we were able to drive fast and securely across the incredibly bright white landscape. We drove out to an island 5o miles away from the “shore”. The island is not visible from the edge of the flats, and for about half the distance we were driving towards an empty horizon. In such situations a GPS is highly recommended.

The Salar de Uyuni and several other large salt flats in the area were once the bottom of the ice-age era Lake Minchin, like Lake Bonneville in Utah. Far out in the middle of the former lake are numerous “islands”.  When we could first see the island, it floated in the sky like a mirage for many miles but soon after it fell to the ground we arrived as Isla Incahuasa. Similar to arriving at a beach after a long boat ride we were ready to get out and explore the island.

From what I’ve read these islands in the lake are the peaks of ancient buried volcanoes, but far more interesting is the fact that once you start walking across them you realize that the islands are covered in coral. It’s hard to accept, 12,000 feet up in a bone dry desert, you are cutting your hands on a coral reef. So, despite being islands in a sea of salt they were at some point completely under water. The islands are covered in  a forest of thriving cacti that grow up to 39 feet tall. The icing on the cake for this surreal experience was that a few months later I found out the area was a location featured as another planet in  Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Ben stands next to a big cactus.

Rugged but fun. Watch every step.

An example of the ancient coral that encrusts the entire island.

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It does feel like an island in a sea of salt. The constant traffic has left tire marks on the salt.

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Once you get up high you can see beyond the curvature of the earth to  the other shore. We had parked as soon as we got to the rocks and climbed up, not realizing there were gift/snack shops and a bunch of cars on the far side of the island. I think it worked out better that way. Here you can also see some tire marks heading off towards Isla Pescar.

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These particular cacti seem to have needles that catch the sun’s light, outlining each tower in its own halo.

I had a great time out on the salt flats and the island. It was a good stress reliever after our horrible drive the previous day. Another island, “Fish Island” was not too far away but we did not have enough gas to get there. The same electricity outages that plagued Uyuni had shut down the gas station in Colchani so we were unable to fuel up before our adventure. Even getting out and back to Incahuasa was really pushing our luck, so we had drive straight back to town.

Hotel de Sal Luna Salada

The salt hotel has several very long hallways. It takes a long time to walk from one end to the other.

There are many of these little reading rooms but they can be cold and many were undergoing maintenance.

The lounge.

The restaurant had good food. It’s so bright outside looking out the windows can hurt your eyes.

The salt floor throughout the hotel is loud and crunchy.

The view from the hotel at sunset. The stars were amazing but the hotel had an extremely bright light that forces you to pretty much drive far off in order to enjoy them.

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