Salar de Uyuni: a journey across Bolivia’s remarkable salt flats

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The world's largest salt flat - Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni - is a surreal realm of mirages, where the bone-dry landscape reflects the sky like a mirror. Lonely Planet's Greg Benchwick explored this eerie and unique place.

Exploring the desolation of the Salar de Uyuni. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Exploring the desolation of the Salar de Uyuni. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

The journey begins

Under the arching sky of the Bolivian Altiplano (high plains), at more than 3600m in altitude, lies the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. This chalkboard expanse of lithium dreams covers an area of over 12,000 sq km, and offers wayfarers out-of-this-world adventures right here on our little blue planet.

The spiky cacti and flat horizons combine to extraordinary effect. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

The spiky cacti and flat horizons combine to extraordinary effect. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Islands in a sea of salt

Smack dab in the middle of it all, the cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi offers remarkable 360-degree views of the flat. Climb the 30-minute trail to the top for a bird's-eye view. While it’s no Club Med, the island does have a pretty decent restaurant and museum.

Exploring the rock formations of the salt flats. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Exploring the rock formations of the salt flats. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Hard rock

Most people choose to visit the Salar and its surrounding desert wastelands on a three-day guided jeep tour from the rough-and-ready military outpost of Uyuni – or over four days from the southerly village of Tupiza. Along the way, you’ll stop to explore cactus islands, eerie geyser fields, packed hot springs, wicked peaks, lost lagoons, and far-out corners of Bolivia so desolate you would think you'd landed on Mars.

Flamingoes reflected in the glassy surface of a salt lake. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Flamingoes reflected in the glassy surface of a salt lake. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Aqua reflections

Along the route, you’ll pass at least half a dozen high-altitude lakes, including the massive Lagunas Colorada and Verde. Minerals and algae give the lakes a remarkable palette ranging from aquamarine to rusted-engine red. One of the more remarkable curiosities of these icy bodies of water are the large flocks of flamingos that call this place home.

A herd of vicuna. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

A herd of vicuna. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Edge of the wild

Much of the area is protected by the 7150-sq km Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa wildlife reserve. Most visitors will see plenty of wild vicuña and their domesticated llama brethren during the trip. If you are really lucky, you may even sight a rhea (South America’s version of the ostrich), a wild cat or any number of avian species.

Taking a walk to the edge of the world. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Taking a walk to the edge of the world. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Desolation angels

At the heart of the Salar experience is the unique proximity to the earth, the wind-blown desolation and horizons that seem to melt into the edge of oblivion. This is a land of superlatives, and you aren’t just visiting the largest salt flat on the planet, but also the driest desert in the world, the vast and mysterious Desierto de Atacama.

The famous Árbol de Piedra (tree of stone). Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

The famous Árbol de Piedra (tree of stone). Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Dali’s dream

The rock formations of the Los Lípez region could melt time. While the Árbol de Piedra (tree of stone) is the most famous, there are plenty of far-out psychedelic formations on the way to inspire. Scrambling on the formations or extending your trip for an ascent of one of the numerous volcanoes nearby only adds to the experience.

The Sol de Mañana geyser field, a series of mud pots, fumaroles, and vapour streams. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

The Sol de Mañana geyser field, a series of mud pots, fumaroles, and vapour streams. Image by Greg Benchwick / Lonely Planet.

Sun of tomorrow

Your last day on the Southwest Salar Circuit takes you to the Sol de Mañana geyser field. This sky-high grouping of boiling mud pots, hell-boy fumaroles and steam-charged vapour streams sits at over 4800m. It makes for one cold morning, but don’t worry: two hours later you’ll be soaking your feet in hot springs seemingly sent from heaven.