South America’s salt flats are legendary. Landlocked Bolivia is home to the world’s largest salt flat. The Salar de Uyuni covers an area greater than 4,000 square miles. Once a prehistoric lake, it has since dried up to leave a vast area of salt. Underneath lies a layer of brine rich with mineral deposits. Experts have estimated that up to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves are here.
Why Visit South America’s Salt Flats
How to Get There
Access to South America’s salt flats, which can be found about half an hour from the southern Bolivian town of Uyuni, is strictly controlled. It’s wise to take a guide. Even after a relatively short drive out onto the salt flats it’s easy to lose your bearings as everything around you is white. On the horizon, you can see the Tunupa volcano and other altiplano mountains. Mostly what you’ll see though is a never-ending sea of sparkling white desert topped by an ultramarine sky. It’s breathtaking, but don’t take my word for it. The Salar de Uyuni is one of those places that you have to see for yourself.
Fun Things to Do
One of the main reasons people come is to try their hand at those comic perspective shots. You may have seen them on the internet. They can only be achieved because there are hardly any landmarks in the background. By hiding distance clues, the eye is deceived into thinking that those tiny people really are running away from the dinosaur that towers over them. No dinosaur? You can pick up a plastic one at the market in the tiny settlement of Colchani right on the edge of the salt flats.
When to Visit and Where to Stay
Many people say that the best time to visit the salt flats is towards the end of the rainy season in March. For a while, a shallow lake covers the Salar de Uyuni. You’ll sacrifice a visit to the mighty cacti on Incahuasi Island as it’s cut off by deeper water, but the reflections more than compensate. Staying at the edge of the salt flats is also a memorable experience. The original salt hotel, built without thought for the environment, has long since closed. However, there are several luxury hotels near Colchani that overlook that great expanse of white salt. Book up front and they’re surprisingly affordable, even if you want a room with a view – which you will.
Don’t Miss Salinas Grandes Salt Flat
While the number of 4X4’s dashing out onto the salt flats from Uyuni can at times make it feel like rush hour in the city, across the border in northern Argentina, you’ll find another salt flat which is largely overlooked by tourists. It’s called the Salinas Grandes. Although it’s second only to the Salar de Uyuni, it’s pretty small by comparison. But what you will get is a salt flat that you can have to yourself. One of the best ways to achieve this is in the company of the pack animals that graze the nearby plains: llamas. Taking a walk out onto the salt flats with a llama loaded with everything you need for a gourmet picnic is one of those unforgettable travel experiences which will stay with you for a lifetime.
If you plan to visit the Salinas Grandes, it’s advisable to organise your trip at least a few days beforehand either online or in nearby Tilcara. The wider range of operators on the Bolivian side of the border means it’s possible to rock up in Uyuni and arrange things there and then. However, you might prefer to book in advance to ensure you get a place with a reliable operator.