Salar de Uyuni Destination Guide
Salar de Uyuni is arguably Bolivia's most spectacular site. It is the world's largest salt flat, at 10582 square km (4086 square miles), and also the highest, at 3650 m (11975 feet) above sea level. Earlier it was part of a salt lake that covered almost the whole of south western Bolivia, and still extends through most of Potosí and Oruro. Besides the vast expanse of salt, you can see a series of specacularly translucent and rather eerie lagoons that are tinted red and green because of the high copper and sulphur content in them. On the salt flat, you can spot flamingos (that are also tinted red and green!), foxes, rheas and vicuñas.
Driving across Salar de Uyuni, whether in the rainy or dry season, is a truly unique experience.
This Uyuni destination guide gives a basic breakdown of the many tourist attractions in Uyuni. A great way to get to explore Uyuni's hightlights is to take a Uyuni tour. For some general information about travelling to Bolivia visit our Bolivia country guide.
Things to See & Do in Uyuni
Listed below are some exotic places that one must really visit to get the most out of a trip to Uyuni. So, when booking a tour in Uyuni, look out for a mention of these different locations:
Travellers are sure to find several lagoons in the course of their tours. The most interesting ones are Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde. Laguna Colorada, or the red lake, appears red because of the red sediments and pigmentation of the algae. Flamingos of varying species, such as Andean, James’s and Chilean, live around this lake. Located near the Chilean border, Laguna Verde, or the green lake, is a gorgeous salt lake that is green is because of the high arsenic content in the water. Together, the two lakes represent what appears to be the landscape of an alien planet – quiet, surreal, yet marvellously beautiful.
Also referred to as Fish Island, Isla del Pescado is a unique ecosystem located bang in the middle of the salt desert. It is filled with cacti, some of which are a massive 30 feet tall, but no fish! The reason why it’s called Fish Island is because, from a distance, the island looks like a fish.
As it is located on the outskirts of town, you do not need a guide to visit the train cemetery. Tourists have to just walk up to the trains and start taking photographs of the rusted behemoths from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The locomotives seem quite out of place in the desert, almost as if they were forgotten there and left to rot. It is a strange place and tourists tend to linger around here for a while.
The train graveyard is not too long a walk from town, but do remember to carry enough drinking water. And a camera; the cemetery offers a rare photo opportunity. The train graveyard is, most often, the first or last place a traveller stops at while in Uyuni.
A strange rock formation that seems to grow out of the ground, Arboles de Piedra or the Stone Tree does in some ways resemble an actual tree. Like many other places that will be part of a traveller’s tour in the Salar de Uyuni, this too is something one needs to photograph just to show folks back home how unusual the formation really is.
On Thursdays and Sundays, travellers can enjoy a street market in Uyuni that starts at the clock tower near the centre of town and stretches for several blocks. This is a great place to buy local handicrafts, including items such as salt sculptures and woollen blankets. Travellers can buy everything they need from the numerous stores in town and the market – that would include souvenirs to take home for family and friends.
About two hours from San Pedro de Quemez are Cueva del Diablo (Devil's Cave) and Cueva Galaxia (Galaxy Cave). These rock formations were created when the Thunupa volcano came into contact with the water (the salt flats were still a sea) about 225 million years ago. They actually resemble bones dangling from the walls and ceiling and form strange figures. Cueva del Diablo is a sacred burial ground surrounded by many myths. It has a chullpar or cemetery with human remains.
The fact that these are not located within the town should not stop tourists from getting up close and personal with mummies found in caves in the nearby hills. Impossible to tell what they really died of, these mummies are buried in the traditional foetal position. While stories abound that they were all victims of starvation, the local guides will give tourists a lot of credible information about the mummies, as well as about some of the former inhabitants of the region, such as the Incas. These caves are a must-see for those who are not squeamish!
Those who prefer not to travel out of the town to the caves can still see mummies, skulls and other such artefacts at the archaeology museum. It makes for an interesting way to spend a couple of hours.
Formed by volcanic rocks, this strange island is in the middle of the salt flats. Characteristic of the island are the giant cacti that grow here, some a couple of hundred years old. A short 10 minute walk takes tourists to the peak from where they can view this spectacular ‘garden of thorns’ and marvel at the amazing view of the white desert.
At Salar de Chalviri, guests will be welcomed by the Laguna Polques. They can enjoy a warm thermal bath early in the morning, when it is really cold outside.
Tourists can see vicuñas, which, except for their wool, are animals similar to llamas or alpacas. They are prized for their wool and are naturally targeted by hunters. The government has taken several measures to protect these animals.
From Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, a road climbs up more than 4000 m into Bolivia where the first overnight stop is located, near the extinct volcano Licancabur that has the Laguna Verde below it. There are some nice thermal pools around and tourists will enjoy relaxing in the warm water in the cold weather.
This massive grassy preserve is home to some rare species of flamingos.