Salar de Uyuni is one of the most epic and other-worldly places on the planet. A vast expanse of white crystal plains ringed by moody black volcanoes. This natural phenomenon in Bolivia is the biggest salt flat in the world – and one of the most exciting landscapes I’ve wandered in.
Read my travel guide to find out why you should consider visiting this strange and wonderful place and to discover all the things to do at Salar De Uyuni.
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Why Visit Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats?
If you love interesting and spectacular landscapes, consider visiting Salar de Uyuni. There are other salt flats around the world, but none as big nor as impressive.
My husband and I did a big trip to Peru and Bolivia for our ten-year wedding anniversary. The final attraction was Salar de Uyuni and I just loved it! It’s the place that really turned my travel interests towards dramatic landscapes.
Out on the flats, there are hundreds of miles of white salt – and not much else. I found it liberating and thrilling to be so boundless – the only edges desolate volcanoes in the vague distance. It felt like anything was possible…
Salar de Uyuni Facts
- Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It is approximately 10,500 square kilometres (4,000 square miles) in the area – more than twice as big as the second biggest salt flat, Salinas Grandes, in Argentina
- The salt flats were formed from lakes that existed around forty thousand years ago, but all evaporated over time. It is now a pool of brine covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness.
- The salt is surrounded by dormant volcanoes and has a couple of ‘islands’ within it, which are also the tops of extinct volcanoes.
- In the wet season, it gets covered in a thin layer of water, which reflects the sky, creating the world’s largest mirror!
- It is visible from space and as a wide and flat surface, the Salar de Uyuni is an ideal reference target for GPS satellites.
- Salar de Uyuni contains 10 billion tons of salt!
- It is also the world’s largest deposit of lithium, which is a valuable metal used in all sorts of things including batteries. Extracting it is a cause of concern because it will damage the salt flats.
- Salar de Uyuni has some iconic wildlife: three species of pink South American flamingo feed from shadow pools; and you may spot llamas or alpacas grazing around the edges
- It is located at a high altitude: 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level.
- It has been the setting for music videos, including a live recording by FKJ and La la la by Naughty Boy featuring Sam Smith.
- Salar De Uyuni has also been used in movies and was the location for the big battle at the end of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Only, they added an effect that there was a red mineral underneath the white salt surface, which isn’t real!
Things To Do In Salar de Uyuni
Take A Salar de Uyuni Tour
Taking an organised tour of the salt flats is definitely the best thing to do here.
I think it is possible to explore independently, but you’d need to be very well-prepared. First, you’d need to have a hardy 4×4 to drive over the rough salt. I’m not sure what else you’d need but it’s a huge area, with no fresh water sources and some cold temperatures at night. You wouldn’t want to get stranded somewhere remote and never be found!
It is possible to do jeep tours of different lengths from one day to five days, some of which include transfers to and from La Paz. I did a one-day Salar de Uyuni private tour – and it was absolutely amazing. We saw so much of the salt flats and so much beauty on that day!
However, if I could do it all again, I’d spend more time on a multi-day tour, because we missed out on some other spots further out from the salt flats. In particular. I’m interested in Laguna Colorado and Laguna Verde, which are south of the Salar De Uyuni.
Drive Across The Salt – A Vast White Desert
This was my favourite thing to do at Salar de Uyuni! I just loved the vast emptiness. Racing in a 4X4 across hundreds of miles of white salt, surrounded by volcanoes was so alien – but exhilarating.
Watching the salt hexagons race past was mesmerising. This shot was taken late afternoon, as the sun was starting to go low, throwing the salt hexagons into relief.
Play With Perspective
A fun, popular thing to do out on the Salar de Uyuni is to take photographs that play with perspective. Because the salt is so flat and white, you can have objects both up close in the foreground and way back in the background and they can look like they’re close to each other.
However, my attempt at this didn’t quite work, as I couldn’t get them all in focus – never mind!
Visit Tunupa Volcano
Surrounding the salt flats are many volcanoes, which can appear to hover above the ground, due to the mirage effect across the flats. On the northern edge of the salar, and a popular stop on tours, is Tunupa, an imposing black dormant volcano.
There’s quite a lot to see and do at Tunupa volcano including:
- Flamingos feed in the shallow waters at the end of the salar
- You might also see alpacas grazing on the lower slopes
- There’s a short walk to a cave containing the Mummies of Coquesa: mummified human remains, from the pre-Columbian period.
- It is possible to hike the volcano, but you are unlikely to have time to do that on a standard tour.
Enjoy The View From Isla Incahuasi
In the middle of the vast whiteness is a rocky hill – once an island in the middle of the lake and now an island in the middle of the salt. Climbing to the peak of Isla Incahuasi gives an elevated view over the salar and along the way, you’ll pass giant Trichocereus cacti.
As remote as it is, there’s a café here and a toilet – so many people use this place as a lunch spot.
Experience A Salar de Uyuni Sunset
This is my favourite thing to do at Salar de Uyuni because sunset there is a special experience. It is possibly one of the best places on the planet to watch the sun go down. The setting sun transforms the brilliant white wilderness into a changing kaleidoscope of colours.
When not beaming down directly onto them, the sun’s rays pick out the ridges of the salt hexagons, rendering what had seemed flat and white in the brilliant daylight as rough texture.
As the sun gets lower and the light transforms, the salt turns first yellow, then a warm peachy colour. I loved the contrast between the blue shadows and the pink ridges.
Even though I have a basic understanding of the physics of light, it still blew my mind that the once-brilliant white salt flats appeared so dark once they no longer had direct light on them.
Many tours time their route so that they are at Plaza de las Banderas Uyuni for sunset. This is a spot where there are many flags from all over the world displayed. I guess this location is popular for sunset because it is close to the town of Colchani so there’s minimal driving in the dark afterwards.
Experience Salar de Uyuni At Night
After watching the sun go down, with the last light in the sky, the Uyuni salt flats become a very different place. The once-brilliant salt is muted in the twilight; the sky can be a hazy mauve. It is suddenly eerie. And cold.
We’re used to closing ourselves off at night-time: staying indoors, wrapping ourselves up. To be in such a vast, open place surrounded by darkness felt strange, vulnerable…
See Salt Extraction
There are several locations around the edges of the salt flats where you can see the salt harvest in progress – most commonly round mounds of salt that have been scraped from the surface and gathered together, waiting for collection and processing.
Visit The Train Cemetery Near Uyuni
On the outskirts of Uyuni, there’s a train cemetery – a collection of old rusting trains that are very photogenic. I didn’t visit this spot on my visit to Salar de Uyuni, but I would have liked to. I thought I’d mention it so that you don’t miss out, too.
Stay In A Salt Hotel
A novelty of this area is that there are several hotels and hostels which are made of salt. Yes, the walls, the floors everything is made from rock-hard salt bricks. Trust me, I tasted the walls of my salt hotel to check!
I believe the first salt hotel was called Palacio de Sal and was located out on the salt flats, near Plaza de las Banderas Uyuni. It was abandoned some years ago and is now a stopping point and a good sundown spot. Nowadays, there are several salt hotels you can choose from. Many are located near Colchani, on the edge of the salt flats and a little closer to civilisation.
I stayed at Hotel Luna Salada, which had great service and good food. However, I couldn’t get used to the salt floor – without shoes on, everywhere was gravelly underfoot. Still, it was a unique experience!
Map: Things To Do in Salar de Uyuni
Here’s a map showing the various things to do in Salar de Uyuni.
When To Visit Salar de Uyuni
Best Time To See The Salar de Uyuni Mirror Effect
The west season is December to April – and this is the best time to witness the mirror effect, which looks breathtaking!
However, it can be very wet in December and January, and there’s always a chance it isn’t safe to drive out on the salt flats – so bear that in mind.
Best Time To See Hexagonal Salt Patterns
During the dry season of May to November, the salt flats are dry and the salt will have formed hexagonal shapes.
I went in September and I was just so fascinated by the salt hexagons visible at that time of year. I read that they form as the salt freezes and thaws over time, creating convection. The ridges form in the same efficient hexagonal shapes we see elsewhere in nature, such as in honeycombs and the basalt rock at Giant’s Causeway and in many places in Iceland.
How To Get To Salar De Uyuni
The main town near Salar De Uyuni is the town of Uyuni. You can get there overland from elsewhere in Bolivia, but most travellers go from La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.
There’s a 10-12-hour bus from La Paz. There’s also a train which runs from Oruro to Uyuni, but you’d need to get to Oruro first (possible by bus from La Paz).
However, if you’re coming from La Paz, flying is the fastest route. Uyuni has an airport, Joya Andina Airport. It used to be that you could fly directly from La Paz, but having checked the route as research for this article, it seems you may have to stop at Cochabamba and flights vary between two and four hours in total.
I use Skyscanner for flight deals.
Tips for exploring Salar de Uyuni
- Dress for both hot and cold conditions. The high altitude and open landscape can result in a range of temperatures from baking hot in the midday sun to very chilly when the sun goes in.
- Wear sunglasses and sunscreen. The salt is like snow: it reflects the sun’s rays and can burn your skin. I caught the sun under my chin, where I don’t normally think to apply sunscreen!
- Bring plenty of water
- Ensure you have fully charged batteries and memory for your phone/camera – this place is photogenic!
I hope I’ve tempted you to visit Salar de Uyuni!
Let me know if you have any questions – I really don’t mind talking about this place!