These epic salt flats in Bolivia’s otherworldly Altiplano made the list in our new bookazine, 77 Ultimate Travel Experiences. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting them...
Geological marvel or one vast optical illusion? Whichever, the unique landscape of the world’s largest salt flats in the southwest corner of Bolivia is a photographer’s dream.
The flatness, the colours and the down-right oddness seem to do strange things to your brain here – all sense of perspective can be lost; distance becomes impossible to measure.
All that seems to exist is you, the sky and an endless crunch of blinding white. It is one of the planet’s most surreal landscapes and a travel experience you’ll never forget.
The Salar de Uyuni is the leftovers of a scatter of prehistoric lakes, perched up at around 3,650m above sea level. It is breathtaking in all senses of the word.
In the dry season this vast expanse appears as a patchwork of interlocking hexagons, white as the Antarctic; in the rainy season (December to April), when the briny crust may be covered in a shallow puddle of water, the area becomes a 9,000 sq km mirror, giving the sensation of travelling across the sky.
Where workers have harvested the salt, small pyramids of the precious grains pock the flats like mini mountains.
There is no right or wrong time to visit Salar de Uyuni. Rainy or dry, each season has their own unique benefits.
During the dry season (May to November) temperatures are colder, the ground has hardened and the vast expanse appears as a patchwork of interlocking hexagons.
The horizon disappears, and so does perspective, perfect for the type of optical illusion photos where your tour mates are resting on your hands.
You can also visit places that aren’t accessible in the rainy season like Incahuasi Island, famous for its cacti. A word of warning: tour operators regard June to August as their peak, so this is when prices are highest.
The rainy season (December to April) is the best time to to witness the Salar’s breathtaking mirror effect.
Reflected in the shallow puddle of water covering the flats, the sky appears never ending and the potential for taking crazy reflective photos is endless. At night, the reflection of the clear skies above feels like you are standing in a bowl of stars.
Be wary of excessive rain in December and January, however, as it can cause tour cancellations.
The best place to organise your trip to the salt flats is the hub-town of Uyuni. Uyuni is 12 to 15 hours by bus from capital La Paz. The train ride to Uyuni from Oruro takes around seven hours. There are also daily flights from La Paz to Uyuni. Even if you organise your trip ahead of time, chances are this is where your journey will begin.
Tours to Salar organised in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and Tupiza in Bolivia are usually part of a longer trip that also includes the incredible deserts, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and high-altitude lakes of the whole Altiplano region.
Cheaper, but standardised, shared tours generally provide Spanish-speaking guides who double as the driver and chef.
Most follow a rigid itinerary that will not likely accommodate individual requests like visiting the flats at certain times of day, including sunrise or sunset.
Private tours, by contrast, are more expensive, but have the flexibility to be customised to what you want.
You get more control over your itinerary and can get off the beaten path to visit the flamingos at Laguna Colorada or the cacti on Incahuasi Island.
Private tours also use more comfortable vehicle and provide an English-speaking guide and a specialist chef.
Whichever option you choose, always check that your tour operator is accredited and that they carry an emergency radio and first aid kit. Salar de Uyuni is a long way from anywhere. As beautiful as it is, you don’t want to get stuck there.
Also, at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, some visitors may experience altitude sickness. Take time to acclimatise and maybe discuss the options for preventing and treating altitude sickness with your doctor before you go.
While the surreal landscape of the Salar will be the highlight of your trip, there are plenty of other ‘sights’ to visit.
For instance, you can go to the rusting train graveyard around the town of Uyuni, where tracks built by the British at the end of the 19th century rust alongside old locos used for mining up until the 1940s.
You can also bathe in steaming hot springs near the Chilean border and visit the flamingo breeding grounds at blood-red Laguna Colorada – they love to tuck into the vibrant algae there.
Or for a real treat, spend the night in one of the area’s unique salt hotels. Everything is carved from blocks of salt – beds, chairs, tables, the lot – with a few scatter cushions added for extra comfort. Tasty.
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