Sprawling some 4,000 square miles, the stunningly white salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia, are a feast for the eyes—an ever-changing, mirage-like phenomenon. In the brightest daylight they appear to shimmer like a lake. In the slant glow of sunrise or sunset, they look more like a moonscape. Just a hint of rain can transform them into a glassy—but quite temporary—sea so shallow that explorers look to be walking on water. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most photographed locales in South America.
These are not only the world’s largest salt flats; they are also the highest, resting at a crest in the Andes 11,995 feet above sea level. The salar de Uyuni was formed by the gradual drying of a massive lake on the Bolivian altiplano some 40,000 years ago. Estimates suggest that the salar contains as much as 10 billion tons of salt. Local miners have been chipping away at it slowly, to the tune of 25,000 tons a year. (There’s no danger of ruining the landscape: It would take 100,000 years to carve away even the top quarter of the salt surface.) All the miners belong to a single cooperative that distributes the profits equally, resulting in a concerted effort to mine the landscape wisely.
Salt isn’t the only commodity for which Uyuni is known. The flats are home to roughly 40% of earth’s lithium reserves. China previously dominated the industry that produces lithium for batteries, but Bolivia joined the market this year and hopes to soon be a competitor. It is already a player in the trade of borax, which is abundant in the salar as well.
As austere and serene as the flats might seem, Uyuni was once a rail hub for Bolivia, its trains especially important for the mining industry. From the late 1800’s to the 1940’s, trains from Chile to La Paz passed through Uyuni, and by the dawn of the 20th century, there was talk of an expanded network with more lines and departures here. But regional tensions—Chile was in constant conflict with Peru and Bolivia—put an end to that dream. Instead, the opposite happened: Uyuni became home to the Great Train Graveyard, where out-of-service locomotives from not only South America but Great Britain were abandoned to history. Corrosion was unavoidable in the face of endless salt winds, and the result is a fascinating desertscape of ochre skeletons sinking into the sand.
Because of the vast scope of the salar, the graveyard seems to disappear from a distance. In fact, the eye is often fooled here as the landscape appears to fade into nothing but a pale glow that stretches beyond sight. That’s the result of the incredible degree of flatness—only a few feet in variation across thousands of miles. If you think this sounds like an otherworldly terrain, you wouldn’t be too far off: NASA uses the salar as a calibration tool for satellites, capitalizing on its reflectiveness and stability to test distances from earth.
Not surprisingly, many thousands of travelers seek out this natural wonder every year. Because Discovery Tours strictly caps the size of our small group, our footprint is small too. We tread lightly, careful to respect the fragile environment, making sure its beauty remains undisturbed for the next travelers lucky enough to experience this captivating wonder.
Visit the Uyuni Salt Flats during our Bolivia & Peru: Andean & Amazonian Culture trip.