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An alien place on Earth: the Salar de Uyuni

Piles of salt | An alien place on Earth: the Salar de Uyuni

Last updated on 28/04/2017 at 17:20:47

If there’s a place in the travels I did I wasn’t expecting so damn amazing, this place is the Salar de Uyuni, the Uyuni salt flats, in Bolivia.

I was in South America backpacking between 2009 and 2010 and on my way back to the north of the continent I decided to go through Bolivia, mainly for the Titicaca lake, something I wanted to see since I was a child, due to a package film by Disney, Saludos Amigos (here’s the trailer).

I entered Bolivia at Villazón, and I took a train to Tupiza, where I spent one night. Tupiza is a small city in the Potosí department and is home to many tour operators that offer guided tour through the Bolivian Altiplano (high plateau) and the Salar. There are daily departures and arrivals since they do the same tours in Uyuni and Tupiza is the ending spot.

It’s really not difficult to find a tour operator since every hotel, hostel o whatever you can spend a night into, usually have an office where you can book your adventurous trip. Keep in mind, anyway, that the more you are, the less you pay. You’ll go in off-roads vehicles, with everything you need to spend 3/4 days on the road, and the price is fixed. So you have to find some travel mates to share the tour with, but I can assure it’s not difficult to find other travelers there, willing to save some money.

The tour twists and tours through valleys, mountains, lagoons and small villages (pueblos), where we’re going to spend the nights, and that’s already something difficult to forget since the landscapes and the natural environment of Bolivia are incredible. But then on the last day, you reach the Salar…

On the last night, the drivers manage to find some accommodation in “salty hotels”, that are hotels made of salt blocks. Everything inside is made of salt: walls, beds, table, everything. The morning after, at a very early time, we leave the hotel to see the sunrise on the Salar, and that’s where the magic begins!

A never-ending shadow seems to originate from your feet as the sun rises on the flat surface of the Salar, and slowly you start seeing all the surroundings, an incredible, white expanse that seems a place from another planet.

Long shadows on the Salar de Uyuni - Luca Travels Around

Looooong shadows while the sun rises!

If you’re lucky enough to find good weather, the view is alienating: blue sky, white shining ground, nothing around for miles. It seems like being in an unfinished child painting, where the sky is always a stripe of blue and the rest is the white paper, ready to be painted.

Emptiness Salar de Uyuni - Luca Travels Around

Yes, nothing…

I’ve never experienced before the feeling to be nowhere like there. Especially when in the middle of the Salar, you turn your head around 360°, and you see and hear nothing. NOTHING. You seem lost in a white desert, with the sun hitting and salty ground reverberating. Sometimes you can also experience mirages too, Fata Morgana ones, where it’s possible to see mountains floating far on the surface of the Salar.

Me on top of Isla Incahuasi - Luca Travels Around

Me on top of Isla Incahuasi

Not far from the south border of this desert, there is a sort of island, Isla Incahuasi, where we do a stop. All the tours starting from Tupiza stop here for breakfast time, so while the drivers and the cooks prepare the meals, you can visit this island full of gigantic cacti, some of these thousand years old. It’s weird to see this rocky place, once a volcano top, rising in the middle of the Salar, but probably is even more strange when you realize that Salar de Uyuni, once, was a lake. Anyway, the tour continues and so the magic!

The crusty ground of the Salar crackles every step you take and behind the surface usually you can spot some humidity since it’s not uncommon to have rainfalls in this area, that will evaporate during hotter months. Our off-road vehicles go ahead toward the horizon, but the drivers have to set them up for the voyage because the salt is corrosive: underneath the platforms, hooked to the bumpers, there are tarps to protect more metal parts as possible and avoid rust. It’s not an easy thing to prepare, and it happens that they break during the crossing.

As soon as the sun gets higher, we do another stop to take some of the typical pictures everyone being here takes: funny pictures with weird perspective! Since everything is so white and flat and there are no objects that let you understand proportions and distances, everyone goes wild with the camera. The results are often silly, but something nice pops up too. Obviously, we also did a group picture!

Group picture Salar de Uyuni - Luca Travels Around

I’m the first on the right!

To reach the other side of the Salar it takes several hours, so we stop again in a strange place not close to the end of our tour. It’s a sort of restaurant/hostel/souvenir shop, half closed, with only the shop open to tourists. Outside there are tables and chairs, guess what? made of salt. And a swimming pool, or at least something resembling a swimming pool. What I’m sure is that is a big rectangular shaped hole in the ground, full of water, but I can’t be sure of its purpose! We take some other picture since the panorama is changing: some white clouds appeared while approaching the border, we see mountains all around and water. Yes, some days before our arrival it rained and this part of the Salar is covered with a layer of water, a couple of centimeters most.

Clouds and mountains reflect in this low and salty water, and the effect is stunning. It seems to be on a tropical beach, with incredibly white sand and crystal clear water. I’d like to hear some seagulls too, but I’m probably asking too much!

Salty sea Salar de Uyuni - Luca Travels Around

After something like 7/8 hours from the departure, we reach the end of the Salar. In the last part, water was deeper, and we could see small piles of salt all around since people from adjacent villages work here to extract it. Salt is a crucial element of their life, not because they have to cook with it, but for many other purposes, like building material as we saw before. Furthermore, almost half of the world lithium reserves are in Bolivia, and in most part precisely in the Salar de Uyuni, so it’s importance is also economical from a world-wide point of view.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve never been in a place like this one, and I don’t know if I’m going to find something else that will make me feel so many emotions together. But I will search for sure for it, and if there is, I’ll visit it!

And you, ever been to a place that left you absolutely mesmerized? Write it in the comments!

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An alien place on Earth - Salar de Uyuni

                     

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39 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It looks amazing… Being from South America I really regret not visiting when I was so close to it, now I need to cross the Ocean again to get there. I hope to do it some time soon, it’s definitely a must-go place. No doubt about it!

    • Wow, now it’s undoubtfully more difficult, but we both know it will be worth it! There are really incredible places in South America, it’s a continent so vast that for sure you can’t do it in just a few weeks, but that’s another problem eheh. First, go there! Hurry! 😀 😀

  • Great views! I think the Bond film Quantum of Solace was also shot here. I have visited the salt desert of Kutch in India (linked wth my name). But it seems ths one offers a more detailed exploration of the salt trade and local communities. Especially want to see the Salty hotel.

  • I am actually planning to visit Salat de Uyuni at the end of this year, when I will travel to South America for 3 weeks. Your post got me really excited about it and I have heard that during my visit it will be rainy season which will make the entire sky reflect onto the salt like into a mirror. Is it hard to find accommodation in a salt hotel? Are there many around? I’d love to experience that.

    • You won’t regret it! The only problem during rainy season is reaching the salar, especially if you approach it from the south like I did. Anyway, if you go with some local guides on a 4×4 tour, they usually stop in a salt hotel. I don’t know though if coming from uyuni by the time you reach one of those hotels, it would be already the time to stop and rest.

  • Wow what an amazing place! Had to google this straight away to find out more, it just looks out of this world! Thanks for sharing, love discovering new places through other peoples travels:)

    • Thanks, I’m glad you discovered something new! I can assure you that it’s worth the time and money to go to Bolivia. 😉

  • This looks incredible! And you got to see it in the perfect conditions! I have heard of ice hotels before, but never ones of salt, super cool novelty. The scenery is so vast and simple, and that’s what makes it so spectacular. It’s beauty in such raw and pure form.

    • And you can also lick hotel’s walls ahahah
      I’m wondering how could be to meditate in the middle of it, in a white nothing. Maybe next time…

  • You know, I didn’t even know a place like this existed. It looks so peaceful, yet very eerie. I think a place with nothing would give you a sense of freedom. And salt hotels? Where have you brought me this Sunday morning. What is life really about? Amazing, just amazing.

  • How do you build stuff out of Salt? This place looks really interesting and goes onto our bucket list. What would be a good season to go there and a budget for the hotels?

    • They extract big bricks made of salt directly from the surface, something like shaping a brick from a quarry. And then they pile them up to create a building!
      Speaking about the hotels, what I noticed is that there isn’t a real way to book in them. There is a sort of agreement between our operators and these “facilities”, you don’t pay a dime to the hotel itself, but I guess their part is already in the quota you paid for the tour. Anyway, consider that Bolivia in general is an extremely poor country, I managed to find myself a double room for 3$ per night, with private bathroom.
      About the best time to go there, their winter (June-September) it’s probably too cold and the snow could hinder your tour. On summer instead, from November-March more or less, it’s also rainy season so it’s perfect to shot some pictures with “mirror effect” on the ground, but if it rains too much reaching the Salar could be challenging. The months in between could be the best solution, otherwise I’d try my luck in summer, like I did (February).

  • The Bolivian salt flats are on my bucket-list. I hope to one day visit this place. Where the world feels so alien to us humans. The landscape is so unique. Such a wonderful world we live in! By the way, is this salt edible? Just curious!

    • Honestly? I don’t know! I mean, I tasted hotel’s walls and they were really salty, but I didn’t try to put my tongue on the salt directly from the Salar! For what I remember, no one of the guides told us not to do it, so maybe it’s perfectly edible, I just didn’t try! 🙂

  • This looks like an absolutely incredible part of the world and certainly, I can see why you drew parallels with other worlds. It’s appears like somewhere that no one has ever visited and the vast areas make for perspective-altering photos like the ones you’ve included. You’re writing style is really engaging and I also admire how prolific you are, I wish I could produce posts as regularly as you do. Look forward to the next one!

    • Thanks, I’ the first one who would like to be prolific, I can assure you! 😀
      Yes, the place is an experience hard do describe in words, but I did my best since a place like that, seen from the first time, leave you with an emotional scar that you’ll never forget!

  • The place really looks straight out of a Sc-Fi movie. The landscape is fascinating and out of the world. I think this is a place that needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

  • Luca, the salt hotel sounds really interesting. Even more interesting than the “cave” is slept in during a trip to Turkey in 2010. When I was in Cusco last year, I was wishing I had more time so I can see Bolivia (or at least La Paz).

  • I remember learning about this long ago in a geography class. This is phenomenal. I actually have a plan to head over to South America some time soon. Great pictures brother 🙂

    • Thanks! Well, make sure you don’t miss it if you head to South America! Also, it would be the perfect occasion to see if the lesson was useful 😀

  • Wow. This place looks and sounds incredible. Your images are mesmerising and I love the concept of staying in a hotel made of salt…though I have to wonder what will happen if I accidentally spill some water! Thank you for sharing this unique experience. Trips anywhere can be fun and enriching, but it is lesser known treasures like these that make trips unforgettable.

    • I’ve never thought about spilled water in a salt hotel!!! That could easily be a problem 😀
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • What an incredible place! How can I teleport there, like right now? Kidding aside, you just have made me add another place on my life list. I can feel how delightful you are while reading through your experience. Maybe on your next visit you’ll also get some seagulls squawking 🙂

    • Well, if you go to Chile you can do a nice combo: Salar de Uyuni + Atacama Desert! Two vast stretches of nothing 😀

  • When I heard about this place a few years ago, I knew immediately I had to go there. During some travel festival a guy had a presentation about Salar de Uyuni and Atacama – he traversed them on a bicycle. It must have been something – just him and vast emptiness. I still haven’t been there yet, but it’s good to have some unfulfilled dreams 🙂

    • By bike?? Wow!!! Compared to him, I did nothing special!
      Always let some dreams unfulfilled, it drives you to do more 🙂

  • So psyched I saw this post! I’m trying to fit this into a South America/Antarctica trip & it hasn’t been an easy go. Your photos reminded me how much I want to make our visit there work out! Hoping for a rainy day tho!

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