Uyuni salt marsh
The Uyuni Salt Marsh is a dried-up salt lake on the Altiplano Desert Plateau, located in southwestern Bolivia. The salt marsh lies in the foothills of the Andes, 3,560 meters above sea level. It covers an area of 10,588 km² and has the status of the largest in the world.
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Video: Uyuni Solonchak
The Uyuni Solonchak is composed of gypsum, and its inner surface, which is 2 to 8 meters deep, is covered by a layer of rock salt, halite. It is estimated to contain at least 10 billion tons of table salt.
From November to March, when the plateau is in the rainy season, a thin layer of water covers the surface of the salt marsh, and then Uyuni resembles a giant mirror. The horizon line becomes almost invisible, the surface of the lake merges with the sky, and the landscapes around the Uyuni salt marsh take on an unearthly beauty. Perfect conditions for photographers!
Many tourists from all over the world come to see the vast snow-white ocean of salt or the wonderful mirror-like surface. The peak tourist season is from June to August. Especially for travelers, local residents have built hotels, the walls of which are made of salt blocks, and in them you can stay overnight. A night in the salt hotel costs about $ 20. The owners even hang ads for guests asking them “not to lick” the interior.
Next to the salt marsh is the mining town of Uyuni, which has a population of 10,600. Here you can see several monuments to workers, a monument to the railroad trolley and sculptures in the “steampunk” style. It is a small town, so it takes an hour to see it.
Salar de Uyuni Train Cemetery Inchahuasi Island in the middle of the salt marsh
The people of Bolivia have a beautiful legend about the birth of the Uyuni salt marsh. It is framed by the Cusco, Cusina, and Tunupa mountain ranges. The Aymara Indians believe that these mountains were formerly man-giants. Tunupa was Kusku’s wife and bore him a son. But the beautiful Kuzina separated the spouses, and Cusco went to live with her, taking the infant child with him. Tunupa was very upset about what happened and cried. Her tears mixed with her breast milk and gave birth to an enormous salt marsh. The locals have called it Tunupa ever since.
Origin of the Uyuni salt marsh
In ancient times, there was a huge reservoir of Minchin on the Altiplano that was up to 100 meters deep. About 40,000 years ago, due to the hot sun and lack of tributaries, it began to shallow. Gradually, two lakes (Uru Uru and Poopo) and two large salt marshes (Uyuni and Salar de Coipasa) were formed in the place of Minchin. By the way, the Coipasa salt marsh of 2,218 km² is the second largest in Bolivia after Uyuni.
On the high plateau, where the Uyuni salt marsh lies, the temperature is stable. From November to January, the thermometer reaches +21. The average temperature is around +22° C during the daytime from November to January, and then as low as +13° C in June. The solonchak is situated at the height of 3500 m above the sea level, so it is cold here at night all the year round. In July, the temperature drops below 0°C and can sometimes drop to -10°C.
The relative humidity in the mountain plateau area is always low, 30-45%. The air is dry and the amount of precipitation is low. Even during the rainy season, there are only five days of precipitation per month.
The industrial importance of the salt marsh
The Uyuni salt marsh plays a major role in Bolivia’s economy. Rock salt is extracted there. It reaches 25,000 tons annually. Tourists can visit the small village of Kolchani, located 22 km from the town of Uyuni, on the east of the salt marsh. Its inhabitants have long been engaged in salt mining, and most of the houses in the village are built from blocks of rock salt.
The solonchak also contains huge reserves of lithium chloride. This salt is used to extract the light alkaline metal lithium, which is needed to make batteries. Uyuni contains 50 to 70% of the planet’s lithium reserves – about 100 million tons. There are also large reserves of magnesium chloride.
Uyuni solonchak has found applications in space research on the Earth’s surface. It is used to calibrate and test remote sensing instruments that orbit satellites. Calibration on Uyuni is five times more successful than on the ocean surface. The reason for this is the high reflectivity, large size and flat surface of the salt lake.
Salt in Uyuni is extracted for the food industry and for making tourist souvenirs. Not only walls are made of blocks of rock salt, but also tables, bed benches and various interior decorations are made.
Salt Hotel Flags next to the salt hotel
The first salt hotels appeared in the 1990s in the heart of the salt marsh, and they became very popular with tourists. However, due to a lack of sanitation, these hotels were highly polluting and the local authorities decided to dismantle them. The hotels were rebuilt on the outskirts of the Uyuni salt marsh. They now operate in compliance with all sanitary and environmental regulations.
Panorama of the Uyuni salt marsh
What to see in Uyuni salt marsh
In November, when the rainy season comes, more than 90 species of birds come here to breed, among them three species of flamingos. They feed on algae and crustaceans, which gives these graceful birds a bright pink coloring. The salt marsh is also home to several rare hummingbird species.
Flamingos on the Viskashi salt marsh
The area surrounding the Uyuni salt marsh is home to rabbit-like rodents, viscachis, foxes, and alpacas. The soft and extremely warm wool of alpacas is similar to that of sheep, but much lighter. For a long time, it has been used by the locals to make blankets, plaids and articles of clothing.
On the edge of the Uyuni salt marsh
The surface of the Uyuni salt marsh is covered with large salt “honeycombs.” In early spring, when the rainy season ends, the salt crust dries up. Water that has accumulated below begins to rush through it to the surface, and small cone-shaped volcanoes form.
Uyuni is almost completely devoid of vegetation. There are several islands in its center, which, by their geological origin, are craters of volcanoes that were extinct in ancient times. At the time of Lake Minchin, they were completely hidden under the surface of the water.
Many tourists take jeeps to Isla de los Pescados, an island of fish covered with coral sediments. There are giant cactus ceraeus up to 10 meters high. Botanists believe that some specimens are over 1200 years old. In addition to cacti, several species of shrubs grow on the island, and the locals use them as fuel. Three small restaurants are also open on Pisces Island for travelers to rest and refresh themselves.
Another attraction of the huge salt marsh is the Valley of Stones (Valles de Rocas). This is the name of the place where you can see the unusual stones-insertions. The bizarre shapes of these stone sculptures over many millions of years were created by the forces of wind, water and sunlight. And in the center of Uyuni, there is a platform lined with blocks of rock salt. On it, travelers leave the flags of their countries.
3 km from the city of Uyuni, near the line of the single track railroad leading from Bolivia to the northern provinces of Chile, an unusual museum – “cemetery” of steam locomotives (Cementerio de Trenes) is located. Here, under the open sky you can see examples of rusted-out railway equipment, which was used until the middle of the last century. Steam locomotives were abandoned because they were not needed after mining in the local mines declined sharply. Of particular interest are the articulated steam locomotives of the Meyer and Garratt systems.
Video: Reflections from the Uyuni
Tips for tourists
Salt reflects the sunlight beautifully. The reflection is so intense that it stings your eyes, which is why you need sunglasses and headgear to explore the Uyuni salt marsh. Experts advise you to wear sunscreen, because you can get very sunburned in 1-2 hours.
Uyuni Solonchak at night
In addition, you should understand that the solonchak is located in the highlands, and some tourists at the beginning of the trip may have signs of mountain sickness – lethargy, apathy, dizziness, nausea and sleep disorders. It takes time for your well-being to normalize. A local remedy for acclimatization is coca leaf tea.
The cheapest salt marsh tours are sold in the town of Uyuni or online. They are usually for two days and two nights so that tourists can see the main local attractions. Many people travel around the Uyuni salt marsh on their own in rented vehicles.
How to get there
The Uyuni salt marsh is located 500 meters south of the city of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. The nearest settlement is the small town of Uyuni.
Since 2011, an international airport (El Aeropuerto Joya Andina) was opened near the salt marsh. Two local airlines fly here from the Bolivian capital. Travelling by air is the fastest way to get to the salt marsh, because the flight takes only 40-45 minutes.
In addition, you can come to the Uyuni salt marsh by ground transport – a rented car or bus. Tourist buses run from La Paz and other major cities. The length of the road from the capital through the city of Oruro is 569 km. Tourists leave La Paz at 9 p.m. and arrive in Uyuni in the morning, so they are on the road from 10 to 15 hours.
There is also another route option: you can arrive from La Paz to Oruro by bus in 4 hours and then take the local train to Uyuni.
Uyuni salt marsh
The Uyuni salt marsh is called the pearl of Bolivia. It is the largest salt marsh in the world at 10,588 square kilometers. It is located on the outskirts of the town of Uyuni, in the south of the Altiplano Plain, at an altitude of 3,650 m above sea level.
A few years ago, the Lawnly Planet published a list of the world’s most striking natural attractions, putting the Uyuni salt marsh at the top of the list. Since 2014, the Dakar races have been held at Uyuni.
Experts believe that the Uyuni salt marsh, the result of the desiccation of the huge Lake Minchin, contains 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons are extracted annually. However, you should not try Uyuni salt on your tongue; you may be poisoned (although table salt is extracted here on an industrial scale).
The Uyuni salt deposits have a very complex composition that includes, in addition to sodium salts, calcium, magnesium and lithium salts. A huge amount of lithium chloride has been found in the salt marsh, suitable for the extraction of lithium needed in the battery industry. Experts estimate lithium reserves at the salt marsh to be about 100 million tons, representing 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves.
The thickness of the salt beds ranges from 2 meters at the edge to 10 meters in the center. During the dry season, the solonchak sparkles with snow-white dry salt, while during the rainy season, a thin layer of water forms on the surface of Uyuni.
The unique Uyuni salt lake is used in astronautics. The large size of the water mirror, ideal surface plane and minimal elevation change allow scientists to use the salt marsh to test and calibrate satellites. The clear skies over Uyuni and the dry air make calibration of remote sensing instruments on orbiting satellites several times more accurate than using the ocean surface.
When best to go to Uyuni
The best period to visit the Uyuni salt marsh is the rainy season, which lasts from December to January, when the salt marsh is covered with water and you can admire the unique mirrored reflections of the sky with clouds.
In December, you can see all the diversity of the salt marsh, both dry areas, where the dried surface is covered with hexagonal patterns, and wet “mirror” areas. In January and February, the rains increase, so sometimes all the entrances to the solonchak are washed away or some areas become inaccessible. However, according to locals, at any time of year, even in the dry season, you can find areas covered with water in Uyuni.
Tourists who have visited the salt marsh, advise to stock up on sunscreen and clothes to protect the body from the scalding high-mountain sun, but at night you will also need warm clothes, as the temperature difference is very large and after sunset it gets very cold, sometimes up to minus 10-15 degrees. By the way, is worth considering that on the salt marsh there is no mobile phone, only in some hotels nearby is found a weak Wi-Fi.
Uyuni salt marsh tours and prices
To find a tour to the Uyuni salt marsh is not difficult, most travel agencies in Bolivia and Chile provide this service. In most cases, tourists book a 3-4 day tour that allows them to visit not only the salt marsh, but also other surrounding attractions.
The tour is usually conducted in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with a driver and 5-7 passengers. Tourists can stipulate the route, allocating more time to visit certain places.
The price of tours starting from Chile and Bolivia to the salt marsh depends on the preference for hotel comfort and the ability to bargain. For a 3 to 4 day tour with a group of 5 to 7 people, you will have to pay between $100 and $230. This price includes meals and overnight accommodations.
However, some national parks require a separate fee. There is a $5 fee to climb to the observation deck on Fish Island and a $32 fee for the obligatory national park entrance fee. A visit to the pay toilet will cost $0.5.
It is advisable to have some amount of the local currency boliviano with you.
Sightseeing in Uyuni
In addition to the unique salt marsh itself, tour itineraries usually include other interesting sites.
Near the railroad tracks connecting Antofagasta with Bolivia, 3 km from the town of Uyuni, there is a locomotive cemetery, considered one of the landmarks of the salt marsh. In the 1950s, when the mining of minerals in the surrounding mines declined sharply, the town of Uyuni ceased to be a major transportation center and the railroad began to reduce the rolling stock. Thanks to this, tourists can look at old steam locomotives, among which there are rare and interesting examples, and also take unforgettable photos in the spirit of “retro”.
Salt Hotel Playa Blanca
Usually all tours include a visit to this hotel, located about 20 km from the edge of the salt marsh. The entire hotel, as well as all the furniture inside it, is made of salt blocks. In 2002, the hotel was closed at the request of environmentalists, but a few years later, after the necessary refurbishment, the hotel was reopened as a museum and vacation spot during the tour.
And along the banks of the salt marsh several more hotels were built from the salt blocks. According to tourist reviews, the salt chambers are quite warm and easy to breathe. A night in such a hotel will cost 80-100 dollars.
In front of the hotel built a salt bed, on which tourists put the flags of their states.
A small volcanic island located about 70 km from the edge of the salt marsh, it is better known as Fish Island because its outline resembles a fish.
The entire island is covered with fossilized corals on which cacti grow. Because these cacti grow at a rate of 1 cm per year, many of them are several hundred years old, and the largest, nine-meter – about 900 years old.
Valley of Geysers
Many tourists come to this valley, which spreads at an altitude of 4,800 m, to admire the hot streams of water shooting out of the ground, and also surrounding them terracotta mountains.
The springs are located more than 3,000 meters above sea level. There is little infrastructure, but there is a place where you can change your clothes. However, bathing in a hot bath overlooking the beautiful valley makes you forget about the inconvenience.
Stone Tree in the Desert
An amazing formation of stone 5 meters high arose as a result of the work of wind and sand. A few years ago, the “tree” was enclosed by a rope, which prevented it from taking beautiful pictures, but in recent years, the landmark can be photographed without interference.
Salvador Dali’s Desert
The scenery in this area is remarkably reminiscent of the famous surrealist’s works.
Most tourists try to visit Eduardo Avaroa National Park, where the famous multicolored lagoons are located. The unusual color of the lagoons – red, green, white and black – is formed as a result of the washout of various minerals by the mountain rivers and the subsequent repopulation of the lakes with bacteria. Fluffy llamas and alpacas stroll around the lagoons, they are so friendly that you can pet them.
In November, pink flamingos flock to the Uyuni salt marsh. The birds breed in this desert area, and thanks to reddish crustaceans in their diet, flamingos acquire pink coloration. Three species of flamingo can be observed in Uyuni: Chilean flamingo, Andean flamingo and James flamingo.
Ollagüe active volcano
Ollagüe Volcano is located on the border of Bolivia and Chile and has an elevation of 5,868 m above sea level. Ollagüe volcano exhibits little fumarole activity, which means that hot gases are escaping through cracks and holes in the volcano. The fumarole activity may indicate the extinction of the volcano, or it may be a sign of an intermediate stage between eruptions. The date of the last eruption of Olyagüe Volcano is unknown.
“The eyes of the salt marsh.”
Jets of water with gas bubbles burst to the surface from beneath a thin salt rim, it’s not as spectacular as a geyser, but it’s beautiful too.
How to get there
You can reach the Uyuni salt marsh from Bolivia or from Chile.
The way from Bolivia
If you’re already in Bolivia, you need to drive to the town of Uyuni, where comprehensive tours of the salt marsh and surrounding attractions start.
The quickest way to get to Uyuni from La Paz is by taking an Amaszonas or Boa airline plane. The carriers have two flights every day, morning and evening. The flight time is about an hour, the round-trip ticket price is about 160 USD. Flights arrive at the airport Joya Andina, located 3 km from the city of Uyuni. You can cover this distance by cab (3-5 USD) or on foot in half an hour.
If you buy your Amaszonas airline ticket online, you must use a bank card, which you can show when boarding, otherwise you won’t be allowed on the plane.
Budget travelers often choose to travel to Uyuni by bus, especially since an overnight trip will save on hotel costs. Buses to Uyuni depart from La Paz’s main transportation terminal and arrive in the heart of the city. Tickets cost $7 to $10 and take 12 to 13 hours to get there. Tickets can be booked on a special website.
According to travelers, the buses often turn on the air conditioner at full power, so it is better to bring warm clothes.
Those who like to save money can also get to Uyuni by train departing from the city of Oruro. This method of travel allows you to admire beautiful views from the window. However, be careful when planning such a trip, trains to and from Uyuni do not run every day.
Tickets are $8 and business class tickets are $17 (drinks and snacks included).
Train tickets to Uyuni are sold online, but many tourists complain about the unreliability of the ticketing system and advise buying them in person at the ticket office.
The way from Chile
Since the salt marsh lies on the border with Chile, it can also be reached from the Chilean side. In that case, the tour begins in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, in the Atacama Desert of the same name.
The nearest airport El Loa is in the town of Calama, 100 km from San Pedro de Atacama. This distance can be covered by cab in an hour and a half, paying $40-50 U.S. dollars.
You can get to Calama from Santiago in 2 hours with Latam and Sky Airlines. A two-way ticket costs between $80 and $100.
From Santiago, the bus to Calama leaves from the Alameda terminal. The trip takes about 12 hours and the ticket price is $60-100 (depending on the class of the bus).