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Uyuni Bolivia

Uyuni, Bolivia - Salt Flats and Sud Lípez [part 1]

 

Uyuni - Gateway to the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)...

Let's face it, Uyuni is not the friendliest, prettiest town in the western hemisphere, that's for sure. Actually, it rather looks like a setting in a post-apocalyptic movie. Other than that, the city itself is nothing to write home about.

So why one would go there? will you ask...

Looking out from the window of your spaceship orbiting Earth you're unlikely to make out Uyuni. Instead what strikes astronauts repeatedly and inevitably, is the white, solitary expanse of the Salar de Uyuni — like a shining coin under the reflection of the sun rays. That is a sight!

The perfectly polished spot that has just grabbed your attention is actually a vast 10,000 square km dazzling white expanse of flat wilderness and one of the most remote and beautiful corners of our planet.

And that makes for a trip of a lifetime.

Back on the ground, the Salar or salt flats may be the closest thing to immensity on the land surface of the Earth, and you won't live until you get to touch it, feel its energy, and maybe dare to venture across it.

When there is a little water on the flats, it reflects perfectly the blue Altiplano sky and the effect is positively eerie. When they are dry, the Salar becomes a blinding white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable.

Don't attempt to get there with anything less than a robust four-wheel-drive.

 
...and into the Southern Altiplano (Sud Lípez)

Known as Sud Lípez, the region south of the Salar de Uyuni is the most remote highland area in the country. With few roads or inhabitants, unpredictable weather conditions, only a few scattered settlements, and unreliable transport, travel into and around the region becomes an exercise in patience and creativity. And guess what... we are good at it!

This is a place where young men from the Inca empire were marched to the Andean summits, exposed to the cruel elements, and forced to freeze to death as a sacrifice to the gods, in commemoration of significant events within the Empire.

Nearly treeless, the south-western corner of Bolivia is inhabited only by a few miners and military personnel, and some very determined Aymara and Quechua who occupy small villages along the old Antofagasta rail line.

The rugged landscape is sparkled with numerous volcanoes which rise abruptly out of the Altiplano. Bleached deposits of brine provide an occasional splash of white amid the prevailing of browns, and several algae-stained lakes add blues, yellows, greens, and reds to the palette. Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde, Red Lake and Green Lake respectively, are the best known of these.

Uyuni is accessible from La Paz via Oruro by road or train, or direct by plane, and from Potosí in Bolivia. The rail line connects Uyuni with Argentina via Tupiza and Villazón/La Quiaca. Another gateway to the Sud Lípez area is San Pedro de Atacama or Calama in northern Chile.

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In relatively recent geological history, this part of the Altiplano has been covered by three successive large lakes. They evaporated some 10,000 years ago and left behind a parched landscape of brackish puddles and salt flats. Read more about the geology and recent history of the Salar below.

click here to openGeological and Historical Background

Geology

The Altiplano was once home to the enormous Lake Ballivián nearly 200,000 years ago. However, severe climatic changes led to its eventual split into two: Lago Titicaca to the north and Lago Minchín to the south. Thus, during the last Ice Age most of the Altiplano was under Lake Minchín, of which the bottom of the Salar was the deepest point.

From 40,000 to 25,000 years ago, Lake Minchín occupied much of South-western Bolivia. The area lay dry for 14,000 years before the appearance of short-lived Lake Tauca, which lasted for only about 1000 years. When Lake Tauca dried up, it left a couple of puddles, Lakes Poopó and Uru-Uru, and two major salt concentrations, the Salares de Uyuni and Coipasa. the salt is the result of the leeching of minerals from the surrounding mountains. It was deposited because this part of the Altiplano is drained internally, with no outlet to the sea.

Salar de Uyuni stands 3,655 metres (11,995 ft) above sea level. The highest level reached by Lake Minchín was 3,760 metres. Lake Tauca rose to 3,720 metres. For this reason, two distinctive levels of terraces are visible along the shoreline at those elevations. Below the lowest level are fossils of coral in limestone. The center of the Salar contains a few "islands", which are the remains of the tops of ancient volcanoes which were submerged during the era of Lake Minchín. They include these unusual and fragile coral-like structures (Stromatolites) and deposits that often consist of fossils and algae, providing us with some of the most ancient records of life on this part of the planet.

Recent history

Historically, this lonely country hasn't seen much activity. Sometime during the mid-1400s, the reigning Inca Pachacuti sent his son Tupa Inca Yupanqui to conquer lands southward. He was apparently a clever PR man because the south-western extremes and the desert areas of what is now Bolivia and northern Chile were taken bloodlessly. The conquerors marched onward across the wastelands to the northern bank of central Chile's Maule River where a fierce tribe of Araucanian Indians forced them to stake out the southern boundary of the Inca Empire and sent them packing back to Cuzco.

Due to the undeniably harsh conditions encountered in these deserts, the Incas never effectively colonized the area. These days little has changed and the landscape is dotted with only mining camps, health and military posts, and geothermal projects. Recently, hydrometallurgical processes are being developed to recover lithium from the Salar — world's largest lithium deposit, accounting for at least half the globe's reserves, and Bolivia's White Gold.

 

There would appear to be little to attract the traveler to this barren plateau sitting on the roof of the world. It's a bleak, windswept terrain of parched scrub, with the occasional tiny adobe settlement blending into the uniform brown landscape.

But intrepid visitors do come to this starkly beautiful corner of Bolivia and are rewarded with some of the greatest visual delights that our country has to offer.

Come take a tour with us and drive this inconceivably vast expanse of blinding white salt flats, or even spend the night in a hotel made entirely of the stuff. Farther south is a Salvador Dalí landscape of bizarre rock formations, white-capped volcanoes, shimmering kaleidoscope lakes filled with pink flamingoes and steaming geysers.

The main settlement, Uyuni, is nothing thrilling to write home about, unless you happen to spend a night or two at one of the charming guest houses we have selected for you.

There are but a few tourist attractions in the area and the antique “train cemetery” is one of them. Founded in 1889, Uyuni was once a bustling railway hub connecting Bolivia’s mines with the Pacific Ocean. As the mines eventually dried up, the trains stopped running and many were abandoned. Rather than decommissioning and selling the useless locomotives as scrap, depressed Uyuni left them to rot in a fascinating, ghostly train graveyard just a few kilometers outside the city.

click here to openThe Salar – a geographic oddity

image 1
Satellite View of the Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni is the highest and largest salt lake in the world at an altitude of 3,655 m and covering 10,000-12,000 sq km (depending on who you ask). This geographic oddity is one of the few natural features easily visible from space.

Driving across it is one of the weirdest and most fantastic experiences anywhere on the continent, especially during the dry season when the bright blue skies contrast with the blinding-white salt crust. During the rainy season the lake is covered in water which adds to the surreal experience.

When dry, the surface shines with such intense whiteness that you'll find yourself reaching down to check that it's not ice or snow, whilst by night the entire landscape is illuminated by the eerie white glow of moonlight reflected in the salt. When it's covered in water after rain, the Salar is turned into an enormous mirror that reflects the surrounding mountain peaks and the sky so perfectly that at times the horizon disappears.

With the views of the stars from the Salar, stargazing at this altitude is unrivalled across the continent.

A 4WD expedition across (or when it has rained, around) the Salar and down to Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde on the Chilean border is not to be missed.

 

 


Tours of the Salar


20 km north of Uyuni is the small settlement of Colchani. A couple of minutes out of the village and you are on the salt. Workers from the village dig out piles of salt which are then loaded onto trucks and taken back to the village to be ground and iodized before being sold.

As you cross the Salar you pass los ojos del salar, which are not eyes but breathing spaces for subterranean rivers flowing under the Salar. Approach these with caution as the salt near a hole might not bear your weight. In the dry season the Salar is covered with hexagonal and pentagonal shapes which appear to have been carved by someone. Views north are dominated by the snow-capped Volcán Thunupa, 5,432 m.

After about 10 km from Colchani, Incahuasi (Inca House) just pops up from nowhere behind the horizon. This 10-ha “island” is one of the most impressive islas in the Salar, and also the most popular. From there Isla Cujiri, better known as Isla Pescado (so-called because it allegedly looks like a fish) can be seen to the northwest. From Colchani it takes 1-2 hours (depending on the state of the Salar and how many stops you make en route) to go the 80 km or so to Isla Incahuasi.

It harbors a whole range of flora and fauna, including giant cacti (some more than 10 m high), birds and rodents. This oasis constitutes a totally isolated and unique ecosystem. The rugged terrain and its total contrast with the shiny salt flat and crystal-clear sky is unquestionably one of the most extraordinary slices of scenery on the whole of the Altiplano. From among the giant cacti there are stunning views across the huge white expanse of salt to mountains shimmering on the horizon.

On the northern shore of the Salar and off the normal route stands the dormant volcano Mount Thunupa (or Tunupa, 5,432 m). This mountain is high enough to support a summit glacier, and enough rain falls on the windward slopes to provide water for small communities along the base. The dark volcanic rocks and brightly colored summit caldera comprising Mt. Tunupa are in sharp contrast with the white, mineral-crusted surface of the salar.

Altitude aside, this hulking yellow and reddish mountain is a relatively easy climb. A walk to the viewpoint of the volcano at 4600 m is possible for acclimated travelers (6-7 hours round trip) for astonishing views of the entire region. Also accessible with acceptable risk is the 5,207 m high western peak (colored peak) but the way to the central summit (5,432 m) is dangerous due to shredded rocks and very steep and loose scree.

At the foot of the volcano you will find a few villages such as Tahua, Coquesa and Jirira in an area specked with ruined ancient settlements and burial grounds. Thunupa is an important deity in the Andean cosmogony; actually, the original name of the Salar the Uyuni is Salar de Thunupa. The local people prefer this original name. Articles of clothing and artifacts in ceramic, gold and copper have been discovered at some of the sites, indicating the presence of an advanced but little-known culture. Unfortunately, its remoteness has left it vulnerable to amateur treasure hunters who have plundered several items of archaeological value.

A number of hostels are available in this area and we heartily recommend spending at least one night at the foot of Thunupa. Also important although much ignored by the regular circuits departing Uyuni, hiring local services (guides, lodging and food, etc.) enables the Aymara-Quechua communities to benefit from our stay. Hiking and wading along the shores is a great opportunity to learn about the culture of this part of the Bolivian Andes, visit an association of organic farmers, and meet with llama herders and quinoa growers...

Quinoa
Quinoa. It's more than what you eat.

On the western side of the Salar, 5 hours from Uyuni, is Llica, the main settlement in this area that borders with Chile. The views onto the surrounding salt flats and mountains are very different and an incomparable twist to the main, classic route. The village is also good for llama and other wool handicraft. Accommodation is available in nearby Tahua, at the foot of Mount Thunupa, although there might be delays and problems in the wet season.

In the dry season, our tour then heads south across the Salar to the Colcha K military post (also known as Villa Martín) and on to San Juan or even farther south to spend the night at one of the simple lodgings available in the area. If the Salar is under water, access to Incahuasi may be restricted and we may have to head back to Uyuni and then continue south on not so much terra firma but certainly terra drier.

click here to openTowards Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde

A trip to this remote corner of Bolivia would not be complete without continuing to Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde, some 350 km southwest of Uyuni, over unmarked, rugged tracks. This remote and spectacular region of icebound volcanic peaks and mineral-stained lakes is home to a surprising array of wildlife, including great flocks of pink flamingoes and herds of vicuñas.Truly, it is one of Bolivia’s most spectacular and most isolated marvels.

NB The diurnal temperature variation spans –25ºC to +25ºC in winter, though wind develops during the afternoon which makes it feel even colder than it is.

 

 

Uyuni is located in the south-western part of Bolivia.

Uyuni

Through our intimate, small-group tours and private expeditions in this area you will be able to visit sites most tourists, even seasoned travelers, never find.

Join us on a discovery of a lifetime in Uyuni.

Check our selected excursions in this area:

ESSENTIAL UYUNI — 4 days

Uyuni - Salt Flats & Sud Lípez
{ short bolivia excursion - fully customizable }

The following packages also include this area
among other destinations.

BOLIVIA CROSSING — 8 days

From Peru to La Paz via Lake Titicaca / Uyuni Salt Flats & Sud Lípez / to Northern Chile or Argentina
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }

BOLIVIA EXPLORER — 15 days

Santa Cruz / Sucre / Potosí / Uyuni / Sud Lípez / La Paz / Lake Titicaca
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }

BOLIVIA SPECIAL DEPARTURES — 13 days

Santa Cruz / Sucre / Potosí / Uyuni / La Paz
{ special itinerary - small group travel }

Feel free to customize any travel package according to your own personal interests and the specific activities you expect...

Join us on one of our Natural History Tours or a Cultural Exploration into the heart of South America. Our programs are offered throughout the year, on a (very) small group basis and mostly in private.

You may also want to make an enquiry or design your own program of activities in this area.

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You may also check other Special Interest Travel and unusual tours or expeditions around Bolivia, including:

• La Paz, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca
• Uyuni Salt Flats & Sud Lípez Red & Green Lagoons
• Colonial Cities of Sucre and Potosí
• Central, Inter-Andean Valleys of Cochabamba
• Santa Cruz - the Lowlands & Jesuit Missions
• Bolivian Rainforests & Amazon Basin
• Cuzco & Machu Picchu Extensions

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