Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

For nearly 5 years, I've been reading the blogs of fellow overland travelers on the Pan-Am. From these blogs, one of the most intriguing places was the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, as well as the wild, entrancing high-altitude landscape southwest of the Salar. Secretly, I always wondered if we would make it there. I know that Scott is no fan of teeth-chattering roads, water-pipe freezing temperatures, and sitting in a vehicle for hours on end, just to see a few cool landscapes. For years, I kept my expectations low for the possibility of visiting the area.

The closer we got to the southwest of Bolivia, the more it seemed like Scott was willing to make it happen. He wasn't dying to go (he thought he was dying for other reasons), but felt that if it was important to me, he would do it. For me, not visiting southwest Bolivia was like passing up an opportunity to visit the moon - sure, it comes with pain and consequences,'s the moon!

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It is approximately the size of Connecticut and sits at an elevation of 12,000 feet. It boggles the mind with it's flat, white expanse.

We were a little bummed at the end of the dry season that from certain angles the Salar has a bit of a brown tinge, due to the blowing dust. 

The salt is 20 - 300 cm thick and each rainy season, water sits on the flats and melts it into an almost perfectly flat surface. It's nerve-racking to know that you are driving across a salt crust that is only 20 cm thick in places. Under the salt is a lake of lithium-rich brine. The lithium accounts for an estimated 50% of the world's reserves. So far, a Bolivian company is mining the lithium on a relatively small scale, and has managed to keep much of the wealth in the country.

Before we drove onto the Salar, we hiked up a volcano (Tunupa) on the north end for an incredible view over the expanse (picture below). Unfortunately, a hard climb at such an altitude was a bit much, and I was really feeling ill the next day.

A view of the Salar from above

Some skittish vicunas on the Salar in front of Tunupa volcano

Finally on the Salar, we were inspired, like all other travelers before us, to play around with the camera. Due to it's flatness, monotone color, and blue skies overhead, the Salar is an epic place to trick your eyes and camera. Here is a sampling of our efforts:

When the sun went down, the temperatures dropped fast

The next day, we zoomed across the Salar (easily the best road we traveled in Bolivia) at 50 mph and headed to Uyuni, the nearest town, for fuel, a car wash, and supplies in anticipation of the next adventure into the National Reserve of Avaroa - next post!

Practical Information For Fellow Travelers:


  • Jiriri (on the north edge of the Salar): We parked near the hostel in this tiny town at the edge of the Salar. It's a good base to climb the volcano, Tunupa. If you are looking for accommodations or just a hot shower, the people here are really nice and the hostel looked clean and well-kept.
  • The Salar: We read that camping on the Salar was illegal. We assume because they don't want fires and/or going to the bathroom on the Salar. We camped in the middle of the Salar but didn't do any of that.
  • Uyuni: We parked/camped outside the hotel that houses the famous pizza place. It WAS as good as you hear. If you need to buy water (which you undoubtedly will), you can get large 20 liter refills at Agua Purisimo. Many people in town had no idea where we could get water in botellas grandes, so this felt like a really good find.

Maps and GPS:

  • We used the information from AtoB, LifeRemotely, and PanAm Notes. The waypoints, free Garmin GPS maps, and general recommendations were very helpful. 

1 comment:

Shonah and Todd said...

Awesome pictures on the Salar! Especially like the one where El Tigre looked so huge compared to Scott. Stay healthy!