Traversing the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni

Traversing the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni

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By Keith Drew
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Driving across the immaculate white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni, you’d think you were on another planet, so alien and inhospitable is the terrain. Some 3650m above sea level in the remote Andes of southwest Bolivia, the Salar is the largest salt flat in the world, a brilliantly white and perfectly flat desert that stretches over 10,000 square kilometres.

In some places the salt is over 120m deep, saturated with water, its thick surface crust patterned with strange polygons of raised salt crystals that add to the unearthly feel. When dry, the salt shines with such intensity you’ll find yourself reaching down to check that it’s not ice or snow. After a heavy rainfall, meanwhile, the Salar transforms into an immense mirror, reflecting the sky and the surrounding snowcapped peaks so pristinely that at times the horizon disappears and the mountains seem like islands floating in the sky. The best views are from Isla del Pescado, a rocky island at the centre of the Salar that’s home to an extraordinary array of giant cactuses that somehow manage to thrive in this harsh saline environment.

To appreciate the sheer scale and surreal beauty of the landscape, it’s worth taking the full four-day tour, travelling right across the Salar in a 4WD and sleeping in rudimentary huts and shelters on the shores of the lake; you can even stay in a hotel made entirely from salt. These trips also take in the Eduardo Abaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, south of the Salar, a windswept region of high-altitude deserts, icebound volcanoes and mineral-stained lakes where you can see an unlikely variety of wildlife, including flocks of flamingoes and herds of vicuña, the delicate and rare wild relative of the llama.

Expeditions to the Salar by 4WD are easily arranged with local tour operators in Uyuni, 12hr from La Paz.

 

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