Salar de Uyuni, the Salt Lake City of South America
As a simple expanse of salt located in South West Bolivia, it is easy to see how the Salar de Uyuni is overlooked as a holiday destination. Without a sea to house the salt and a beach to recline beside it, many holidaymakers may be deterred by the remoteness of the destination, however, if travelling to Bolivia, I implore you to visit one of the country’s most enigmatically bewitching natural formations.
Over 40, 000 years ago, the Salar de Uyuni was a part of Lake Minchin, an immersive prehistoric lake. In Minchin’s sunkissed demise, it left behind two fragments which in themselves became modern lakes: Poopo and Uru Uru; and two major salt deserts: the Salar de Coipasa and the aforementioned Salar de Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni is the larger of the two, and as a memory of the monolithic Lake Minchin, contains over 10 billion tonnes of salt to form a barren yet breath-taking accumulation of artificial land comprised of pure white crystalline expanses.
The ethereal saline plateau of Salar de Uyuni is remote and wholly unique as a destination where quiet reflection of some of nature’s most remarkable effects lay therapeutic in function to untangle one’s mosaic of woes.
To add to the enchantment of the area, in a purely otherworldly fashion, the world’s largest salt flat acts like a mirror when it becomes wet. As the Salar de Uyuni is extraordinarily flat and of an alabaster colouration, the moisture it receives from rainfall reflects back an image of the sky above and in doing so, creates a sensation that is almost like you’re walking in air. The best way to experience the Salar de Uyuni is by booking one of the many guided tours dedicated to the area with durations lasting just one or up to five days.
Fish Island derives its name not from its abundance of sea life, but because this rock formation which finds itself in the centre of the Salar de Uyuni, is shaped like a fish.
Known as the Isla Incahuasi, but only a former island, the rocky outcrop of land in fact sits on top of the remains of an ancient volcano which thankfully submerged with the dissolution of Lake Minchin over 40,000 years ago. The benefit of being formed of the volcanic igneous rock however, is that the Island makes itself home to the only source of life in the whole of the salt desert – gigantic cacti, which grow up to 30 feet high and provide a visual spectacle to compliment, if not rival, the surrounding salty landscapes.
Isla Incahuasi is a popular stop in the tour around the region – unusual and a marvel, and therefore meeting any criteria which the Salar de Uyuni may propose.
Hotel Luna Salada
During your expedition of the Salar de Uyuni, it should be imperative that you visit the Hotel Luna Salada, either as a point on your tour of the salt lands or as a place to stay overnight during your visit.
Fittingly, the hotel situated on the plateau is made of the most readily available building material – salt. The original Salt Palace was first built between the years of 1993 & 1995 from blocks of salt extracted from its very own vacinity. However, this initial construction merely provided a means to an end – a place to stay for the tourists who would otherwise travel great distances from their respective cities only for short stays. In 2007, the structure was abandoned and the project was revitalised when moved to the Eastern Edge of the Salar de Uyuni – this incarnation was constructed from over 1 million salt blocks of a 14-inch diameter. With salt as a building material, the floors, walls, ceiling and furniture have become more than just a novelty but enthralling. More than just a construction gimmick, the ubiquity of the medium of salt creates the impression that you are immersing yourself into the world of the unknown, all the more so when features such a salt sculptures are added to the mix.
The Hotel Luna Salada comes with modern luxuries such as a dry sauna, a steam room, whirlpool baths and a fitting, salt-water pool; all of which add to the relaxing properties that can be experienced in the ‘salty sanatorium’ of East-Central Salar de Uyuni.
What the present hotel shares with its former, inferior incarnation built in the 90s is its amusing rule that prohibits guests from licking walls, in order to prevent any erosion to the structure of the building.
If your trip to the Salar de Uyuni is during the winter months from November onwards you’ll see a breath of life evanesce into the otherwise barren region. Unusually, thousands of flamingo, a tropical bird, target the cool and windy salt flats to breed and bare their offspring.
Three species of Flamingo – the James, the Chilean and the Andean flamingo – imprint the plain white expanses of salt with streams of pink as they engage in a mating ritual that resembles a fusion of avian gymnastics and uniform marching.
Wind erosion has had a beneficial effect on the terrain of the Salar de Uyuni, leaving behind a stunning interplay of mountainous structures and hills to punctuate the vast open region. What also adds to the sense of wonderment in the landscape of Salar de Uyuni is the sheer flatness of the plateau.
As there is no horizon, it is impossible to gauge a sense of depth in the vistas that appear before the naked eye.
The result is one that is startling both in person and in photography. The size of people and edifices have no point of reference, they lose relativity and the eternal horizon is embroidered with mismatching forms and surreal formations.
If you holiday to Bolivia, it would be a disservice to yourself to omit a stop in the peaceful yet otherworldly Salar de Uyuni.