A small town in the Altiplano of Bolivia
, best known for the nearby huge salt flat of the same name. This Salar de Uyuni is in fact the largest salt lake/salt pan in the world, and simply mind-boggling to see.
Throw in some scary mummies and a graveyard of rusting old steam trains, and it's a one-of-a-kind experience.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The town of Uyuni would be no more than a desolate, remote little outpost if it wasn't for the Salar de Uyuni – the world's largest salt flat, a truly vast area of some 4000 square miles (11,000 km2) of white. The salt layer is supposedly several metres thick, while the whole salt lake (including the brine below the salt crust) is up to 30 m deep. The salt is being mined, especially in the small village of Colchani, where it is enriched with iodine and packed and sold as cooking salt.
While this traditional cooking salt production provides only a meagre income for the local populace, the more recent discovery of enormous lithium reserves in the Salar may have huge economic advantages for Bolivia
as a whole in the future. Since lithium is a key component for making batteries, the importance of the stuff is expected to increase as more car traffic switches away from fossil-fuel-burning combustion engines to electric motors. As the Salar de Uyuni is said to contain some 50% of the world's lithium reserves, it may become more valuable for the country in the future than gold or silver have ever been in the past.
Traditionally, however, it's indeed silver that has been the focus of mining in the Altiplano, and in the nearby mountains there are still active historic silver mines, e.g. at Pulacayo, which also has a collection of well-preserved early steam engines, including Bolivia's very first, going back to the days when the railway was first introduced to the country, in connection with mining.
The railway has ever since been an important lifeline for the area – something that is also evidenced by the amazing steam train cemetery near the town of Uyuni (see below). There's still a train line connecting the Altiplano with the port of Antofagasta in Chile
on the Pacific
coast, which Bolivia
lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific.
Uyuni town, these days, lives to a large degree off tourism. There's a dominating infrastructure that caters, in particular, to backpacker tourism. In addition to various hostels and eateries, there are several companies offering tours of the Salar. Closer to the Salar, or in one case right on it, hotels built from blocks of salt have become an attraction in themselves (see below).
What there is to see: The main attraction of the area is of course going out onto the Salar de Uyuni's vast expanse of a flat white desert. It's such a weird and other-worldly environment that I'm sure it will also appeal to many dark tourists, even though it is, literally speaking, anything but dark. In fact, because of the blindingly white pure salt crust you have to wear high UV-factor sunglasses (those made for glacier mountaineering are a good choice) when out on the Salar. There is even a public bus that traverses the Salar on a regular route. But to get the best out of it you should go on one of the 4x4 jeep tours that take tourists onto the salt flat and to a number of interesting points beyond.
A standard stop is at the original salt hostel that was built right on the Salar, and from salt blocks. The newer, larger and better equipped salt hotels on the shores of the Salar have replaced the original as an accommodation option (which also suffered from environmental problems), but it is still a popular spot at least for a lunch break.
Next to the building is a small mound with several flag poles flying the national colours of various nations. I found the fact that the British
Union Jack was flying directly under the national flag of Argentina
, coupled with the fact that both were rather ripped and battered, rather poignant (why? think of the Falklands
Inside the old hostel there is a small museum with a few sculptures made of salt (though you have to purchase something from the shop to get admission – but in Colchani there's also a free alternative near the alley of local souvenir shops!). There's a charge for using the loo too – and signs all around the hostel warn you not to "go" against any of its outer walls! (Presumably the salt could melt if you did …)
Out on the Salar the vastness of its area together with the exceptionally clear air make it difficult to judge distances. Many people take advantage of this for funny photo effects, e.g. when they pose some 20-30 yards apart so that the image looks like a miniature person is standing on a full-size human's hand or some such optical illusion. Just look around on the Internet for photos of the Salar de Uyuni and you will quickly find loads of the examples and see what I mean.
When the salt flat is dry, its near perfect flatness and enormous area space frequently invite racing across the Salar at great speeds. However, despite the wide expanse of the salt flat it is not without its dangers! This is brought home to visitors through a memorial stone for the 13 casualties of a tragic accident that happened in 2008, when two jeeps were racing each other and one of them, whose drive was apparently drunk, suddenly broke out of the other's wake and collided head-on with an oncoming jeep. All Japanese and Israeli tourists died, as did three out of the four Bolivian driver/guides. Ironically, the only survivor was the drunk driver who had caused the collision. I also spotted further evidence of accidents in the shape of little crosses – just like those ubiquitous little road-side shrines you see along the sides of roads all over the country (in Chile
too) – all reminders of the fragility of road safety …
The memorial to the 2008 accident can be found not far from the so-called "Ojos del Salar", literally 'salt flat's eyes'. These are springs of fresh water that bubble through the salt crust, making for interesting colour contrasts (to the otherwise uniform white) too.
Popular sites you can drive to across the Salar when it's dry are islands in the Salar that are home to astonishingly large cacti, caves with bizarre rock formations (Cueva de las Galaxias) or the volcano Tunupa on the northern edge of the Salar. The latter also holds a particular attraction for those more into the morbid side of dark tourism, namely a number of mummies at Coquesa.
During my visit at the beginning of January 2012, however, it was not possible to drive across the Salar so far, due to heavy rainfall the previous few days (the so-called "Bolivian winter", the rainy season, had arrived a little early that year). And when it rains like that, the Salar gets flooded with a layer of water. At some places further out driving can also become extremely difficult as the salt turns to slush ("it's like driving on soap", my driver remarked) and cars easily get stuck. So our drives across the Salar remained restricted to the area between Colchani and around the original salt hostel out on the salt flat. Such enforced changes of plans are quite normal in this remote and unpredictable area.
On the plus side: after rain the shallowly flooded salt flat turns into what must be the world's largest mirror! And that's a truly wondrous thing to behold in its own right! Looking out to the mountains the world become a symmetric double image with an upside-down world dangling from the horizon. Everything in the distance just looks like a mirage! It's totally surreal and wow! Needless to say, these effects also invite playing with photography, exploiting the spectacular reflections. The typical shapes on the salt crust, the polygons (not to be confused with the Kazakh Polygon near Semipalatinsk
!) are only visible close up when there's water on them. Further in the distance they gradually blend into the mirroring water surface which itself eventually blends with the sky. Cool!
To make up for the fact that we couldn't drive across the Salar to the mummies at the foothills of Tunupa volcano, my guide took us to a much less well-known and thus totally untouristic other site, closer to one of the salt hotels around Colchani, where there were mummies to see as well. In fact, if I compare my photos with those I've seen of the Coquesa mummies, I think the mummies we went to see are actually much better! Better in the sense of scarier, even more morbid a sight to behold.
Some of these mummies still have Rasta-like hair on their skulls. Others have more or less decayed to little more than a skeleton. One of the better preserved mummies had a mummified baby in her arms. And as if that wasn't scary enough, you find a mummified puma (aka cougar) hanging over the inside of the entrance to the mummy cave as you turn to leave!
Apparently, native locals come here to lay down gifts for the deceased (ancestors?), mainly cigarettes, coca leaves and cans of beer. The mother mummy with the baby even had a coin placed inside one off her eye sockets!
However, given that this site is not protected, as my guide pointed out (and apparently outsiders had already stolen items from the site) I do not feel authorized to disclose its exact location.
Almost impossible to miss, on the other hand, is the salt mining and processing activity that is going on around Colchani. The salt miners hack up salt on the Salar and pile it in little conical heaps for drying and then shovel it onto their old trucks and take it to the salt plant in the village. Here the salt is further processed, enriched with iodine, and packed by hand. The tour operators in Uyuni typically include a visit here in their excursions across the Salar, not just to show visitors the old-fashioned (primitive even) salt production, but also to support the local souvenir businesses. A whole row of souvenir stands is lined up outside the salt plant selling all manner of local crafts and kitsch (some of the knitwear is actually very well-made – and good value for money – but some of the kitschier items are no more than the usual tourist rip-off tack).
One especially popular spot with tourists (and allegedly locals alike) is near the town of Uyuni, more precisely a mile or so to the south-west of the town's edge: the famous train cemetery. Here several old steam engines and countless carriages/wagons were dumped once they had broken down or had become redundant. Now these rusting hulks bear silent witness to a more glorious steam train era railroad tradition in Bolivia (even though the glory in that was mainly to cart all those minerals out of Bolivia for the rich nations of the northern hemisphere to use up).
When I say "silently" that's actually not strictly speaking true. The photos below may give that impression, but in actual fact the place was quite busy and dozens of tourists made quite a noise while they pranced around on and around the old trains and posed for the usual touristy photos (jumping in the air sees to be a must-do when a camera is aimed at such a group).
The steam trains have been robbed of their insignia/numbers plates and stuff like that – gone into the hands of collectors as prized objects. Some have also been partly dismantled – for scrap, presumably. But on the whole there are still enough halfway preserved specimens to make this a fun place to explore. That includes some of the graffiti. Curiously, there's even a swing hanging between the train wrecks. And a metal sculpture is supposed to look like President Evo Morales (see Bolivia
The town of Uyuni itself has a certain remote outpost feel to it, except for all the tourist infrastructure, and is at beast only mildly attractive. That said, though, there's a local market that is quite interesting to poke around in (look out for all those different types of potatoes), a few further monuments to the industrial/railroad past enliven things a little, and a small pedestrianized central area is actually quite pleasant to the eye.
The same cannot be said, however, about the plastic-strewn outskirts of town. It's almost reminiscent of a land-version of the plastic gyre in the Pacific
. All that plastic just thrown out into the open to pollute the immediate vicinity all around the town! Why the local townsfolk do and accepts this, is beyond me. (Cf. Senegal
In the Andean Altiplano of Bolivia
. The town of Uyuni is located near the eastern shores of the salt flats of the same name, Salar de Uyuni, which expands for ca. 100 miles (160 km) westwards towards the border with Chile
. Uyuni lies in the south-western Bolivian province of Potosi, named after the city of Potosi, which is ca. 90 miles (150 km) north-east of the town of Uyuni.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: very remote indeed, hence not necessarily cheap.
: travel to Uyuni does not have to break the bank. At least not if you're prepared to travel the backpacker way (the town seems to be some kind of backpacker Mecca, it's full of them!) There are cheap and cheerful overland buses providing connections with the rest of the country, there are trains too, and a range of hostels offer affordable accommodation. But you need a lot of time and flexibility (as well as good Spanish) to do it this way. It was more expensive but worth every penny the way I did it instead: I had a private tour arranged, with a mountain-worthy 4x4 jeep with a skilled driver and a bilingual guide, who picked me and my wife up from the Chilean border near San Pedro de Atacama, took us all the way to Uyuni (see under combinations) for two days exploring around the salt flat and surrounding mountains and dropped us off back at the border to Chile
Instead of hostels we stayed at a salt hotel, literally a hotel built from blocks of salt, with salt floors and in part furniture also made of salt. More such salt hotels are being constructed around Uyuni. These more recent incarnations are also much more comfortable options and a far cry from the legendary first salt hostel that sits right on the salt flat (but is really basic). It's quite an experience in itself. The salt hotels feel a bit like those ice hotels of the Arctic, only minus the freeze (unless, of course, you go in winter, when temperatures do indeed drop that far).
Since all this was part of a larger package, I'm not fully aware of what components cost exactly what, except for the salt hotel I stayed in, which publishes rates in the region of 60-90 EUR per night/room (there are more expensive as well as cheaper alternatives, though). Prices of conventional hotels and hostels in town are of course significantly lower, and eating out cheaply in town is also possible in some of the many simple canteens catering mostly to the hordes of backpackers. In general, Bolivia is a far cheaper country to travel in than, say, neighbouring Chile
One thing you should be aware of when coming here is the issue of altitude sickness. Uyuni lies at ca. 3700m above sea level, and some of the mountain passes en route getting there can reach altitudes of nearly 5000m. Many people experience symptoms like dizziness, breathing problems and nausea at such elevations. Others don't feel a thing. It's unpredictable – and has nothing to do with one's general fitness. Even the fittest of sportspeople or mountaineers can be hit by it, while some overweight tourists who never do any sport may be fine. Myself (closer to the latter category than the former) I felt almost nothing … oddly it was only during the last night at such altitude that I had a bit of trouble breathing during the night (I woke up from it several times feeling short of breath and needed to concentrate on drawing my breath with more force). This was odd because I had already had several days of acclimatization. Normally, the rule is that you suffer less if you allow for a gradual ascent, staying at intermediate altitudes for a few days first before going up into the really high mountain terrain. Going straight from sea level to 400m or more is a recipe for getting altitude sick. But there are no guarantees either way. One remedy that the locals swear by is drinking tea made with coca leaves! ("It won't make you feel funny, it's not like cocaine, but it helps with the altitude", is how my guide put it. However, it's strictly not for export, so don't even think about taking any coca tea back with you as a souvenir. You might get into trouble at the next airport you pass through!)
Time required: a couple of days minimum. Plus a few days for acclimatizing to altitude.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under Bolivia
– the other truly dark attractions of the country lie elsewhere. Only Potosi is within the same region (which is actually called Potosi too).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The whole Altiplano is a fantastic landscape to explore. This is especially true for the vast Andean scenic emptiness to the south of Uyuni, towards the border with Chile
. I had come from the remote Chilean border near Licancabur volcano on the edge of the Atacama desert, where my Bolivian guide and driver picked me and my wife up. The contrast to rather touristified San Pedro de Atacama could hardly have been greater.
En route to Uyuni (some 8-10 hours driving) are some of the finest colourful lagoons of the area, including the reddish Laguna Colorado with its thousands of pink flamingos wading in the shallow briny waters, and the eerily blue-green Laguna Verde (devoid of any bird life due to its toxicity). Hot springs, geysers and mud pools are evidence of volcanic activity and provide even more natural splendour. But the best thing remains just the enormously expansive views of the mountain scenery against a massively big sky. You get a truly remote feeling up here – you can drive for hours on end without ever passing another vehicle. Fantastic! Scenery-wise this was one of the best trips I've ever been on in my life!
- Uyuni 01 - endless expanse
- Uyuni 02 - salt polygons
- Uyuni 03 - one gigantic mirror
- Uyuni 04 - driving out onto the Salar
- Uyuni 05 - just slowly when it is flooded
- Uyuni 06 - memorial stone for victims of a fatal racing accident
- Uyuni 07 - another deadly accident marker
- Uyuni 08 - springs under the salt crust
- Uyuni 09 - chemical composition of the Salar - including lithium
- Uyuni 10 - local bus about to traverse the Salar
- Uyuni 11 - original salt hostel out on the Salar
- Uyuni 12 - with international flags
- Uyuni 13 - peeing restrictions
- Uyuni 14 - fata-morgana-like sight on the horizon
- Uyuni 15 - yours truly x 2
- Uyuni 16 - mirror image with Tunupa volcano in the background
- Uyuni 17 - shovelling salt
- Uyuni 18 - dumped at the salt factory
- Uyuni 19 - working with salt
- Uyuni 20 - the finished and packed product
- Uyuni 21 - salt hotel
- Uyuni 22 - sculptures made from salt
- Uyuni 23 - mummy cave
- Uyuni 24 - with sacrificial gifts of fags and coca leaves
- Uyuni 25 - and a coin in the eye socket
- Uyuni 26 - rasta mummy
- Uyuni 27 - mommy mummy with baby mummy and beer
- Uyuni 28 - mummy puma
- Uyuni 29 - train cemetery
- Uyuni 30 - rusting away in the desert
- Uyuni 31 - clambering around on the rusty hulks
- Uyuni 32 - even here one finds the Middle East conflict is present
- Uyuni 33 - what could have made this hole one wonders
- Uyuni 34 - swing between the wrecks
- Uyuni 35 - it is all relative
- Uyuni 36 - the beauty of decay
- Uyuni 37 - in the town
- Uyuni 38 - industrial heritage
- Uyuni 39 - plastic rubbish strewn all around the town
- Uyuni 40 - sunset over the Salar