We drove from Sucre to Colchani, a settlement near the Uyuni salt flats/Salar de Uyuni. We stayed at the Palacio de Sal, a hotel made with a lot of salt mined nearby.The domed ceiling of our room was made of blocks of salt We went on a day-long tour of the area around Colchani with a driver, Orlando, and guide, Edson. What started as a lark proved to be a rare experience. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flats (110 x 90 km), approximately 120 m deep. As you drive out into the salar, the surface turns from slushy gray to bright white. You lose all sense of perspective because there are no objects in the background–it’s all white. It’s a very weird environment, and the white all around you flattens perspective until you look like cutouts on a plain background. We had lunch all by ourselves in the middle of the salt flats, feeling akin to extras in a Fellini movie.
Like traveling in the desert, you need a driver who knows his way on invisible roads. Orlando claimed to use the hills and mountains in the distance to check his location. At one point we drove for more than an hour across the salt (no road) without reaching the edge of the salar. The salt is mined for consumption within Bolivia but not exported. From a distance the salt looks like snow on the ground. It looks a bit like that up close, too. Where the salt has been scraped from the hard surface, you can see a network of hexagonal cracks. Underneath the salt, water bubbles up. The boiling water looks like it would be hot, but it is ice cold and very salty. Salt crystals form inside these bubbling holes (called ojos/eyes). Edson reached into one and pulled out a clump of crystalline salt. During the rainy season, runoff from rivers turns the salar into a shallow lake. The water can be up to a meter deep, and vehicles avoid the deep spots during those months (Dec.-Feb). We visited Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the salar, home to several species of birds and lots of cactus. It’s completely surrounded by salt.
We stopped at what looked like a ski lodge, the site of the first “Palacio de Sal” hotel that was almost completely made of salt. It was moved when the pollution from the hotel (water, trash, sewer) made it clear that building out on the salar itself wasn’t a good idea. The ruins of the hotel are now a lively way station on the largely featureless salar.
When there is shallow water over the salt, up to about 2 cm, it’s possible to see exact reflections in the water. The rainy season is over, but we found a patch that was still reflecting.
We ended the day watching the sun set over the salar with glasses of Bolivian wine (Campos de Solana). We’d never heard of Bolivian wine, so it was a pleasant surprise and capped a truly remarkable day.
There are tours that last 2-10 days and circle southwest Bolivia, visiting farflung corners of the salar, unusual stone formations, lakes of different colors, remnant volcanoes and archaeological sites. Our day trip was wonderful, but there is much more that can be seen.