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Uyuni, Bolivia

GPS: -20.165864144239, -67.404221191134

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Situated on the summit of the Bolivian Altiplano at an altitude of over 3,600 metres, Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni Salt Flat) lies at the heart of the mountain ridges of the Andes. This white and uniformly flat desert covers an area of over 10,000 km² in a region with austere living conditions. Appreciated for its natural beauty, its absolute silence and its optical illusions, Salar de Uyuni represents an area as vast as Lebanon or Jamaica. Its salt plain is full of mineral resources. It forms the largest terrestrial salt reserve in the world and its subsoil contains the largest lithium deposit on the planet.

At the beginning of the geological era of the Pleistocene, around 2.5 million years ago, Salar de Uyuni was covered by an inland sea. This was trapped by the sudden uprising of the Bolivian Andes and ended up in two gigantic salt lakes in the south of the country (Minchin and Tauca). During the prehistoric era, about 40,000 years ago, these lakes gradually dried up to form a salt desert which included Salar de Uyuni and Salar de Coipasa (5 times smaller than Uyuni Salt Flat). From this initial large water basin, only a little further north of Salar de Uyuni, there remain two small salt lakes in the Oruro Department (Poopó and Uru Uru lakes).

The expanses of Uyuni create an unreal, incredibly white landscape with an immaculate horizon stretching as far as the eye can see. Covered by several volcanoes, the southern part of Salar de Uyuni is home to the highest salt lakes in the world. These wetlands provide a natural habitat for Andean flora and fauna, including flamingos that gather here in their thousands to breed. Every year, between January and April, the flat surface of the desert is covered with a thin layer of water, creating a bewitching mirror effect. Characterised by its arid environment, this Bolivian province of Sur Lípez is the highest inhabited region in the world after the Tibetan plateau. Together with Salar de Atacama (Chile) and Salar del Hombre Muerto (Argentina), the salt flat of Salar de Uyuni forms the Lithium Triangle. This white desert, attached to the Puna de Atacama (or Atacama Plateau with a size of 180,000 km²), is coveted by the largest multinationals for its mining resources. Nothing could be more surprising when one knows that this immense desert concentrates more than half of the world’s lithium reserves.

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  • The immaculate white landscapes of Salar de Uyuni; an endless sea of salt; the prodigious mirror effect generated by the desert when it rains
  • The geysers, fumaroles, mud ponds and hot springs of the Sol de Mañana geothermal site at an altitude of almost 5,000 metres; the Polques thermal water basins (hot baths from 30 degrees to 4,400 metres)
  • The salty and colourful lakes (Lagunas Colorada, Celeste, Blanca, Salada, Verde, Hedionda, Canapa) of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve (located south of Salar de Uyuni); Salvador Dalí Desert in the Sur Lípez Province (a vast expanse of desert with isolated rock carvings)
  • The Salt Museum and Craft Market in Colchani; the Pre-Inca Necropolis and the Kausay Wasi Archaeological Museum in San Juan; the Archaeological Museum and Train Cemetery in Uyuni; the Church of San Cristóbal; the Ayquepucara Archaeological Site (Aymara remains); the Galaxias Cave and the Diablo Cave in Estancia Aguaquiza; the several museums in Oruro
  • The rock formations Árbol de Piedra in the Siloli Desert and Pampa Jara in the Dalí Desert; hills with giant, millennia-old cacti (Isla del Pescado near the town of Uyuni and Isla Incahuasi in the heart of the desert)
  • The view of the Licancabur, Uturuncu, Irupuntuku and Tunupa volcanoes (home of the Pachamama deity among the Aymara and Quechua peoples); the discovery of Salar de Chalviri, Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Chiguana; the rocky valleys of Las Rocas, Culpina and Villa Mar
  • Andean flamingo populations in the lakes of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve
  • Walks and off-road vehicle tours through vast expanses of white salt; the experience of a memorable sunrise or sunset on the spot
  • The ancient agricultural techniques still used by the local communities; the dances and festivities organized during the annual Oruro Carnival in February-March in Oruro (the most important cultural event in the country celebrated by the Uru people)
  • Salar de Uyuni is richly endowed, starting with salt. 25,000 tonnes are extracted every year. The reserves seem almost inexhaustible (the salt crust can be up to 120 metres thick in places). The Bolivian government estimates the quantity available at more than 60 billion tonnes.
  • In the past, blocks of salt were carried on the backs of llamas to be exchanged for food. Recently they have been transformed into salt bricks and used to build hotels such as the Palacio de Sal, Hotel de Sal Luna Salada or Hotel de Sal Casa Andina, all of which have been awarded 4 stars.
  • Considered one of the poorest countries in South America, Bolivia is sitting on more than 20 million tonnes of lithium, half of the world’s reserves. This raw material is a fundamental ore for the manufacture of batteries used in high-tech products such as mobile phones, computers or electric cars. Lithium is also used to produce lubricating greases, design medicines, fight against bipolar disorders and in the glass and ceramics industry. In recent years, this white gold has whetted the appetite of major international groups, while world demand for this light metal has been growing every year.
  • Lithium is contained in the brine (salt water) pumped into the subsoil by perforating wells in the salar. This soft metal is then extracted by a natural process of water evaporation in large storage basins. This technical process requires a large consumption of water in a region where reserves are limited and which is regularly hit by drought. As a result, rivers dry up and groundwater is overexploited, to the great displeasure of the local people.
  • Former president Evo Morales nationalized the lithium deposits of Salar de Uyuni (via the Llipi company and the state-owned Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos) to prevent this resource from falling into the hands of big foreign companies. Today the country extracts only a tiny amount of lithium, but things could speed up in the near future.
  • In contrast to its Chilean and Argentinean neighbours, Bolivia has only recently started industrial lithium mining. Moreover, the lithium contained in Bolivian Salt Flats is more complicated and more expensive to extract because of the altitude, climate, higher rainfall and the high magnesium and potassium content in the brine. Eventually, the Bolivian government would like to be able to produce battery systems and cathodic material itself to boost its economy and become a major player in the global lithium market.
  • Illustrating the growing interest of major mining companies, the San Cristóbal open-pit mine, owned by the Japanese company Sumitomo Corporation, is one of the largest mining operations in the world (it extracts silver, lead and zinc).
  • The desert territory of Salar de Uyuni is home to an open-air locomotive cemetery, the result of an old mining industry in the area (they were abandoned in the 1940s). A museum is being studied to showcase this timeless railway heritage, made up of old wagons and machines rusted by the effect of the sun.
  • The cities of Uyuni, Tupiza, Potosí (Bolivia) and San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) are a good base for travelling to Salar de Uyuni. It’s a 12-hour bus ride from La Paz (Uyuni has a small airport called Joya Andina). Alternatively, you can take a train from the town of Oruro in the north or Villazon in the south to reduce your bus travel time.
  • In spite of the great beauty of the landscapes, the environment and living conditions of Salar de Uyuni are particularly hostile: the days are very hot and the nights remain icy (the average temperature is 10 °C and the thermal amplitude can reach 30 °C). Also, hot water is only available at certain times of the day in most of tourist accommodation.
  • Passing through a specialized agency to explore Salar de Uyuni on board an off-road vehicle is highly recommended (no advance booking is necessary). The ground is strewn with crevices and pockets of salt which can be dangerous for cars.
  • Keep in mind that sunglasses must be worn when travelling through the salt desert on foot or by car, in order to protect yourself from the strong optical reverberation (the reflection of light rays on the desert surface can create serious eye diseases).
  • If you have enough time, continue on your way to the south-west of Bolivia to discover the high altitude salt lakes of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.

Where to eat

  • Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza
    (pizzas made with quinoa flour)
  • Extreme Fun Pub
    (swirling bar)
  • Tika
    (Bolivian cuisine)

Where to go out

  • Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna...
    (bird sanctuary)
  • Alcaya archeological site
    (open-air museum)
  • Tunupa
    (dormant volcano)

Where to sleep

  • Reina del Salar
    (cheap stopover)
  • La Petite Porte
    (distinguished place)
  • Hotel de Sal Casa Andina
    (made of salt)

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