LivingIF is filled with “world’s ____” sights. We’ve covered the superlatives and self-professed rankings time and again, highlighting local pride points, and sometimes even writing about the world’s largest something, just to visit an even larger one somewhere else (i.e. the 17+ world’s largest Buddhas we’ve seen). Most of the time, these sights are pretty impressive, even if they are not as world class as they claim. The lucky few are actually the world’s biggest/tallest/deepest/highest-altitude and beautiful enough to write about. The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat, does not disappoint in size, spectacle or superlatives.
EPIC. Situated on the Bolivian side of the Bolivia-Chile Border, the vast Salar de Uyuni separates more than just countries. It separates cultures, with progressive and relatively-rich Chile on one side and indigenous, impoverished Bolivia on the other. It also separates geology, with the world’s driest desert on the Chilean side and the rugged crest of the Andes on the Bolivian side giving way to the Amazon Basin. Due to the location, geology and history, traveling through the salt flats, usually en route from one country to another, is an epic 3-day trip.
UNIQUE. Having seen photos and heard stories from friends that had visited previously, I thought I understood how unique the Salar is. Seeing it was another matter. I really don’t think there is anything quite like it. From the size to the surprising variety of colorful sights, I was thoroughly in awe. Arriving from Chile the first days are spent crossing the high-altitude Atacama Desert. This area is one of the world’s richest mineral producing regions with copper, silver, gold and lithium deposits, creating unexpectedly colored lakes and rock formations. The uniqueness of the Salar will cause those who think geology is boring to rethink their disinterest.
HUGE. The vastness of the Salar and Atacama cannot be overstated. They go on for hundreds of miles, but given the destitute landscapes, they seemingly go on forever. While the landscape has sharp ridges and high-altitude peaks, the feeling of enormity is brought on by the flatness. Take the Salar de Uyuni for example, in 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) the average altitude varies less than one meter (3 ft). It’s an area so large, flat and white it’s used to calibrate altimeters of satellites. The Salar de Uyuni is the earth’s big white bald spot.
STUNNING. In the [very] few grammar and style guides I’ve read, the authors seem to hate the use of “stunning” to describe sights. “When was the last time you were frozen by seeing something?” they ask. Stunning though is exactly the feeling when you’re on the Salar de Uyuni. The size, clear skies, and endless white surface conspire to give visitors pause. The views are so unnatural that it would be wrong not to be stunned, to wonder if what you’re seeing is real or some great optical illusion. If you go to the Salar de Uyuni be prepared to be stunned.
FASCINATING. The natural wonders are what draw visitors, but the history and future is fascinating. Due to the barren and inhospitable nature of the geography, people should not be here, but we have to be. I’m willing to bet that you’re currently touching a piece of here. More than 40% of the lithium used in batteries to power our “wireless world” originated here. The copper that connects our devices internally or in the “pipes” of the internet is often sourced nearby. It has been this way for hundreds of years, the silver mines of Potosi, estimated to be the world’s most productive silver mine, ever, funded the Spanish Empire. The area is fascinating for the geography, geology, and history.
The Salar de Uyuni and neighboring Atacama Desert are superlative worthy. The unique, huge, epic, and stunning natural wonder of the area paired with the fascinating connection to our everyday lives makes it a “must-see”.
WHEN YOU GO:
-IT’S AN EXPEDITION. There is no way to make this a luxury tour. Getting around and through the Salar requires hours in a Land Cruiser over unpaved roads, which are not about comfort. Be prepared for the inevitable bumps and dustiness along the way.
-US CITIZENS PAY TO ENTER BOLIVIA. As with its neighbors to the south, US Citizens must pay a “reciprocity fee” to enter Bolivia, have cash ready.
-BRING WARM CLOTHES. This is a high-altitude desert. While daytime is warm, nighttime temperatures plunge. Bring layers to be comfortable in near-freezing temperatures.