Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is worth its salt

Uyuni’s vast salt lake is the jewel in Bolivia’s crown

By ANN LEE – Friday, October 9, 2009

‘This is the best place to learn how to drive,’ my perky guide Maribel declares. ‘There’s no speed limit, no police, no one to control you. No one cares. You can drive as fast as you want!’


The dazzling white plains of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world

The dazzling white plains of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world

I imagine her practising three-point turns, parallel parking and reversing around a corner on the endless white terrain of Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Lake.

She’s right. Apart from the occasional 4×4 zipping past, any wannabe speed demon would have a field day here – all 12,000 sq km of the world’s largest salt lake as their private race track.

 Unlike its South American neighbours, landlocked Bolivia can consider itself off the beaten track mainly because it is still so hard to get to. There are no direct flights from Europe to capital La Paz, so most people cross the border from Peru, Argentina, Brazil or Chile, which also gives them the chance to acclimatise to the city’s heady 3,636-metre altitude.

Uyuni’s vast and glorious salt lake is the undisputed jewel in Bolivia’s arid crown. The seemingly infinite lake, based near the southern town of Uyuni is dazzling – literally.


Piles of salt on the Salar

Piles of salt on the Salar

 We’ve been warned to wear sunglasses, high-factor sun cream and a hat to avoid being fried and blinded by the reflection of the sun. You must dress wisely, too. At night and early in the morning, it’s freezing, while daytime temperatures can climb to 30ºC. At an altitude of 3,653 metres, it’s the highest and largest salt lake in the world.

 Everything is carved out of salt – the walls, the floor and even the beds

 Driving across the salt lake is a surreal experience. When we arrive, it’s the beginning of winter and the dry season and the glittering thick white salt surface looks like snow. It has been crafted into hexagonal shapes while the startling crisp blue sky looms above. Both stretch as far as the eye can see.

During summer and the rainy season, the lake is covered by a layer of water that reflects everything around it like a giant mirror.

But be warned, visiting the lake without a proper guide is not a good idea. Maribel tells us about foolhardy tourists who arrive without a GPS system and, unsurprisingly, get lost in the salt lake’s 33 islands.

‘They get confused and end up having to call the emergency services to rescue them. Driving at night is even more dangerous especially when there’s no moon,’ she says.


Salt production is the lifeblood of the small village of Colchani on the edge of the Uyuni Salt Lake

Salt production is the lifeblood of the small village of Colchani on the edge of the Uyuni Salt Lake

 can even stay in a hotel made from salt. I bunk down in the Luna Salada (Salt Moon). Everything is carved out of salt – the walls, the floor and even the beds. Like Hansel and Gretel in the candy house, I’m tempted to lick something. Not a place to stay if you’re suffering from high cholesterol, however.

Leaving the lake, we make a pit stop at Fish Island, an ancient resting place for Inca traders. It’s a pretty little mound of land dotted with giant cacti. It offers a spectacular view of the salt flats along with the surrounding mountains, including the Tunupa volcano.

The Eduardo Avaroa National Park, just south of the salt lake, is also worth a visit. Home to the fiery Red Lagoon and the turquoise Green Lagoon, it’s a great stop for flamingo enthusiasts.

On our return, Maribel regales us with the story of a honeymooning British couple who stopped at the small village of Villa-Mar on their return from the salt lakes. We stay at the same hotel as them, which has no heating and electric blankets that work only until 10.30pm. It’s below zero outside and I start to worry about hypothermia.

‘The bride was so cold she was crying but her husband persuaded her to stay to enjoy the beautiful Bolivian landscape,’ Maribel tells us.

Here’s a tip – if you’re expecting creature comforts, don’t come here on your honeymoon or maybe marry a more sympathetic spouse.

He was bang-on about one thing, though – the landscape is stunning.

Ann travelled with Journey Latin America. Tel: 020 8747 8315.

A four-night Uyuni salt-flats trip starting in La Paz and finishing in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, starts at £722 per person. Flights from Britain to La Paz, returning from Chile, start at £650.

Landlocked Bolivia in South America is bordered by Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay and Argentina to the south, and Chile and Peru to the west.

Currency: £1 = 11 Bolivianos

Language: Spanish



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