Exceptional Places in the Salar de Uyuni and Surroundings

Written by Peter Lauffer
December 18, 2021

If you have not yet been to this Bolivian paradise, I recommend that you write it down on your to-do list.

I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the world, and the more I travel, the more convinced I am that the Salar de Uyuni is one of the most amazing places on earth.

For any lover of photography and nature, this great mass of salt will leave you jaw-dropped. Uyuni is set in an incredible landscape surrounded by rocky volcanoes, colorful lagoons, boiling geysers, and showcasing a delightfully varied high-Andean fauna, led by vicuñas, foxes, flamingos, and vizcachas.

Here is a list of what I consider to be the six most exceptional places to visit in this astounding region of the Bolivian Andes.

Uyuni Railway Graveyard Uyuni

Twisted Train Graveyard

Mining is the main economic activity of Bolivia. Soon after independence, the government and private companies built various rail routes to transport minerals to the nearest Pacific ports. Uyuni was a critical railway junction where the north-south railroad met the railroad from Calama (Chile). Over time, the trains that arrived in Uyuni stopped running and were left to decay in a large open field. Today the Train Cemetery houses more than 100 attractive and photogenic wagons and locomotives, twisted and rusty with graffiti on many of them. The Train Graveyard is located on the outskirts of Uyuni. It is best to visit the Railway Graveyard at the beginning or end of a day trip to the Uyuni Salt Flat. However, from the Graveyard there is no direct access to the salt flat, so you’ll have to return to the city of Uyuni between visiting these two sites.

Uyuni Sunset Rail South America Apéritif on the Salt Flat

Dawn or dusk on the Salt Flat

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the World. This vast 12,000 km² white salt plain shows you its best side in the first and last hours of the day, when the red and amber rays of the sun reflect off the white salt flat, forming perfect rhombuses. During the rainy season, from February to April, and sometimes on into June, the stillness of the water that floods the flat is another unique experience. Keep in mind, however, that during the rainy season you a vehicle can not drive far into the salt flat. You will be able to visit only the shores of the salt flat. 

Incahuasi Island Cacti

The 1000 Cacti of the Island of Incahuasi

If you have time for only one visit to Uyuni, it should be to Incahuasi Island. Incahuasi ("The House of the Inca" in Quechua) is the best-known island in the Salar and is located about 100 km from the town of Uyuni. On this rugged island you’ll find hundreds of ancient giant cacti, some of which exceed 10 meters in height. You can explore the island on a path that allows you to walk among the giant cacti and climb to the highest part of the island, where you’ll have an impressive 360-degree panorama of the salt flat. 

Tunupa Volcano

The imposing Tunupa Volcano

The Tunupa Volcano is the most prominent landmark of the Salar and can be seen from almost anywhere in the region. It is located in the extreme north, making it the reference point for travelers who visit the salt flat.

The slopes of the volcano can be accessed from the small town of Coqueza, located at the foot of this massive, 5,432-meter mountain. Travel up in a 4x4 vehicle until you reach the parking lot, from which it is only a short hike to caves that contain a family of mummies known as the "Mummies of Coqueza." These mummies date back to 1,200 AD and—thanks to the cold, dry climate—have remained in excellent condition. The view of the salt flat from the parking space is breathtaking and worth driving up to experience even if you don't want to visit the caves. In addition, the small village of Coqueza hosts a fascinating little museum that explains the hard life of the local indigenous population in past times. 

Pulacayo Mine near Uyuni

Pulacayo, an industrial heritage site

The Pulacayo industrial mining site is 22 kilometers from Uyuni, reachable via a 20-minute drive in the direction of Potosi. Located at a very high altitude, this vast industrial site is unique, photogenic, and surprisingly easy to access. In its heyday, Pulacayo counted 60,000 inhabitants, but the town eventually died off and became a veritable ghost town . . . that is, before the site received new life with the opening of the Huanchaca-Pulacayo Mining Museum and the restoration of the “Casa Arce,” the Pulacayo Mining Management House. The latter offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the social realities in the Bolivian Andes in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Artisanal Salt Mine on the Uyuni Salt Flat in Colchani

Open-air salt mines in Colchani

Colchani is a "salty" town—literally, as it lives off salt (and tourism). Located at the eastern shore of the Salar de Uyuni, this village’s inhabitants have extracted and processed salt in an artisanal way for generations. In the mining area, it is common to see dozens of large conical mounds of salt, symmetrically placed, making this area of the salt flat uniquely photogenic. There are artisanal salt processing plants in the village, with a nearby small market where locals sell salt and handicrafts. And if you are seeking an unusual yet inexpensive souvenir, Coqueza Salt adds an excellent taste to grilled meat.

Hosteria Tayka de Sal, Tunupa

An unusual place to stay overnight when visiting Uyuni Salt Flat

Both on and around the Uyuni Salt Flat there are many good hotels available at all price levels. Particularly fascinating, however, is the Takya Hotel Project. 

The Tayka Hotel Network was born from a dream: to provide sustainable benefits to the local communities in this area. Each community association owns a percentage of its local hotel and receives a portion of the hotel's dividends, and each hotel is a source of work for the various members of its association, who participated in the hotel's construction and now work there. Finally, each tourist who visits the hotel contributes one dollar to a project that benefits the entire community. These contributions have funded the improvement of roads, installation of sewers, and assistance to the elderly. Tayka Hotels are located in unique places, with landscapes that will take your breath away, and it is satisfying to know that your visit supports the ongoing development of the local community.

Get inspired by some photos of this amazing trip:
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