With an ancient island of giant cacti, boiling mud pools, and hotels made entirely from salt, Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni looks like something from a fever dream.
The world’s largest salt flat might be one of Bolivia‘s most popular attractions, but look out across the vast expanse of crackling crystals, and you’ll see nothing but an unbroken sheet of white that extends to the horizon. Venture into the interior to find rusting trains, glimmering salt lakes, and boiling mud pools. Intense sun and harsh weather mean it’s not a landscape for the faint of heart, but visiting the Salar de Uyuni rewards intrepid travelers with otherworldly beauty. These 10 sights and phenomena are dazzling—and bizarre.
Salt is slowly dissolving the skeletons of trains that once linked the salt flats to the outside world. Travel through the Bolivian highlands, and you’ll find twisted scraps of the British-built train tracks that turned Uyuni into a railroad town in the late 19th century. The historic trains themselves are like a post-apocalyptic playground, complete with rusty ladders, crumbling metal, and hollowed-out engines sinking inch-by-inch into the salty ground.
Giant Cactus Island
Surrounded by a parched expanse of pure salt, Isla Incahuasi appears on the horizon like a bristling mirage. The eroded summit of an ancient volcano, this high-altitude island is covered with giant cacti cloaked with fierce spines. In between the cactus, which can grow up to 33 feet high, fossilized algae forms coral-like formations, reminders that the Salar de Uyuni was once a vast lake. (Some conspiratorial corners of the internet believe that lakebed conceals the ancient city of Atlantis.)
Making creative use of Uyuni’s most abundant resource, the Uyuni salt hotels are constructed entirely from salt. Management at the Palacio de Sal protects its salty décor with a strict rule that guests may not lick the walls, but after a long day on the salt flats, the hotel’s salt sauna and saltwater pools are a welcome place to relax. After you get used to the idea of sleeping in a bed made out of salt, though, the best part about the Uyuni salt hotels may be their remote locations, where you can go for a walk on the salt with nothing but the Milky Way to light your path.
The Salar de Uyuni is the flattest place on earth, an unblemished expanse that makes the perfect backdrop for playing with perspective. The secret’s out about Uyuni perspective photos, which is why savvy travelers arrive with bags full of plastic dinosaurs, beer bottles, and colorful costume changes. You can bring your own props, or just use what you have on hand to create some of the weirdest vacation photos of your life.
The Great Salt Mirror
During the rainy season of December through March, high-altitude rain and snow turn the Salar de Uyuni into a glimmering pond. While parts of the Salar can become impassable during the wettest periods, there’s often just a thin sheen of water to reflect blue sky and clouds, so you can walk right out onto the mirror. It’s spectacular at any time of day, but the mirror effect on the Salar de Uyuni is especially dramatic at dawn and dusk, where bright hues above and below can create an unbroken sweep of color in every direction.
Painted in dramatic shades of pink and aquamarine, Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde hum with color. Naturally occurring algae and minerals give the two lakes the shocking hues of an umbrella drink, but conditions are anything but tropical on the lakes’ salty shores. Both of the lakes are perched at more than 14,000 feet above sea level, where freezing temperatures and harsh weather combine for a chilly experience.
Dreaming of a trip to outer space? Scientists looking for otherworldly conditions head to the Salar de Uyuni and the Tunupa Volcano to test themselves against a high-altitude climate and fierce radiation. For any future space travelers feeling homesick for earth, the Salar de Uyuni could prove more than a testing ground—it’s a landmark on the blue planet. Stretching more than 4,000 square miles across the Bolivian altiplano, the Salar de Uyuni is one Mars laboratory that’s easily visible from space.
Looking more like a lawn ornament than a hardy, high-altitude local, the native James’s flamingo is a brilliant splash of color amidst Bolivia’s high peaks. The birds, which were once thought extinct, luxuriate in the chilly waters of Laguna Colorada during the rainy season of December through March. Not that they’re the only pink birds in the hills around Uyuni—the James’s flamingo keeps splashy company with the Chilean flamingo and the Andean flamingo, a pair of species with feathers the color of bubble gum.
Hidden in a cave at the base of the Tunupa Volcano, a collection of bodies lie mummified by the arid, salty air of the Bolivian altiplano. The Coquesa mummies are said to be 3,000 years old, though the conditions at Tunupa give them the appearance of much, much younger remains. After a day of salt wind, high-altitude sun, and chilly air, it’s easy to imagine that the Uyuni mummies are just another group of tourists that wandered off the Tunupa Volcano trail.
Boiling Mud Pools
Beneath the crystallized surface of the Salar de Uyuni lies a bubbling, roiling stew of geothermal heat. Giving off powerful fumes and heat, the sulfur pools at Sol de Mañana are straight from a medieval hellscape by Hieronymus Bosch. Watch for geysers and boiling mud here, too: morning light is best for catching vast plumes of steam as they shoot into the chilly air.