The Beautiful Desolation of Southern Bolivia: Potosi Region and Uyuni Salt Flat and a Hotel of Salt

 Potosi and Uyuni Bolivia is desolate and stunningly beautiful

As the smooth paved highway turns into a rough gravelly road pocked with potholes, Northern Chile becomes Southern Bolivia. Striated, multi-colored mountains loom in the distance, and short clumps of paja brava grass and quinoa plants dot the sandy soil. Llamas and vicunas glide across the arid landscape, and vizcachas, small rabbit-like rodents, hide in rocky crevices. Small desert foxes dart across the sand, their large ears providing shade from the strong, Altiplanic sun. Only jeeps and 4x4s, kicking up clouds of dust and rocks, can traverse this harsh landscape, and only the most intrepid tourists are advised to make the journey.

After a good deal of research, I, a less than intrepid tourist, opted for a four day jeep expedition with the tour company, Atacama Mistica, that began and ended in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, touring Southern Bolivia and traversing the great Uyuni Salt Flat. Luckily, I went with the knowledge that non-reputable, disorganized tour operators are the norm as opposed to the exception, so I was prepared for the minor inconveniences that cropped up throughout the journey.

Southern Bolivia, in particular, is lagging far behind its South American neighbors (especially Chile) in terms of infrastructure. A paved, well-marked road is difficult to find in the region, broken down salt-crusted jeeps litter the landscape, and such services as internet, electricity, and hot water are luxuries rather than basic commodities. Where there is internet, it is slow and frequently cuts out; electricity is also often intermittent.

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Potosi: Altiplanic Lagoons

Infrastructure aside, Altiplanic, Southern Bolivia is a desolate, barren, and beautiful expanse of desert, characterized by salt flats and brilliant colored lagoons. Upon crossing the border from Chile, I was first struck by the vibrancy of the colors and the surreal tonal contrasts that give the impression that the entire landscape is one giant painting. Yellow, red, and brown mountains appear to be painted in brush strokes against the streaked blue sky. The vista is marred only by the trash that litters the ground, bits of toilet paper hanging off rocks and plastic bags strewn across short tufts of desert grasses. Aside from the trash, the signs of population and growth are few and far between. For the most part, the only sight for miles is the long caravan of jeeps transporting tourists across the desert.

On the first day of the tour, we visited a whirlwind of natural marvels in Bolivia’s Potosi department, from mud-spewing geysers (that, as the Bolivians will be quick to point out, are very different from the Chilean geysers in San Pedro de Atacama that spurt water and steam), to stunning rock formations that resemble Salvador Dali paintings. Slowly, our jeep climbed higher and higher, ascending from 7,896 feet to 16,076 feet over the course of the day.

At sunset, we arrived at the Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), one of the many brilliantly-hued Altiplanic lagoons in Southern Bolivia. Flamingoes stepped carefully across the surface of the water, feeding on tiny microorganisms that give the lagoon its bright red color. The red water, broken up by small pockets of white Borax deposits, and nestled between mountains has an extraterrestrial quality reminiscent of a Martian lake. In the midst of watching the flocks of flamingoes feeding on the lagoon, a bitter wind crept up that forced our tour to return to our nearby refuge for the night.

After a fitful night sleeping (and waking every few hours gasping for air) at a refuge over 14,035 feet, we embarked on our second day on a tour of the other Altiplanic lagoons, visiting in rapid succession the White Lagoon, the Green Lagoon, the aptly-named Stinky Lagoon, the Deep Lagoon, and the Charcota Lagoon. Each lagoon was a different color; however, all were inhabited by large flamingo populations. Just as large deposits of sulfur create the striated appearance of the Southern Bolivian mountains, the sulfur bacteria provide the lagoons with their unique colors (and strong stench of rotting eggs). Of the many lagoons we visited, Laguna Colorada was far and away the most impressive.

 Beautiful Desolation of Potosi and Uyuni

The Uyuni Salt Flat and a Hotel of Salt

Finally, at about 5 p.m., we arrived at the Salt Hotel in Villa Candelaria, a sparse refuge overlooking the Uyuni Salt Flat. Exhausted and dizzy from the altitude, we staggered into the hotel, lining up to take a five minute hot shower (the only shower of the trip).

The Salt Hotel, or Hotel Luna Salada, is unique in that the beds, chairs, tables, walls and floor are made of deeply pressed, gleaming white salt. A very basic yet clean accommodation, the Salt Hotel has double and triple rooms with shared bathrooms. After showering, our tour sat down for dinner, but the dinner was cut short as the electricity flickered twice, and then the third time tapered out completely at about 9 p.m. I shuffled in the dark to my surprisingly comfortable salt bed, layered with heavy sheets and blankets, and fell soundly asleep. Read more about the hotel <here

We awoke at 4 a.m. and zipped off in our jeep to watch the sunrise over the Uyuni Salt Flat. Streaks of blue and orange tinged the sky as the sun climbed over the horizon, illuminating the hard white salt plain. During the rainy season, which begins in February, the salt flat is inundated with water and becomes a giant mirror, reflecting the colors of the sky; however, during my visit in December, the salt flat was bone dry and resembled an endless white-tiled floor, as opposed to a glassy mirror.

While Southern Bolivia is dotted with smaller salt flats that contain Borax and lesser quality salt, the Uyuni Salt Flat is the largest in the world, spanning 4,086 square miles, and contains high quality, edible salt. The Uyuni Salt Flat is a vast expanse of flat, white hexagonal salt formations that were formed when a prehistoric lake evaporated. Forty-two islands, now cactus-covered hills, break up the vast whiteness and make excellent vantage points for gazing out over the salt flat. Only the Colchani locals are permitted to harvest the salt, and they can be seen working with shovels in the hot sunlight, forming pyramids of salt for exportation, as well as salt bricks and salt slabs for building purposes.

Visit for the Natural Beauty

After the morning visit to the Salt Flat, we returned to the town of Uyuni for lunch; unfortunately, Uyuni turned out to be a bit of a let-down after the dazzling natural beauty of the neighboring Salt Flat. In fact, most of the small towns in the Potosi department of Southern Bolivia, such as Colchani and Uyuni, were ugly, depressing, and stagnant. The towns serve as a constant reminder of the widespread poverty of the region; each town is similar to the next, low strung brick and adobe buildings, many of them half-finished, center around a main plaza. Ancient cars from the 1960s and 1970s lumber down the road, an indicator of the slow pace of progress in these far-flung outposts.

After visiting the town of Uyuni, our tour headed back toward the Chilean border, about seven hours away, and I reflected on the trip. Although the vast majority of the journey is spent bouncing along rough roads in the back of a cramped jeep, the spectacular, otherworldly landscapes are worth the expedition to this remote corner of South America. However, Bolivia still has a long way to go in terms of building the necessary infrastructure to support its growing tourism industry, and visitors must go with the understanding that most creature comforts cannot be found on the trip. Nonetheless, hearty, adventurous travelers should not be discouraged, as the variety of flora and fauna in Altiplanic Bolivia will not disappoint.

If You Go

Three and four day jeep expeditions to the Uyuni Salt Flat can be purchased from a number of agencies in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The vast majority of these agencies can be found on Caracoles Street. The expeditions begin and end in San Pedro de Atacama. I went with the tour agency, Atacama Mistica.

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Kelly Acheson is a freelance writer living in Santiago, Chile. She is an avid traveler and particularly enjoys exploring and writing about South America. Her work has appeared in Southern Pacific Review and Offbeat Travel. She can be reached at kla8h@virginia.edu.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: March 11th, 2015



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