Uyuni the phantom city
A peaceful little town of about 11,000 inhabitants located in the department of Potosí. Uyuni would not appear on most tourist itineraries, one can scarcely feel indifferent to the atmosphere in the phantom city. Large, deserted and dusty avenues are swept by gusts of icy wind from the altiplano. For those who may have underestimated the coldness of the climate (Uyuni is in the coldest area of Bolivia, with temperatures up to +20°C during the day but down to minus 20°C at night!), it should still be possible to buy wool blankets and warm clothing at the market.
If one feels bored in Uyuni, take a walk to the train cemetery a few kilometers from the center of town. The path runs along an old railway through the middle of a plastic waste dump. There lie the carcasses of several tens of old steam locomotives and coaches from the last century, slowly decaying in the dust of the altiplano. Well, you were bored... at least the exercise was good for you!
Uyuni is the starting point for numerous expeditions to the Salar and lagoons of Sur Lipez. The tourists arrive downtown during the day, gather in the few travel agencies distributed along the main street and arrange their excursion starting in the early morning of the following day. The majority of the travel agencies offer very similar services and prices for the two types of excursions: three or four days in Sur Lipez or one day in the Salar of Uyuni. It is recommended to clarify and negotiate certain details (route, tariff, food, car, driver-guide, number of passengers...). It is a common sight to see 4 wheel drive cars - badly maintained - broken down in the middle of the salty desert or paralyzed by a puncture on the rocky roads of Sur Lipez. Small problems, but with the potential to ruin your holiday, so choose carefully...
The choice of restaurants in Uyuni is rather limited. The Avenida hotel is the principal refuge for the night. It could never be described as a luxury hotel - be prepared to survive one night without heating and with a cold shower in the morning! In general, tourists spend a second night in Uyuni on the way back from their excursions. However some may prefer to spend an unforgettable night in one of the two salt hotels (Palacio de sal and Bahia Blanca) built in the middle of the Salar of Uyuni.
Salar (salt desert) of Uyuni
The Salar d'Uyuni is the largest salt desert in the world, covering some 10,000 square kilometers. It is located in the North-East of the department of Potosi, in the lowest region of the altiplano approximately 3,700m above sea level. The salt lies in a 10-metre thick surface over an area about 100 km in diameter. This vast immaculate extent is strewn with small islands of volcanic rocks covered with giant cacti (impossible to date, some probably over a thousand years old). The most visited and most spectacular island is the Fisher island (isla de pescadores) 80km from Colchani.
Some interesting notes:
History of the Salar
During its geological history (since the end of the Pleistocene), the Bolivian altiplano had two large lakes: the lake Ballivian to the North (where the current Titicaca Lake stands) and the lake Minchin to the South. Around 15,000 years ago, the waters of lake Minchin slowly evaporated, leaving a succession of lacustrine deposits and mineral sediments drained from the surrounding mountains. After millennia, the Salars of Uyuni and Coipasa were formed with deep limestone layers covered with a crust of gypsum and halite (salt) at the surface. Large measures of a highly sought-after and rare metal (lithium) were recently discovered in the southern part of the Salar of Uyuni at the level of the mouth of Rio Grande of Lipez (the sole source of fresh water in this salt plain).
Colchani: working salt
In the village of Colchani located 20km North of Uyuni, lives a community of Aymara Indians who have been working salt for centuries. The dwellings are built with blocks of salt extracted from the Salar of Uyuni. However, these blocks are very vulnerable to rain. With rudimentary tools (shovels and pickaxes) the Indians tirelessly extract large quantities of salt: five kilogram blocks are used for construction, for trade with the agricultural areas (using the salt road in the direction of Tarija), and for animal feed. The purest and whitest salt is harvested and piled up on the surface of the Salar for culinary purposes (after the addition of iodine).