Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is located in the Potosí and Oruro departments in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes, and is elevated 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above the mean sea level.
Salar is salt flat in Spanish and Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure). Thus Salar de Uyuni can be loosely translated as a salt flat with enclosures, the latter possibly referring to the “islands” of the Salar.
Aymara legend tells that the mountains Tunupa, Kusku and Kusina, which surround the Salar, were giant people. Tunupa married Kusku, but Kusku ran away from her with Kusina. Grieving Tunupa started to cry while breast-feeding her son. Her tears mixed with milk and formed the Salar. Many locals consider the Tunupa an important deity and say that the place should be called Salar de Tunupa rather than Salar de Uyuni.
History of the Salar is associated with a sequential transformation between several vast lakes. Some 30,000-42,000 years ago, the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake called Minchin (named after the Juan B. Minchin of Oruro), later transformed into paleolake Tauca having a maximal depth of 140 meters (460 ft), and an estimated age of 13,000-18,000 or 14,900-26,100 years depending on the source. When it dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó and Uru Uru, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa (top left corner of the image) and the larger Uyuni, which is roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States . Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt of which less than 25.000 tons is extracted annually.
The area has a relatively stable average temperature with a peak at 21 °C (70 °F) in November-January and a low of 13 °C (55 °F) in June. The nights are however cold all through the year with temperatures between -9 and 5 °C (16 and 41 °F). The relative humidity is rather low and constant throughout the year at 30-45 %. The rainfall is also low at 1-3 millimeters (0.039-0.12 in) per month between April and November, but it may increase up to 70 millimeters (2.8 in) in January. However, except for January, even in the rainy season the number of rainy days is below 5 per month.
Flora and Fauna
The Salar is virtually devoid of any wild life and vegetation. The latter is dominated by Giant Cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana, Echinopsis tarijensis, etc.). They grow at a rate of about 1 centimeter (0.39 in) per year to a length of about 12 meters (39 ft).
James FlamingoEvery November, Salar de Uyuni is the breeding grounds for three species of pink South American Flamingos: Chilean, Andean and rare James Flamingos.
Andean GooseThere are about 80 of other bird species present, including the Horned Coot, the Andean Goose and the Andean Hillstar. Andean fox or Culpeo is a representative animal, and the “islands” of Salar (in particular the Incahuasi island, which is also called Fish Island or Isla del Pescado) host a colony of rabbit-like viscachas.
Other Tourist Attractions
The Green Lagoon, the Red Lagoon and hot springs can also be visited during the Uyuni salt lake tour when entering the National Reserve Eduardo Avaroa. Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) is a beautiful green colored salt lake on the Chilean border at the foot of the volcano Licancabur. Its color is caused by sediments, containing copper minerals. It is elevated some 4.300m (14.000 ft) above sea level. Laguna Colorada is a red colored salt lake, also because of the presence of minerals. In these lagoons live flamingo’s (flamingos at that high and cold altitude!) creating a very unique scene of spectacular beauty