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Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) is the world’s largest salt flat, at 11,482 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi). It is in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level.
The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50% to 70% of the world’s known lithium reserves.
The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar ideal for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. Following rain, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world’s largest mirror, 129 kilometers (80 miles) across.
The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a major breeding ground for several species of flamingos. Salar de Uyuni is also a climatological transitional zone since the towering tropical cumulus congestus and cumulonimbus incus clouds that form in the eastern part of the salt flat during the summer cannot permeate beyond its drier western edges, near the Chilean border and the Atacama Desert.
Salar is salt flat in Spanish. Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure); Uyuni is a surname and the name of a town that serves as a gateway for tourists visiting the Salar. Thus Salar de Uyuni can be loosely translated as a salt flat with enclosures, the latter possibly referring to the “islands” of the Salar; or as “salt-flat at Uyuni (the town named ‘pen for animals’)”.
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 breastfeeding 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.
The Salar is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation. The latter is dominated by giant cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis pasacana, Echinopsis tarijensis, etc.). They grow at a rate of about 1 cm/a to a height of about 12 m. Other shrubs include Pilaya, which is used by locals to cure catarrh, and Thola (Baccharis dracunculifolia), which is burned as a fuel. Also present are quinoa plants and queñua bushes.
Every November, Salar de Uyuni is the breeding ground for three species of pink South American flamingo: the Chilean, Andean, and rare James’s flamingos, their color presumably originating from feeding on pink algae. About 80 other bird species are present, including the horned coot, Andean goose, and Andean hillstar. The Andean fox, or culpeo, is also present, and islands in the Salar (in particular Incahuasi Island) host colonies of rabbit-like viscachas.
*Basic accommodation corresponds to shelters and houses of local families, in a shared room of max. 6 people, with shared bathroom and limited access to showers.
*Accomodation in Hostels corresponds to double private room, with private bathroom, hot shower and heating in common areas.
*Accomodation in Hotels corresponds to 3-stars hotels, with double or queen-size private room, with private bathroom, hot shower and solar panels heating.