High in the Altiplano of southwestern Bolivia, the Salar de Uyuni covers more than 4,000 square miles. This is the world's largest salt flat—a barren pavement of white infinity. The salar is the evaporated remnant of two enormous prehistoric lakes (Minchín and Tauca) that once covered thousands of square miles. The average altitude is approximately 11,980 feet above sea level.
During the November to March wet season, the salt pan is flooded by overflow from Lake Poopó to the north. A thin layer of water covers the salty plain, reflecting the sky with astonishing clarity. Passengers in off-road vehicles crossing the flooded flats often have the sensation of floating. November is also breeding season for three species of flamingoes that inhabit this region.
In addition to sodium, this plain is rich in potassium, magnesium, borax, and vast quantities of lithium. Beneath this solid, salty crust is a lake of brine. The lake is shallow in most locations, but intermittently reaches depths of up to 60 feet.
Two notable islands rise from the center of the salar, Isla Pescador and Isla Incahuasi—red volcanic oases covered in towering cacti. Other attractions include a small museum in the village of Coquesa, the Tunupa Volcano trail, and a petrified forest.
The base for this region is the town of Uyuni, located roughly 330 miles south of La Paz. Just outside the town (southeast of the salar) is a cemetery of rusting steam locomotives and ore transport cars. Most of these trains were abandoned in the 1940's after a collapse in the mining industry.
To the south of Uyuni, visitors can hike scenic volcanoes and observe a rainbow of mineral rich lakes—blue, red, yellow and white. Cross-border connections can be arranged to Salta, Argentina (to the southeast) and San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (to the southwest).
Midway between Uyuni and La Paz, Oruro is the largest city in the Southern Altiplano and the provincial capital. This chiefly indigenous town is proud of its mining heritage, which can be surveyed at the mining and folklore museum, the minerals museum, and on half-day mine tours. Oruro is also the site of Bolivia's most famous Carnival celebration—the Dance of the Devils.
Due to its altitude, this region is cold and windy year round. Most visitors travel to Uyuni from June to October, when temperatures are less chilly.
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