Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni
Salar Uyuni au01.jpg
Hexagonal formations on the surface of the Salar de Uyuni as a result of salt crystallization from evaporating water
Bolivia physical map.svg
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Location within Bolivia
Location Daniel Campos Province, Potosí Department
Coordinates 20°08′01.59″S67°29′20.88″W / 20.1337750°S 67.4891333°W / -20.1337750; -67.4891333 Coordinates: 20°08′01.59″S67°29′20.88″W / 20.1337750°S 67.4891333°W / -20.1337750; -67.4891333
Elevation3,663 metres (12,018 ft)
Area10,582 square kilometres (1,058,200 ha)
Depth130 metres (430 ft)
Formed byEvaporation
Geology Salt pan, dry lake
Salar de Uyuni viewed from space, with Salar de Coipasa in the top left corner. Uyuni landsat.JPG
Salar de Uyuni viewed from space, with Salar de Coipasa in the top left corner.

Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) [1] is the world's largest salt flat, or playa, at over 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) in area. [2] It is in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. [3]


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. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar ideal for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Following rain, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world's largest mirror, 129 kilometers (80 miles) across. [9]

The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a prime 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.[ citation needed ]

Salar has been used as a filming location for movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017; as planet Crait), [10] [11] The Fall (2006), Salt and Fire (2016), The Unseen (2017), and several others.

Formation, geology, and climate

Salar de Uyuni is part of the Altiplano of Bolivia in South America. The Altiplano is a high plateau, which was formed during uplift of the Andes mountains. The plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats and is surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets. [12]

Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, Daniel Campos Province, Potosi Department, southwestern Bolivia, not far from the crest of the Andes. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 2016-02-04, DD 10-12 HDR.JPG
Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, Daniel Campos Province, Potosí Department, southwestern Bolivia, not far from the crest of the Andes.

The geological history of the Salar is associated with a sequential transformation between several vast lakes. Some 30,000 to 42,000 years ago, the area was part of a giant prehistoric lake, Lake Minchin. Its age was estimated by radiocarbon dating shells from outcropping sediments and carbonate reefs and varies between reported studies. Lake Minchin (named after Juan B. Minchin of Oruro [13] ) later transformed into Paleo Lake Tauca having a maximal depth of 140 meters (460 ft), and an estimated age of 13,000 to 18,000 or 14,900 to 26,100 years, depending on the source. The youngest prehistoric lake was Coipasa, which was radiocarbon dated to 11,500 to 13,400 years ago. When it dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó and Uru Uru, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa and the larger Salar de Uyuni. Salar de Uyuni spreads over 10,582 km2, which is roughly 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. Lake Poopó is a neighbor of the much larger Lake Titicaca. During the wet season, Titicaca overflows and discharges into Poopó, which in turn, floods Salar De Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni. [14]

Lacustrine mud that is interbedded with salt and saturated with brine underlies the surface of Salar de Uyuni. The brine is a saturated solution of sodium chloride, lithium chloride, and magnesium chloride in water. It is covered with a solid salt crust varying in thickness between tens of centimeters and a few meters. The center of the Salar contains a few islands, which are the remains of the tops of ancient volcanoes submerged during the era of Lake Minchin. They include unusual and fragile coral-like structures and deposits that often consist of fossils and algae. [15]

The area has a relatively stable average temperature with a peak at 21 °C in November to January and a low of 13 °C in June. The nights are cold all through the year, with temperatures between −9 °C and 5 °C. The relative humidity is rather low and constant throughout the year at 30% to 45%. The rainfall is also low at 1 mm to 3 mm per month between April and November, but it may increase up to 80 mm in January. However, except for January, even in the rainy season the number of rainy days is fewer than 5 per month. [8]

Salar de Uyuni Decembre 2007 - Panorama 1 edit.jpg
Incahuasi island in the center of the Salar.

Economic influence

The Salar contains a large amount of sodium, potassium, lithium and magnesium (all in the chloride forms of NaCl, KCl, LiCl and MgCl2, respectively), as well as borax. [15] With an estimated 9,000,000  t, Bolivia holds about 7% of the world's known lithium resources; most of those are in the Salar de Uyuni. [16]

Salt production at the Salar. Salt production Uyuni.JPG
Salt production at the Salar.

Lithium is concentrated in the brine under the salt crust at a relatively high concentration of about 0.3%. It is also present in the top layers of the porous halite body lying under the brine; however, the liquid brine is easier to extract, by boring into the crust and pumping out the brine.[ citation needed ] The brine distribution has been monitored by the Landsat satellite and confirmed in ground drilling tests. Following those findings, an American-based international corporation has invested $137 million to developing lithium extraction. [17] However, lithium extraction in the 1980s and 1990s by foreign companies met strong opposition from the local community. Locals believed that the money infused by mining would not reach them. [18] The lithium in the salt flats contains more impurities, and the wet climate and high altitude make it harder to process. [19]

No mining plant is currently at the site, and the Bolivian government does not want to allow exploitation by foreign corporations. Instead, it intends to reach an annual production of 35,000 t by 2023 in a joint venture with ACI Systems Alemania GmbH. [20] [21] [22]

Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes (9.8 billion long tons; 11 billion short tons) of salt, of which less than 25,000 t is extracted annually. All miners working in the Salar belong to Colchani's cooperative.[ citation needed ]

Because of its location, large area, and flatness, the Salar is a major car transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano, [12] except when seasonally covered with water.[ citation needed ]


Salar means 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')".[ citation needed ]

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. [15]

Flora and fauna

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. [15]

Every November, Salar de Uyuni is the breeding ground for three South American species of flamingo: the Chilean, Andean, and rare James's flamingos. 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. [15]



Traditional salt production at Salar. Such salt blocks are used for building salt hotels. SalarDeUyuniSaltProduction.jpg
Traditional salt production at Salar. Such salt blocks are used for building salt hotels.

Salar de Uyuni is a popular tourist destination, and consequently a number of hotels have been built in the area. Due to lack of conventional construction materials, many of them are almost entirely (walls, roof, furniture) built with salt blocks cut from the Salar. The first such hotel, named Palacio de Sal, was erected in 1993–1995 [23] [24] in the middle of the salt flat, [25] [26] and soon became a popular tourist destination. [27] However, its location in the center of a desert caused sanitation problems, as most waste had to be collected manually. Mismanagement caused serious environmental pollution and the hotel had to be dismantled in 2002. [28] [29]

Train cemetery

One major tourist attraction is an antique train cemetery. It is 3 km outside Uyuni and is connected to it by the old train tracks. The town served in the past as a distribution hub for the trains carrying minerals en route to Pacific Ocean ports. The rail lines were built by British engineers arriving near the end of the 19th century and formed a sizeable community in Uyuni. The engineers were invited by the British-sponsored Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies, now Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia. The rail construction started in 1888 and ended in 1892. It was encouraged by Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, who believed Bolivia would flourish with a good transport system, but it was also constantly sabotaged by the local Aymara indigenous Indians who saw it as an intrusion into their lives. The trains were mostly used by the mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed, partly because of mineral depletion. Many trains were abandoned, producing the train cemetery. There are proposals to build a museum from the cemetery. [15]

Uyuni Decembre 2007 - Cimetiere de Trains 1.jpg
Cemetery of trains near the town of Uyuni.

Satellite calibration

Salt flats are ideal for calibrating the distance measurement equipment of satellites because they are large, stable surfaces with strong reflection, similar to that of ice sheets. As the largest salt flat on Earth, Salar de Uyuni is especially suitable for this purpose. [2] In the low-rain period from April to November, due to the absence of industry and its high elevation, the skies above Salar de Uyuni are very clear, and the air is dry (relative humidity is about 30%; rainfall is roughly 1 millimetre or 0.039 inches per month). It has a stable surface, smoothed by seasonal flooding — water dissolves the salt surface and thus keeps it leveled. [30]

As a result, the variation in the surface elevation over the 10,582-square-kilometer (4,086 sq mi) area of Salar de Uyuni is less than 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) normal to the Earth's circumference, and there are few square kilometers on Earth that are as flat. The surface reflectivity (albedo) for ultraviolet light is relatively high at 0.69 and shows variations of only a few percent during the daytime. [7] The combination of all these features makes Salar de Uyuni about five times better for satellite calibration than the surface of an ocean. [5] [6] [31] Using Salar de Uyuni as the target, ICESat has already achieved the short-term elevation measurement accuracy of below 2 centimeters (0.79 in). [32]

By using data from MISR to perform passive optical bathymetry when the flat is flooded and calibrating the resultant water depth model with topographical data from the laser altimeter of ICESat, it has been shown that the Salar de Uyuni is not perfectly flat. The 2006 analysis revealed previously missed features: ridges between 20 and 30 centimetres in height that are roughly sinusoidal with a wavelength of 5 km (clearly visible in 1973 and 1975 LandSat images, and still in the same places decades later), and a moat around the periphery that is 13 km wide and 20 to 50 cm deep. They originate from the variation in material density, and thus the gravitational force, beneath the Salar's sediments. Just as the ocean surface rises over denser seamounts, the salt flat surface also rises and falls to reflect the subsurface density variations. [31] [33]

Salar de Uyuni Decembre 2007 - Centre de Nulle Part.jpg
Panoramic view of the Salar.

See also

Related Research Articles

Salt pan (geology) Flat expanse of ground covered with salt and other minerals

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Altiplano Plateau in west-central South America

The Altiplano, Collao or Andean Plateau, in west-central South America, is the area where the Andes are the widest. It is the most extensive area of high plateau on Earth outside Tibet. The bulk of the Altiplano lies in Bolivia, but its northern parts lie in Peru, and its southern parts lie in Chile and Argentina.

Lake Poopó

Lake Poopó was a large saline lake in a shallow depression in the Altiplano Mountains in Oruro Department, Bolivia, at an altitude of approximately 3,700 m (12,100 ft). Because the lake was long and wide, it made up the eastern half of the department, known as a mining region in southwest Bolivia. The permanent part of the lake body covered approximately 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) and it was the second-largest lake in the country. The lake received most of its water from the Desaguadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca at the north end of the Altiplano. Since the lake lacked any major outlet and had a mean depth of less than 3 m (10 ft), the surface area differed greatly seasonally.

Salar de Atacama

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Central Andean dry puna

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Coipasa Lake

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Tourism in Bolivia

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Tunupa is a dormant volcano in the Potosí Department of southwestern Bolivia.

Jayu Quta (Ladislao Cabrera) Crater in Bolivia

Jayu Quta is a maar partially filled with water, in the Bolivian Altiplano, north of the Salar de Uyuni and east of the Salar de Coipasa. It is situated in the Oruro Department, Ladislao Cabrera Province, Salinas de Garci Mendoza Municipality, Villa Esperanza Canton. It was originally misidentified as a meteorite impact crater.


Tittivilla is an eroded volcano in the Andes of Bolivia, on the isthmus separating the Salar de Coipasa in the north from the Salar de Uyuni. The maximum slope in its summit area is 30°. The stratovolcano and neighbouring Tunupa formed 3.5-2.5 mya on NE-SW and NNE-SSW structures, it belongs to the Tungapujo-Guachacoyo volcanic chain. The volcanoes are formed from andesite and dacite belonging to potassium-rich calc-alkaline series.

Lake Minchin

Lake Minchin is a name of an ancient lake in the Altiplano of South America. It existed where today the Salar de Uyuni, Salar de Coipasa and Lake Poopó lie. It was formerly considered the highest lake in the Altiplano but research indicated that the highest shoreline belongs to the later Lake Tauca instead.

Lake Tauca Former lake in Bolivia, parts of it extended into Chile

Lake Tauca is a former lake in the Altiplano of Bolivia. It is also known as Lake Pocoyu for its constituent lakes: Lake Poopó, Salar de Coipasa and Salar de Uyuni. The lake covered large parts of the southern Altiplano between the Eastern Cordillera and the Western Cordillera, covering an estimated 48,000 to 80,000 square kilometres of the basins of present-day Lake Poopó and the Salars of Uyuni, Coipasa and adjacent basins. Water levels varied, possibly reaching 3,800 metres (12,500 ft) in altitude. The lake was saline. The lake received water from Lake Titicaca, but whether this contributed most of Tauca's water or only a small amount is controversial; the quantity was sufficient to influence the local climate and depress the underlying terrain with its weight. Diatoms, plants and animals developed in the lake, sometimes forming reef knolls.

Inca Huasi was a paleolake in the Andes. It was named by a research team in 2006.

Salinas is a lake event in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Ouki was an ancient lake in the Bolivian Altiplano. Its existence was postulated in 2006 by a group of scientists which had subdivided the Lake Minchin lake cycle in several subcycles. The Lake Minchin cycle had been previously identified in 1904 as a now disappeared lake in the central Altiplano. Sediments attributed to Lake Minchin may be part of Ouki instead. The dating is uncertain, with radiocarbon and uranium-thorium dating yielding different dates spanning the time between 28,200 and 125,990 ± 9,580 years ago.

Sajsi is the name of an ancient lake in the Andes

Lake Mataro is an ancient lake in the Andes. It formed over the northern Altiplano at an altitude of 3,950 metres (12,960 ft) and extended over the central Altiplano. It is one of the ancient lakes of the Altiplano like Lake Minchin, Lake Ballivian and Lake Cabana. It existed between 2.8 and 1.8 million years ago.

Lake Escara is a former lake in the southern Altiplano.


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